Breaking Down News: Close Shave With Fame

As breathless TV studios recovered from the impression that Vijay Mallya was on his way to Tihar, along came Sonu Nigam with a pair of scissors and became the story of the day

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Updated: April 22, 2017 2:50:06 am
vijay mallya, sonu nigam, arnab goswami, india news, indian express news, latest news As breathless TV studios recovered from the impression that Vijay Mallya was on his way to Tihar, along came Sonu Nigam with a pair of scissors and became the story of the day

On the morning of the week’s most exciting day, the strap at the bottom of the TV screen said “Mega Times Now Impact”, and the disembodied voice said: “This is a huuuuge arrest as far as Vijay Mallya is concerned.” But, of course, every arrest is a huge inconvenience from the perspective of the person being arrested. In this case, with bail plea in hand and possibly fortified by the legendary full English breakfast — since the London bobbies conducted the arrest at a civilised hour — Mallya did not agree.

Scornful tweets flew from his phone, sneering at Indian TV news of going off at half-cock. They were interspersed by retweets about his other interests — cricket, Formula One, a top gynaecologist on the relation between calorie burning and menstruation, the danger posed by tap water to contact lenses, and similar first world manias.

NDTV and News 18 were among the first channels to recover from the bizarre impression that the prime minister had crooked an imperious finger across continents and oceans and, like a puppet on a string, Mallya was on his way to Tihar Jail. NDTV clarified that the UK authorities had merely ensured that Mallya would be available for extradition proceedings, which TV news will now follow breathlessly. Years of studio-bound breathlessness will ensue. Because the CBI has bumbled off to London, and their lawyers are notoriously slow in this line of work. Remember the fruitless excitement over Kim Davy?

Meanwhile, popular media activist Arnab Goswami has struck out at his former bosses at The Times of India, who have apparently sent him a long document asking him to desist from using the phrase, “The nation wants to know.” While it is an integral part of the Goswami meme-kit, the company has apparently trademarked it. Indeed, you can trademark almost anything, but as a reasonably intelligent adult, should you? It’s given Goswami, whose new channel is in the offing, some welcome publicity.

At least one channel claimed an exclusive with a video of jawans on election duty being heckled and kicked in Kashmir, though the number of smartphones being brandished in the video made it clear that many more videos were being made. Videos within videos, so to speak. The channel kicked off the story by commiserating with one jawan (whom they had contacted), who was flown from his native West Bengal to Uttar Pradesh for the state polls, then to Manipur, and finally to Kashmir. So what? The air miles he clocked were not an issue at all. What mattered was whether he had been prepared for the job. The restraint which he and his colleagues showed in the face of violent provocation was ample evidence that he knew what he was doing.

That wasn’t the only smartphone video which made the news this week. Accustomed as we are to news bulletins closing off with cute cat and car crash videos, it isn’t every day that a ghost classically clad in white appears in some old footage and is claimed by a Pakistani channel to be deceased actor Om Puri in vengeful search of Indian national security advisor Ajit Doval. Garnering views of viral magnitude, it was then denounced by an irate India Today TV, which had the predictable effect of increasing its viewership.

Even the ghosts of actors past can’t revive flagging news channels, and how was this even news? Ditto for the shearing of Sonu Nigam. The cleric who issued the fatwa against him apparently did not have the authority to do so. The only ground he stood on was the claim that he had more social media followers than the singer. And yet this non-story about a non-event, kicked off by a non-person, grabbed public attention. Even Nigam’s hairdresser was interviewed. And a BBC reporter staking out Nigam’s house apparently told base that the azaan was inaudible.

What internet news platforms mediate is often not news either, but merely information which their algorithms know you are likely to agree with. If enough people agree, a TV producer will notice and follow the instinct to cover all bases. In an effort to counter this electronic bubbling, a new news aggregator, launched by a Croatian, has taken what appears at face value to be a counter-intuitive strategy, cutting out human editors and depending on 100 algorithms.

Twain scours the internet in general and social media in particular to aggregate news which is moving fast, irrespective of your own reading preferences. Typically, these are not cat videos, and while your mileage may vary (you may not enjoy reading the other point of view after the fifth iteration), at least it provides a wide-angle snapshot of news on the internet. That’s better than the tunnel vision of social media, which has made reasoned and reasonable debate impossible.

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