For a few minutes on Tuesday, the faceless guys who write the ticker copy at ABP News seemed to believe that the row over the Cauvery waters was being fought between the state of Karnataka and the city of Bengaluru. Wonder how that error was possible, since the channels were fairly buzzing with news of Tamils and their assets being attacked in Karnataka, and vice versa. To the extent that the expected uproar about media amplifying a mere drumbeat into a tocsin broke out in fits and starts. Would it have helped if they reported that citizens of a certain state were attacking the trucks, buses and iconic restaurants belonging to citizens of a neighbouring state? For about half a century, the Indian media kept their noses squeaky clean and their reporting loftily abstract, reporting on riots in which people “of a certain community” assaulted those “of another community”. Riots remain a very concrete political coin nevertheless, and India’s stomach for mindless but calculating violence survives unabated.
Interestingly, the voice of reason came from a media professional. Chennai’s RJ Balaji made a video suggesting that political interest rather than public anger was accelerating the violence. He discouraged the sharing of memes and clips which might heighten parochial feelings, but he also reminded the people of his home state that the people of Karnataka had come forward to help when Chennai turned into a Tamil Atlantis last year. Balaji reminded his fans that the issue was about sharing, a sentiment that has been wholly inundated by political rivalry.
Disaster diplomacy may yet hold the solution to this problem about the Cauvery waters which refuses to go away. It seems tremendously remote, now that India-Pakistan talks are between a rock and a hard place, but earthquake diplomacy worked for a bit between the subcontinental neighbours. And in Europe, it certainly ended decades of ill-feeling in 1999, between bitter foes Greece and Turkey. The foreign ministry of Greece had responded instantly to a devastating quake in Turkey’s Izmir, instantly opening diplomatic channels and rushing aid. If the two nations are at peace today, it is because of the human touch in 1999, a story which was still being tracked by European news agencies and television years after the event.
The Indian TV market has reached the point where some of the pioneers want to sit back with a sustaining beverage at the elbow, and dwell on times past. Now, since humans start pottering with the herbaceous borders shortly after this phase, this suggests that some TV studios can hear the clock ticking, and is in the mood for quick recaps. NDTV has come out with an extremely readable collection of stories by its prime movers, titled More News is Good News: Untold Stories from 25 years of Television News. The contributors range widely, from Ravish Kumar poking fun at the media population explosion in Lutyens’ Delhi to former The Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta examining what media’s willingness to swallow stories about biriyani being supplied to public enemies like Mast Gul and Ajmal Kasab, and to amplify them into narratives of Muslim appeasement, tells us about the media itself.
Indira Kannan’s book on the fluctuating fortunes of Network 18 is forthcoming from Penguin Random House. Raghav Bahl was one of many who tried to take first mover advantage with the Gulf War, specifically Operation Desert Storm. Ted Turner turned it into the first war to unfold live on television, though his star reporter Peter Arnett was only a disembodied voice on the first day of conflict, reporting nonstop from a private landline to Amman. In India, the Observer group (now rightsized to a think tank) set up a ‘CNN Monitoring Team’ in a hotel room with a CNN connection, a rarity at the time. It had the onerous responsibility of watching television 24×7 and, in those byline-sparse days, got a front page byline in the Business and Political Observer every morning. It was ‘CNN Monitoring Team’. Factually correct and not very stirring.
Raghav Bahl was one of the people who were struck by the possibilities of 24×7 news at the time. We are now squaring up to the implications — for 24×7 news to work, something interesting has to happen 24×7. Since the universe is in no great hurry, supply-side shortfalls are inevitable. To paper over the gaps, news anchors must transmogrify themselves into debate anchors. And to raise the pitch of debate beyond the soporifically even tenor of the Parliament channels, they must instigate public violence. We no longer need Peter Arnett reporting from the frontline with tracer rounds whizzing past his year. Indian prime time is much more dangerous territory.