This year, the nation was divided into two. Once again. National, anti- national. Patriot, traitor. Pro-Pak, anti-Pak. Soft on terror, hard on terrorism. Cow rakshak, coward. The headlines and the news anchors took up polar positions on either side of the LoC and TV screens. There was no room for Left, Right and Centre any longer, only extremists wherever you looked. The mass media was convulsed with mass hysteria. What the Dickens, “it was the worst of times”.
In fact, Charles Dickens’ words describe the media culture of 2016 so perfectly that the ink from his pen might just have dried on the page: “It was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity… we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way” (A Tale of Two Cities).
This is the year when news died right before our eyes, with a bang, not a whimper; the nation no longer wanted to know, it wanted to take up opposing sides — bang bang. Hence, the screaming hashtag headlines, hence the battle on the box in debates. From the February/March “#Traitortapes” of JNU’s “anti-national” protests — as they were referred to on channels like News X, Times Now, Zee News — to the “home-grown, made in Pakistan terror” in Kashmir in July to September’s “#Surgicalstrikes” on anyone who wanted overt information on the covert operation after the Uri terror attack — worse, who supported the right of Pakistani artistes to work in India (remember Shyam Benegal or Om Puri) — and ending with November’s demonetisation, TV news made every issue into a national inquisition on patriotism and shouted down anyone who disagreed. One nation, many voices, one opinion.
Zee News said it was “Abki baar seema paar” as news anchors and their guests crossed all boundaries, threw courtesy and caution to the winds, and insulted each other — and our intelligence — with opinionated opinions. In 2016, television news, along with social media, fostered the belief that if you question the government’s policies — or dare to disagree with the TV anchor — you are “anti-national”.
Factual news has been the biggest victim of the year and nowhere more so than on television. If Aaj Tak anchors can seriously discuss that the new Rs 2,000 currency note has an embedded nano GPS chip (a joke, they later claimed), we are on the doorstep of this year’s biggest worldwide media phenomenon: Fake news. But as the year ends, there are glimmerings of hope: Business news television reporting on the Tata Sons feud has been informed and sober; television news, in general, has reported — yes, reported — on the aftermath of demonetisation from ATMs, railway stations, auto-rickshaws and the paddy fields, tracking its impact on people across the country. A significant increase in viewership for Hindi news during November testifies to the public’s desire for information, on demonetisation in this instance, and how TV can inform, not inflame.
Also, as anchors become hoarse from shouting matches, debate fatigue could be setting in. News is making a comeback: CNN News 18, NDTV 24×7, India Today have all returned to news shows at evening prime time slots. So don’t despair just yet.
The other cautionary media tale comes from the US where the likes of CNN completely failed to gauge the ground realities of the presidential election, reporting instead what they wanted to believe: That Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump. That a TV star proved them wrong is far from comforting. Facebook-style aggregation of news, tailored to suit individual tastes, informed by opinions from Twitter, What’s App and Wikileaks hacks — when we watch or read only channels or publications reflecting our beliefs — has challenged the ideal of objectivity in journalism.
On the other hand, 2016 has seen the availability of countless regional news channels across the length and breadth of India, allowing for an embarrassment of choices and points of view. Can there be a single, dominant narrative in the 2017 assembly elections? Unlikely.
The marketing of “the nation” continues on the entertainment channels and it’s business as usual barring a few experiments. Here the good “bahus” of large “parivars” rule the huge bungalows they inhabit in serials such as Yeh Hai Mohabbatein (Star Plus), Jamai Raja (Zee) and Udaan (Colors), to name just a few, and continue to cry their hearts and eyes out. Here the mythological epic, typified by Sankat Mochan Mahabali Hanuman (Sony) celebrates a virtuous past.
Serials such as Aadhe Adhure and Bhaage Re Mann (both on Zindagi) and POW Bandhi Yudh Ke on Star Plus (about two Indian soldiers who return home after 17 years) have offered exciting new prospects for good drama; they have questioned the concept of family values extolled in our soaps, but not strongly enough to unsettle the ruling order.
If there is a challenge to the Hindi soaps, it comes from Turkey. Yes indeed. Fatmagul and Feriha with their family sagas told in linear simple storylines, dubbed in Hindi, have replaced the Pakistani shows — and Fawad Khan — on Zindagi as our latest heartthrobs.
That’s this year’s oddity and it stops us just short of wondering whether the time is not far away when we will have to stand up to hear the national anthem playing on television every day.