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The problem I have with English news television

By Aakar Patel
August 31, 2015 08:40 IST

'I know and recognise that television needs interesting material. I don't even have a problem with them doing entertaining and irrelevant stories, even if they don't interest me personally.'

'However, when something of grave importance is also breaking at the same time, then it becomes difficult for me to forgive such irresponsible behaviour,' says Aakar Patel.

Members of the Patidar or Patel community at a rally to demand reservations for their community. Photograph: PTI Photo

IMAGE: Members of the Patidar or Patel community at a rally to demand reservations for their community. Photograph: PTI Photo. 'The Patel agitation is a story that will be around for a long time. It has the potential to set the caste and reservation debate on fire,' says Aakar Patel. 'Its fundamental demand is the removal of reservations, an old Patel demand.'

 

 

What media exists for those of us who want to be informed of the latest news, but only the serious stories? I cannot think of many. Last week the stock markets were panicking over what would happen after uncertainty and instability in China's markets.

I wake early and read the reports of the way in which Asian markets were collapsing one after the other on Monday, August 24. This was around 5 am and I waited to get a sense of what would happen in India.

It was a serious issue and the entire world's media was talking about it. I thought I would get a better understanding of it by turning to the television when the markets opened at 9.

What was shown on English news TV, however, was the following story: A girl had posted on her Facebook page the photograph of a man on a motorcycle. She wrote that this man had said something lewd to her (which was not specified). This post of hers had, as those who use this medium say, 'gone viral'.

This was the story the media were discussing. They were calling, with no evidence, the man abusive things. Not one channel in English had the stock market panic and meltdown being discussed, except the business ones, whose analysis was mostly for investors and not for those interested in the larger aspects of it. Even to me, someone who has worked in the media for a very long time, this was something new.

Like many of you who have noticed the tabloidisation of our mainstream media, I am not surprised when the media chase after silly stories. That's not new.

What is new is that they do so even when a big and interesting serious story is breaking. This I did not anticipate, and this is what led to my frustration on that morning.

We were being told by the world that something was happening in the financial markets that would affect our economies and our growth. But what the media were interested in was one person's comment about the behaviour of another person.

The day after that, the Patel agitation became nationwide news. It brought together in one story several aspects: Caste politics, the Gujarat model, the ideas of reservation and of unequal growth. It is the most significant story out of India and something that has drawn the attention of the world.

I was interviewed by many foreign media including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times and the BBC, all of whom were keen to know what was going on.

I was, of course, fascinated by the story and not only because I am from that community. If there was a big and serious story that would have wide viewership it was this one.

I turned the television on when I returned from work on Wednesday and the story was overshadowed by a three-year-old murder of a girl from a wealthy Page 3 family.

Yes, this was more serious than someone's Facebook post, but was it really more compelling than the agitation in which 10 people were killed and which brought in the intervention of the prime minister?

Sheena Bora with Indrani Mukerjea

IMAGE: 'I turned the television on when I returned from work and the Patels story was overshadowed by a three-year-old murder of a girl from a wealthy Page 3 family. Was it really more compelling than the agitation in which 10 people were killed and which brought in the intervention of the prime minister?'

 

 

The Patel agitation is a story that will be around for a long time. It has the potential to set the caste and reservation debate on fire. Its fundamental demand is the removal of reservations, an old Patel demand.

In case it catches on, it could become as big an issue among the upper classes, which feel that their demand for 'merit' over 'reservation' has long been ignored.

The story has the potential to transform politics in the way that the Mandal Commission report did. All of this is not a secret, and yet we switch on the news to more details about that murder and fewer about the agitation.

I know and recognise that television needs interesting material. I don't even have a problem with them doing entertaining and irrelevant stories, even if they don't interest me personally.

However, when something of grave importance is also breaking at the same time, then it becomes difficult for me to forgive such irresponsible behaviour. It would take a very brave journalist to predict that the Patel demand is not the sort of story that will hold its own against one unknown person's murder.

I think the television media, particularly the English channels, betray their audiences when they run off to the side to cover the quirkiness of the periphery, even when the main field is full of action waiting to be covered.

Aakar Patel is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

  • Read Aakar's earlier columns here.

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