Television news in India is now in the business of selling violence.
If it’s not ‘genocide’ in Ukraine (Republic TV), it’s a 500-kg bomb dropped by China for Taiwan (TV9 Bharatvarsh), ‘gun-tantra’ in New York (Zee News), violent protests in Sri Lanka (NDTV 24×7), ‘total mayhem in Pakistan’ (Times Now), ‘Bengal rape & murder horror’ (India Today), ‘Karauli communal clash’ (CNN News 18), ‘Bulldozer Mama’ in Madhya Pradesh (ABP News), `violent clashes at JNU’ – and ‘Ram Navami par Mahabharat’ (India TV).
The latest news from Bollywood stars Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor’s reported wedding celebrations seems to be the only coverage across channels that isn’t blood-stained.
And this isn’t just any old marketing gimmick by news channels to attract a few viewers — it’s a hard, hard sell. When TV9 Bharatvarsh, which claims to be the No.1 news channel in India, booms `World Explosive’ and not `World Exclusive’ for its broadcast of the shooting in New York, when every news channel is ‘exploding’ along with the latest bombs in the Russia-Ukraine war, you know they’re going for broke. It’s like a clearance sale where news channels are throwing any and every violent incident they can lay their hands on at you — hoping you will buy into it.
Now, this is new — it began with ‘Day 1 of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’ (India Today) on 24 February and has carried on ever since, spreading to coverage of events in other countries as well as in India — we saw that last week. You may argue that TV news is simply reporting what is happening — these have been unusually fractious times in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and the recent Ram Navami celebrations saw clashes in many states across India.
True, but the enthusiasm that news channels have displayed in their carpet coverage of the violence suggests they believe that violence sells.
Just how big was the New York ‘hamla’?
Take Tuesday’s attack on the Brooklyn subway in New York, for instance. All major news channels, including DD News, paused scheduled programmes — most on the Ram Navami clashes — to go ‘live’ to the scene of the crime for ‘the world’s biggest story’ (Zee News), which Aaj Tak, fervidly claimed was a `bahut bada hamla (a massive attack)’. Not only did the channels play all the videos they could find on social media, but they also zeroed in on the ones that came closest to the incident, so that we could hear the firing, see the smoke emerging from a train compartment, the injured and the platform smeared in blood.
It wasn’t enough for them to simply say, ‘Shooting in New York’ (India Today). No, they had to speculate — ABP News said this could be a ‘terrorist attack’ with the intention to inflict ‘maximum damage’ — without any supporting evidence. TV9 Bharatvarsh went a step further — its anchor insisted, in the shrillest of voices, that 13 people had died when every other channel, including BBC World and CNN International, said, ‘13 injured, 5 shot’. It also claimed that a ‘sweeper cell’ could be active and that there was help on the ground, else, how did the assailant obtain the orange jacket of the subway staff?
The 9 pm Zee News anchor spoke of ‘gun-tantra’ in the US and asserted that when people there are depressed, angry, or upset, they tend to go on a shooting spree. Dunno about that but when violence occurs at home or abroad, Indian TV news channels go on a marketing spree.
Ram Navami violence
Next up, Ram Navami. Violent language, violent images.
Violent incidents in different states received the same treatment on television news channels. There were ‘clashes’, ‘violent clashes’ or ‘hamla’. Not satisfied with that, Times Now Navbharat went all melodramatic — `Ram Navami par hamla, desh par hamla (Attack on Ram Navami is attack on the nation)’.
Channels spoke of ‘hate’ as in ‘Hindu festival targeted, hate on Ram Navami’ (CNN News 18). They sensed a ‘larger conspiracy’ (CNN News 18) to ‘vitiate the atmosphere of the country’ (NewsNation). While other channels tried to avoid explicitly communal statements, at least in headlines, NewsNation suffered no such qualms — ‘Jihadi Lashkar’, it wrote.
The images and videos that accompanied the stories showed men attacking each other, fisticuffs, stone-pelting — many violent scenes from different parts of the country. Since these were stray clips on mobile phones, they were unrelated sequences of meaningless violence — there was no before or after to any of the scenes, just like the shots we saw during the Lakhimpur Kheri car incidents last year in Uttar Pradesh. But even though they didn’t narrate the story of the incidents or what led to them, the videos ran on all channels throughout Monday and into Tuesday.
On the basis of these videos, ‘claims v/s claims’ (Mirror Now) were made to accuse one side or the other of inciting violence and there followed the usual violent discussions in studios where members of the BJP or Sangh Parivar were pitted against those of the Congress, the CPI(M), the maulvis or the AIMIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi.
As NDTV exclaimed at one point, `Haye Ram!’
News channels then shifted to ‘Bulldozer Mama’ as many called Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan after bulldozers razed many homes belonging to the alleged accused in the Khargone violence on Ram Navami — ‘allegedly’ because they were illegal.
Once more, we saw images of bulldozers soldiering their way into buildings that came crashing down. This led to `Bulldozer Politics’ (India Today) debates across channels.
Coming full circle
Lastly, back to Ukraine. Five weeks and counting, we are witnessing the same scenes — huge explosions, buildings crumbling, cities in ruins, soldiers on the move, rat-a-tat-tat.
Reporters from most news channels have now been posted there, and they go out of their way to show us armoured tanks that have been destroyed or burnt during the conflict. This fascination with military tanks is somewhat perplexing, but these vehicles have become a symbol of the war and the Russian invasion. That’s why they roam around freely in TV studios too — catch up with them at Aaj Tak.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)