A female anchor in the TV9 studios is speaking loudly, fluently and at great speed when a tank emerges from the screen behind her, trains its gun on her and whoosh! eliminates her in a ball of fire.
This might be a meme but it’s still a good metaphor of the times: the Ukraine-Russia conflict has eliminated all other news and left us in a virtual blackout.
It’s been four weeks now: how often have you switched on the news, scanned channels in Hindi or English only to discover that all of them have bombs exploding over Ukraine? As Russia ‘pounds’ Ukraine, in a ‘relentless assault’ (India Today), Indian news channels have pounded us with equally relentless coverage of the ‘latest updates’ from Kyiv.
And then on 21 March, they interrupted war coverage for images of a Boeing 737’s fatal vertical plummet and crash in China. For over an hour, nearly all news channels displayed footage of its wreckage or the fire in the mountain it ignited – and tried to upstage their rivals. So, if Times Now had three exclusive videos of the crash, Republic TV had five—CNN News18 claimed that the news was ‘first on CNN News18’.
This is incredible, possibly unprecedented. When do you last remember international news ruling the airwaves in a similar way? We may have to go as far back as 2001 to the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US, followed by the invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq in 2003 to find comparable TV news coverage but that was largely on BBC World and CNN International since we didn’t have 400+ 24×7 Indian news channels then.
Also read: Why is Indian TV news focused on Ukraine 24X7? Even BBC & CNN take a break
World news on Indian channels
In contemporary history, this is likely to be a first. Indian news channels have been content with navel-gazing, to concentrate their energies on looking inwards and report or debate news about India, that too mainly political news. The world barely got a look in. Now, suddenly, that’s all changed and India is taking a backseat as channels race to the finish line with the Ukraine story. Barring, Tuesday, when news about the violence and death in Birbhum, West Bengal, made headline news, the constant and continuous refrain has been Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine.
And it seems to be working for them—why else would they do it? The television ratings from BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council), which have resumed after a break of more than 18 months, indicate that the highest viewership has been for the very news channels that have dedicated themselves to the war. Depending on which way the channels have chosen to interpret the ratings, Times Now, Republic TV, India Today, Aaj Tak, TV9Bharatvarsh claim to be the No.1 news channel.
These are the same channels besides Zee News and NDTV 24×7 that have flown out correspondents to the ‘war zone’ or to Poland for live reports. Republic TV claims bragging rights with 12 reporters at ground zero, Indian and foreign. India Today has two Indian correspondents in Ukraine, and a number of local and foreign correspondents lined up. CNN News18 uses CNN International’s wide range of reporters to bring you another perspective.
The news channels frequently put out promos, boasting of the size of the team covering Ukraine and the depth of their ‘non-stop’ reporting—why even, India Ahead, admittedly, a smaller player, promotes itself through its Ukraine stories.
And there’s nothing that isn’t being reported: news channels are scouring social media, other media outlets – any scrap of information they can find becomes ‘Breaking News’ – ‘Breaking First on News 24 Russian-Ukraine troops aamne saamne’ is the kind of headline you come across, day or night.
Grim-faced anchors will preface remarks with, ‘The biggest breaking story right now’ and the launch into whatever they have to report: India Today, using Al Jazeera, talks of refugees sleeping in the subway or the wedding of Ukrainian soldiers before they set off to war; Zee News has photographs of the bombings on six mini-screens, this time on a shopping mall; TV9’s excitable anchor tells you that Eastern Ukraine has become Russia’s latest target – ‘zabardast attack’–and that Belgium, yes Belgium, has postponed the end of its nuclear programme;
Meanwhile, News18 India introduces us to chemical weapons after Russia, allegedly, dropped phosphorus bombs in Ukraine – the anchor provides a detailed explanation on the effects of phosphorus on the human skin; Mirror Now broadcasts the latest speech from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy… and then there is the body count: 10,000 Russia troops have, reportedly, died in combat, reports Zee Hindustan quoting a Russian newspaper; 50 dead in attack on Kharkiv, says India Today.
Also read: TV news channels say PM Modi can stop Ukraine ‘mahayudh’. If only Putin-Biden listen
Covering the ‘world war’
A striking but worrying feature of the coverage is the nonchalant talk of a world war: Republic TV’s coverage is called ‘World at War’. ‘Mahayudh’ is frequently used on Hindi channels. ‘Kya World War III?’ asked NewsNation, casually; ‘Putin’s threat of World War III’ make headlines on Aaj Tak – is the possibility of WWIII raising viewership ratings?
Lastly, there are the on-the-spot reporters: many of them spend an inordinate amount of time walking the streets, giving us random information about the war, air raids, etc. — India Today’s ‘Last team standing’ features Gaurav Sawant who likes to stand and tell it like it is; Patrick Lancaster for Republic TV, in full military gear, looks very busy but often doesn’t get very far – Tuesday, he drove into the embattled Mariupol, telling us it’s ‘burning’ but before he could show us anything, he was told to leave the city; India Today’s Rajesh Pawar has better luck capturing the sights and sound of the war; Pradeep Dutta for Times Now talks to refugees and the homeless, and then there’s Penaaz Tyagi ‘live from the battle front’ for NewsNation.
They are all out there striving to be No.1 in war coverage.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)