The Noise without the News


I know there’s nothing to say….I’m just second hand news. Fleetwood Mac.

We are talking about The Great Indian Debate on the idiot box. Every evening, from around 8 o’clock and going on till about the witching hour, our television news channels conduct something they call a debate. We only have their word for it. I was brought up to believe that a debate is a civilized exchange of opposing views on a given proposition, with one set of speakers proposing the motion, or speaking in favour of it, and the other set of speakers opposing the same. Each speaker is allotted a time limit which must needs be strictly adhered to. The Chairperson or Speaker of the House will provide a discretionary extra minute or so for the speaker to wrap up. Failing which the bell will toll, and it tolls for thee. Jokes and jibes at each other’s expense are a commonplace during these debates, as are relevant literary quotes, but they are all kept within the bounds of civility and good taste. A ready wit helps the proceedings to move along swimmingly. At the end of it all, the Speaker will put the motion to vote and the audience, representing the members of the House, will show their approval or dissent by a show of hands, signaling if the motion was carried or rejected. All very parliamentary. Once the debate is over, the speakers retire to the green room to enjoy a convivial cup of tea and biscuits. If blood was spilt, it is left on the stage to be mopped up and no animus remains.

How very different from the ‘debates’ that we now witness on our small screens. In the first place, it is patently unclear to the viewer what precisely is being discussed, or indeed, debated. The word debate is in itself a gross misnomer. There is an unsightly hashtag that precedes the topic, as if to give the subject a degree of graphic authenticity. There are about a dozen or more talking heads on the screen, nearly all of them with strong political affiliations, and the entire tasteless verbal jousting is dominated by mud-slinging and incoherent rambling such that no one is able to follow what each speaker is attempting to convey.

The holier-than-thou anchor, who is supposed to take a neutral, apolitical stance, makes his or her sympathies quite plain and only adds to the confusion and cacophony. Impartiality and lack of bias are conspicuous by their absence. Nothing of what I have just said is new to anyone who is familiar with our purveyors of news on the small screen. I will consequently be unable to add any substantive value to the reader’s already advanced understanding of the news and current affairs debates as brought to you by the likes of Times Now, India Today, CNN IBN, Republic TV (gawdelpus) or for that matter, NDTV. The last named having recently sold their interests, and perhaps their soul, to a recently arrived industrialist with very deep pockets , in which some holes are beginning to allegedly appear.  Rather, as is my wont, I shall seek to share my personal thoughts on some of the more ridiculously risible moments on these channels that our anchors and the participants are prone to unintendedly deliver on a nightly basis.

I did not interfere when you spoke. This is arguably the most oft-repeated line you will hear from our speakers on the debate. Reasons are not far to seek. Whenever a speaker begins to speak on some subject or the other, he or she will be immediately interrupted by one of the other talking heads, breaking with impunity all the known canons of civilized debating. Predictably, no heed is paid to the exhortation resulting in both parties jabbering over each other while chaos reigns supreme. At times a third or even fourth party could join in the melee and we then have a mad free-for-all. The anchor, strangely, makes no attempt to nip this nonsense in the bud until it is almost too late and the viewer decides enough is enough and switches to another channel, where a similar pandemonium is in progress.

I have kept quiet for the last 25 minutes. When you have a situation where the television screen is crammed with so many participants, one or two poor lambs get left out of the conversation. When they finally get their chance and are told by the insensitive anchor that they have 30 seconds to air their views, they are naturally chagrined. Playing the burning martyr to the hilt, they are likely to say something like, ‘I did not interfere when the others were speaking endlessly. Now you give me just 30 seconds to make my point? Why did you even invite me?’ Point well made, even if it does not get across to the anchor, who simply proceeds with his inane summing-up, while we watch stupefied, the audio-less participant continuing to mime silently, frothing at the mouth. My online friend, the former diplomat and master of the elegant put-down, Avay Shukla, once likened regular debater Major General G.D. Bakshi, à la Wodehouse, to ‘an apoplectic walrus,’ which seems just about right. Speaking for myself, the good General has always reminded me of Wodehouse’s irascible Duke of Dunstable, whose own enormous, walrus moustache ‘was rising and falling like seaweed on an ebb-tide.’

You heard it first on this channel. I have referred to this childish piece of breast-beating in a different context in some of my earlier columns, but it is worth repeating here. Since pretty much every news channel makes this ridiculous claim every time there is ‘breaking news,’ the viewer cannot recall and cannot be bothered in the least who broke the news first. What is more, it is not even a provable gloat. It is a matter of complete indifference to viewers, and I am clueless as to why the channels continue to play this silly, childish game of one-upmanship. A totally futile exercise, which is made worse by being frequently indulged in during the so-called debates where such a boast is completely irrelevant. And don’t even get me started on the mythical research figures for viewership which the channels routinely trot out. I suspect this is more for the benefit of the advertisers than the viewers.

One second, one second, one second. Some of our celebrated anchors need to be given a crash course on the physics of time and space. They appear to have no idea of what a second or a minute, or even an hour, constitutes. When three or four of the participants keep putting their hands up, attempting to get a word in edgeways, the obstreperous anchor will invariably scream ‘one second, one second, one second.’ Take my word for it, he is not speaking metaphorically to indicate that one second, in actuality, denotes 20 seconds. I know this because 20 seconds later, he is apt to say ‘one minute, one minute, one minute.’ In casual conversation, we mere mortals are likely to say something like ‘hang on a sec, will you?’ Which we do not mean literally. However, our hyperventilating news anchor is so worked up trying desperately to keep the ‘debate’ under control that he loses all sense of time. To put the lid firmly on it, he will finally announce that he is giving each speaker 10 seconds to sum up, as he is running out of time. Predictably, as the first speaker is just about to blabber something, the anchor will horn in and announce ‘Time’ in the time-honoured fashion of a tennis umpire indicating resumption of play. Only in this case he means the debate is at an end.

One can provide many more such examples of absurdity on our news channels, but I am sure most of you are well aware of what I am ranting on about. On a more serious note, perhaps the most disturbing trend we have observed over the past couple of decades is how our news channels firmly align themselves to one political party or the other, and woe betide the participant who happens to have a point of view not in sync with the channel’s house diktat. Such a person, male or female, will be roundly abused or insulted and in general, not allowed to utter a single, dissonant syllable. At least, that is my take on how the news is purveyed and debated on our television screens. Truth be told, I sometimes watch these programmes more to be entertained with a spot of unintended slapstick than to be informed or enlightened in any way. A word of caution. Take it in small doses lest you take leave of your senses. On the contrary, perhaps it is better to leave your brains behind in the closet. As celebrated actor Morgan Freeman famously said, ‘Maybe if we tell people the brain is an app, they’ll start using it.’

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. I’ve heard about these debates on Indian channels but never watched them. Funny yet disturbing. Enjoyed your acerbic wit. Nice one, Suresh.


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