More News is Good News: Untold Stories from 25 Years of Television News
Edited by Ayesha Kagal
Today we take the cacophony of 400 plus news and entertainment television channels as essential to Indian democracy. If we discount the government-controlled news bulletins on Doordarshan and All India Radio, it is easy to forget how silent the airwaves were for the first four decades of Independence.
Limited access to information and communication technologies was not the primary reason for the lagging television industry in India. Rather, the television industry was a late starter because of a culture of fear inside the post-colonial government of the free flow of information and news. The biggest fear was that the illiterate masses, swayed by information and news, would become anarchic, making it impossible to govern a subcontinent size country with many fragments and fault lines. The truism was that the social control exercised by the government of the day through highly regulated airwaves was essential. If television news was opened to private ownership, like the print media, it would undermine the ability of the government to govern.
The status of the print media was different. The government of independent India had inherited private ownership of the print media from the former British rulers. Moreover, widespread illiteracy in the country, ironically, gave some comfort to the government as it meant that the overwhelming majority could not read newspapers. The fearless reporting for the most part was only for the educated elite.
This was not unique to India. All over the world postcolonial bureaucracies were scared of news over the airwaves. They were convinced that the masses were incapable of rationally consuming news and of handling the truth because of the hold that traditional and mythical thinking had on their cognitive abilities.
The fact is that, even before private television news, people in India and in many other post-colonial countries, had access to international broadcasters such as BBC Radio in vernacular languages. Not surprisingly, the BBC was seen as the arbiter of high quality news. It was a truism then to back something you said with the statement, “I heard it on BBC.” One of the greatest achievements of privately-owned television news in India such as NDTV has been to break the monopoly of broadcasters like the BBC.
The first task for the pioneers of television news was to bring about a culture shift in the government, especially in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Radhika Roy and Prannoy Roy of NDTV played a crucial role in bringing about a cultural transformation inside the government bureaucracy that opened up the possibility of private ownership and editorial freedom for television news.
Many others too made significant contributions. The role played by Arun Poorie and Madhu Trehan in India Today’s first foray into television news via VHS tapes was a catalyst in this transformation. Subhash Chandra’s launching of Hindi news on ZEE TV was no less path-breaking.
Think of a counterfactual. If the Roys had not founded NDTV in 1988, privately-owned unfettered news on television might have got delayed by at least a decade. The initial support extended by a few bureaucrats in Doordarshan and later Rupert Murdoch of STAR TV was crucial, but NDTV would have not have taken off without the entrepreneurial skills of the Roys. People such as Bhaskar Ghose inside the government bureaucracy took the risk of supporting the idea of a privately-owned and editorially independent producer of news television in India.
NDTV started incrementally with a contract to produce The World This Week on Doordarshan in 1988, and then the nightly news show Tonight in 1995. The big break for the fledgling organization came when it was asked by the News Corporation to produce 24x7 news in English for the STAR satellite network in 1998. Building on the remarkable success the company had working for STAR, NDTV launched its own independent 24x7 news channel in 2003. Media historians have told this NDTV story in parts scattered here and there, but now we have a sort of self-assessment of the historical character of NDTV in the recently published More News is Good News: Untold Stories from 25 years of Television News.
The book, through a series of essays written by insiders, many of whom are still with the organization and some who left to chart a different course after gaining their experience there, tells the story of NDTV and the dawn of television journalism in India.
As NDTV was being built up as a garage startup, the people working for it had to learn fast on the job. As they ventured into unknown territory, they also developed news routines, values and norms for television reporting. In his opening essay, Prannoy Roy says he sees the NDTV story as a story of the transition of Indian journalism from a docile to a more discerning phase. This classification must be read exclusively in the context of television journalism. In contrast, print journalism has a much deeper and glorious history of adversarial, investigative and explanatory reporting.
The essays in the book present each writer’s personal foray into television journalism. The anecdote-rich accounts bring out compellingly how NDTV in its initial years was almost an apprenticeship school for television journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai.
The anecdotes collectively tell the story of how the writers co-invented the idiom of television news as they went about doing their jobs. The most striking thing that comes out from the essays is that, unlike newspaper reporting, which is mostly a solitary effort, until the copy lands at the desk of a news editor, television news is a team effort from the very word go. The story of NDTV could never have been complete without acknowledging the camerapersons, the drivers who ferry the equipment, reporters, producers, and editors who work in the newsroom and production control room.
The team aspect of the NDTV story is compellingly stated at the outset in the preface written by Radhika Roy who is acknowledged as the heart and soul of the organization.
The highly personal essays by Tavleen Singh, Vikram Chandra, Vishnu Som, Sreenivasan Jain, and Maya Mirchandani tell the back stories of some of their most challenging assignments covering international affairs, war, natural disaster, and social conflict. Sonia Singh in her essay defends activist journalism in the context of the big stories on gender-related crimes. Essays by Shikha Trivedy and Radhika Bordia cover the challenges faced by journalists reporting on religious communities and conflicts. The essay by Priyanka Chopra on the work NDTV has done all these years in shining a light on the environment is informative and unveils a lot that is not known outside the organization. Chopra’s essay nicely situates green journalism in the grey area between scientific reporting and activism.
These essays should be a must read for all young reporters in television journalism as they are not only memoir-like, but present a self-assessment by the pioneers. (One small quibble is that the repetition of some of the foundational mythologies in many essays is distracting). The essays are not all about celebrating the NDTV story. Some are reflective essays on television journalism. Shekhar Gupta, Ravish Kumar, and Nidhi Razdan in their essays undertake a critical assessment of television news and the structural impediments of the medium by looking at how conflict and polarized drama has come to dominate coverage.
Gupta and Razdan touch upon how the respective roles of reporter, editor and anchor have suffered in the food chain of news and information, especially on nightly prime time shows. The celebrity status occupied by anchors of prime time shows has compromised the centrality of reporters and editors as the arbiters of facts in news. The phenomenon of hybrid reporter-editor-anchor has substituted fair and balanced reporting with polarized opinion.
Kumar, in his inimitable style has highlighted how from its formative years, television news has been Lutyens-Delhi centric, and how, in spite of efforts by some journalists, the TV newsroom in Delhi is India. Aunindyo Chakravarty’s analysis of Kumar’s “gonzo” journalism must be read along with Kumar’s essay to understand how the vernacular idiom, despite its much maligned image, has come to occupy a moral space in television journalism. This reflexive vernacular idiom was pioneered by Vinod Dua and the late Surendra Pratap Singh and now Ravish Kumar is building on that legacy. One of the main drawbacks in the collection, in fact, is that it does not include essays by some of the other Hindi journalists who have worked at NDTV since the STAR days.
Criticism of the Delhi-centric world of television is equally compellingly highlighted by Monideepa Banerjie who has stood at NDTV’s outpost in Bengal for all these years. Likewise, Uma Sudhir in her essay talks about the challenges a reporter representing the national media faces in the state capitals, especially when she has to navigate a competitive media scene that is politically fragmented along political and ethnic lines.
The book appropriately ends with an essay on NDTV’s forays into online journalism by Suprana Singh. Singh talks about how the NDTV website is not merely an extension of the TV, but is a separate media product. Using her experience in running ndtv.com, she highlights the challenges all journalists face as they make the transition from legacy media into the world of online media where 140 character news bytes dominate the 24x7 cycle of news.
The last 25 years of the news media’s growth has shown that, for the most part, the initial fears of the government were mostly unfounded. Assessing the unshackling of the electronic news media in India, Prannoy Roy sums it up succinctly: “As India’s media has grown over the years, despite all the baggage, so far more news has been good news.”
The television news media with all its faults has served India’s democracy well. And, as Shekhar Gupta has suggested, along with its deeply ingrained biases, classism, and ideological motivations, television news has nonetheless played its role as the “watchdog and hound at the same time” with remarkable success.
Finally, a word about the editor of the book. Ayesha Kagal, a longtime associate of the Roys, has done an excellent job in editing and putting this book together. Kagal has a done a favour to aspiring young journalists and media historians by putting this kaleidoscope of NDTV’s collective internal memory into book form. I recommend that all media schools in India and other countries in South Asia should include this book as required reading. Surely with an advisory note: read critically and reflexively.
Anup Kumar teaches communication in the School of Communication, Cleveland State University.