Wednesday, March 2, 2011

As cricket fever grips India, news channels turn to Somalian drama to grab eyeballs

The Somali pirates issue is not new to India. Everyone knows of the anarchy in the Indian Ocean region near Somalia. It’s an important sea route for trade and Somalian pirates have been wreaking havoc on cargo ships passing by. In the past, one has heard similar stories related to Indian cargo ships and the good work done by the Indian navy in helping them cross the area. We have even heard of scuffles the Indian navy has been involved in.....and its role has generally been appreciated by the people.

Unfortunately, good work hardly draws any media attention. Sensationalism is the survival mantra for news channels. With cricket dominating the mind space of Indians (and with the England-India and England-Ireland matches making cricket very much center stage), news channels are becoming more and more desperate to attract eye balls. I have been appalled to see the story of some Indians who have been held hostage by the Somalian pirates.....but more appalled by the handling of the issue by channels like Times Now.

I am talking here specifically of Times Now (I write this piece in my personal capacity; not as an employee of The Times of India Group). The channel first put a woman on TV two days back. This woman’s husband has been held hostage by the Somalian pirates for several months. Now, I have full sympathies with this woman. She is bound to be extremely upset and tense. So she was on TV and she cried for nearly 5 minutes. The usually abrasive Arnab let her hog all the footage......maybe an ad break was forsaken so that she could cry in full public glory. She was bound to collect TRPs for the channel. Yesterday, Times Now put another woman on. Again, there was the same accusations and high emotional drama. What’s interesting is that both these people were accusing the government of inaction....when it was a purely private affair. If they had made a “request”, one would have taken a sympathetic view of things. But no, these were “demands”....its like its their birthright to be rescued when they do stupid things.

Lets look at the issue here. Frankly, there are millions of Indians who leave India for financial gains and work in all kinds of countries. There is the example of Libya, where 18,000 Indians are working. These Indians have left for personal gains; they are not on a government mission. They have gone because they believe that the opportunities are much better there. Obviously, they do not even pay taxes to the Indian government. So while things are hunky dory, they forget India....and when their plans go awry, they turn to the Indian government for help. If it was help they wanted, I would be OK with it. But in reality, they “demand” that the Indian government help them. Their demands are played up by channels like Times Now......which are always looking for more government bashing stories which can give them TRPs. The real issues are fully obfuscated.

Is it practically possible for India to take care of all Indians living abroad? Especially when they are voluntarily undertaking dangerous activities which they never should have undertaken so in the first place. Suppose the Indian government sends out the navy to fight the Somalian pirates and spends Rs 100 crores in rescuing these people and in paying the ranson. Would this spend be justified? When there is so much struggle amongst the poor right here in India, should the government focus all attention on its citizens living in India or on those who voluntarily chose to take up such dangerous work internationally? Will this not make the grounds for another “scam” on a different day and on a different channel? How difficult would it be for a TV channel to put out videos of poor people in our hinterland living in squalor and misery.....and then question the government on why it blew up Rs 100 crores in saving a few lives on the dangerous Somalian shore?

It’s a different matter when we have relationships with another country and then an injustice happens there. I am ok with news channels pressurizing the government when racial attacks happen in Australia or Scotland. Or when an Indian film maker is harassed in the US. Even as this is OK, news channels must understand how diplomacy works. And how many times, small issues have to be ignored to achieve larger goals. There is no role for emotional outbursts in diplomacy. There are several Americans who are rotting in Indian prisons also. Does the US government jeopardize all its relations with India because of this?

G Parthasarthy, an ex senior diplomat, brought out the reality of the Somalian issue. There is NO GOVERNMENT in Somalia. There is no one the Indian government can talk to. This problem is not unique to India and Indians. There are more than 20 navies guarding the waters there. The Indian Navy has done outstanding work in this region. This is not what Arnab wanted to hear. This was going against his story. So, as is his style, he tried to mute Parthasarthy out but couldn’t since Parthasarthy (in a rare gesture of anger) threatened to walk out of the show. When questioned by Arnab on whether the Americans would have tolerated such threats to their citizens, Parthasarthy pointed out that four Americans had been killed last week....but the powerful US could do nothing about it. Arnab was ill prepared. But that’s the case on so many occassions. The channel had taken a stand that the Government of India should be bashed up. Great tamasha to draw audiences in. But highly inane content. On a different day, this same channel would argue and suggest that India should be tough and not negotiate with terrorists. Is there any consistency in their editorial policies and viewpoints?

The real truth is very sad. It appears that the government is listening to these news channels. And coming under pressure. So now, expect the Indian government to pay ranson monies to rescue these people. The news channels will hail it as their victory and a demonstration of their power. In reality, it would be a case of abuse of power. You thought politicians were populist? In reality, it’s the news channels that are populist. It’s this kind of behavior that will one day force the government to put a news regulator in place. If it did so, it would be fully justified.


  1. Prashant, completely agree with the point that the people who work in dangerous conditions abroad do it at their own risk, when things are alright there is no contribution made to India either by tax or by any means, when things go out of hand they cry for government intervention, looks very illogical.

  2. Very valid points raised Prashant. I had the opportunity to be on a Navy Warship once & met this Commander, who had been on one such operation in Somalia. Apart from the monies spent on such operations, we are risking the lives of our Naval officers as well. Its not an easy terrain to operate, the pirates are well equipped and know all the getaways. I had a personal liking for Arnab, when he was with NDTV and initial days of Times Now, but off late he is either carried away by the Bottom line pressure or has got lost in the Rut to be No.1. He has moved away from ethical/analytical/socio journalism to sensationalism....SAD but true...personally, I have also moved away from Times Now.....

  3. So what are you suggesting? That people only be rescued when they can provide tax returns? What do you suggest the government of India do? Nothing? The next time an airline full of Indians is hijacked to Afghanistan or some such place, what should the government do? Say, "oh it's none of our business, they're tourists on an aircraft, not government servants on duty".

    This is how far a government should be prepared to go for it's people...

    ...but I doubt we'll ever be able to pull off something like that.

  4. Double Dolphin: The situation in the Somali seas is different. Its a whole lot of small small attacks happening with all countries. It's not the same as an airliner getting hijacked. An airline hijack happens once in 10 years. Somali pirates kill people almost every week. Do you think TV news channels anywhere else in the world put out such shows on ths issue?