She walked in, with some books under her arm, wanting to photocopy her project. The newsroom was buzzing with activity. Wide-eyed, she stopped short and asked me, “Is everything okay, Maami?” “Yes”, I said. It was a regular news-day; we were instructing and taking instructions from each other at very high decibel levels, with a lot of colourful language thrown in. My niece was darting glances at me.
“What is the matter?” I asked. I knew what the matter was, but when I saw her eyes, it was as if I didn’t want to see what she was seeing and hearing. “Nothing” she said, like every teenager. She was absorbing it all and reacting emotionally. But those in the newsroom don’t have the luxury of doing that. The pictures come and leave at quick-fire speed. There is cutthroat competition. If you are not first with the news or unable to match what your competitors have put out, you might as well not exist. Television news is a devouring monster and we are its mechanised slaves, high on adrenalin and low on sensitivity.
The newsroom never sleeps. News, both national and international, is monitored round the clock. Let’s just take the case of one day last week. Parliament was debating FDI in retail, and voting was scheduled for 2 pm. But before that came the news feed from Amritsar: grieving family of the police inspector who was shot dead because he ‘dared’ to protect his daughter from an ‘eve-teaser’ politician.
“Live bhej raha hoon.” “Live nai chahiye, jab uskii betii site pe ayegi tab live lenge.” “Par rishtedaar to ro rahe hain.” “Kahaa na, biwi aur beti ke rote hue shots jab ayenge, tab live kaatenge.” As if on cue, the daughter arrived, she was weeping inconsolably and the cameras started rolling. All channels cut live and the newsroom had its story.
But a grieving widow and daughter can only run for about 10 minutes on live television. It is too depressing you know. So cut to reactions outside Parliament. Pithy sound-bites on how FDI will bring in potatoes the size of watermelons and turn all our future generations into idiots. Cut to rustic politicians-turned-economists who obligingly give soundbites that FDI in retail will produce only happy farmers. Happy. Done.
Cut again to the live debate where, horror of horrors, we hear how wonderful the Sahukar is. He lends money for a daughter's dowry. Will Walmart do that? No. In the newsroom, peals of laughter as we crack jokes about Bollywood's villainous moneylenders with their sneering looks. It's time to send camera teams to get soundbites from moneylenders. Are they threatened that nobody will borrow money from them, now that Walmart is coming? Surreal! No, it’s for real. Every kirana shop owner in 3 kilometre radius of a news-channel is a TV star by now.
Vote is over and both sides claim victory. One real and the other moral. Hurry. Get more reactions from politicians, kirana shop owners, Walmart shoppers in Punjab and industrialists in Mumbai.
“Yaar, FDI bohat hua, Gujarat kaat.” Cut to Gujarat, Live, and Modi is at a rally speaking about some Sultanate. “Yaar phir Gujarati mey bol raha hai.” “Reaction lete hain, crew Digvijaya Singh ke yahaan bhej. Ask him what he thinks of Modi as PM candidate.” “Masala mil jayega ek ghante ke liye.”
“Cauvery river demo hai in Chennai.” “Any violence?” “No.” “Drop it”. “Border pe arms captured shots hai.” “Any Pakistani connection?” “No.” “Kill the story.”
And just when the day was ending, came the news of a nurse in London having committed suicide over a prank call from an Australian radio jockey. Team A in the newsroom was winding up for the day. But the name of the nurse rankled. Jaycintha Saldanah. That sounds Mangalorean. Investigations begin. Indeed there is an India link. Rush a camera crew, get shots of mother-in-law and sister-in-law wailing.
“Ye toh Madrasi mey bol rahein hain….koi live nai katega.” Somebody yells: “Madrasi nai hai yaar, Subbu keh raha hai, ye to Kannada hai.” “Chal kisi Kannada ko pakad, translation chahiye gorey channels ko, CNN, SKY maang rahey hain.” “Oye Kannada bhasha hai, Kannadiga ko pakadna hai.” “Dimaag mat kha, translate kar, koi aur channel pohanch jayega, English bite le lega.”
By then, line up for the next day has begun. A blind Pakistani cricketer accidentally drinks phenyl. Get reactions from hospital, team members, BCCI, and from Pakistan. FDI is already a dead story. Punjab inspector’s family: it’s also off primetime. Just like yesterday’s newspaper used to wrap your batata-wada.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash