When Madhuri Dixit danced to the song "TV pe breaking news hai re mera ghagra," I wanted to hide. Her sizzling dance number in a red-light area from the latest hit Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani roughly means, "My skirt is the breaking news on television."
The song, however, is just one among dozens of cringe-inducing moments in popular films that now lampoon news television, much like politicians and policemen. In Anusha Rizvi's Peepli (Live) (2010), the whole drama that news television creates to fill its 24 hours is captured beautifully. You might laugh at the farmer Natha's predicament as the media camps at his small house in Peepli village, in their wait for his suicide. But the joke really is on the government, society and, most of all, the news media.
Many Hindi films now have a stock television crew and reporter sequence. The reporter is often corrupt or a bimbo. They are shown as bodies with mikes and cameras but without brains. It is the sort of thing that should worry all editors, publishers and news broadcasters. Popular cinema is one of the more accurate mirrors of society and its characters. It is also the most powerful creator of images - true or false - and of stereotypes. And once a stereotype is created in popular cinema, it is hard - if not impossible - to dislodge. Anyone who has grown up watching Hindi cinema will tell you that.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the businessman was the stereotypical villain. By the 1980s, it was the police and politicians. When liberalisation took off and the good times began to roll, corporate India suddenly started looking good in films. In the late 1990s, television news took off; in award-winning films such as Satya and Company, television reporters formed an integral part of the background and narrative. That image of a serious news reporter was short-lived. As television news started degenerating, popular films found new material to use.
Ram Gopal Verma's Rann (2010) went all serious on the rating wars among news channels. In A Wednesday (2008), a man who falls into a ditch with an exposed electric wire and survives is interviewed on television. The reporter asks him how he felt when the electric current was running through his body. "Bahut acha lag raha tha" (I was feeling good), he says.
The joke, I repeat, is not on that glamour-struck guy speaking into the mike. It is on the news media, not just television channels. It has allowed the troubles of the news business to overtake it so completely that now the idiot in the office or the black sheep of the profession has become the standard by which the rest of the world measures us. The media's obsession with "breaking news" at the cost of truth, efficiency or ethics is now the stuff that item numbers are made of.
The industry can react to this widespread lampooning with anger (like every other group does) or by tackling the problems endemic to both the news media and the profession of journalism. The three things that could be done are something this column has discussed on and off.
One, increase investment caps in the news media, making it easier to attract long-term strategic capital - since the news business has a long gestation period. Also, make ownership norms more stringent. That should force many of the dodgy chit funds and builders out of the game.
Two, clean up Doordarshan News' act. That alone will set benchmarks of quality, which will then force the entire private TV news industry to behave - a la Britain, where the BBC has done the same thing.
Three, make it mandatory for editors and reporters to have a certain amount of training before they are let loose. And one cannot emphasise this too much, though it sounds like a hygiene factor. Too many editors in the news media are busy being stars instead of editors. That, say observers, is causing half the problem. If they trained their teams, India would have a great crop of journalists. And if the editors want to be star anchors and writers, then let them be just that.
Across the world, professional journalism gives you two career choices when you hit senior levels: either become a specialist (writer, reporter or anchor) or go the generalist route as an editor or managing editor. It is impossible for one person to play both the roles. Being an editor or managing editor necessarily involves handling large teams, ensuring their training and doing a lot of administrative stuff that many don't enjoy. But it also brings a power that plain anchors or writers do not have. In their bid to do both, dozens of senior editors in India are compromising on the time and training they give their reporters. And when those reporters become editors, they do the same.
Like one senior editor said in a public forum recently, "We don't need more regulation of media, we just need good editors." Here, then, is the song to egg them on.