The succour provided my cousin’s comfortable shelter from an obstinate mid-monsoon Malabar thunderstorm was disrupted by the full screen graphic text on a popular English language news channel. ‘BREAKING NEWS: THREE BLASTS ROCK MUMBAI’. Instinctively I paused. Even as I was cranking up the volume, a fast-clipped high-pitched narration of a near-breathless male voice consumed all attention. ‘Three simultaneous explosions have been reported at three separate locations in Mumbai and we are awaiting further information about the nature and intensity of the blasts’. Without a moment’s pause, the voice proceeded to paraphrase the same over and over again for the next few minutes. The full-screen textual graphic announcing the ‘breaking news’ vanished every few seconds and reappeared letter by letter, plastering itself to announce the grim news yet again. The announcer remained hidden from view. The feverish pace of the narrator combined with fast changing graphic visual succeeded in maintaining a perception that fresh news was being delivered every second. The pressure to deliver some new information was also taking it’s toll on the news reader probably because his time was running out too. The channel’s star news reader must have been on his way to replace him. This, to me, was yet another instance to reflect on the age of brash shameless opportunism.
In cases of emergencies at places of public gathering, crowds are urged to exit in a calm and orderly manner. This is the most assured method of evacuating quickly and without substantial physical damage. This has been a universally accepted idea. One that is gaining newer adopters. However, this idea constrains itself to physical harm only. What about mental anguish? Is that not important? The news channels cause a virtual stampede on the airwaves in their efforts to deliver fresh and exclusive news to it’s viewers. Veracity goes undetected as yet another victim of the macabre. It seems that the considerations afforded to how speech and visuals could negatively impact someone is being neglected each passing day in favour of a better shield for the physical. ‘Mind over matter’ has become just another convenient cocktail catchphrase.
Back to the news reader, the style of narration combined effectively with the large flickering graphics to contrive a sense of anxiety. These techniques have been developed and refined over time, geography and demography, to create the desired impact. These techniques do not depend on an especially grim news for impact. Even news of the city zoo welcoming a new litter of cuddly panda cubs could be delivered in this manner to successfully plant anxiety. Hence it is not surprising that almost all the profit driven media channels have adopted this technique to captivate audiences. For a good reason too. It works! If it didn’t, many of you would have switched off that broadcast and revisited for any updates after an hour. The fact that news happens every second is senseless justification to consume it at that pace. Is this not the textbook definition of addiction? The pace at which newer addicts find themselves trapped unwittingly is worrisome.
The concept of free and fair marketplace is a noble one. One that has witnessed the pinnacles of many civilizations; one that is progressing towards it’s next one in ours. This very idea made it possible for enough capital to be invested in this enterprise so that news can travel instantly across the globe, even foray outer space in the process. Early access to information is invaluable in any age but more so in ours. It’s a tool for many who fight injustices, monitor potential calamities, education of the masses and many other routine as well as unique applications. However, this very tool that is a boon for many also spawns this culture of addiction. The capital invested is seldom without ulterior motives. A modern day metaphor of the classic double-edged sword.
The blasts which rocked Mumbai limited it’s physical damage to three spots in the city, each not more than 100 meters in diameter. In contrast, the concussion resulting from the information blast was limitless. Even oceans and mountain ranges failed their duties as natural buffers. Within moments, even people who are couple of degrees separated from someone in Mumbai found themselves adrift in a sea of emotions, scanning the various news channels in the hopes of a life raft. This emotional turmoil would have been superfluous in the days when people from the impact zone would have accounted for the safety among them and informed the distant souls in due time. Wounding for a moment with the grim news but instantly healing with the comprehensive inventory of bodies. Receiving grim news from a trusting voice has now been replaced by the anonymous reporter owing allegiance mainly to fame and money.
The effects of such practices on the psyche of the populace is evident around us. It’s impossible to chance upon anybody with a composed reaction to this news. This ‘irresponsible’ style of reporting has contributed towards erosion of the two pillars of any durable society – rationalism and faith. In a city with tens of million inhabitants, any event impacting mere hundreds is statistically insignificant. The probability that a near and dear one could be harmed in such an event is far lesser than fatality from any routine accident at home, outdoors, at work or even on vacation. Yet, most are instinctively impelled to fear for the worst. This, in the land that prides on it’s reputation where followers of all faiths are allowed to practice and flourish without prejudice. Why is it that these very same people shelve their faith and allow panic to posses the moment they need it the most? Try reaching a telephone number in the area of impact few minutes after the tidal wave of news descends and you will get a general idea of the magnitude of panic. Jammed telephone lines will not yield. Spreading commotion even in this chaos by muting an otherwise reliable path to direct sources of information.
If other civilizations are any indication of the expected future trend in this matter, I am afraid that the outlook is bleak. Urban India, besides boasting of it’s own culture, is also closely trailing the cultural trends of England and USA. Both these societies are on the downward spiral in managing anxiety from news. Anxiety caused by news reports on television is the number one profit maker for pharmaceutical drug industry in America. It could be a high speed traffic chase, escaped zoo animal, sexual predators, drug peddlers or even a petty crime; the producers of television news have managed to commodify each into easy-to-consume packets and peddle them through local television stations in every city and town. While the packaging on Indian news channel is crass, they are so refined in the western societies that very few question the motives and influences of this ‘public service’. The consumption is as ingrained and unquestioned by the popular society as hamburger or fish-and-chips – yet another commodity that is convenient to consume and delivers the daily doses of emotions which completes the addictions we call life.
Our traits, no matter how depressing they may seem or forebode, are undoubtedly quirky. And when it comes to quirkiness Monty Python is the unparalleled master. Here’s a piece of their imitation of our times.
14th July, 2011. Mattanur