My column in today’s DNA
4 8 hours. It has been an interesting two days in terms of news coverage. The British royal baby and Bollywood royalty makeup dominated news.
“It’s a Boy” screamed the headlines, across the world. The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, did something that women, since the beginning of time, have been doing without much fanfare — she delivered a baby. A baby boy. The third in line to the British throne. The countdown to “The Birth” had been going on for a week. The news media probably showing far more excitement than possibly the family of the child. And, finally, when the expectant mother was admitted to the hospital, the coverage reached a fevered pitch. Post the official announcement by the British royal family there were two million mentions of the baby online. And, people began putting out the most inane things. One news handle tweeted “Kate Middleton in Labor: What to Expect -hopefully a baby?”
On television, in print, on social media there was no escaping the ‘Royal Birth’. Every minute of labour was documented. Speculations from the sex of the baby to the name began flying around. And finally when the baby was born the media behaved as if they had collectively undergone labour, and went advertising one of the most normal events — giving birth — as something that seemed like a cross between the second coming and an alien invasion. The British tabloid The Sun changed its masthead for the day; they called themselves ‘The Son’. Another British tabloid proclaimed “Our Little Prince”; the Times announced that “A Prince is Born”, USA Today had an infographic on the new born and where he stands in relation to the rest in terms of succession. Indian media too was excited about the Royal Birth. One will soon see stories of various Indians who helped deliver the child or were somewhere in the vicinity of the hospital when the child was born. The British satirical magazine’ Private Eye had the best possible take on the whole story “Woman has baby”.
A day earlier there was similar excitement about another equally ‘important’ story in the Indian media. The two superstars of Bollywood Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan had hugged and made up at an iftaar party hosted by a Mumbai politician. The hype in the news media that surrounded this (non) event was remarkable. From the genesis of the feud, to the history of the tussle, to the long bleak years and the final rapprochement — the hug was covered as though it was the end of war between two sovereign states, and every aspect of the battle, replete with characters, generals and battlegrounds was laid out. And now that the ‘Hug’ has been analysed to death, questions arise if it was a casual hug, a general hug or a hug to change history. The nation holds its collective breath to find out what happens next in this great crisis.
In the 48 hours that these two events were taking place, other things were also taking place in the world. In India, five states have been devastated by floods. Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh are all facing the fury of monsoons. Many rivers have broken their banks and are in full spate. Millions of people have been impacted by the floods. Thousands have lost their homes, and hundreds their lives. If this was Hurricane Sandy impacting the US, there would be a raindrop by raindrop coverage of the discomfort to the citizens of America, on Indian ‘National’ TV news media. But, displacement and discomfort of fellow citizens matter very little.
In the last 48 hours the violence in Iraq escalated. The al-Qaeda mounted an attack on two prisons — the notorious Abu Ghraib and Taji, and allowed some of the most violent extremists to escape. It is estimated that over 500 of these highly motivated people are out on the loose. Ever since the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the level of violence within Iraq has been on the rise. Bombs, pitched battles on the roads, rocket attacks have all been part and parcel of everyday life. The al-Qaeda wants control of the government and establish its own form of Islamic Theocracy, while those in power wish to hold on to their positions. And, the battle has been on. This audacious direct attack on a heavily guarded prison camp has just upped the stakes. But, there is very little coverage either in India or outside. 500-plus of the most hardened terrorists out in the loose and there is very little media buzz.
In the last 48 hours relief and rehabilitation in Uttarakhand have become more difficult because of rains. Landslides and poor weather are making it tough to build back. It is just over a month since some parts of the state were devastated by floods, and rebuilding is taking more time than expected because of relentless rains. People are still staying in temporary relief camps, in tents in this weather. Little or no reportage.
There is something very damaged in the state of the news media. An attention span disorder that makes it flit like an out-of-control butterfly. There has been a skewing of priorities insofar as content is concerned. The fluff takes precedence over the real pressing issues. And, while there is space for the fluff, the frivolous and the fun, surely it cannot be at the expense of real issues. The aim of news is a lot more than to titillate and entertain. It is more than asking two strident spokespeople from two opposing parties something that makes them even more strident, less informative but more entertaining. There is a role to news beyond creating high drama. In fact, creating drama is not a function of news. Reporting drama is.