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Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative writer and columnist
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Unimaginative TV coverage, incorrigible journalists and Gurinder Chadha's Partition film

COUNTING DAY TV is a spectacle I have become drearily accustomed to. There was a certain novelty about it the first time I was a part of the programme during the 1998 General Election. Those days there were few channels and I was the number cruncher for the programme (outsourced to India Today) on Doordarshan. The counting process then was an elaborate exercise lasting for some three days. Information was slow to trickle in, especially from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and we often had little idea of which stage of the counting the leads reflected. Occasionally, even the postal ballot tally was totted up as a lead. It was all very improvised and rather good fun, especially post-midnight when the conversations became rather silly.

These days life has become quite easy. The counting starts at 8 am and by 10.30 am, at the very latest, we can gauge the winner, unless it is a precariously close contest. Actually, by noon the work of the political pundits is well and truly over, although the producers insist we hang around in the studios, occasionally either interjecting gloating or dejected politicians, or correcting the less informed anchors. Apart from the results themselves, the entire exercise has become rather predictable and, consequently, a little dull.

In particular, I am struck by how little of the local colour is reflected on the ‘national’ English language channels. Every Indian election is a riot of interesting stories and even more interesting politicians. How much of this finds place in the programming? Have TV producers became lazy and unimaginative or are they constantly cutting costs?

I don’t know enough of the internal workings of TV channels. All I can say is that in the competitive quest for ratings and eyeballs, the channels seem to be replicating each other. It has happened with news programmes, and now Counting Day seems headed in the same direction.

THE MEDIA, IT is well acknowledged, is going through a bad patch. Newspapers are closing editions, shedding staff and effecting economies. As for magazines, their day seems over and it requires phenomenal editorial imagination for any title to stay afloat.

Some of this is reflected in political reporting. At the best of times, political reporting is difficult. Ferreting accurate information and discerning larger trends takes a combination of perseverance, experience and an analytical mind that can separate the real from the spurious. Above all, it calls for open minds, lots of modesty and an ability to self-correct. Alas, journalists seem too full of certitudes and seem to put their subjective preferences above the more arduous business of information gathering.

What appears to be complicating matters is the introduction of social media into conventional journalism. The temptation of keying in 140 characters of opinion is proving infectious. This is coupled by the rash of dodgy source-based journalism which, as I have discovered, often leads to journalists talking to each other. A survey of Twitter postings by so-called senior journalists suggests that they saw and heard what they wanted to. Most of them had egg on their faces after the results suggested a veritable BJP wave.

Will this bitter experience prompt some soul searching? I doubt it. There are two phrases that are alien to journalism of today: ‘I don’t know’ and ‘I am sorry’. No wonder Fake News has become the new buzzword.

I WENT TO WATCH Gurinder Chadha’s latest film The Viceroy’s House with high expectations. First, I had admired her earlier films, especially Bend It Like Beckham. Secondly, when it comes to films with historical themes, the British are unquestionably the very best (and Indian filmmakers inattentive to details). I still delight in watching the epic TV dramatisation of Paul Scott’s Jewel in the Crown and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and the more recent The King’s Speech were also compelling.

There were facets of The Viceroy’s House that invoked the ‘ornamentalism’ of the Raj in its twilight days. Alas, these proved to be patchy. The filmmaker attempted to conjure an Upstairs-Downstairs scenario: Lady Mountbatten driving her upright husband into doing the right things and a Hindu-Muslim love story in the staff quarters. Straddling the two were some flirtations with history with Jawaharlal Nehru, the excitable idealist, Jinnah, the cynical manipulator and Gandhi, the puzzling icon with bad teeth.

It was an ambitious project that didn’t quite work. The Downstairs bit seemed too wooden and insufficiently authentic. It seemed a very Brit-Indian view of how their grandparents had experienced Partition. I am sorry I was left unconvinced.

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