Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost begins with a remarkable description of the place in Hell where the evil incarnate Satan or Lucifer, engages his friends in a protracted debate on ways to defeat God in yet another war. By fair means or foul, ‘by open war or covert guile.’
‘High on a Throne of Royal State, which far
Outshone the wealth of Ormus and of Ind,
Or where the gorgeous East with richest hand
Showers on her Kings Barbaric Pearl and Gold,
Satan exalted sat, by merit raised
To that bad eminence.’
I am reminded of this debate in Lucifer’s capital Pandemonium at 9 PM every day when all television news channels without exception, in my home state of Kerala as also across the nation, suddenly erupt into a boisterous, no-holds-barred, irreverent, and invariably irrelevant, debate on an issue of the day, mostly of no consequence.
Take any channel and one may find similarities with the satanic debate. The studio setting is as ornate as the Lucifer palace built by the fallen architect Mulciber. The high seat occupied by the anchor is a reminder of the Throne of Royal State of Lucifer: the anchor ‘by merit raised to that bad eminence.’ Though Milton does not give a description of the dress worn by Lucifer, the anchors here are dressed impeccably, some men always in well cut three-piece suits and women in their sartorial finery. If Lucifer’s team consisted of resourceful Beelzebub, filthy rich Mammon, slothful Belial and Sin, the channel debaters often are a match for them in irrational eloquence and faulty reasoning.
Consider the manner in which the late evening turmoil across the nation is choreographed by the articulate and artful anchors. They have an agenda, probably set by their masters, and they see to it that the agenda is carried out. If by chance there is a saner element among the panelists, airing a different and often correct view, the omnipotent and omniscient anchor will abruptly cut in, and cut him short. Unfortunately for the general viewing public, the well educated and well dressed anchors of these debates are not at all well meaning. Often, their motives are suspect, their behavior abrasive and the whole show carried out not in equanimity or with aplomb, but irrationally and irresponsibly.
The problem with most of the anchors, both in the national channels and in the regional outfits, I do not want to name them, is that they are obsessed with themselves. They think they know all and they blatantly project that image, as evidenced by the narcissistic, larger-than-life advertisement images they constantly air in their channels. (This is a self-indulgence enjoyed by the visual media ‘celebrities’ and never experienced by their poor print media brethren). They obviously forget that what matters is not their photogenic profiles or imposing poses, but the sensible and sedate manner in which they conduct a debate. In this they fail, and fail miserably.
It is unfortunate that the anchors and many of the participants of such debates show scant respect for individuals and institutions that need to be respected. In the heat of the discussion anything goes and decorum is always thrown to the winds when referring to anyone in the country, from the lowly functionary of a local body or village to even the Prime Minister of the land who is respected internationally and has emerged as one of the most vibrant of world leaders. It is a pity that in the media world in this country, enjoying freedom with little responsibility, wayward tongues wag with abandon when referring to such a global statesman.
No one can say how to throw a little bit of courtesy and decency into these tumultuous sessions. The problem is probably the wrong choice of the participants. People holding highly partisan, sectarian, sometimes hardline communal or even anti-national views, invited to these panels, would only try to make use of the opportunity to further buttress their point and thereby widen social cleavages. Also, the national channels occasionally vie with one another in inviting people from an enemy country to participate in their debates, allowing them precious air time to vent their anti-India rhetoric without restraint. There appears to be no mechanism to monitor such activities that have a bearing on national security.
A look at the daily crop of participants in these shows is sure to give a feeling of nausea to the viewers. In a beautifully evocative poem Charles Lamb once lamented the loss of his childhood playmates and companions, saying “All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.” In the channel world, on the contrary, the old familiar faces keep coming back, again and again and again, ad nauseam. Some jaded representatives of political parties, a so called environmental activist and some journalists, for instance, are among the people who appear to be embedded to the debating panels of Malayalam channels. They are there every night, looking at the camera the same way, mouthing the same old arguments. Don’t they have anything better to do? Or do they think their popularity increases day by day? Or do they get any sitting fee that is irresistibly attractive?
The viewer can do precious little to counter the daily dose of depredations of the visual media. When Shakespeare’s King Richard III found himself in the thick of the battlefield with a slain horse all he could do was to wail ‘A Horse, A Horse, My Kingdom for A Horse.’ In our case a viewer, emotionally battered and bruised in the collateral damage caused by the channel debate can do only one thing. Go for the Remote. Switch to the next channel or the next or the one after that. If he is lucky he may find a saner one. But more often than not he will only find a debate that is worse off and more boisterous than the previous one.
His final option, then, is to switch off the television set and pick up a book or magazine, in an ultimate act of denunciation.