H R Venkatesh is News Editor-Anchor at CNN-IBN. He has just returned from the University of Oxford where he completed an M Sc in Contemporary India as a Shell-Chevening Scholar. He has 9 years’ experience in TV news having worked in several positions. He began as a Business Correspondent at CNBC India in Mumbai where he was asked to report on – hold your breath – the cement, steel and shipping industries. Numbed by two years as an ‘old economy’ reporter, he moved to cover sport at Headlines Today in Delhi. As cricket correspondent he travelled with the Indian cricket team for two years. Highlights from this stint include watching Sachin Tendulkar complete his 10,000th test run, interviewing Sourav Ganguly 18 times and Shane Warne at least 15 times (not so much due to his persistence as to the fact that the duo were contractually bound to do the interviews), and watching Australia conquer the final frontier. Numbed yet again, by the realization that the best way to appreciate sport is to NOT report on it, he moved towards covering politics. Along the way, he began presenting news and moved to CNN-IBN as it was preparing to launch in 2005. He spent the next few years anchoring news & special shows, and occasionally foraying into the field, before taking a break to study. Although nobody’s given him a prize for it, he is proud to have been the first Indian to present a podcast – the News Junkie Podcast – online.
As I waited at the Delhi-Noida toll booth on the drive to work on Friday, I rang a friend.
Don't you know a woman has been gangraped in Mumbai? she said, watching CNN-IBN, the channel where I work from home. You're calling the coverage 'No Country For Women', she said.
She gave me a few more details. The woman is a photographer who went to an abandoned mill in South Mumbai with a friend. 5 men gangraped her after they tied her friend up.
I groaned. I wasn't looking forward to a newsroom with blanket, non-stop coverage of the incident. I said something like, had she not been from the upwardly mobile, upper-middle class, we wouldn't have bothered with so much outrage.
You're an a**hole, she said.
To which I said, c'mon that's a little too much, you know I'm not one.
No, you ARE an a**hole, she insisted, especially for saying this right now.
That set me thinking.
A few minutes later at work, pretty much everything was as I had pictured it. We led our coverage, as we do for most crimes against women, under the rubric 'Stop This Shame'.
Another channel cried out, 'Why Shouldn't I Be Safe?' Yet another used the term 'Maximum Shame!' By then we had begun talking about 'Maximum City, Maximum Shame'.
Everything else was predictable. Hoarse reactions from the political class in Maharashtra. Sound-bites from the activist community. Outraged speeches from Parliament. Opposition parties attacking the government. Cries for the law to be changed. Furious & relentless coverage.
Seven months earlier we had devoted more than three weeks of wall-to-wall coverage to the gangrape of the girl various channels had dubbed as Nirbhaya, Damini or as we called her, Delhi Braveheart.
We were there as she was hospitalized. We hung on to every health bulletin. When protests began, our reporters were on the street every single day and night. When the accused were nabbed, we were there. We covered every press conference, took every sound-bite all the way up to and beyond the girl's death.
We were mentally exhausted and emotionally spent. In a society where even uttering the word 'rape' makes you feel conscious, we were using the term several times an hour. After all, it's only here that the term 'gangrape' has moved from being two separate words, to being hyphenated, to its current iteration.
Back in the newsroom I went about assigning work in a haze. I wrote reads, checked copy and rewrote ticker lines. And some time during the day, I realized that none of the arguments above excused the sense of ennui I had communicated to my friend.
It may be true that we only seem to shake ourselves into frenzy when it's someone like a Mumbai-based, educated woman who's raped. But it should be like the fictional detective Harry Bosch's motto: Everybody counts or nobody counts.
How do we put that motto into effect for TV news though? Carpet-bomb the viewers with unceasing coverage every time someone is raped? If BJP MP Smriti Irani is to be believed, that would be at least twice an hour. Assuming we did that, there would be no room for anything else.
Like other media, television news has its paradoxes. Issues tend to gain traction because of repetition. But this round-the-clock news also means that TV journalists tend to be overexposed and desensitized to the senseless violence around.
But until we find a better way of dealing with India's multitudinous injustices, we must take our chances when we can. If that means the only way to do that is to pick and choose our fights, then so be it.
Seen in this light, my mini-rant to my friend was ill-timed and tasteless. More importantly, it was wrong.