Columns, Media, Writing

Looks and feels like news

The Marlon Samuels saga sheds light on an emerging trend of news as simulation—it looks like news, feels like news, has us reacting to it as if it were news but for the minor fact that there is in fact little that is news inside the whole package. For the truth—as we know it so far—is that Mukesh Kochar, an alleged bookie who allegedly knows a Mr Kamal Chaddha who is allegedly related to the D-Company, makes a phone call to Marlon Samuels and has what can be safely termed a somewhat surreal conversation (transcripts of all taped conversations seem to reveal that most telephone users in India are smoking some serious substances) with him. While it does contain some mumbles about when Samuels will come on to bowl, for most part it consists of some very poorly phrased advice.

Of course, as has become customary now, the transcript is made available to all and the media has a good time with it. Poor Robin Singh, who is allegedly mentioned in passing (or was it Robinson?), is dragged into this non-event and can now keep protesting his innocence till eternity. It doesn’t matter for he has been implicated by the most sinister of all kinds of news stories—the simulated pretend-news that is more real than the real thing. Innuendo cohabits with inference and soon we are left with a story that is nothing but improbabilities multiplied.

What gives this story power and legitimacy is its outward appearance rather than the content. A transcript of a secretly taped conversation must, by definition, be explosive. If it is overheard or secretly recorded, it must be revelatory. The act of recording becomes proof—what is recorded is of considerably less significance. Why would the police record Mukesh Kochar’s conversations if he were not a bookie, goes this argumentin-reverse. Guilt precedes enquiry, and enquiry becomes a sign of guilt in this circular closed loop of logic. The police, too, show no restraint in claiming breakthroughs and the reputations of various people are cheerfully besmirched in the name of news.

Recent sting operations, too, seem to thrive on outward appearances. Grainy pictures shot in crick-inducing angles become a sign of exposes. A record of a phone conversation becomes proof; denial of guilt is also seen to be its opposite when caught on secret camera. The revelatory content in sting operations keeps shrinking but its persuasive abilities remain strong. What we are buying into is the sense of dark impropriety implicit in the act of secret recordings.

The guilt that we apparently witness is constructed by the manner of presentation. The simulation of news is present in less dramatic reports, too. Television news privileges the reporter-witness who is at the scene of the action even when nothing is happening. The very act of being on the scene legitimises the content of the news. So we saw shots of Mukesh Kochar’s house and Hotel Pride in Nagpur where Samuels stayed, both being in no way helpful in presenting the story; there were no interviews on the spot or any reconstruction of events. It is as if being closer to the theatre of action, even if the action happened in the past, somehow allows the reporter to plumb a deeper journalistic truth about what happened. The site is fetishised and becomes a monument to the event in question. The reporters on the spot are also conferred with magical powers of clairvoyance by the studio high command; questions about “what do you think is happening inside’’ or “what do you think will happen next’’ are routinely asked of the hapless trainee covering a local event. Proximity coalesces into expertise; distance becomes the opposite of truth.

The changing codes of news brought about by television are changing our sense of what is real and what is not. Reality becomes a staged production; a theatrical contrivance brought about by the play between the camera eye and the speaker-ear. Everyone is made an accomplice—the police winks at the camera by alleging grand conspiracies, the BCCI leaks reports for media consumption, and the Bachchans parade gifts they give and receive (sorry, allegedly receive). Once you get the hand of manufacturing news, it is apparently quite easy.