Look-Live Lies

Wednesday's episode of Face The Nation: India's Best Presented News Show on CNN-IBN was epochal. It started deceiving the viewer in the first three words, and went downhill from there.

"Joining us tonight", began Sagarika Ghose of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Except, as everyone now knows, he wasn't joining us that night. He had been interviewed that afternoon by a local correspondent, and his statements edited and spliced into the discussion. But I get ahead of myself.

"Joining us tonight, to ask if spiritual gurus should participate in the fight against corruption, IS" that word bellowed at us, as if to defy us to challenge the tense "spiritual guru and founder of the Art of Living, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar." And we see Shankar, and immediately sense something's wrong. After all, FTN is broadcast after dark; but Shankar's sitting with the left half of his face bathed in radiant sunlight, the sort of phenomenon that might cause even the most hardened sceptic to imagine there is something miraculously saintly about the man.

"Let's turn it over to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar at the very outset," says Ghose, continuing to happily deceive her viewers. She then asks Shankar a long, convoluted, hard-hitting question: "Are you effectively launching a political campaign?... You, for example, haven't taken up an anti-graft campaign in your home state of Karnataka, but have chosen UP..."

Damn, you go girl, you think. Speaking truth to power. How will Shankar respond to that telling point about Karnataka?

"UP trip is happening well, extremely well. Lakhs and lakhs of people are coming," he says. (OK, had said.) Wow, you think, as he burbles on, talking about rallies and satsangs, he's stonewalling. It's almost as if he's answering a completely different question! But that couldn't be. Because Ghose just asked him about Karnataka. Didn't she?

Ghose looks deeply dissatisfied with Shankar's refusal to answer the question she was asking several hours after his answer was recorded. She proceeds to tear Shankar's claim of distance from the Sangh Parivar to shreds. So forceful is she that if he wanted to retain a semblance of credibility about his "neutrality", he would have to interrupt her. But no! He stays right there on our TV screens as she launches into him silent, smiling beatifically, even agreeably. Amazing. Ghose has got him to admit, through his consenting silence, to her allegations. What superstar journalism!

(Of course, anyone keeping an eye on Shankar's little window as the discussion continued would notice that he, in strangely reptilian manner, keeps on moving his head to the left towards the, haha, "CNN-IBN Live" in the top right corner and then blinking slowly and rhythmically. Either he is dancing along to some internal music only sadhu-types can hear, or CNN-IBN, for a 28-minute programme, kept on looping the same six-second shot.)

Meanwhile, Ghose hands things over to some guy in Pune at least, that's what is claimed under "Live", in the top right-hand corner; who knows with IBN, perhaps he was actually recorded in Nashik in 1997. Pune/Nashik guy tears into Shankar, too. "Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, respond to that", orders Ghose, supremely confident that her command will be followed by FTN's Managing Splicer. "Are you simply trivialising corruption?"

"You know," says Shankar reflectively, "I am not here to comment on what may be election material in 2012, it is for politicians and media to decide." Damn, he's ducking the question again. "Every swami must be neutral...."

"You know, you're saying you have to be neutral," says Ghose, in a voice presumably piercing enough to shatter the glass wall of time and be heard seven hours earlier and half a state away. And so on for 28 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, given how amateurish and egregious IBN was about their deception, they got caught. Ghose and IBN responded with the Three Stages of Damage-Control.

First: What Problem? Ghose told everyone to google "look-live" and "sim-sat". Standard broadcast practice, she implied. I duly googled them.

"Look-live" is for when the beginning of a reported segment features a reporter standing outside. Or when it ends with "back to you, Sagarika," although it was recorded earlier. It definitely doesn't mean you edit an interview with someone to make it sound like he's participating in a discussion or answering questions he hasn't heard. Does anyone really believe that IBN's UP correspondent asked the hard questions that Ghose pretended to be asking Shankar? IBN, want to retain some credibility? Release that unedited, original video. Let us judge.

The only hit for "sim-sat" is a column by Vir Sanghvi from two years ago explaining how one person can be on three live discussions at the same time. He called for a debate on the deceptive practice. I wish I'd read it earlier; it would explain why I once saw Rajiv Pratap Rudy on two different channels simultaneously wearing totally different multi-coloured kurtas. (Though he was saying exactly the same thing on both while apparently answering two different questions.) At the time, I hastily poured the remainder of my whisky down the drain and went to bed early.

The second stage of damage control: Everyone Here Does It. OK, I believe that though perhaps not this obviously.

And, finally, the "apology": "We carried a pre-recorded interview... without explicitly mentioning that the interview had been recorded a couple of hours earlier in the day." Actually, IBN, you explicitly claimed the opposite. "There was absolutely no malafide intention on our part..."

Congratulations, India, news TV has progressed to the point at which deciding to actively mislead viewers does not count as a "malafide intention". I give up.


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