Bad News, I’m Afraid

When was the last time you heard good news? And remembered it?

There is a standard operating procedure that I take recourse to every time I’m cornered with a bucket-load of queries by my better half. I wait till it’s half-full – a reasonable number of questions have been collected, that is – say 10 – and only then begin in earnest.

To give an example: “Where’s the kid?”, “Is there ice in the freezer?”, “Have you got the car keys?”, “Do you like this colour?”, “Did you drop the Airtel cheque?”, “Where’s the umbrella?”, “Did you bring the clothes in?” Answer: “Yes, I brought the clothes in.” Meanwhile, the kid’s gone missing; there’s no ice in the drink; the car’s stolen; the sari’s awful; the mobile connection’s cut; just the clothes are home and dry.

So it was with poise and self-belief that I tackled the torrent the moment she opened the floodgates next.

“Why do you watch so much news?”, “Why do you read all these papers?”, “Tell me?”, “Is there any point?”, “All you hear or read is bad news, isn’t it?”, “Tragic news, horrific news, terrible news…I mean, aren’t you fed up of it?”, “And that Goswami fellow – does he ever bring any good news?”, “Tell me, when was the last time you heard or read good news?”

Sticking to the manual, I discarded the rest of her queries and focused on the last one.

By Darwin! I had to agree, she was right! When was the last time I heard or read some good news? The answer is, I can’t remember.

What I can remember, though, is ten kilos of words (that’s kabadiwala-speak) and hundreds of debates on trains colliding, petrol prices shooting up, sensex plummeting, rupee devaluing, pilots striking, rains not arriving, streets getting waterlogged, no water, no power…you get the picture.

All this begs the simple question – and I will ask only one: Why is it that the news that reaches us through our print and electronic media is always of the bad kind? And it’s not that this is a recent phenomenon. After all, newspapers have been there for hundreds of years. They must have figured out what sells or they wouldn’t have been around for that long. They might even have consulted a psychologist on this, and he might have told them: “Yes, print only bad news. Folks want only bad news. No one wants to hear good news. That’ll be all for today – I can take cash, no problem.” And it is well known, that a media-baron may very well disregard the opinion of his editor – how else do you explain the sky-rocketing profit margins? – but never of his shrink.

So there you have it. It’s official: Bad news is good news.

Isn’t that strange and antithetical to the proper functioning of a civilised and caring society? Doesn’t it flow against the tide of good human nature and peaceful co-existence? It is and it does, but the facts are there for all to see. The gossip we indulge in right through the day – all those chit-chats at bus stops or in cafés – well, they always concern the bad news we’ve heard or read, don’t they. How the country is going to the dogs, how the ministers are so corrupt, how Shuklaji’s son didn’t make it to IIT. Never mind that our country is not a tin-pot dictatorship, or the corrupt minister is in jail, or that Sharmaji’s and Dubeyji’s son and daughter made it to IIT. But that’s good news and so not worth discussing.

The truth is that the newspapers and the news channels give us exactly what we want. What else can explain the endless discourses on the rise in petrol price, and then not a single word when the price comes down? Why is it that panel chairs are warmed nightly by industrialists discussing the impact of a 400 point fall in Sensex which we are told translates into a trillion rupee loss; why is it that those chairs are bottom-bereft the day the Sensex registers a 400 point rise, translating into a gain of 1 trillion rupees? Why is it that the pink-pagers spew venom when the currency devalues by 1 rupee against a dollar, while the same page is filled with an advertisement the very next day when the currency appreciates against the dollar by the same amount? Broken down, potholed roads are always in the news; newly-laid, perfectly tarred roads never. It gets curiouser and curiouser. The water scarcity always makes news – but what’s happening now, when the rains have arrived and the rivers are full? Why has no one reported resumption in water supply?

Imagine for a moment the scene at the Times Now studios an hour or two before the News Hour debate. The harbinger of gut-wrenching, blood-curdling state apathies is encircled by his 100-odd dedicated team that specialises in ruining one’s evening with yet another rigorously researched dastardly act. He is the man the nation looks up to nowadays, the man Wodehouse would describe as one who chews broken bottles for pleasure. He thrives on bad news, especially if it concerns a politician. He has dispatched countless to their retirement homes, bag and baggage. Not for nothing is his show sponsored by Samsonite. “Hit me!”, shouts Arnab, “Hit me with it, guys!” And his colleagues go through their note-pads at what should make the news items. “The Sensex is up 500 points…”. “Pakistan has agreed to hand over the 26/11 mastermind…”. “Excellent GDP figures for the current quarter…”. “Car sales are up…”. “No farmer suicide reported for this past month…”. “UPA has agreed to a Jan Lokpal Bill…”. “Normal monsoon expected…”. “We have power surplus…”. “Lee and Hesh have patched up…”. “Kingfisher has paid its pilots their dues…”. “The Prime Minister spoke two words today…”

“Bloody hell!” screams Arnab, “You bastards! You want me sacked, is that it?!”

Bad news sells.

The only exception to this rule is Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who exercises his dentures rarely nowadays (who can blame him?). But when he does, only the combination of the following words is ever uttered – it matters little if they aren’t even strung up in order. Are you ready? Here they are: GDP; growth; percent; India; expect.

He’s worked it out. And the trick is, one doesn’t know if it’s bad news or good! Either way, this suffocatingly-turbaned economist wizard will continue to appear every three days till perpetuity, providing GDP predictions. And he knows it. Who in their right mind can recall what figures he quoted nine months ago? Was it 6.7, or 6.9, or was it 7.1? I’d love to be in his seat – all his seats, in fact: back seat, aisle seat, lounge seat, toilet seat…

The fact is, bad brings out the good in us. It ushers in an emotion that good news simply can’t. We hear of someone’s success and we immediately start comparing: damn it, the lucky dog. What’s so special about him? What’s he got that I ain’t? But when we hear of bad news, our intrinsic goodness emerges in the form of pity, or hoping to do good for the nation. We sympathise with the unfortunate one, our heart goes out to those living in Gurgaon and Faridabad and facing 18-hour power cuts and 20-litres-a-day water supply. We offer our shoulder for Shuklaji and his unlucky son to cry on. We feel good inside. Humans, man, I tell you!

There’s a thin line between what’s good and what’s bad. (Perhaps for once the politician is right.) Take the weather, for example. Bad English weather is what we here would die for. Cloudy, nippy, breezy, drizzly: oh yes, please! And good English weather is what we can’t stand: hot, clear, bright, sunny. Blast! No wonder the Brits left their shores at the first opportunity and took possession of every second country around the globe. It’s the only third-world country without the sun.

The fountainheads that don’t dish out bad news are Delhi Times and India TV. Here, you only hear of a sexy new outfit, a sexy new actress, an engagement party in full-flow, a lavish book launch, a speaking buffalo, a scientific rudraksh, a sermonising snake, and just-informed, a miracle cure for khujli. The bizarre thing is, they need their ‘bad news’ progenitors – The Times of India main newspaper or a serious news channel – to provide a pillar of support, or it doesn’t work. People go to Delhi Times to get some relief. They watch India TV for some fun, like one sometimes enjoys a really bad film. One can’t only read Delhi Times or always watch India TV. Perhaps the truth is that we want to read the bad news first, the good news later. After all, to anyone who says: “I have some good news and some bad news ”, don’t we always say, “Give me the bad news first!?”

I wonder what they do in über-rich, sparsely populated Scandinavian countries, where nothing bad ever happens. How do they cope? Now there’s an enormous export potential that India hasn’t tapped into yet. Let’s wait till our IT industry collapses, maybe then we’ll think about it. Wait a minute – that’s bad news!


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