A few weeks ago, a member of the Singapore administration related a story about how in 1990 the
BBC had warned of the dawn of the Orwellian Age when Singapore launched its underground train
system, the MRT. Unlike most other countries which used coins or tokens to let passengers in
through the turnstile, the ultra- modern MRT used a plastic card with a magnetic tape at the back.
You bought the Transit card for say, ten dollars, and fed it into the turnstile to let you in. When you
finished a journey you put the Transit card through the turnstile to let you out. The computer in the
turnstile would know which station you got on, which station you got off, calculate your fare, and
show you what the balance was. If the Transit card ran out of money, it would beep and tell you to
get a new card.
BBC, apparently, said that this card was the first signs of the beginning of an Orwellian era. Now,
through the movements of a person in a train system, the Singaporean government could keep a tab
on the whereabouts of every single individual. The message conveyed by the BBC was: Big Brother
has begun watching. Flashed to a global audience of millions it probably left many with the
impression that the horrors of 1984 were about to be inflicted on the innocent residents of
Nothing could be further from the truth. The MRT system is probably one of the cleanest, most
efficient, and cheapest urban transport systems. If that is the Orwellian age BBC feared, I wish it
comes to India. By the way, the London underground has also adopted a similar transit card system
and I am not sure whether the BBC covered that as an Orwellian event.
A few months ago, CNN covered the riots in Jakarta and brought into our homes images of crowds
being beaten by police or fighting pitched battles. I spoke to many people in Jakarta who said it
happened in a suburb and did not affect any work. Yes, there were people on the street and there
was violence, but it did not happen on the scale that CNN's images and words would suggest.
There are many more images and news reports that sometimes tend to get carried away into the
realms of sensationalism. BBC's file footage of Serbs was passed off as troops in Kashmir; CNN's
most recent coverage of the air crash in New Delhi was "an accident waiting to happen", the "plague"
of 1994 was the plague even though till today many doubt it was the plague. The point is that these
news channels enjoy a large viewership and thereby mould public opinion about nations, about
civilisations. I am sure that BBC carried an apology for its wrong coverage on Kashmir, but how
many people remember that. To erase an image after it has been implanted in the brain is difficult.
In this day and age when content of information is so important, maybe India's open sky policy
needs to be reviewed. China has on many occasions used its clout as a large emerging consuming
market to make sure that CNN or BBC broadcast what is liked by China. If the news agencies
don't heed the Chinese requests, their visibility in China is severely curtailed. I am not suggesting that
we censor all that CNN and BBC have to say but maybe our own private channels up there should
be propagating our point of view on things that really matter rather than focusing on film songs and
chat shows. Channels could beam our version of the truth - after all, truth these days seems to lie in
the ears of the listener.
And yet I am grateful for the CNNs and the BBCs. I have learnt many truths - images or statistics
that I accept as a fact. For example, a news programme told me that the United States Air Force
dropped a bomb on Laos every eight minutes every single day during the Vietnam war. And after
spending all those billions of dollars on bombarding Laos the United States is now donating two
million dollars every year to clean up the thousands of bombs that have not yet detonated on the
killing fields. So the next time someone tells me that the US government is a fair and clean
government I will be able to juxtapose that claim with the "truth" about their involvement in Laos.
Maybe someone will make a movie on that act of generosity.
Or take Hong Kong. The British have been screaming over the fact that Hong Kong residents must
have a right to an election. Yet their representative for 99 years was appointed by the British
government, not elected by the people. As one Hong Kong Chinese said on a television show, if
they were so concerned about democracy why did they not have elections all those years when they
ruled Hong Kong? Do they believe that they are better rulers than the Chinese will be? I learnt this
version of the "truth" and am now less worked up when the Hong Kong-China issue is discussed in
investment seminars .
The world is a complex place with no rights or wrongs, just lots of grey areas. Our vision of what is
black or white is decided by the images we see. Images that are sometimes presented by television
reporters who wish to be sensational, who wish to be remembered with memorable one-liners that
seek to simplify complex problems. No, I do not think there is any need to ban these news channels.
Let then carry on with what they have to say - with their version of the truth. It is up to us individuals
to work out - even if it takes a few years of watching many sensational, news-breaking events - as to
what our own version of the truth is. So the next time you tune in to BBC or CNN keep in mind that
you are tuning in to their version of facts, statistics, and film footage all of which - when presented by
a reporter with an authoritative voice - comes to you as if it is the truth.