IT is always invigorating to visit India, to try and absorb as much of the energy and dynamism from the people here as possible.
The country is an assault on every sense, and sometimes it can be overwhelming, especially on the streets of Mumbai, a city of dreams which attracts thousands from around the country every day.
And nowadays, the television news environment can feel as crowded as the narrow streets of any bustling Indian city.
It hasn’t always been like this. Ten years ago, there was no live television news in India, outside of routine election or budget coverage on the state broadcaster, Doordarshan.
The India Today group, under the vision of media mogul, Aroon Purie, saw an opportunity to revolutionise television news by taking their popular pre-recorded evening and morning news bulletins, and launching a fully-fledged 24-hour Hindi news channel, named Aaj Tak (Till Today).
I was fortunate enough to spend around six months in Delhi, working on that launch – training the journalists to operate in a 24-hour news environment, helping to set up their infrastructure and technology, and working with the producers to finally get their product live on air.
Aaj Tak changed everything in TV news. On subsequent trips to India to work on other new channels – both national and regional – the appetite for television news was insatiable. At the last count, there are now 20 national Hindi-language news channels, plus five in English. In a massive country of different regions and languages, there are around 40 regional channels. And there are six – yes, six – 24-hour business news channels on air, with others trying to get into that lucrative market.
I’m back in Mumbai for a month, to work with the journalists on CNBC Awaaz, a Hindi-language business news channel which leads the market in its field and regularly competes in viewership with the leading general news channels. How is that possible? Because India’s benchmark stock index has doubled in value in the past four years, and everyone – from institutional investors, foreign fund managers, down to the shop owner or rickshaw driver – wants a piece of that market.
Of course, it’s impossible to compare the Indian market to Scotland’s, but what you do come away with from spending time here is a sense of what is possible, if you have the vision. And to return to Scotland and find not just a lack of a specific Scottish news channel – BBC Alba excepted – but a dearth of coverage of any form of Scottish news, is depressing.
Economics play an important role, but Indian networks are now setting up their channels from scratch for less than $10 million, using innovative technology, cheaper cameras and training their journalists to be multi-skilled, all-round TV professionals. Sure, the quality might be a little rough and ready sometimes, but it also reflects the dynamic nature of the country and the intense competition between the channels has created a ferocious news environment – in which politicians are no longer put on a pedestal, corruption is routinely exposed, and the everyday human interest stories and the incredible colour of the country is being shown to its own people.
Only once a nation is able to tell its own stories, in its own ways, do we begin to understand our sense of self, and start to grow in confidence. That isn’t going to come from an increase in coverage from the BBC, an opt-out for a Scottish bulletin at a specific time, or an hour-long magazine show from STV.
But mention the idea of a rolling news channel to people in Scotland, and the reaction will often be: “What would we fill it with? Not that much happens here.”
It’s an understandable reaction, if you have grown up without Scotland being able to tell its own stories on television. Believe it or not, there was the same scepticism in India ten years ago, about how a channel could fill its time. The point was that for the first time, India was getting the chance to tell stories which had never been considered before as suitable for a ‘traditional’ news broadcast.
The launch of Aaj Tak not only changed the media landscape, it changed the entire country. Maybe one day, a truly Scottish channel can do the same thing for us.
Richard Goslan is a journalist and media consultant who has worked on television network launches and trained broadcast journalists in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Japan and Malaysia. He is currently based in Santiago, Chile.