Book extract: Republic TV, age of fake news and promoters in Indian TV newsrooms

Sandeep Bhushan’s book, ‘The Indian Newsroom’, demystifies Indian news channels. In this first part of the extract, Bhushan looks at Republic TV, fake news and growing say of promoters

Book extract: Republic TV, age of fake news and promoters in Indian TV newsrooms

Sandeep Bhushan

The much-hyped launch of Republic TV, fronted by the star right-wing anchor Arnab Goswami, in 2017, is perhaps most relevant to the central concern of this book—the phenomenon of owners, anchors, editors and managers, sometimes all rolled into one, driving news channels. This pyramid-like, top-heavy structure, to my mind, is the most distinctive feature of India’s English-language news television. Editorial and administrative powers—the desk, studio, star anchor—dominate the commanding heights of this arrangement at the cost of reporting and reporters.

Despite the shrill studio rhetoric (à la Arnab Goswami) that characterises Hindi news networks, they remain far less star-driven, and much more democratic, than their English-language counterparts.

Goswami is not only his channel’s editor-in-chief but also the managing director of the holding company, ARG Outlier. One of its main backers is Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a BJP Rajya Sabha MP, as well as NDA’s vice chairman in Kerala. Chandrasekhar has reportedly invested around Rs₹30 crore in Republic, and has interests in various manufacturing firms catering to the defence sector, as well as Kerala’s most watched news network, Asianet. There are also relatively minor amounts put in by a few investment bankers. Other backers include Sameer Manchanda, chairman and managing director of DEN cable-distribution networks and TV, and Mohandas Pai, television personality and chairman of the Manipal group of educational institutions.

Two unprecedented aspects stood out in the run-up to Republic’s launch. One was an investigative report by Newslaundry, which had scooped a letter from Chandrasekhar’s office directed to Asianet’s senior personnel. It instructed all employees and prospects to be ‘right of centre in his/her editorial tonality’ and have a ‘pro-India, pro-military’ orientation. The staff was also asked to align their thinking and approach to Chandrasekhar’s ideology. Though the document technically preceded Republic’s launch, and Chandrasekhar rubbished the story, the unequivocal establishment of hiring criteria based on a certain dogma was a first in the history of Indian media.

Clearly, reporters in Indian television have little or no autonomy. It is the editors who drive news content in a bewildering number of ways that align it with the ruling party’s predilections. In the case of Republic, Goswami brought some of his trusted colleagues from Times Now along, none of whom were acting on any ‘ideologies’ as far as I know, except one of the reporters who was closely associated with organisations helping displaced Kashmiri Pandits.

While promoting his network at various educational institutions across the nation, Goswami openly voiced his right-wing editorial vision, which at once appeared to align with Chandrasekhar’s beliefs. Take the issue of Pakistan-bashing, Republic TV’s staple diet for its viewers. In July 2017, Chandrasekhar introduced a private member’s bill that sought to designate the neighbour country as a ‘source of terror and violence to India’s democracy’.

In addition, Goswami outlined the four defining features of Republic in a speech at IIT Mumbai in December 2016. For starters, it would be India’s first ‘independent media’. ‘India is on the brink of an independent media revolution,’ he had thundered at a CII event in October, days before he quit Times Now. Secondly, the news would be ‘democratised’ and ride on the ‘power of technology’. Third, he would run Republic as a global media project.

‘For how long should we allow BBC and CNN to define the global media narrative?’ And lastly, the channel would be ‘biased for the country’. ‘A media that is embarrassed to take a stand between India and Pakistan and pretends to be a bridge maker does not defend the interests of this country [and] is not my kind of media,’ he said.

For the record, Goswami’s open hostility to the journalists of Lutyens’ Delhi, his quest for a global media outlet that could take on BBC and CNN, his spirit of nationalism bordering on jingoism, and his reckless diatribes against non-BJP governments are goals he shares with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling party.

In May 2018, Cobrapost, an investigative news web portal, released a tranche of video recordings that severely indicted the manner in which promoters were more than willing to promote Hindutva-related content on media platforms owned by them for money. Of the 27 media owners who were stung as part of Operation 136 (named after India’s rank in the World Press Freedom Index), 25 were willing to game content at the behest of the undercover reporter who posed as someone with close links to the RSS—the ideological powerhouse behind Hindutva and the Modi government. The list included chairman and managing director of Bennett Coleman, Vineet Jain (owners of the Times of India, Times Now and Mirror Now), Kalli Purie, vice chairperson of the India Today group (owner of Aaj Tak, India Today TV, India Today magazine), an executive of Zee News, the weekly Open magazine, Hindustan Times, and a host of others, including regional media players.

The undercover reporter proposed a three-stage Hindutva campaign in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, starting with ‘customised religious programmes’, for example, on the Hindu religious text Bhagvad Gita, followed by a campaign that would amplify Hindutva hardliners in the BJP. In the final phase, the politics of major politicians belonging to centrist political parties, like Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav, would be trivialised and made fun of by infantalising their utterances and actions.

All the promoters, however, denied the claims made in the videotapes. The Bennett Coleman group spokesperson rejected the recordings as ‘motivated’ and ‘fabricated’. He also claimed that what Bennett Coleman had done was in fact a “reverse sting”.’

The India Today group rejected the charges and said that the undercover reporter only met employees from the sales and advertising departments and not from the editorial side. Despite these denials, what Cobrapost’s Operation 136 tells us is that promoters are the key drivers of news content across media platforms

Age of Fake News

In perhaps no other country is the mainstream media—especially television—as complicit in spreading fake news.

A recurrent source of fake news is social media. In a post-truth that favours alternative facts, the process of checking a statement or claim is given a go-by. Neither do newsrooms have any gatekeepers, nor are networks or their editors bound by regulatory norms. In a pyramidal arrangement, the buck stops at the editor. Once they clear a story, it’s enough. This attitude has perpetuated the phenomenon of fake news on a scale that was unimaginable a few years ago. Add to this, sources embedded in the bureaucratic and political power structure and the need to grab eyeballs and nose ahead of rivals at any cost. The result: fake news has begun to substitute good, rigorously researched content.

In India, the problem of fake news has been exacerbated post-2014 because of its widespread dissemination by the BJP’s social media cell. With the possible exception of Russia, there are few democracies today where the ruling party actively promotes slander and fake news against dissenters of all stripes—Opposition leaders, journalists, academics.

Some of the support to this phenomenon originates from the perception that the mainstream liberal media has always given the BJP a raw deal. The practice has become woven into the larger aims of the state and its leading actors, who suffer from a persecution complex about the liberal media and public opinion at large. But with its fake discourse, meant to appease the ruling party, the right-wing media has caused serious damage to the credibility of mainstream news TV as a whole.

Rajdeep Sardesai spoke about how it has become common to cleverly edit videos and photos and use them as a propaganda weapon. False images have been used to attack a person, demonise a community or even incite a riot. ‘I recall during the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, images from the war in Afghanistan were sent out as WhatsApp messages and spread with impunity as if the violence was taking place on the ground in Uttar Pradesh …’ He expressed alarm about mainstream media falling prey to this culture and losing its moral centre. ‘We are now becoming rabble-rousers, imitating the very politicians that we once shunned.’

These trends have become more pronounced since the launch of Republic and its TRP battle with long-time market leader Times Now. In August, the former ran a campaign-mode story that the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, who apparently has a fleet of luxury cars, had not paid his electricity bill, amounting to around Rs 4 crore. It came to light in a few days that the story was four years old, and the matter was between the Imam and the Delhi Wakf Board.

In June 2017, Times Now ran another outrage-filled news item on the ‘rate card’ for conversions to Islam in Kerala. It was billed as the handiwork of ISIS, which was looking to establish a caliphate in the state. Turned out it was a seven-year-old story, and fake to boot. Not to be left behind, ANI carried a report on how the Rohingyas were planning to attack Nagaland. The news agency later took it down.

Even Fox News observes certain rules of the game, perhaps owing to regulators, who have more teeth than India’s self-regulated television media. In October 2017, the American network ran a story on how a highly commended former Navy SEAL-cum-Vietnam War veteran had crafted a presidential glass seal that he hoped to present to Donald Trump. Later, it emerged that he was neither a former Navy SEAL nor a war veteran. But Fox News, unlike our channels, pulled back the story and even issued an apology.

Fake news not only indicts news networks as puppets of the establishment, it also helps them disguise toadying using the time-tested trope of outrage. Rhetoric and outrage against the state are understandable. But attacking the Opposition and the powerless?

This is because outrage looks for villains in the plot, and the weak and the relatively powerless are more comfortable targets. Outrage also creates an ideological smokescreen for the ruling party, even as it demonises the Opposition. Facts or the lack of them in such a situation are of no consideration. If there aren’t enough, then simply manufacture them.

A bigger risk of news breaking in studios is agenda journalism. It is now ridiculously easy to plant stories in the media. There are numerous instances of sensational stories timed to parliament sessions and promoted in campaign mode. A narrative parallel to the studio harangue is sought to be built on the floor of the house through questions, disruptions and walkouts.

In the course of such campaigns, new elements and ‘exclusive angles’ relentlessly trickle in as breaking news. No attempts are made to reach out to the affected party or individual in question. Who can forget the Ishrat Jahan case and the procession of exclusives on Times Now (helmed by Goswami), which coincided with one such session?

Or the stand-off between the government and JNU students, which triggered a manufactured outrage over nationalism versus anti-nationalism in the run-up to the 2016 budget session? The original story that later ran into a controversy over allegedly doctored footage was aired by Zee, a channel on friendly terms with the government. The examples are numerous, and any reporter worth their salt in Delhi knows which ministers plant stories in the media and the true extent of their proximity to editors.

This book has been published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications

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