Hitting a new low: Anchors encourage cockfights on TV, propaganda masquerades as journalism

On TV debates, anchors across TV channels are engaging in conflict, fear and cockfights. They have decided their role is no longer to educate, but to belittle those with views contrarian to their own<b></b>

Hitting a new low: Anchors encourage cockfights on TV, propaganda masquerades as journalism
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Ashlin Mathew

The quality of journalism emanating from Indian TV news debates has been hitting new lows for a few years, but the death of Congress spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi immediately after a news debate has brought the issue to the fore again. TV anchors have forgotten their role, instead they engage in conflict, fear and cockfights. They have decided their role is no longer to educate, but to belittle those with views contrarian to their own.

It is a critical time to learn and unlearn. As viewers, people must question anchors masquerading propaganda as journalism. Because they exert such great influence, the ruling party has deliberately nurtured and encouraged channels peddling polarising and divisive content.

“What needs to be questioned is the role and speech of anchors. Look at how and what they say to BJP and RSS spokespersons and how they react to and bully the others. We have to observe the anchor’s point of view to understand whether the person is a journalist or not. Once you start observing anchors, all their play will be out in the open,” says Punya Prasun Bajpai, a journalist and TV anchor. After a few ground reports on the current BJP government on ABP news channel, Bajpai was allegedly asked to resign.

It is well acknowledged that anchors need to have a certain amount of knowledge and information to hold debates. “If we look at the TV debates in India, do the TV anchors provide any educational value? Do they have domain knowledge?” questioned Bajpai.

According to a Supreme Court ruling of 1995, no news channel is supposed to mention the religion of the person especially in case of political news. If we take the case of Rajiv Tyagi’s last debate on Aaj Tak, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra specifically questions why the anchor did not mention the religion and then he goes to openly highlight ‘Muslims’.

“Did the anchor stop him as he was supposed to according to the law? There was no journalistic moderation; he behaved as an ignorant person. If the anchor was a journalist, he would have been questioning the BJP spokesperson on the law and order failure in Bengaluru as the state is ruled by BJP. Instead, the anchor chose to make it a Hindu-Muslim debate. The anchor indulged in calling the Muslims on the panel thugs and wanted to create an impression that SDPI was a terror organisation. This means that the anchor had no clue about what he was talking about,” said Bajpai.

Karan Thapar, senior television commentator and interviewer shares the same point of view. Thapar says that anchors must make it pretty clear that interrupting others is not acceptable. “They can do it politely and yet firmly, but they need to do it equally. The anchors do it only to people whose views they are not happy to hear. When they are happy to hear a particular view, they let that person talk forever. Such unequal treatment suggests bias and discrimination on the part of the anchor,” he pointed out.

The anchor must realise that the objective of the discussion is not to make people quarrel. Thapar says the objective is to make people express views, which maybe different to each other, in a civilised way, so that the audience can learn.

“Encouraging quarrelling is a childish thing to do and secondly, they themselves start quarrelling. If someone takes a view which is contrary to the anchor, the anchors feel belittled and humiliated. They begin to attack the person too,” adds Thapar.

This can be seen clearly in the Aaj Tak debate when the anchor Rohit Sardana incessantly attacks the Muslim representatives on the show. That is not the role of the anchor. Anchors need to rethink their roles, both in terms of how they conduct conversations with guests and how they conduct themselves.

Now the credibility of the anchor or the panellist doesn’t matter as by now everyone knows what they stand for. It is a peculiar medley where the bottom-line is that you have to demolish the person you are set out to demolish. “Nothing is too petty for them – calling names, mocking dead people, passing personal remarks and body-shaming,” says Mrinal Pande, former chairperson of Prasar Bharati and Group Senior Editorial Advisor at National Herald.

Another problem, Thapar says, is that we believe that news television is entertainment. “We look for tamasha, we look to generate heat than to shed light on an issue. We look to create a spectacle than provide substance. News television is not entertainment, it is information, education,” maintains Thapar.

For higher TRPS, there is tamasha being performed, acts being put on. All this is designed to make people watch. “That is demeaning and diminishing,” says Thapar.

The question is, why is it happening now. Earlier, politicians followed a code of ethics in public life. “Now, beginning with the Prime Minister, politicians behave unconstitutionally, then why would anyone expect the fourth estate to behave constitutionally and ethically? This kind of language gives you a certain kind of power, then the person wants power. That power flows directly from the Prime Minister’s house or the government,” points out Bajpai.

This government wants compromised people, not journalists. “If you want journalists to behave like journalists, they have to work a lot; they have to get ground reports, get facts, counter misinformation. That is too much work and anchors don’t do that anymore. For them, it’s easier to do such slanging shows,” observes Bajpai.

Debating on television is easier than reporting. “How many TV journalists working with Times of India, Republic, India Today, ABP or TV18 take an ethical stand? If they do, they will have to work harder. A media house can take a stand only if they are not financially compromised, but most organisations are. This aids the current government as they can make media houses toe a certain line,” says Bajpai.

“TV news, unlike print news, is only drama. If newspapers are 10% drama and 90% facts, TV is the reverse. TV debates are souffles. Everybody tries to say that their souffle is rising and the rival’s souffle is collapsing,” says Pande.

TV channels discovered that TRPs were found to be higher in case of Hindi media because their language was much more colourful, and their style much more aggressive and abrasive. They used street language and gestures. Then more politicians were from the Hindi heartland and they spoke Hindi better than they spoke English, so even on English channels, the debate began to switch back and forth in Hindi and English.

“With this cross fertilisation, a new gaali-galoch system grew, in which you could use really harsh words and that became the USP of the channel. Soon, Arnab Goswami arrived. He was a graceful anchor with NDTV but at Times Now, he became another person. Initially, everyone pretended to be shocked, until everyone saw that the TRP ratings for his shows were much higher than the TRPs of other anchors, including of many Hindi panel discussions. Ideologues such as Amit Malviya, who controls the trolls, an anchor like Arnab Goswami, who speaks English, and a Hindi anchor like Rohit Sardana became the norm. Slowly, almost every channel began to follow this pattern,” remarks Pande.

With that the ‘Arnabisation’ of TV news panels began. “This meant that facts were relegated to the margins, but it was the style of the fight and the abrasiveness, which people enjoyed. It was a kind of Roman joust, where a man is thrown to the wolves and from the side-lines, we watch,” says Pande.

This is a problematic business model as it is hollowing out the country and is affecting the intellectual standard of citizens. The manner in which television channels are funded and seek advertisement needs to be scrutinised. Most sensible TV channels are publicly funded. In India, the model is entirely dependent on advertisement, so TRPs become important. It’s the wrong model.

Tapping into the rage of those watching television, does not mean to “enrage them, inflame them and light a match to a tinder box”, points out Thapar. Tapping into it also means that “you can provide information and solutions through debates. What channels are doing now is a deliberate pouring of oil onto fire. That is childish, irresponsible and stupid,” underscores Thapar.

This became dangerous when the BJP rose to power around 2013 when they were preparing for their first win. “They used it beautifully to choreograph a narrative which was anti-Congress, anti-Left and anti-liberal people in the media,” stresses Pande. This puts the wrong idea in the mind of the viewers. They are led to believe only a certain narrative is promising.

Institutions have to rethink their role – they have to decide if they want to work for the government or the Constitution. “If the Chief Justice of India or CBI or CVC begins to think that they will work for the government and not for the Constitution, then the anchors in media houses will also do the same and enjoy the benefits of power. When the first, second and third estates have failed, the fourth estate will also fail,” underscores Bajpai.

“The whole thing has been taken away from the realm of news and facts into a kind of absurd high theatre in which people would stomp their feet, call each other names, fly off the handle. Here, the anchors played a cunning role,” quipped Pande.

In cockfights, both the animals stand an equal chance. In Indian TV debates, the anchors deliberately look to silence the Opposition even when they come with enough data and information to counter the lies of BJP.

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