Media Musings: it would be naive to expect much journalism from TV news channels 

TV news channels are mostly cringeworthy. And given their track record in the last six years, it would be naive to expect anything different from them in the years ahead

Media Musings: it would be naive to expect much journalism from TV news channels 

Ranjona Banerji

The victory of Narendra Modi and the BJP, in the 2019 general elections, was cleverly dubbed a “TsuNaMo” by CNNNews18 to advertise TV anchor Bhupendra Chaubey’s show this week. I use the word “cleverly” but do I mean it? What is a tsunami? In TV’s La La Land, it means something bigger than the “Modi Wave” of 2014. In geological terms, it is somewhat less satisfying to whatever this enormous swell of water caused by seismic activity leaves in its wake.

But neither Chaubey nor CNNNews18 actually meant to use tsunami as anything other than something large and unstoppable. If there was any serious attempt at journalism or deeper understanding of the word “tsunami”, they might rigorously cover the five recorded incidents of targeted violence against minorities since the Modi victory was announced on May 23. Instead, they play upon words regardless of the association and I belabour the point.

The story has been barely different in the last five years of Modi rule. And the naivete of the expectation that life is going to be any different over the next five years is staggering. Even The Indian Express, which one might reckon has enough institutional memory and heft to know better, says in an editorial that Modi struck a note of “magnanimity” in his speech in the Central Hall of Parliament on Saturday May 25, towards religious minorities, Dalits and those who disagree with the BJP. The editorial adds, “PM Modi’s words will need to be heeded by his own partymen and Sangh Parivar footsoldiers”. What an unbelievable amount of naivete here. It is as if the last five years, from the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq to the victory of BJP MP and terror accused Pragya Thakur never happened!

As a journalist, watching Indian news television for the most part is utterly cringeworthy. As in the last five years, from when Modi was hailed as a “rock star” at a meeting of NRIs in New York to viewers being told in breathless excitement how UP Chief Minister Ajay Singh Bisht loves his pet cows (never mind his militant Hindutva past) to how terror-accused Pragya Thakur cured her cancer by drinking cow’s urine, TV in India has run a well-thought-out agenda.

Rumour insinuated, over the past five years, that there are messages from the top to go easy on the Modi government, to criticise some ministers and not others and so on. When Punya Prasoon Bajpai and Abhisar Sharma were sacked/made to leave ABP News, these rumours were cemented. However, management interference in the media is not new, is not unknown and has over generations been stonewalled or dealt with by a strong editor or editorial team.

But what we have seen in the last five years is the editorial team itself leading the charge to support the Modi government and the BJP no matter what. This approach has been strengthened with the current victory. Part of the problem is “access journalism”, and the desperate need for proximity to power where you cannot criticise someone because they may never speak to you again. What can be hidden in a newsroom gets exposed on television.

Since Modi’s campaign for PM began in 2013 however, many TV anchors have not even bothered if they are “exposed” or not. They have openly and joyously embraced Modi, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar ideology. Arnab Goswami was one of the most vociferous but at least had the honesty to start an unashamedly pro-BJP “news” channel. You watch Republic TV knowing that it is a propaganda tool.

The closest competitor to Goswami is his last place of employment, Times Now. The two main anchors with that channel, Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar, are cheerleaders for the Modi government and the Hindutva way of life. They are permanently searching for enemies within, which largely means religious minorities and people who disagree with them. India Today channel also has its two main cheerleaders, Rahul Kanwal and Gaurav Sawant, who work hard at pushing the BJP narrative. CNNNews18 is next in line with Chaubey leading the charge.

The others, like NDTV and Mirror Now, try and tip the balance towards journalism but get lost in the cacophony and since they both follow the “prime time multi-party representative debate” system, they do not break the mould.

What the past six years have shown us is that we cannot expect much journalism from television.

In 2011, almost all these channels were opposed to the ruling UPA and the Congress as corruption charges emerged against the government. Many of them actively promoted and bolstered the India Against Corruption movement’s campaign by TV tricks like misrepresenting popular support. When Arvind Kejriwal started the Aam Aadmi Party, he was also supported.

It was when Kejriwal went against the BJP and won the Delhi Assembly by a massive landslide that the TV tide turned against him. If we want to argue that that is the way journalism should be practised, that you hold to account those who are in power, no senior TV anchors in most channels have consistently practised that kind of journalism as far as Modi and the BJP are concerned.

To be fair, the stories about the effects of demonetisation, of shoddy GST implementation, of the problems faced by farmers, of the stagnant economy have been covered in a news sense, by TV’s field reporters, usually during the day. The shouting matches which pass for news in the evenings do not allow these issues to be discussed fully.

The consistent attacks on religious minorities and Dalits since 2014, if they have been covered in the day, have been allowed to be justified by party representatives in the evening, thus diluting the impact. It is through such means, subtle and unsubtle, that bigotry and hatred are amplified and legitimised. Times Now and CNNNws18 both push the Hindu agenda anyway, so the plight of religious minorities is rendered invisible as fast as possible.

One must congratulate the BJP for its manipulation skills, not of the population, but of TV anchors. The time-honoured use of “nationalism” to bolster votes, the “othering”, the focus on the doings of the Opposition rather than the government, all these have been done faithfully by TV channels and anchors.

The triumphalism that was visible on faces of these TV anchors as the results of Modi’s second unbelievable victory poured in only cemented how far they have come from journalism and its practice.

Only the extremely naïve would expect anything different over the next five years.

(The writer is an independent journalist with over 30 years of experience in print. She writes on the media, politics and gender)

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