When will some TV channels stop making a laughing stock of themselves?

Indian Television News has already become butt of jokes abroad. There always were some black sheep in profession but now they are receiving encouragement from people who pay their salary and perks

When will some TV channels stop making a laughing stock of themselves?

Sujata Anandan

During some of my early leadership positions in different media, I learnt the hard way how some journalists were treating the profession - as a stepping stone, a path to personal glory rather than as a calling. To most of us it was not just a job.

When Lata Mangeshkar was nominated to the Rajya Sabha (or awarded the Bharat Ratna, I forget which) , we asked a younger colleague to call a few musicians for their reaction. It was meant to be a routine exercise. A classical singer he called refused to officially react, saying, however, “Who is Lata Mangeshkar? What is her contribution to Indian music? She is just a pop singer and classical musician who put in more effort and hard work (riyaz) and other singers should never have been so ignored for her.”

That comment was off the record and should never have been published. But since we were not informed of the fact by the reporter, we thought he had done a brilliant job of drawing that musician out and not only did we publish the remarks but even ended up highlighting them. Predictably, all hell broke loose after that. Mangeshkar herself was silent on the issue but the Nightingale of India had millions of fans who beseiged the publication for a retraction of the comment and an apology.

The musician who had made the remarks was simultaneously in trouble with peer groups, who said her remarks reeked of jealousy and envy. She denied she had ever made them – of course, she couldn’t admit she had commented off the record and when we claimed -- falsely – that we had taped the conversation, we were hard put to produce the recording. This contretemps went on for weeks but eventually died down for there was no legal case as the musician could never be sure we hadn’t taped the conversation. But it was an abject lesson to me on the need to be truthful at all times. That was what the profession was all about.

A few years later, I was in a state of shock when one of my colleagues made up a quote from a leading actress in the middle of a raging controversy at the time. She was not even present at the press conference called to quell the controversy but when I asked the reporter, he claimed he had called her and got the comments. Predictably, the actress got in touch with my editor, denying the statements. When I called her – to fact-check after the event, for I couldn't believe any reporter worth his salt would manufacture a statement in the name of a celebrity and had to convince myself -- she denied she ever knew the reporter or had spoken to him. "You can have my phone records checked," she said, "But please don’t penalise the reporter. An apology will be enough.”

The reporter didn't learn his lessons from that generosity and continued to make up stories, including one about how a fatwa had been issued in a remote tribal village against television viewing and all believers had thrown out their television sets.

The police got in touch with us by evening, asking for details of the village and the identity of the man who had issued the fatwa. “We have sent a team to the village mentioned and they have combed the entire area including the surrounding villages but there is no sign of even one television set thrown into the garbage dump or anyone recalling the fatwa.”

Thereafter we took to fact-checking this reporter before publishing his reports rather than after -- and soon he had no stories to tell. But this was the era before fake news took wings and I now realise that some reporters at different times were merely trying to get ahead in their careers by sensationalising their stories. While unethical, earlier they were not really as evil, diabolical and agenda-driven as some reports and reporters are today.

Some transgressions now border on the ridiculous. One television channel recently aired a clip of an American aircraft flying over British territory but described it as an attack on Afghanistan, prompting a leading UK-based defence weekly to call out the error. But another channel took the cake by running a clip of a war game as an attack on Afghanistan.

One could laugh at these errors except that the same channels have been found guilty of running doctored tweets as news reports that has landed innocent people in jail while police have been chasing their tails to establish the truth.

But why should these media houses bother? They get rewarded by the authorities for their fake news while those doing honest journalism get raided by various agencies in an attempt to intimidate and cow them down.

Yet I feel strongly for my profession which began as a mission in this country with fiery newspapers established by the likes of Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi, speaking truth to power which eventually led to the exit of the British from India. When I started as a rookie, these newspapers were held up as exemplars by my editors who always told us to keep in mind that we were now, if not missionary, the voice of the "oppressed, the suppressed and the depressed". And that, in their interest, we must always stand up to power. But most journalism in India today is subservient to power and they are active in the exploitation of the OSDs, as we used to call the oppressed, suppressed and depressed.

I cry for the future of the younger generation of journalists, who may think nothing of making up stories and actively destroying the less privileged sections of society.

I myself have been accused in recent years of practicing a one-sided journalism – you are too biased against the government, I have been told. My answer to that is that my bias is towards the weak, not the powerful and that I actively believe in siding with the truth and not lies and fakery. Moreover, is there anything to write home about the establishment.

The media is expected to be the fourth estate and with substantial portions of the other three pillars crumbling, it is left to the few of us who still believe in nation-building rather than its destruction, to hold the last pillar aloft. Meanwhile, it might be good if some of these channels did not make laughing stock of themselves globally by at least fact-checking their clips, instead of passing off toy soldiers as armies at a nuclear war!

(The writer is an author, journalist and commentator. Views are personal)

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