INDIAN news television has been toxic for long. The loud, hurtful, divisive monologues have for some time made TV debates unwatchable. Then, the grovelling loyalty to the ruling dispensation turned TV channels into a parody of what they ought to have been. It is no exaggeration to say that news TV has lowered the credibility of the Indian media as a whole to such a drastic level that every visiting foreign diplomat has begun asking whether the country’s media is indeed free. One has to draw a clear distinction between print and TV for visitors to understand that the Indian media is so vast and diverse that it’s not just about a handful of anchors.
While the BJP has no moral right to cry ‘Emergency’ over INDIA’s decision, the latter can’t wash its hands of the crime of promoting self-obsessed performers peddling pet political peeves.
But the foreign visitor cannot be blamed for mistaking the Indian media for its toxic TV and for condemning it as a whole; for, TV is the most compelling of all media. And national news channels give the viewer an impression that they are entirely owned by the government, leaving no space for dissent; and worse, they constantly attack the Opposition. If journalists are supposed to be the people’s watchdogs against the government’s excesses, national news TV anchors by and large become the government’s Rottweiler against the Opposition. So, the Opposition’s boycott of certain TV anchors does not come as a surprise.
It was long overdue simply because the Opposition’s representatives were losing out badly in the shouting matches that go by the name of TV debates. To be fair to the named and shamed anchors, one should admit one’s lack of competence in judging them all. One hasn’t even seen most of them. Till a few years ago, it was fun and a sort of an evening dose of a stress-buster to watch some of these repugnant TV anchors rave and rant, demeaning themselves. But it has gone beyond being slapstick and is sickeningly intolerable. So, if any inaccuracy creeps into this critique, it is only because it is inadvertently dated.
As someone who had worked with a TV channel at its peak a decade and a half ago, one can safely say that there has been a transition in India from news TV to views TV. A medium best suited for long-format journalism got dismantled frame by frame over these years. Even Papa Hemingway could not have competed with a TV camera when it captured stunning visuals of conflict, disaster, accident, crime or even plain old investigative journalism. Unfortunately, instead of the journalist focusing the camera on the world, the narcissistic anchor turned the camera on herself, making her views the news. This is not a new crime and the founders of private news channels should bear the burden of shame. They let anchors run amok and also run their channels.
The initial sophistication of compromised TV journalism had to give way to crass sycophancy at some point in time. It was bound to happen. Even now, opinion is divided about the Gujarat riot coverage of certain news channels. Were the channels and the anchors singularly harsh (for pro-establishment news outfits) on the then Gujarat Chief Minister because of a wink and a nudge from sections of the government, which had already decided to sack the CM? The PM changed his mind much later. Well, even then the sophistication was only skin-deep, as proved by the Radia tapes expose.
This writer carries a piece of shrapnel in the abdomen as a trophy of Kargil war reportage. A multi-barrelled rocket launcher getting fired to offer visuals to an irresponsible TV journalist is believed to have triggered a Pakistani artillery response, causing death and injury to many. The Army never investigated this charge against the officer involved in the incident. Had it been done, narcissistic TV journalism would not have struck such deep roots in the country. Nor would the personality cult of the anchor made the medium suffer for the inadequacies of the individual.
While the BJP, which has repeatedly boycotted channels and anchors at the national and regional levels, has no moral right to cry ‘Emergency’ over the INDIA group of parties’ decision, it should also remember that this is a boycott by the Opposition out of desperation and not an embargo by the government. Then, there are many in the Opposition who have nurtured these toxic anchors, thereby benefiting from their popularity. The best case in point is Anna Hazare’s protest against the UPA government over the Lokpal Bill. One had predicted in August 2011 that Hazare was offering the Sangh Parivar an opportunity and that Ajit Doval would be the next National Security Adviser. Of course, as a collateral beneficiary, Arvind Kejriwal emerged as a national political alternative, riding the wave of antipathy to the UPA, reinforced by news TV anchors who are now being boycotted.
Politicians never wanted genuine TV news stories — long-format narrative journalism or investigative stuff that digs up skeletons from their cupboards. They want shouting matches that are part entertainment and part propaganda, primarily because of the screen time they get and the ensuing name and face recognition. They also shout who stand and wait. So, INDIA cannot wash its hands of the crime of promoting these self-obsessed performers peddling pet political peeves. There were UPA ministers who were untouchables on various channels. But then, the Congress has always been immensely tolerant when the attack is against someone else, even if the target is its Prime Minister. The less said the better about the ruling Left in Kerala. It is mercilessly hounding mainstream and YouTube journalists, isolating one of the state’s best anchors.
This is a zero-sum game where the Indian media loses its credibility, the country its democratic credentials, and the government its reputation. The only way out is for the anchors to introspect, moderating their partisan attacks, and for the channel promoters not to continue creating monsters who will devour them one day. Then, the Opposition parties should closely look inwards, for many of them do exactly what they accuse the Union Government of. Hypocrisy is no answer to opportunistic partisanship.
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