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Lesson from 2021 is that TV news sees a lot ‘ulta’ — Covid, Bengal election, farmers’ protest

In 2021, we watched events through a distorted lens on TV news channels. Like living in the Truman Show.

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Shhh, want to know a well-kept secret about television news? Well, guess what, it often sees the world upside down, rather like Taarak Mehta with his ‘ulta chashma’, in the longest-running Indian sitcom, Taarak Mehta Ka Oolta Chashma on Sab Sony.

2021, dear was the year of seeing but not always believing.

We watched events through a distorted lens; that or we were living on The Truman Show where things were not what they were seen to be.

Think back to the farmers’ protests with TV news demonising them as ‘andolanjeevis’, ‘Khalistanis’ (Zee News) who ‘waged war on the State’ (Times Now) during the 26 January tractor rally — ‘India shamed on Republic Day’, cried CNN News18 in outrage.

Remember the over-the-top coverage of the assembly election campaign in West Bengal between February and May, which all but declared a BJP victory.

Revisit the coronavirus during its peak in spring-summer that was overshadowed in April by TV coverage of the ‘sea of saffron’ (ABP News), ‘the lakhs, full of utsah, josh..’ at Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP poll rallies in Bengal without calling them out as Covid superspreaders. Then as the body count mounted, the hospitals spilt over onto the streets with patients, when beds, oxygen and medicines were in short supply  — all shown in horrifying detail by news channels — they didn’t question the political mismanagement.

And what to make of the news channels’ reporting on the Lakhimpur Kheri incident that saw eight people die, which gave a very wide berth to the prime accused in the ‘planned conspiracy’, Ashish Mishra, while demanding answers from ‘lynch pins’ amongst the protesters who allegedly killed two BJP workers?

Lastly, consider how the story of next year’s Uttar Pradesh assembly polls is already being sold to us as a victory foretold for Yogi Adityanath.

In each of these cases, the picture we saw was ulta-pulta. The farmers who remained obdurately stationed at Tikri, Singur and Ghazipur borders of Delhi, were called all manner of names by news channels and accused of being opposition stooges — ‘Left-Cong ki Jugalbandi’ (India TV). CNN News18 detected ‘external agencies at work’and do you recall the Disha Ravi ‘toolkit’ controversy of February, in which Ravi along with environmental activist Greta Thunberg were called ‘conspirators’ in a “Global Republic Day plot… ” (CNN News18)? Ravi had allegedly changed some lines in an innocuous ‘toolkit’ for the farmers’ protest, which Republic TV said was part of “…a big international conspiracy to destabilise the government and malign India”. Really?

The protests received considerable coverage across channels over the year with Bharatiya Kisan Union’s Rakesh Tikait emerging as the year’s unlikely TV star, but many channels chose to character assassinate the farmers, highlight the inconvenience caused by their protests to commuters and the local community (which was, of course, the case) rather than talk of the farm laws or the Modi government’s handling of the situation.

When PM Modi rescinded the laws in November, we witnessed the farmers, triumphantly, leave the protest site in a victory cavalcade—no one was calling them ‘Khalistanis’ or worse any longer, least of all the news channels.


Also read: ‘Har Har Modi’ in Kashi – TV channels gave Modi a mythical status & aura none can challenge


The big fail

Onto the West Bengal elections where the news channels, Hindi and English, did everything to project the BJP as the winner—from December 2020 onwards every visit to Bengal by the big three, PM Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP president J.P. Nadda — to ‘poriborton’ rallies received full live coverage.

Each defection from the Trinamool Congress to the BJP, each new entrant into the party—think actor Mithun Chakravarty—and finally ‘Battleground Nandigram’ where Mamata Banerjee challenged former TMC colleague Suvendhu Adhikari – were given VIP treatment on TV. At least one channel, Priyobhandhu TV, gave BJP a handsome victory; others like CNN News18 said ‘Advantage BJP’, and Zee News found ‘change is in the air’.

Mamata, with her bandaged left foot, managed to steal some of the limelight but TV focus was completely on the BJP and its popularity —“scores, thousands, lakhs out there to see their favourite stars… including PM Modi,” cooed the NewsX reporter at the PM’s Brigade Ground rally.

Banerjee and TMC trounced the BJP in the election but had you gone solely by the TV news coverage, this would have come as a shock. If ever there was a case of seeing things from the wrong end of the telescope, this was it.


Also read: Thank god for Netflix and Vir Das. India’s craving comedy and satire, but TVs are a no-go


Covered Covid, but didn’t question much

The Covid pandemic and the terrible second wave’s ‘monster surge’ (India Today ) were seen clearly and at close quarters by TV news, no complaints there. From Delhi, Surat, Bhopal, Agra, Lucknow, Mumbai, to Chennai, Kochi, Patna, Raipur, they catalogued the tales of despair and death—bodies everywhere: piled up on rooftops of cars (NDTV 24×7), in three-wheelers (Mirror Now), ambulances (NewsX), at crematoriums (Republic TV, Aaj Tak). All the misery as the country ‘gasped’ for oxygen was documented too as were the bodies floating in the Ganga— ‘rivers of life now channels of despair’ was the epitaph on Times Now.

But no matter how grim the picture, the news channels were reluctant to question, let alone blame the political leadership at the Centre or the state level or to hold them accountable for a lack of readiness, for allowing crowds to gather at poll campaigns or at Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela, for not visiting hospitals or the bereaved, for its failure to contain ‘the national health emergency’ (Mirror Now), or to set an example by always, always masking up – at the poll rallies the leaders were without masks.

How many primetime debates were held on the political (mis)management of the Covid crisis?


Also read: Times Now sympathy went to BJP minister’s son. Zee News turned to ‘Khalistan plan’


Bengal repeat, in UP

We don’t need to dwell on Lakhimpur Kheri, but suffice it to say that in the first week after the incidents on 3 October, news channels went out of their way to interview Union Minister Ajay Mishra and his son Ashish, who is now in jail in a ‘planned conspiracy’ according to the SIT—and to convey their viewpoints, rather than to ask hard questions of them.

As for Yogi Adityanath, since June he has received more coverage than the prime minister, be it through advertisements, ‘impact features’ or reports on his speeches, travels through Uttar Pradesh and even interviews. Along with him, the BJP’s campaign to retain power in UP is going full steam ahead on TV news. Think of how much coverage the PM’s visits to the state receive, each time.

It’s West Bengal once more.

The polls predict a comfortable win for the BJP, something news channels reinforce with their adulatory coverage of the party, the PM and Yogi.

But if 2021 has taught us anything, it is to not believe the ‘evidence’ before your eyes brought to you by news channels. Don’t let the media massage lull you into a state of apathy and acceptance.

Happy new year, everyone.

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