It is clear that television news has learnt nothing from its farcical coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death.
Consider its coverage of the toolkit controversy and the farmers’ protests, which several channels straightaway referred to as ‘Greta Thunberg Tookit’ (India Today), in itself an inaccuracy.
In the last few days, TV news anchors and reporters have gorged on select WhatsApp chats and leaked allegations, to first try and then to convict Disha Ravi — ‘Toolkit conspirator nailed’, declared India Today Sunday. Others ‘nailed’ alongside her are activists Nikita Jacob, the “co-conspirator” as Times Now described her and Shantanu Muluk — ‘2 more named in toolkit plot’, wrote CNN News18.
“Let’s talk facts,” said a Republic TV anchor: “she (Disha) has admitted she edited some lines” in the farmers’ protest toolkit, later controversially shared by Swedish climate change activist Great Thunberg (who, by the way, has also been summarily convicted of waging war against the Indian State). “Global Republic Day plot exposed,” cried CNN News18.
When will they learn?
Is it possible that news channels will learn anything from the Delhi High court judgment in the M.J. Akbar-Priya Ramani defamation case, in which the judge observed, in an entirely different context, that Akbar’s allegations had not been proved – something that holds true for all allegations?
Last year, the Supreme Court, the Delhi High Court, and the Bombay High Court had in different cases, warned the media and TV news channels, in particular, against playing judge and jury. Union Home Minister Amit Shah had said in TV news interviews that there ought to be no “media trials”.
But who’s listening? Certainly not the news channels. Monday and Tuesday were spent by them maligning and judging Disha, and the others named by the Delhi Police that has been leaking allegations, WhatsApp chats, and what have you, to news channels like the Uttarakhand dam burst.
All the claims headlined across news channels that were discussed throughout the two days and debated with outraged patriotic fervor on prime time, came from Delhi Police “sources” or the FIR it has filed against Disha Ravi. They amount to allegations and accusations that need to be proved.
Not on television news, though.
“It was a conspiracy and they knew it was wrong,” said the India TV reporter about the WhatsApp chat in which Disha reportedly expressed fears about being hauled up under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, or the UAPA.
“…Nothing gives them the right to act” against India’s interests or to support “enemies of India” said Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami.
News channels also allowed outrageous accusations to be leveled against Disha Ravi: BJP’s Nupur Sharma took umbrage that people were sympathetic towards Ravi because she was only 22 years old. She argued that Dhanu, who was involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, was very young too.
On Zee News, Monday, the anchor said: “What’s all this about the age factor? How old was (Ajmal) Kasab?” he asked, referring to one of the terrorists in the 2008 Mumbai terror attack.
News channels were relentless in the `hunt’ for the `conspirators’ (CNN News 18): they drew up chronology and connectivity charts to link Disha, Nikita and Shantanu to a ‘…a big international conspiracy to destabilise the government and malign India’ (Republic TV). TV news named them in the same breath as Peter Friedrich and ‘Mo’ Dhaliwal who are also being investigated in the toolkit case. Friedrich was described as “rabid anti-India hater” (CNN news 18) and a “supporter of Khalistan” (India Today) who works for Pakistan’s ISI, and Mo Dhaliwal, the founder of the Poetic Justice Foundation (PJF), which according to Delhi Police created the toolkit.
‘Nikita’s PJF link exposed’, read a CNN News18 India headline, baldly. No equivocation here.
Channels described how the “plot” or “conspiracy” against India began on 6 December 2020 when Ravi created a WhatsApp group that Nikita joined later.
They accused Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Congress and AAP, who had criticised Ravi’s arrests, of supporting those trying to “break the country” (News 18 India).
Zee News and its anchor Sudhir Chaudhary celebrated their “khulasa” of excerpts from the ‘Greta-Disha toolkit chats’. “Are you with the Indian flag or with the toolkit gang?” asked anchor Aman Sharma.
In TV reports, the toolkit acquired the attributes of a particularly destructive weapon: ABP News anchor Rubika Liyaquat claimed that the toolkit and the revelations in the chats were an “atom bomb”. Such sensational claims continued despite former Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta saying, on air, that there was nothing in the toolkit that incited violence or hatred (India Today).
Message in the headlines
News channels like NDTV 24×7, Times Now, India Today, ABP News did mention that questions had been raised over the manner of Disha’s arrest — “Is Disha villain or victim?” (India Today). And they did say, repeatedly, that Delhi Police had put out these allegations.
However, they declared them as statements of fact in their headlines. And headlines matter, because most viewers don’t bother to watch an entire report, they go by the headlines. So when Times Now puts out a debate headline like ‘Nikita admits meeting pro-Khalistani group: will Opposition still back conspirator?’ you know what you are being told to think.
In all of this, the farmers’ protests have been forgotten. More importantly, on TV at least, the protests have become identified as the tool of an international attempt to “defame” India, which allowed channels like Republic TV to then put out a headline like “Nation versus Foreign hand”.
“Nobody knows what’s true anymore…” said a friend of Disha Ravi in Bengaluru to India Ahead — and that’s the truth of this week’s news coverage of the ‘toolkit conspiracy’.
Views are personal.