Would you say that in the eight years of the Narendra Modi era, television news has been better than worse—or the other way around?
Well, much of what has been right and wrong with Indian TV news was evident in its coverage of Sidhu Moose Wala’s death.
On the plus side, channels were quick to break the news of Moose Wala’s murder, report from the scene of the crime, describe the sequence of events, talk to the police and bystanders for eyewitness accounts, profile the dead singer, and explain his killing in the context of gang wars of Punjab—and describe the political `blamegate’ that followed.
The minuses? TV channels reduced the popular artiste’s death to a Bollywood movie or video game: there were VR and CGI reconstructions of the shooting in Technicolor put to music, there was `leaked’ CCTV footage to the accompaniment of gunshots, there was body shaming, with visuals of a body at the hospital; reporters, swarmed like flies all over inside the singer’s jeep and `32 bullet holes’ when they shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the vehicle. And finally, there was a misrepresentation of facts.
Nearly all the news channels claimed that Moose Wala’s security had been ‘withdrawn’ by Punjab’s Aam Aadmi Party government when, in fact, it had been `trimmed’, according to The Indian Express. Channels also ignored that he had chosen to travel without the two commandos assigned to his security and left behind his private bulletproof car.
Also Read: Why do anchors have all the fun? Because it’s prime time on Indian news TV
The many ‘truths’
Reporters, anchors and headlines repeated the security withdrawal so often that it became the `truth’—just as the continuous and repetitive insistence on ‘shivling hai’ at the Gyanvapi ‘masjid-mandir’ has made it true. For instance, on Wednesday, both actor Akshay Kumar and Times Now Navbharat anchor Navika Kumar agreed that the `fountain’ looked like a ‘shivling‘.
News TV has also acquired a taste for what we call, ‘one day, one show’. It zeroes in on a single incident, event or ongoing story, stays with it the entire day, debates it in the evening—and ignores pretty much everything else. Sunday to Monday was all about Moose Wala. Remember the full-day coverage of the Gyanvapi masjid-mandir case too.
Another bad journalistic practice is to telecast stray video clips from social media that have no beginning or end, add them to a leaked CCTV footage and present it as an authentic reconstruction of events—Moose Wala’s car was shown turning a corner, and then another video clip had the sound of gunshots.
In fact, the amount of information being leaked to the broadcast news media by the security agencies, in particular, would fill Dal Lake (well, you know what we mean), besides the fact that it’s robbing the reporting of objectivity.
This is exactly what happened during the Aryan Khan drug case and Sushant Singh Rajput’s death by suicide. One example: TV news channels were fed or obtained stray WhatsApp chats that implicated Khan in the first case, and actor Rhea Chakraborty in the second—both were used to prove their guilt by news channels. These reports weren’t run by some young, inexperienced reporters, but by leading 9 p.m. prime time news anchors/editors.
Also Read: ‘Mil Gaye Baba’: In Gyanvapi case, news TV shows which side it’s on — and it’s not news
Whose side are they on?
These ‘leaky habits’ is one reason why news television channels are disparagingly called ‘Modi media’—a term that suggests many news channels simply telecast what the government, usually the Narendra Modi government and its many organs, tell it. For instance, when you read a headline like India Today’s Smriti smashes into Kejriwal farzi attack or Republic TV’s Smriti fires facts at AAP, whose side do you think they’re taking?
News channels are not Modi media the way DD News is, which devotes itself to the Prime Minister’s words and actions or his government’s. The private news channels, on the other hand, dedicate air time to issues that the PM is mostly silent on, but which his party and supporters seem to espouse—bulldozer politics, hijab row, the row over Gyanvapi, Qutab Minar, etc, or the ‘tukde tukde gang’—to give you a sampling. This is why they are often accused of being proxies for the government. (Of course, when the PM travels abroad or delivers a speech, these channels follow him and join the chorus line.)
What else has changed in the last eight years? Well, the anchors have become louder, more opinionated and behave more like panelists rather than moderators of debates. They freely share their opinions, scold and interrupt panelists, lecture them, argue with them, and often don’t allow them to speak. This Yogendra Yadav tweet says it all.
What of the panelists? There was a time before 2014 when debates saw the likes of former Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Arun Jaitely and Sushma Swaraj, and former Congressperson Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, and even P Chidambaram. Now, wherever we go, we see Shehzad Poonawalla from the BJP and Congress’ Supriya Shrinate—er who? And then there’s a host of the usual suspects. For instance, Maj Gen G. D. Bakshi makes an appearance if it’s Ukraine, Pakistan or China, and it’s either advocate Desh Ratan Nigam or T.V. Mohandas Pai for everything else.
Also, have you ever seen so many maulanas and mahants, Islamic or Hindu ‘scholars’ in the TV news studios reviewing the past and the present? That’s because the communal divide between Hindus and Muslims is now a favourite point of debate on TV, and we see the chasm growing wider. Eight years ago, this wasn’t so.
We could go on and on but these are some of the most obvious characteristics of television news in 2022. The question to ask is not whether news channels are ‘Modi media’ or not; the question is, do viewers trust them?
`Ay’, as William Shakespeare once wrote, `there’s the rub’.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)