A garrulous party spokesperson with a propensity for controversial outbursts gets a dressing down on NDTV. He is clearly discomfited—this is not what he is used to i.e. TV anchor-brethren who allow him uninterrupted soliloquies. Promptly, the founder-owner and the original architect of private broadcasting in India, Dr Prannoy Roy, has India’s most powerful investigative agency (somewhat impertinently dubbed by some as the caged parrot) at his door. The charges, even to tyro analysts, will appear prima facie to be rather facile.
We live in a world of manufactured news, tailored to suit political demands.
Elsewhere, several flagrantly right-wing-leaning media titans have become establishment propagandists. They peddle Modi Sarkar publicity hand-outs with impeccable precision. Billboard anchors display their loyalty miles on their Brooks Brothers suits: guests opposing the ruling party are called objectionable names. It is like watching a soap opera bubbling over with foamy flattery. Honestly, it is insufferably bad television, egregiously polarised. The TV studio predetermines the hashtag trend. Social media trolls package fake news for shock value, and confuse the average consumer of digital news. There is complete bedlam out there. Indian democracy looks a thorough intractable mess.
Despite many pious pontifications, the Press Council of India (called a toothless tiger, by many) report on paid news accumulates dust in dark dungeons. The mainstream media refuses to share its embarrassing content with the same aam aadmi it professes to protect daily. Self-regulation sounds pious, but who will take punitive action against erring media outlets or shady hacks? It does manifest questionable standards, the media’s inability to smother its own insuperable demons. While they self-righteously hyperventilate to the world, their own backyard emits a sordid stench. Paid coverage posing as dispassionate reporting is furtive advertising, which legitimises self-promoting campaigns on unsuspecting readers. It is indeed an unethical practice of astronomical proportions, but everyone seems nonchalant, blissfully blasé about it. It endangers democracy. But since most media houses are corporate-funded, they have an Omerta code on the dubious opaqueness. During the Uttar Pradesh polls, Dainik Jagran was, in fact, customising exit poll surveys favouring the BJP. But the media fraternity did not seem a wee bit stunned.
The Indian media stands guilty of cavorting with canard spreaders, and actively colluding in distributing government sales literature.
The late Dilip Padgaonkar once famously stated that The Times of India editor was the “second most important man in India.” That was not hubris or a silly exaggeration, it was a near-factual assessment. But today no media big gun can make such hyperbolic claims. Multiple channels and news publishers have made mass distribution of news our new business reality. Media is now truly democratised; so truly there are no king-makers. But tragically, there is rampant distortion of news, as friendly owners do the sandbagging exercise to protect their favoured political parties. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and blogs have gathered high-speed on the social networking highway. Activist entrepreneurs have launched online media start-ups so far considered the sacrosanct preserve of an elite club. But social media is becoming a corrosive minefield, bludgeoned as it is by the proliferation of fake news sites, which are a core political strategy for the extreme right-wing. We live in a world of manufactured news, tailored to suit political demands.
Investigative journalism has become comatose in a commercially dictated news content age. When did we last hear of a major scandal involving Big Business exposed by mainstream media? Probably the pink papers prefer to blush crimson in the company of generous billionaires. On the Birla-Sahara bribery diaries, most TV channels preferred to avert their eyes to the combustible material, for instance. Self-censorship has been skillfully enforced on all, hence the frequent reference to an “undeclared Emergency” prevailing in India.
Corporate benefactors of government policy have significant equity stakes spread across TV channels/ media groups, which makes the Fourth Estate unreliable at best, duplicitous at worst.
In India, where daily news resembles a cacophonous collage of conspiracy theories, news television often degenerates into the “politainment” category. Competitive journalism is good, but instead of quality coverage being the product differentiator, it is only TRP numbers that evidently dominate strategy. The “compromised media” bastardises news to abysmal depths. Some TV channels are like a malleable Maltese, the adorable lapdog. The ordinary viewer gets trapped into filtered news-watching. Be it Kashmir burning, murderous cow vigilante mobs, rising joblessness, the demonetisation disaster, Maoist violence, terrorist attacks, celebrity trolls on a roll… TV debates encourage a virtual bloodbath. The “hidden bias” is history; there is explicit pandering to the ruling party. Hyper-nationalism guarantees ferocious shoutfests; it’s like a prom night gone rogue. Not surprisingly, BJP spokespersons wear a smug countenance on these friendly TV channels; they almost know the trajectory the debate will take.
Corporate benefactors of government policy have significant equity stakes spread across TV channels/ media groups, which makes the Fourth Estate unreliable at best, duplicitous at worst. Independent media sounds like an oxymoron. A BJP politician has openly funded a newborn TV channel whose daily task appears to be to execute high command instructions. They probably get a performance bonus for pushing the party agenda. Editors are meant to be the media’s conscience-keepers, the guardian angels. They are the ones who must separate the wheat from the chaff, and ensure that the chaff does not get headline attention. But quarterly pressures of EPS for the publicly listed media companies can result in editorial compromises. Editorial independence is a must; they cannot be both brand managers and journalistic crusaders. Proximity to suave glib-talking industrialists, political power-brokers and the Deep State can be jeopardous. There is a price for those supposed “sources.”
As George Clooney’s film on the Joseph McCarthy era in the USA, Good Night and Good Luck, showed, the media has immense power to resist a government-sponsored propaganda backlash detrimental to society, if they choose to. The Indian media stands guilty of cavorting with canard spreaders, and actively colluding in distributing government sales literature. But it is never too late to change. The NDTV episode should be the turning point.