Media Malice On Air?

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Private TV news channels in India are under attack for poor content, misrepresenting or manipulating news. Add to that, a recent development when a channel deliberately went black on air to make a point against another channel. BY HARSH RANJAN

NDTV India anchor Ravish Kumar’s experiment on his prime time show ‘Ravish ki Report’ of Feb 19, where he blacked out all visuals of the JNU protests has been praised and trashed. Ravish, a respected journalist and anchor known for his sobriety and gravitas, says the idea of presenting a black screen to viewers was to highlight the “insensible” ways in which “we” (TV anchors/channels) work.

In an interview to The Wire, he said “we anchors are driving our viewers to the point of insanity. A world so polarised that entry points into discussions are becoming fewer and fewer.”

Kumar was evidently upset over the manner in which some TV channels went to town, beating the “JNU is anti-national” drum. His point: “Why is there so much madness on TV? We TV folks – anchors – end up making every serious occasion worse.”

Kumar’s action may be reminiscent (to some) of The Indian Express, which three decades ago during the Emergency, left its editorial page blank. The only difference is that NDTV took its viewers into the dark, while The Indian Express page blank though it was, suggested a lot more to its loyal readers: refusal to succumb, underscoring the point that freedom could not be at the point of a gun, and that in darkness there was always hope.

This difference might be seen as a physical one, but is very indicative and suggestive of the future of media in India. The Indian Express was fighting back against a repressive government, while the NDTV black screen of Feb 19 was aimed at its rivals, particularly Times Now!

I have always believed that the role of media should be within boundaries. It must show the truth in context, in the right perspective and must not edit “the soul of the conversation or speech”, or for that matter of any event.

If one media house follows this principle, those not doing the same will be automatically exposed. Attacking the other (in the manner in which NDTV did) becomes a settling of personal (or business) scores. There are many ways in which the wrong doing of rivals can be exposed, through fair practices of storytelling.

This is not to decry Ravish Kumar’s point about the “insensible ways” of TV anchors/journalists. Some of it is born of the enormous pressure newsroom managements are under to gain higher TRP ratings. It tends to kill the real journalist within us and when we succumb to the pressure of TRP, certain “behavioural disorders” become evident, such as shouting on prime time TV.

Shouting has become part of TV newsroom culture in this country and it seems the more or louder you shout, the more efficient you are considered by the editor. The TRP pressure is also manifest in the way visuals are sometimes edited (either to please the management or satisfy our own fantasies). News TV producers are compelled to bring in the highest order of dramatized visuals and animated effects to draw eyeballs.

The only difference is that NDTV took its viewers into the dark, while The Indian Express page blank though it was, suggested a lot more to its loyal readers

It can also lead to some rather bizarre decisions: Witness CNBC-Awaaz, a Hindi business channel, putting on air the entire Ravish report (black screen and all), for reasons that are not entirely clear. While it is customary for business channels in India to offer something for the lay viewer, a report of this kind pointing the finger at a third channel would appear rather odd. Was there no other content it could have put on air? Was it just lazy journalism?

But here’s something more serious. In 2007, Sudhir Choudhary then editor of Live India Channel (presently Editor, Zee News), won notoriety for doing a fake sting on a teacher Uma Khurana, who was defamed as a call girl supplier. Other channels took note of the story but did some investigation and came out with the truth. There was no finger pointing of any kind. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banned Live India for a month.

Not in the same category was a case of extortion levelled by industrialist Naveen Jindal, against Zee TV in 2012. The dramatist persona was again Sudhir Choudhary, now in his new avatar as head of Zee News (also Samir Ahluwalia, head of Zee Business). Both had to spend 20 days in jail. It saw Jindal buy up Focus TV so as to give him a weapon of response in the event he again became somebody’s extortion target.

There was also the case concerning News Express, a channel financed by a chit fund. It was headed by senior TV journalist and now a filmmaker Vinod Kapri, who exposed the functioning of agencies that carried out opinion polls for various media houses. It was revealing to see how opinion poll data was manipulated and misinterpreted. Many news channels were deeply embarrassed. It was an effective way of exposing rival media houses without the finger pointing.

The NDTV-Times Now battle is not new but it was certainly more creative earlier. Around 10 months ago, NDTV took a rather indirect potshot at its rival in a commercial, mocking its aggressive journalistic approach (www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfdf4eDT6hY). The commercial revolved around a hyperactive, sensationalizing anchor (an obvious reference to Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami), shouting at the top of his lungs, cutting off people in mid-sentence, demanding answers on behalf of the nation.

This brings me to the question of the need to regulate the content of TV news channels. In the past whenever government sought the views of private news channels, they argued in favour of self-regulation, and rejected the idea of a government appointed regulatory body. Thus came into being the NBA, News Broadcaster’s Association. The NBA later formed NBSA, News Broadcasting Standards Authority, which laid down ethics of news broadcast.

Unfortunately, while news channels are committed to following the guidelines of NBSA, many of them intentionally or under sheer market pressure, violate the code of ethics. If one channel violates the guidelines to “jazz up” the news, the other breaks it in the name of adopting corrective measures. Such “on air” rivalries have not merited action so far but to say they have gone unnoticed would not be correct. In such a scenario if news channels continue to “spice up” stories, they face the risk of being exposed by rival channels (or rival business houses).

What happens if an anchor, after pointing the finger at a rival channel, one fine day joins that channel?

Journalists are constantly moving from one channel to another, usually for higher pay, perks and promotion. There’s little organizational loyalty discernible. Given that, the scenario outlined above is possible. The longevity of today’s top TV editors at any channel is around three years (Arnab Goswami is an exception). Deepak Chaurasia of India News has had stints with Aaj Tak, ABP News and DD News. Sudhir Chowdhary of Zee News was in Sahara TV, India TV and then Live India before returning to Zee News. Dibang of ABP News has been in Aaj Tak and NDTV.

Could that intensify rivalry between channels? It adds another element to the uncertainty surrounding news television. News TV channels are undergoing a massive churn. Many channels especially in the regional space have opened and shut. There is confusion over where television news is going and alarm over content (about which it seems little or nothing is being done as a corrective).

The woes of news TV channels don’t end there. Worth mentioning here is the fact that almost half a dozen promoters of channels are behind bars on various charges, among them are Sahara Samay’s Subroto Roy, Live India’s Mahesh Motewar and News Express director Balasaheb Bhapkar.

A serious viewer is entitled to ask what he or she is getting from their favourite news channel? Is their news factual, is it credible? Is it conveyed in a simple, effective manner? Are the owners serious about the business of media? If the answer to all of the above is yes, that channel gets my vote.

Summary

  • A prime time show on NDTV went to black, deliberately as it turned out, to make a point against a rival channel
  • There have been other instances where TV channels have been accused of attempted extortion
  • The fact that many owners of TV channels are in jail, is a pointer to the crisis affecting television journalism in this country
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