What ails the Indian TV media industry
Polarised debates have replaced traditional news-gathering, with the Left and Right accusing the TV news media of bias. And the elephant in the room is the growing influence of social media in shaping the public discourse and TV news
In the aftermath of the Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal controversy, the Indian television (TV) news media has been targeted by the Left and Right.
The former argues that news TV is guilty of giving a platform to hate-mongers. The latter, especially the Hindutva Right, insists that news TV is guilty of selective indignation by allowing Muslim sectarians to get away easily.
So, where does the truth lie?
Let’s take the Left-Liberal argument first. Is news TV giving space to hate-mongering? Yes. There is little doubt that there is a far greater indulgence of those who spew communal venom now, than ever before. From a government-controlled Doordarshan monopoly in the 1990s to nearly 400 24x7 private news channels in India, there is a manic race for eyeballs that often places sensation above sense, and where the concept of breaking news has broken down.
This transformation is reflected in the contemporary news TV format where polarised debates are seen as a cheaper way to design news operations. Where once field reportage was the primary diet of news TV, the TV studio with larger- than-life anchors is now the dominant arena for noise rather than news.
Even the nature of what passes off as “debate” has changed dramatically. I recall inviting, in the 1990s, the cerebral Congress leader, the late VN Gadgil, to discuss a perceptive essay he had written on secularism. I planned to get another formidable intellect — Arun Shourie — to debate with him. Gadgil politely declined, saying, “I don’t want a complex issue to be reduced to tu tu main main soundbites between the two of us.” Now, channels have 10 heads popping up on a TV screen, screaming at each other. I wonder how the soft-spoken Gadgil would respond to what I call the multi-headed “Ravana” school of talking heads journalism.
Talking heads TV isn’t just an Indian phenomenon; globally, investments in traditional news-gathering have declined. A flawed television rating point (TRP)-centric model has meant that most news channels are convinced that cacophonous debate on divisive issues such as religious identity will garner much more viewership than intelligent and meaningful discussions on “serious” subjects.
Unsurprisingly, when consumer inflation peaked at an eight-year high in May, most news channels in India ignored this; instead, they focused on the Gyanvapi mosque issue. A Fox news on steroids news model — a reference to the original profit from hate TV network in the United States (US — has meant that credibility often loses out to chaos on the small screen and an advertiser-driven business bottomline trumps journalistic ethics.
But why bash newsroom editors alone? After all, a newsroom mirrors the grim reality of a conflict-ridden polity where hate speech is being “normalised”. Those who accuse news channels of manufacturing hate conveniently forget that the likes of Sharma and Jindal aren’t fringe elements, as the Government of India rather disingenuously describes them. They represent the political mainstream.
Now reflect upon the Right-wing case of TV media bias. For years, the mainstream Indian media has been accused of being controlled by the Left-Liberal elite that is contemptuous of alternative views. Interestingly, a similar argument of being denied a compelling voice witnessed the rise of the US’s Right-wing Fox News network over a decade ago. The political Right nurtures resentment against a legacy media ecosystem, which they argue is pseudo-secular.
The accusations are valid, but only up to a point. Yes, a large section of traditional Indian media was wary, even dismissive of the Hindutva Right, but post-1992, as the BJP has become a principle pole of Indian politics, there has been a marked power shift.
Where once liberals directed the media narrative, now hardliners are ensconced in leadership roles in most newsrooms. The alleged pandering of minority communalists is more a myth than reality: In most instances, the topi (cap)-wearing “television Muslim” and few self-styled maulanas are caricatured and made a figure of ridicule, and demonised on TV.
While the Sharma and Jindal storm is a wake-up call for TV news, the elephant in the media jungle is the growing influence of social media in shaping public discourse. Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk recently described Twitter as the “digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are discussed” — lofty words that belie the reality of a nightmarish space where hate speech often has a free run in the name of free speech. Many news channels today almost reflexively follow Twitter trends, their prime-time agenda practically dictated by the clamorous noise in the virtual world. Sadly, in this public sphere where everyone — including highly organised political troll armies — seem to be outraging most of the time, farmer suicides don’t gather traction, but a raucous shivling versus a fountain debate almost certainly will.
Post-script: Business magnate Harsh Goenka, who has a reputation for creating a buzz on Twitter with his punchy tweets, recently warned that corporate advertisers were being driven away by those who feed off hate speech on TV. So will Mr Goenka walk the talk and call out the news anchors and programmes that routinely “profit from hate”?
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and authorThe views expressed are personal