Independent Journalists Explains NDTV Deal

‘Change In Ownership Hardly Impacts A Media Group’s Core Ethics’

Arun Singh, a Lucknow-based independent journalist, transfer of partial holdings in NDTV poses no threat to the channel or its journalists if they act as professionals

The recent brouhaha over Gautam Adani making a hostile bid to take over NDTV and thereby undermining media freedom, appears a little overplayed. I would call it premature over-reaction. The matter is very simple: NDTV took a loan from the VCPL about a decade ago which it was not able to repay. Seeing some business advantage, the Adani group buys VCPL and gets its holding in NDTV as the new owner! That’s it!

Now if this takeover or the deal is being propagated as an attempt to stop the company and its journalists from carrying on with their ‘revolutionary’ journalism or to prevent them from criticizing the government, then it is laughable.

By and large, the media in the country can broadly be distinguished under two categories: First, those who sell themselves (nowadays termed as ‘Godi Media’) and those who sell news (the term for them is ‘anti-establishment media’). Most media houses are owned by private business groups or, in a few cases, by political parties. The top leadership frames a set of rules and the workforce, in this case journalists, follow these.

For any professional media group to prosper, it is necessary they present news and facts on the basis of the core principles of journalism. Else, they are likely to fall into one of the two categories mentioned above. To my mind, while it is unprofessional to present only the good works of the Government of the day to curry benefits, it is also questionable to report only the negatives of a ‘strong’ and democratically elected government. Your credentials will be in question if you follow a set, premeditated agenda in presentation of news.

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A professional journalist will never compromise with ethics. And if a journalist is not comfortable with a group’s policy or structure, he or she has the option to look for work opportunities elsewhere. In any case, change of ownership has hardly ever changed a company’s policy dramatically. The clientele and viewership, as the market forces for corporate world, decide how a media group moves forward as a credible news supplier.

As far as this deal is concerned, it is not at all going to hamper anyone’s bread and butter or revolutionize journalism to the next level. I repeat, it is just another deal between two corporate houses and if one thinks (like it has been propagated on social media about freedom) that journalists will not be able to carry on with their distinct line of thought, one is fooling oneself.

As told to Rajat Rai

Will The Congress Please Buckle Up?

India’s older intelligentsia last month went through the annual ritual of righteously, and rightly, recalling the Emergency that was imposed 46 years ago, impairing civil liberties, media freedom and right to political protest. But the flavor and tone were different this year.

Expectedly, the targets were Indira Gandhi, the prime minister who imposed it, and the Congress party. Feebly, very feebly, the party protested. While not defending the Emergency, it picked up enough courage to say that the current situation was equally bad, even worse. Lacking the necessary ballast, its voice was further muffled by a partisan media, and met with aggressive rebuttals from those in power who claim the sole right to play the victims and even martyrs.

Significantly, most other ‘victims’ now in the opposition, did not join either side. It betrayed their conflict and confusion about their role in the current situation. And, of course, their unwillingness to be seen either with an aggressive ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or with the Congress.

It is time to ask: can, or should this caution persist? Last month also witnessed hesitant moves at forging opposition unity that betrayed mutual distrust and a lack of direction. These tentative moves are obviously prompted by the electoral triumphs of regional parties, like the DMK in Tamil Nadu and by Trinamool Congress in West Bengal.

The economic stress and the misery heaped by the second wave of Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to disillusionment. Together, they have caused a psychological backlash. Look at the government’s handling of protests, terming some as sedition and its vocal denunciation by the judiciary. Look at the anger at the floating corpses on the holy Ganga. This is unprecedented, and not a result of the opposition’s foreign-made ‘toolkit.’

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However, what could be a golden opportunity is being wasted, not just by the squabbling Congressmen, but also others fearful of the BJP’s dominant presence and aggressive implementation of its political agenda. Some like the Samajwadi and BSP are busy poaching each other’s workers and lawmakers. They have learnt little from the past and presently, the way the BJP poached from other parties, mostly to dump them. When it overdid that in West Bengal – a lot more was overdone, like a toxic, personalized campaign that boomeranged when Mamata Banerjee was individually abused – the reverse process began within weeks. The TMC turncoats want to return to it after winning on BJP tickets. This is unprecedented.

The biggest failure in taking advantage of this situation is of the Congress. In the party that led the country to its freedom, the family and the organization have become synonymous. Congressmen are unable/unwilling to even consider an alternative leader or a bunch of them. Why, organizational election itself is stalled for fear of the edifice falling apart. Covid-19 was cited as the reason the last time around.  

The party could not keep its own government in Madhya Pradesh and pulled back allies from victory in Bihar. In the last round of elections, it failed to retain Kerala and Puducherry and to regain Assam. It scored a zero in West Bengal.

There is discernible disenchantment with the leadership at the top. Here, too, the voices are feeble. The Gandhis are unable to prevent internecine warfare and seem clueless about how to stem the rot and plug the leaks. Incumbent chief ministers are facing revolt from factions and ambitious youngsters.

Punjab has been a success story, but dissensions have emerged with elections due next year. Navjot Singh Sidhu, seen by many as more of a show-boy and a possible tool/proxy of god-knows-who, could quit if not ‘accommodated’. Ditto, Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, who, however, has a better track record than Sidhu. Unsurprisingly, the BJP in Rajasthan and in Punjab, the Badals and Bahujan Samaj Party, besides AAP’s Kejriwal, are readying to demolish the two last Congress fortresses. The attitude of each party towards the continuing farmers’ agitation, drawing much of its sinew from Punjab, has made the situation more complex.

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Despite all this, the Congress is seen as the pivot of any opposition unity move by the elderly Sharad Pawar and a young Tejashwi Yadav. It urgently needs to choose its own role and direction if it is to play any role that could lead to opposition unity. A national party it certainly is, but only if it can carry others along. Days of others rallying behind it are over, at least for now. An ailing Sonia Gandhi, formally still the Congress president, had wisely pulled that off in 2004. Can Rahul and/or Priyanka, with their dismal track record in elections, repeat that?

As BJP lords it over, deprecating the Congress ‘dynasty’, but not the other small and big ones in the opposition, there is a point to ponder. No political party is homogenous – it cannot be. When you take too many people from outside, you dilute your own organisation and your ideological mores (many don’t have). As a mass-based party, the Congress embraced all and sundry, since that was also its role during the freedom movement. But many left it to join the opposition while retaining the ‘Congress’ label, thus hurting the ‘parent’ party.

The BJP, on the other hand, is a party with a strong ideological mentor in the RSS. Embracing too many MPs and MLAs from elsewhere has caused it greater pain than, perhaps, the Congress. But then, Mr Amit Shah is playing realpolitik, taking a leaf from L K Advani’s book authored in the 1980s and 1990s. The pain is visible in West Bengal and other places could follow as time goes. 

Talking of the 1990s, one misses Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the hands-on Marxist who rallied parties with diverse political platforms to forge coalitions that governed, however briefly. Now, Sharad Pawar has initiated the moves, tentative though they are.  Not himself a chief minister, he reputedly runs a government of diverse parties in Maharashtra, a major state.

It will be some time and much effort before the Pawar-Mamata initiative gains momentum. Without subscribing to any one or collective platform, it needs stressing that a healthy democracy requires balancing. India needs, as a Hindi expression goes, “loha lohe ko katata hai” – you need iron to cut iron.

At stake is not just the healthy functioning of a multi-party system, but also federal relations, particularly when and where different parties are elected. The Constitution provides for a federal governance and a multi-cultural ethos. In this context, one fully agrees with what the Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana, recently said of greater checks and balances to make a democracy thrive.

It is not going to be easy. One hears of ‘files’ with the Union government, those that ensure silence of some of the opposition leading lights. On the other hand, the BJP is certainly growing strong in terms of men, money, media and muscle as the party in power. Finally, at its helm is Prime Minister Modi who, as sociologist-politico Yogendra Yadav rightly predicts, “will fight till the last”. Can the opposition prepare for the seven states that will have elections next year, before the Lok Sabha polls? 

The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com

Why Arnab Goswami Deserves A Fair Trial

One of the singular achievements of sections of the Indian media toeing the line of the current regime in Delhi is that it has created a dog eat dog atmosphere in a country perpetually at war with itself. The polarization, often communal, racist, sexist and driven by hate, is so sharp and relentless, that its only cutting edge principle is to bay for blood at any cost, having buried all civilized discourse or rational principles of interaction into the garbage can of contemporary history.

Surely, this did not happen even during the draconian days of the Emergency; brave editors would dare to leave their editorial space blank, defying the censors sitting in their edit meetings. These channels created a competitive environment which brazenly and repeatedly flouted all that stands for media ethics and its inherited values.

Day after day they have manufactured mythical enemies of the nation from out of their figment of imagination, pampered the ruling regime’s pet obsessions, declared legitimate and peaceful citizens of this country as anti-nationals, created war propaganda and hate politics to the most absurd levels of heightened hyperbole, and indulged in daily media trials and hounding for the world to see. Much of what was displayed as a grotesque public spectacle on live TV as prime time shows every night in English and Hindi had neither an iota of decency nor space for rational dialogue.

Apart from shouting matches and regular ‘lynching’ of individuals, often these shows set the agenda for a kind of television journalism unseen in the annals of the audio visual media anywhere in the world. Anyone could be bashed, degraded and destroyed, for no rhyme or reason, and without any evidence whatsoever.

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In this vile and vicious melodrama of character assassination and the ravaging of reputations, there is no time to breathe. This is like the blood-letting of the gladiators of ancient times where television anchors became the jury and the judge, where the punishment was publicly announced even without a trial, while the mob wanted more public lynchings.

The daily trial, of course, daily entertainment of the most morbid kind camouflaged as news and opinion – the more filthy and indecent it became, the more it seemed to be lapped up by an indiscrete and invisible audience, till the time the Mumbai police found that even the TRP ratings seem to be fudged and manipulated, much like the prime time fake news dished out without any fact-checking whatsoever, and with only the intention to satiate the lowest and basest instincts of viewers.

The hounding of Rhea Chakravarty, even Deepika Padukone and others, were clear examples of this organized witch-hunting, driven by political interests. Indeed, most of the channels including that run by this particular gentleman who is now cooling his heels in jail, went overboard in becoming more loyal than the king, toeing the central government’s line with such ferocity and with such total disregard for basic journalistic objectivity and ethics, that embedded journalism found a completely new genre on television media in India. Every night became a night of organized targeting.

Even among the top television anchors, again unprecedented in Indian journalism, mutual hounding and calling names and that too on live television, became a new phenomenon. Rajdeep Sardesai for instance called Arnab Goswami’s channel a banana republic. Earlier Sardesai was castigated for his considered interview with Rhea, where she appeared articulate, coherent and dignified, while defending her arguments with great finesse. This was resented by those who had already announced her guilty in a shrill media trial which went on day after day.

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A lot of dirty waters have flowed in this daily gutter on live television in India in recent times. Peaceful PhD scholars, students, academics, intellectuals, writers and artists, and non-violent protesters against the NRC and CAA, demanding the restoration and resurrection of Constitutional values, were declared anti-nationals, terrorists, urban Naxals, among other condemnations which created a public opinion against them; whatever the police and the government said were floated with additional frills, thereby consolidating all forms of undemocratic actions taken by the government. When it came to the process of justice, or a fair trial, this section of the media chose to completely align with the powers that be, thereby dumping all norms of journalistic detachment, impartiality, fair play and objectivity. In sum and substance, this was the abyss of the lowest common denominator.

Given this abysmal situation, independent journalism and objective reportage was dumped into this very gutter which was celebrated every night on prime time. Veteran journalists were hounded. Others were arrested. A young Dalit journalist in Delhi was packed off to a jail in UP for a tweet which he had apparently retweeted, according to reports. The signal was clear: toe the line or be prepared for the worse.

Journalists in Jammu and Kashmir have been chosen for special treatment, even in what is ritualistic media censorship. Indeed, the jackboots and the clampdown has been  celebrated by the loyalist media completely disregarding the basic liberties and rights of 8 million Kashmiri people, thereby consolidating an already existing collective feeling of exile, condemnation and alienation.

Hence, those who are baying for the blood of Arnab Goswami who has been picked up by the Mumbai police on a case of suicide of a son and mother, the son being an interior designer of his new studio when it had launched a new channel, and the alleged non-payment of a huge sum of money, as declared in the suicide note, might fall in the same grotesque trap of vicious vindictiveness and public lynching which was celebrated by these channels. The argument that it is not a case of freedom of expression and is a criminal case might be true, but there are layers within layers, even as the case becomes sub-judice.

The dark irony is that this suicide was reportedly not even investigated earlier, even as the family members apparently knocked at all doors seeking justice for the son and the mother of the family. That seems to be a bigger case of injustice in a country where justice seems elusive to the ordinary citizens, especially those in the margins, as the family of the girl raped and murdered in Hathras witnessed. Dissenters are currently languishing in jail on allegedly fabricated charges under draconian laws. Whereby bail is a legitimate right in the judicial process, even bail is denied to these peaceful dissenters.

In this context, Arnab Goswami too deserves a fair and just trial, and not only because he is brazenly biased and partisan, a favourite of the current ruling regime in Delhi, and surely not because he presided over media trials on his channel, while invading the privacy of citizens and vitiating an already polarized atmosphere of a democracy pushed to an edge.

A Violent, Vulturous Prime Time News

Between the rape, brutalisation and murder of young women at Hathras and Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh, a state with a high index of crime against women, the reenactment of caste hierarchy and the violence of domination without any fear of impunity, and the release on bail of Rhea Chakraborty along with the final AIIMS panel’s verdict that actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s tragic death was due to suicide and not murder, a familiar saga seems to have opened up yet again in the Indian media. As is the post-truth, new normal scenario in contemporary India, it is yet again full of bile, toxicity and bad taste, and, day after day, reeks of bad faith in terms of media ethics, basic decency and objectivity.

Like the UP government and its formidable machinery which tried to fudge the truth or turn it ambiguous, and in turn found itself exposed in the face of ground reporting, exposing them on television screens and newspaper reports, a section of the TV channels, predictably and inevitably, chose to ignore the national outrage which followed the ‘forced cremation’ in the dead of the night of the young Dalit girl of Hathras, after her body was reportedly ‘hijacked’ from the Safdarjung Hospital in Delhi, amidst protests by AAP leaders. All the evidence about the gang-rape and murder have been out in the open, including the reported testimony of the girl when she regained consciousness amidst allegations that her medical treatment too was shoddy and badly botched up. There is a concerted call that the Supreme Court should monitor the investigations.

A section of the media first decided to ignore the issue, concentrating on a death in Bollywood, which has dominated the hysterical and inflammatory ‘media trial’ without substance or evidence of a young female actor, and consequently, other actresses, and the larger film industry in Mumbai. A kind of daily public spectacle of abjectly crude and crass cacophony was enacted like an obscene circus in some of the media channels.

When protests rocked the nation, barricades were being erected, and opposition leaders were braving police lathis, these anchors quickly changed their stand. Indeed, some gutsy ground reporters, especially persistent and brave women journalists, in both print and TV, did an extraordinary job in exposing the gross injustice in Hathras, with graphic pictures of the surreptitious cremation. Barricades were finally lifted, the ‘lockdown’ of the Dalit family was removed, and the media, politicians and civil society members were allowed entry. Surely, this shift occurred because some journalists and editors did not lose their sense of professional ethics and duty, and pushed the idea of freedom of expression and justice to its limit, in the face of a hostile regime.

However, the so-called ‘Godi Media’ remained relentless. Yet, again, predictably, they switched gear to follow the ‘international conspiracy’ line, and that some vested interests were trying to trigger caste violence in UP. A PR agency reportedly played an important role to disseminate this fake news. All their cacophonic hysteria having led to nothing  in terms of the actor’s suicide and the vicious hounding of Rhea Chakraborty and other actresses, some of them started floating the bogus theory of ‘no rape’ in Hathras. The abysmal depths of their journalistic fall, witnessed ritualistically like a morbid C-grade movie, indeed, calls for a larger debate on media ethics and the rules of broadcast journalism.

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Meanwhile, the Mumbai Police on October 8 claimed to have busted a ‘TRP scam’, alleging that Television Rating Points (TRPs) were being manipulated by certain channels, namely Republic TV and two Marathi channels. The owners of the two Marathi channels have been arrested. The police have reportedly said that “whoever in Republic TV” was involved in the manipulations will be interrogated. Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami has denied the allegations and said that it would file a criminal defamation case against Mumbai Police Commissioner Parambir Singh unless he apologises.

The police alleged that certain ‘sample homes’, where barometers to monitor ratings were installed, had been ‘paid’ to watch specific TV channels. Apparently, a paltry sum of Rs 400/500 were paid per house; ironically, many of them never watched English channels. Consumers were reportedly told to keep their TV sets on even while they were outside their homes, or while they were simply not watching television. If proved, this is a major scam, because advertising revenue is determined by TRP ratings also. “If you see the data, poor uneducated households that don’t speak English were watching only English TV channels,” Police Commissioner Singh said in a press conference in Mumbai.

In another case of dark irony, veteran television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai came live on India Today TV and attacked Arnab Goswami, his former colleague in NDTV. Said Sardesai on TV, while moderating a discussion as an anchor, “Targeted me during my Rhea Chakraborty interview, and more, but today I’m going to say – Arnab Goswami, you run a banana republic channel. You run a channel that has deliberately created a media trial for whatever your ends are. But do not bring journalism down to the level that you have. This is the only advice I will give you. This is not what journalism is about…You want me to name and shame, I will name and shame today, because I have kept quiet for two-and-a-half months and listened to the c**p that you have put out on air with only one purpose that you had — to try and get rating points. There’s something more important than TRPs, my friend; it’s called television respect points.”

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Many journalists believe that while the media in India remains free as enshrined in the Indian Constitution and Article 19, it has come under very difficult and hard times of late, especially since 2014. Rahul Gandhi pointed to this uncanny reality recently, saying that the Press in contemporary times, along with other important democratic institutions, has not really been free. This is particularly true in certain sections of mainline TV which have openly toed the establishment line, to the extent of literally operating as the mouth-pieces of the ruling regime in Delhi. No critical commentary is allowed, not even independent, balanced, restrained and objective reporting from the ground. Views and opinion are driven by crass melodrama and unrefined shouting matches on prime time screens with not an iota of a rational or decent exchange of ideas, or a mutual discourse driven by wisdom, patience and analysis.

In terms of ground reports, including on coronavirus or thousands of migrant workers walking on the highways, or, the sinking economy, mass unemployment, farmers’ unrest, even important international issues including the American elections, the coverage or critique is almost zero in a media which has combined the lowest denominations of doctored and fake news, and crass sensationalism, to increase their TRP ratings.

Theoretically, no ideal editor would call this form of mass communication as journalism. This is biased and vicious propaganda, nothing else. Indeed, if anything, this is a reflection of an endless and relentless fall which goes round and round in a vicious and perverse circle and there seems no way to stop this grotesque public spectacle. Media associations and watch-dog institutions, seem to have lost their moorings. There is simply no self-criticism or self-regulation, no respect for established protocols, norms and conventions, or professional accountability and ethics. Undoubtedly, a deeply disturbing and tragic moment in Indian journalism: It’s a free for all – a free fall.