In the aftermath of the Nupur Sharma controversy, the Indian television news media is being targeted from left and right. The left-liberal voices argue that news television is culpable for giving a ready platform to hate-mongers. The right, especially the Hindutva right, insist that news tv is guilty of selective indignation by allowing Muslim sectarians to get away easily. So where does the truth lie?
Lets take the left-liberal argument first. Is news tv giving space to hate-mongering? The short answer is yes. There is little doubt that there is far greater indulgence of those who spew communal venom now than ever before. After being unshackled from the government-run Doordarshan monopoly in in the 1990s, private news tv in its formative years was not trapped in the frenzied competition one witnesses today where the concept of ‘breaking news’ has virtually broken down. Being part of a relatively nascent tv news industry, news editors and reporters were almost insulated from market pressures and thereby had greater freedom to put journalism first. But now, with almost four hundred 24 x 7 news channels in the country, there is a manic competitive race for eyeballs that places sensation above sense.
This transformation is reflected in the contemporary format of news tv where sharply polarized debate is often seen as a more effective and cheaper way to design news operations. Where once field reportage was the basic diet of news tv, now the tv studio with larger than life anchors is the dominant arena for noise rather than news. Even the nature of what passes off now 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 just written on secularism. I had planned to get the equally formidable intellectual Arun Shourie to debate with him on the issue. Gadgil politely declined. “I don’t want a complex issue to be reduced to ‘tu tu main main’ soundbites between the two of us,” was his excuse. This was an age when we would get a maximum of two to three high profile guests to debate a subject at length. Now, channels often have ten heads popping out of a tv screen, screaming at each other. I wonder how the soft-spoken Mr 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 but globally investments in traditional news gathering have steadily declined. A flawed television rating point (TRP) centric model has meant that most news channels are convinced that cacophonous debate over divisive issues like religious identity will garner far more eyeballs than intelligent and meaningful discussions on ‘serious’ subjects like the state of the economy. That on the very day that consumer inflation peaked to an eight year high last month, the prime time menu of most news channels ignored this big headline but focused instead on yet another shrill debate on the Gyanvapi mosque reveals the skewed priorities of a morally compromised news eco-system. A ‘Fox news on steroids’ news model – a reference to the pioneers of the ‘profit from hate’ tv network in the United States – 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 the frazzled 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 forget that the likes of Nupur Sharma aren’t ‘fringe’ elements as the government of India rather disingenuously describes them but represent the political mainstream of India’s dominant ruling party. What Sharma blurted out about the Prophet may well have been expressed in the heat of another typically acrimonious tv debate but the fact is that her trenchant anti-Muslim views in general reflect the core beliefs of many within the saffron brotherhood for whom such language is now par for the course. A hate speech tracker earlier this year confirms a near-pandemic in use of inflammatory language and an exponential rise since 2014, especially in remarks made by ruling BJP politicians.
Lets now reflect upon the right wing case of bias against their viewpoint. Recall that it was precisely this argument that saw the rise of Fox News in the United States more than a decade ago as a response to right wing politicians fulminating against the so-called left-liberal domination of mainstream American news media. The initial Fox News motto was that it was ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ because it was finally providing space on a news network to voices with pronounced right wing agendas. In India too, the legacy media was accused of being controlled by a left-liberal elite that was contemptuous of alternate views. The rise of the political right is seen to have ensured greater space in the media to opinions that are not tied into traditional political correctness.
This argument is valid but only upto a point. Yes, a large section of the Indian media was wary, even dismissive of the Hindutva right in particular but post 1992 as the BJP has become a principle pole of Indian politics, there has been a marked power shift. Where once the left-liberals directed the media narrative, now the right wing cheerleaders are firmly ensconced in leadership roles in most newsrooms. The alleged pandering of ‘minority’ communalists is more than myth than reality: in most instances, the topi-wearing ‘television Muslim’ is caricatured and made a figure of ridicule, often demonized during pre-fixed slanging matches. In any case, the credentials of some of these self-styled ‘tv maulanas’ to speak for their community is highly dubious.
While the Nupur storm is a wake-up call for news tv, the elephant in the media jungle is the growing influence of social media in shaping the public discourse. While planning his controversial take-over of social media platform Twitter, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk had described Twitter as the ‘digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are discussed.’ Lofty words that bely the reality of a nightmarish space where hate speech often has a free run in the name of free speech. Many news channels today follow twitter trends, their prime time agenda almost dictated to 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: Leading business magnate, Harsh Goenka, who often creates a stir 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’?