The outrage media’s war games

17 Oct 2016


THE smoke-filled newsrooms of English dailies in the Dubai of the 1980s where a clutch of newspapers had just debuted should normally have been centres of conflict. Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi journalists of different ideological hues were jostling for space and influence. They carried with them memories of wars and conflicts waged by their countries against one another, memories that should have left a bitter legacy of animus towards neighbours. Thankfully, there was nothing of the sort palpable in the media fraternity. The newsroom skirmishes were limited to differences over grammar and syntax, bylines and, of course, politics.

There was, however, one niggling source of discomfort for Indian journalists who were the largest media contingent in the Emirates. Many of our Pakistani colleagues were political refugees who had fled the Ziaul Haq regime after suffering jail and other punishments. Among these were journalist union leaders who had been summarily sentenced by military courts for launching a countrywide campaign against censorship. One was the gentle, pipe-smoking Aziz Siddiqi who later become editor of the Peshawar-based Frontier Post and the deceptively efficient copy whiz Saleem Asmi who in due course went on to edit Dawn. Both had had a rough time in jail and were looked up to by fellow journalists. Indians, on the other hand, carried the burden of their inglorious response to censorship during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years — of having crawled when asked to bend, as BJP leader L.K. Advani famously put it. It was an embarrassment that lay heavy.

When TV channels are not waving the flag or frothing they are fawning abjectly.

In recent weeks that embarrassment has become cringe-worthy as TV news channels launch war games of their own to mould and inflame public opinion after the September terrorist attack that killed 19 army men at the Uri base. Media, for the most visible part, has wrapped itself in the flag and unleashed a “country above all” style of news that throws all objectivity and journalistic norms to the winds.

Even a leading news channel like NDTV which prided itself on being different from the run of shrill media outlets has resorted to blatant self-censorship to keep up with jingoistic times. Last week, when it decided to drop its interview with a leading opposition politician in the name of national security, it recalled the worst of the Emergency days. The politician in ques­tion is the seasoned P. Chidambaram of the Congress party who has done several stints as home minister and finance minister under Manmohan Singh and Rajiv Gandhi. Chidambaram’s interview had fo­­cused on the demand for evidence of the much-vaunted surgical strike that the Narendra Modi regime had launched along the LoC to punish Pakistan post Uri.

Since extreme jingoism is the order of the day it should not have occasioned surprised that even this pioneering news channel should lay out an indefensible set of guidelines for its staff. It states among other things that “national security cannot be compromised by politics as the current political debate threatens to do”.

The irony of such posturing could not have come at a more embarrassing moment. With the Cyril Almeida case making the headlines here — for the wrong reasons since it was used to portray the Pakistani authorities as undermining press freedom and not as an instance of journalistic courage by the reporter and the newspaper — the NDTV episode did little to burnish India’s image as a torchbearer of free media. As Chidambaram pointedly said: “I want to raise a more fundamental question. I am asking the media: why are you guys falling like ninepins to unjustified demands, if any, from the powers that be? It’s sad. If the media, which fiercely protests, or used to fiercely protest any suggestion that the media should be restrained, why is it capitulating?”

What has happened to Indian media? Its ethics have been in question even before the scandal of the Radia Tapes in 2010 which implicated a number of media stars from both TV and print in attempts by a corporate lobbyist to influence the UPA government to appoint a specific politician as telecom minister. But its irrevocable slide into political partisanship became clear in 2014 when TV news channels scripted the outcome of the parliamentary elections. In the most televised elections in the country’s parliamentary history, the overwhelming majority of news networks gave saturation coverage to Narendra Modi, the kind of coverage that blurred the lines between reporting and his party propaganda.

Taking its cue from the US where right-wing media has perfected the art of outrage, Indian news channels are climbing on to the outrage industry as it is termed and thriving on it. This relies on the use of “categorical statements, exaggerations, and partial truths about opponents” and more conveniently, it sidesteps “the messy nuances of complex political issues in favour of ad hominem attacks, over-generalisations and dire forecasts of impending doom”.

This has proved to be a surefire formula for gaining eyeballs as India’s most popular Times Now has shown. And everyone else is eager to follow suit. At the last count there were close to 840 channels, with news channels accounting for as much as half of the number and the rest entertainment. That’s a rare phenomenon worldwide, possibly because the news purveyed in India is seen as entertainment. But as growth has zoomed ownership has shrunk dramatically with just a handful of companies controlling the leading media groups. The leading player is India’s largest private sector company Reliance Industries which has over the years bought up the coun­­try’s largest news broadcaster Network18 Group. This would explain why despite the presence of close to 400 news channels the messages purveyed by the leading ones appear to be surprisingly uniform.

The monopoly control of media is barely discussed in the country although the regulatory body has warned that India is in the thrall of a few major players, who have the ability to significantly influence public opinion. The government is in no hurry to bridle the outrage industry since it is so much in tune with its ideology.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.

Published in Dawn October 17th, 2016