Do news channels like Times Now and NewsX realize what they are doing?

How mass media can influence public behaviour and fuel hostility and resentment but must be endured.

ByAbhinandan Sekhri
Do news channels like Times Now and NewsX realize what they are doing?
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The news coverage over the JNU anti-India sloganeering by students and the response by the government and police has polarised news channels like nothing before. At least in my memory.

The crazy frenzy with which Times Now and NewsX drummed up hysteria would have been unbelievable had I not seen it myself. I have seen nothing as ridiculous as it, both in presentation and in the confused point they were making (or not making). It was the arms race of the absurd. There is no doubt political theatre sells and theatre of the absurd rocks. This is a game that will be played for TRPs as long as eyeballs determine revenue though advertising, so no point whining about it. It is as inevitable as the fact that Jersey Shore and Bigg Boss will get a larger audience than 60 Minutes or Satyamev Jayate.  That’s part of the game and it is fine. What we all need to watch out for is how this starts impacting us as we frame the reference points for debates – especially on freedom of speech and expression.

Conversations with colleagues, friends and acquaintances we have known and disagreed with for years are becoming more and more acrimonious on all sides. That, too, is good from time to time I guess. Aggressive and spirited debate never hurt anyone – except when it does. When there is endorsement of violence or approval of the state clamping down on people you disagree with or even silently endorsing gross violations of rights by the state, we wade into dangerous territory. It made me wonder – does how we get our news, information and how big media frames the debate impact our behaviour?

The ubiquitousness of news into our lives will only increase with TV and the Internet. Going forward, the one thing all across the ideological spectrum (especially news disseminators) will have to watch out for, is to not wade so far into the hysteria of battle and stick to one’s ideological corner to the point that we end up defending the indefensible. Once we go down that road it can lead to frightening situations where the most horrific acts are defended.

The blatant harassment and bullying of a female NDTV reporter (during Anupam Kher’s march on tolerance) and now the beating up and intimidation of journalists, faculty and students at Patiala House is being justified by people who we would consider rational in less combative times. This is important because history has shown us where that can lead. Note to Chetan Bhagat: You had asked what historians do. By recording human stupidity (and also brilliance) for perpetuity, historians make sure we don’t repeat our mistakes . A bit like Twitter (and screen shots of deleted tweets), but slightly more important.

I don’t want to sound alarmist but I decided to read up a bit on when popular media was effectively used and actually transformed a society on political ideology. The most extreme case is Rwanda. I know we are nowhere near that but it is good to keep the extreme case in mind in case some of our civilised folk start using archaic laws to defend more extreme forms violence than mere “scuffles” and arrests.

In 1994, Rwanda witnessed a genocide unlike any other in modern times. Over months (there was a historical context too) the propaganda machine had slowly made the conversation so toxic and polarised that relatives and family members were justifying acts against each other, which in any other situation or time would have left them aghast. Radio was used effectively to fuel suspicion and discord.  It didn’t end well. I repeat, I am not being alarmist and am aware that such a situation is nowhere in the realms of possibility here in India (Akhlaq’s murder by his villagers sparked by a loudspeaker announcement was a one-off).  I use Rwanda to make the point that regular, decent and rational people defending or participating in horrific acts is not an overnight event. It’s a slow process. We keep pushing the bar of what is acceptable. Defending violent acts against our peers is the first step. What we have to wait and see is just how far it will go and how much will be defended.  We have already seen Akhlaq’s murder being justified by people in responsible positions.

I quote from this article in the Human Security Centre on the media being used as propaganda tool – “Comparisons can be drawn with theories on war propaganda, particularly the common emphasis on the ‘traitor within’[vi]. War propaganda is often labeled as ‘news’, manipulated to further separate agendas[vii].” Sounds familiar? We have seen the words “traitor”, “anti-national”, “enemy of the state” thrown around way  more casually of late, again very often by non-political people. By people we have grown up with. How long before you think it will be okay to punch someone – maybe you – in the face for that?

“Following the RPF invasion, media outlets such as the newspaper ‘Kangura’, ‘Radio Rwanda‘ and in 1993 ‘Radio Mille Collines‘ (RTLM), became tools of mass propaganda. These media sources portrayed extreme ethnic distinctions, defining Tutsis as ‘the enemy’ and Kangura published the infamous Hutu ‘Ten Commandments’, a widely circulated, militant ‘Hutu Power’ doctrine. Sometimes popular music was mixed with incitement to murder. Propaganda fuelled hysterical fear of Tutsis and blurred the line between the RPF and domestic Tutsis.”

In the above context consider the frequency of “go to Pakistan” and “Pakistani” being injected into casual parlance. These utterances should not be defended no matter what your ideology. It is dangerous. Such propaganda legitimised horrific acts by civilians that no one would otherwise defend or endorse.

Do you see this happening?

Yes, I know we are far from that zone. The only reason I take this example is to illustrate that being reasonable is not a permanent state of being. I see the spectrum of reasonable that was crowded in the middle and sparse at the ends getting crowded at the extremes and sparse in the middle.

Just like Bigg Boss is entertaining, but isn’t a place to look for life lessons, NewsX and Times Now should occupy the same space in political and reality drama. Hell, give them more viewers if that’s what makes the news industry and economy grow, but be clear what you take from these news channels, especially their prime-time slots. What we have to watch out for is not to take positions that reflect our news consumption habits, which amuse us during dinner.

While I find Arnab Goswami and Rahul Shivshankar’s rants particularly outrageous and disgusting, and often inflammatory in the “anti-national” sense that could possibly incite violence (ironically what they outrage over all the time) – it would never be a good thing to favour any clampdown on them. No matter how repugnant the ramblings of our peers, the idea of free speech is worth the price. The worst among us must be endured so that the best among us are not silenced.

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