Arnab chooses 80s’ paparazzi to serve public interest

News professionals must not let the partisan age determine their stand on freedom of expression, that will hurt news and journalism.

WrittenBy:Abhinandan Sekhri
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I will get straight to the point. Provoking someone for a reaction just to create a tamasha is not journalism. It is what paparazzi do and have been doing for ages. It is a way to choreograph a spectacle with melodrama or farce and then monetise it on celebrity TV shows. Please see the video mash up below.

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Shows like Hard Copy and Entertainment Tonight have been using this trick for decades. Many Indian YouTube Bollywood gossip channels got in on it a few years ago. It is not new, and it is certainly not news. Now, add Arnab Goswami to that mix.

The problem is that Republic is using this gimmick to try and whip up some sort of national newsworthy narrative. The channel is trying to pass off an engineered spectacle or brawl as national news. And this phenomenon has the blessings of many powerful people who regularly congratulate and endorse his work.

“Journalism at its grittiest: tackling controversial and current issues head-on, unapologetically, and with as much sensation as possible.” Guess what show that line is describing? No, it is not a “news” show. That is the description (on IMDb) of Hard Copy, the trashy paparazzi drivel served to the USA through the Eighties and Nineties. Their “current issues” being tackled “head on” were about asking who is dating whom and whose child is whose and generally being provocative to celebs as they left parties or airports. That was the template.

How similar is Republic’s pitch, “We are too loud to be silenced” and other such one-liners. How similar is their programming? And how similar is their mission? One was unapologetically trashy tabloid stuff, the other has delusions of changing journalism.

Now getting to the point of journalists not standing up for each other. This in the context of the Congress party not allowing Republic TV reporters into their press conference and the channel’s usual taunts to other colleagues of not supporting them. There seems to be a suggestion (justifiable to a large extent) that unless one has similar political leanings, news professionals do not speak up for the other. True, NDTV’s ban was endorsed by many (including Arnab Goswami who has actually asked for a gag on NDTV) as well as when journalists Kanchan Gupta and Shiv Aroor were “questioned” by the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (ICERT) during the fag end of the UPA regime. They were hard-core critics of the government of the time.  Gupta had tweeted a cartoon of an old man forcing a little girl into a burqa from the Spectator magazine. That apparently was enough for an “emergency response” from the government agency. Mr Gupta describes it as a bizarre experience, being questioned in a dark room illuminated by a single bulb by a bunch of government officials and bureaucrats – “they were Gestapo memes” is how he describes them. There was no outrage back then because he didn’t belong to the dominant ideological grouping that influenced media narratives. There are more such examples. If they have a reason to be disappointed by the news fraternity, it is justified. Arnab Goswami’s is not. That distinction needs to be made very clear. When everything is journalism then nothing is journalism. When everything is righteous then nothing is righteous. When everything is news then nothing is news. This is the logic the “fake news” enthusiasts like Donald Trump hope to proliferate, by trying to discredit everything and every news professional so that nothing matters anymore. That will always be to the advantage of the lowest common denominator. In India, that would be Times Now and Republic TV.

The environment today is more polarised that it has ever been. This is not one party or the other’s fault. This is technology driven. It is a worldwide phenomenon in the hyper-connected, overarticulate, oversharing digital age. At the same time it is also the age of whataboutery and trying to pressure people into reacting to, endorsing or condemning, everything and anything. Business Standard carried a wonderful piece on this by Mitali Saran. While news professionals must not let the partisan age determine their stand on freedom of expression–that will hurt news and journalism, we must also be wary of being herded into an outrage when one is not really sure what the outrage is about.

So before anyone feels compelled to support or stand up for anything, let’s be clear what one is standing up for. Banning someone from your press conference is foolish. It may be a “right” just like farting in an elevator is, but you won’t get a standing ovation for it. The Congress, it is clear, does not want Republic TV reporters in its press conference. Not allowing them in is a lost opportunity. Removing them once you have demonstrated how many of them are simply there to create a “paparazzi event” in the Hard Copy-style of news, can be more easily defended. And you can be sure the Republic TV team will not disappoint.

I watched Republic TV on Tuesday night just to be sure that I had not missed any actual facts of them being shoved around or manhandled. The footage I saw (not heard about from a friend of a friend on Twitter, but saw with my eyes) clearly had the Republic TV cameraperson doing more shoving and elbow-poking than being subjected to any. What Republic TV is doing with this drama and paparazzi story-generating technique is very dangerous for news as a whole. There is a suggestion that one must stand up for outright boorish behaviour because it is about journalism. It is not. It is not about journalism or freedom of expression. It is about a Hard Copy-style circus that wants to pass off as news. And Arnab is using many good journalists as timber to feed this flame. That too is a shame for journalism. If Arnab and his channel were banned by the government, it would be the duty of every news professional to stand up for Republic TV’s right to run their shows. Aesthetics, taste or ideology should have nothing to do with that position. But to somehow suggest that one must jump each time he cries wolf because someone doesn’t want to talk to him or want the R mic stuffed in their face is a travesty and one must not fall for it.

The way Lalu Yadav’s flunkey and Lalu shoved around the extremely controlled and calm Republic TV reporter here, was a clear case of a journalist sincerely doing his job and a politician and his sidekick trying to be bullies. As news professionals, it would be appropriate to speak up for the young journalist (although one does not have to, to indulge or pacify always outraged trolls).

Many celebrities boycotted Entertainment Tonight and Hard Copy kind of shows. That was because the show would twist and misinterpret what was said–that was their bread and butter. It is what Republic TV and Times Now do everyday. In the case of celebrities, the logic is different. They are not accountable to the public in the same way public representatives and political parties are. So a politician’s tolerance threshold must be higher. But then also the conduct of journalists cannot be like those of late night tabloid entertainment shows. That will make the pitch for journalism that much harder.

It is no secret that the BJP has pretty much boycotted NDTV after the Nidhi Razdan vs Sambit Patra episode. You will be hard-pressed to catch any BJP spokesperson on a show on NDTV and only see proxies and RSS members. I may disagree with the BJP but it is their right on who to speak to and who not to, even though they are in power at the Centre. To think a rather ill-mannered spokesperson, who routinely displays boorish behaviour on TV channels can cause this is worrying, but that’s a different matter. Similarly Republic TV not being welcomed in Congress homes and press conferences is something I could disagree with but it’s not an attack of Freedom of Expression. There is a difference in dislike for someone and not allowing them to speak. The former is a right one can disagree with, the latter is an assault on us all that must be fought. Similarly make no mistake, provocation for the sake of generating noisy content is what paparazzi do, while journalism is talking truth to power in public interest. And that is an important distinction.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @abhinandansekhr.

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