What Gujarat elections lacked in civility of discourse, it made up for in drama.
Nay, full-on drama. From temple visits, to declarations of the Congress president-elect’s affiliation to the janaeu (thread considered sacred according to the caste system, which modern India should deem redundant) to the Prime Minister sharing conspiracy theories that would put moon landing deniers to shame.
The media, of course, became the channel through which this drama reached our drawing rooms and became the topic of “burning debates”. But sometimes journalists also became part of the drama. We’re talking about the Indian National Congress banning TV channels Times Now and Republic TV from its press conferences.
Now, if you watch both the channels, it is more than apparent that the two love to hate the Congress and its president-elect Rahul Gandhi, especially Republic TV. #CongBetrayedRam, #PakCongMeeting, #RahulDucks, #RaGaOfDenial, #RaGaSopStory, #GandhiVIPSaas, #RahulHinduOrCatholic #RahulHinduTerrorCable and #BaapKaRaaj were actual hashtags that accompanied debates on Congress on the two channels.
Republic TV’s reporters and its commander-in-chief Arnab Goswami have used words such as coward, lunatic and worm for Congress members. This is perhaps the reason why the Congress’ move to block the channels did not evoke the usual outrage one witnesses when a news organisation is denied access by netas. But the argument that the Congress is right in banning the two channels is a slippery slope – one which implies that it’s okay for politicians to deny access to news channels they don’t get along with.
There is also the consideration that reporters on the field who cover these pressers can hardly be blamed for the line their channel chiefs take in the studios.
Talking about the ban, a Times Now reporter told Newslaundry: “They [Congress leadership] are of the opinion that they are not given their due limelight as far as prime-time debates are concerned and that there is a vicious witch-hunt of sorts against Rahul Gandhi, Robert Vadra, his family and the UPA government.”
When asked if the Congress’ grievance was justified, the reporter said: “Times Now is known for its aggressive journalism. But that is not something new. And, therefore, despite the boycott there are sections of leaders [in the Congress] who speak to us.”
Speaking about the channel’s pro-government stance, the reporter added: “As far as the channel’s stance is concerned, it is known to be tilting a little towards the government. But there are situations where reporters have to face the onslaught for no fault of theirs – this should have been between the editors and the leaders of the Congress. However, they both seem to be sticking to their stand and nobody is willing to blink first. This leaves reporters at the receiving end.”
As an example, the reporter said they were taken off the mailing list as well as the SMS list after Times Now did a story on Robert Vadra. “I was taken off the list even though I had nothing to do with the story,” the reporter said. The reporter agrees that both Times Now and Republic TV have on occasions been hyper-aggressive during press conferences but that isn’t always the reporters fault. The solution to changing this dynamic is to ensure that both – the editors from the channel and the leaders of the Congress – meet, else reporters will continue to face the brunt, the reporter added.
A senior Republic journalist, however, felt the channel’s aggression is not just directed at the Congress. “It [Republic TV’s reportage] is not party-specific. We are very aggressive when it comes to political stuff. We don’t believe in all these niceties.” The journalist added: “Our brief from the editor is ‘do your job’. We are not here to please anybody, be it the Congress, BJP, PDP, National Conference or anyone else for that matter.”
Chitra Subramaniam, Co-Founder of The News Minute and Editorial Adviser, Republic TV, expressed more concern about the principle of blocking or disallowing some sections of the media rather than who is being blocked.
“Here we have to make a distinction between selective briefings which all governments conduct and press conferences. In the latter, if you systematically block a few organisations or reporters, you are, in effect saying you are afraid of them,” Subramaniam said, adding: “What Indian politicians must understand is that in this day and age with what technology affords, blocking access is silly and counter-productive – respect has to be gained every day, not ordered and the only way that will happen is through engagement.”
Subramaniam had tweeted in support of Republic TV but did not find favour among some commentators.
The debate, then, is no longer about selective blocking of news channels but whether some channels can be considered to be practising journalism at all in the first place. Giving an explanation for the party keeping Republic TV out of a presser, Congress’ Salman Anees Soz said in a tweet: “Republic TV cannot be classified as a news organisation. Republic TV is an unabashed platform for BJP propaganda. Its coverage should be regulated by the Election Commission as an in-kind donation to the BJP.”
But is blocking a channel an effective way to counter one-sided coverage? Sevanti Ninan, the editor of The Hoot, does not think so. She said: “I don’t think you can counter bias by blocking journalists from a presser. I do think political parties have to be above that. The Republic TV blocking ended up with the channel and the reporter creating a huge shindig. It did not make either side look good.”
Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that the Congress has not banned channels such as Zee News or India TV – which aren’t exactly favourable channels – from its pressers. The reason, then, appears to be beyond perceived bias or unfair coverage.
Surely, studio bosses at Republic TV and Times Now need to do some introspection, if for no one else then for their own reporters on the field.