My name is Ramit and I am not a journalist. I have no formal training as a journalist. However, I do understand and hold in great regard the four pillars of modern democracy.
Outside of the elected legislative, the appointed judiciary, and the executive, the very functioning of modern democracy depends on the voter knowing and understanding what is happening in the country. This obviously necessitates that the media be neutral, fair and rational. Perhaps that is too much to ask for in a post-Arnab Goswami/Roger Ailes world.
Over the past few years, I have been analysing and critiquing the Indian news media through video content I post on the internet, under the name “Official PeeingHuman”. My videos try and capture the absurdity, contradictions, and biases of Indian news and politics through humour and satire.
I have also been studying the airtime that mainstream news channels allocate to major issues to understand their editorial bent. The trends are worrying.
Take, for example, the last 202 debates (till October 19, 2019) across four major Hindi news channels, Aaj Tak, News18, Zee News and India TV. Their coverage is telling:
Attacking Pakistan: 79 debates
Attacking the Opposition (including Nehru): 66
Praising Modi and the BJP/RSS: 36
Ram Mandir: 14
Bihar floods: 3
Chandrayaan Moon Mission: 2
Rape case against Swami Chinmayanand: 1
PMC Bank scam: 1
Public infrastructure: 0
Farmers’ distress: 0
Poverty and malnutrition: 0
Women’s safety: 0
Environmental protection: 0
Mob lynchings: 0
Questioning any government decision or policy: 0
This is based on an analysis of four popular news debate shows: Dangal (Aaj Tak), Aar Paar (News18), Taal Thok Ke (Zee News), and Kurukshetra (India TV). Surprisingly, none of these are the titles of a 1990s action film starring Sunny Deol or Ajay Devgn. These shows behave less like objective news programmes and more like mouthpieces for the incumbent BJP/RSS establishment and their ultra-nationalist agenda.
The topics not covered by these channels are all detrimental to the governing establishment and to the fairytale that is “Achche Din”. In 2011, the news media would question the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh directly at press conferences. Today, it’s dedicated to defending the current prime minister, who has not held a single press conference in over five years.
Some of the debate titles, based on my research, are as follows:
Ye Pok Wapas De De Imran (Aaj Tak)
Mere Ram Vs Tere Ram (Zee News)
Modi Ka Prann — Pakistan Ka Cheer Haran (News18)
Vipaksh Pada Hai Chakkar Mein Koi Nahi Hai Takkar Mein (Aaj Tak)
Jab Tak Todenge Nahi Tab Tak Chhodenge Nahi (News18)
Modi Ke 100 Din Vs Vipaksh Ke Bure Din (News18)
Mangal Bhavan Amangal Haari — Ram Mandir Ki Karo Tayyari (News18)
Since 2014, a new India has emerged, one where nationalism trumps rationalism, where news anchors are employed to shout out their views rather than report reliable news. Facts, logic and research-driven journalism have been conveniently replaced by opinionated debates that more often than not resemble an episode of Bigg Boss.
The panellists in these debates, much like the inmates of Bigg Boss, are handpicked to perform the same screaming matches over the same fictional issues, day in and day out. They have arrived on the same formula used by reality shows and continuously churn out content that asks us to just switch our brains off and watch. Unfortunately, this genre has proven to be a great success with Indian audiences.
Anger and personal insults are celebrated, and any logic or reason is completely ignored to the point of being irrelevant. As a result, we get served with cheap entertainment, religious bigotry, and outrage porn masquerading as news. It is important for audiences and channels to remember that journalism is not reality TV. The two serve very different purposes with incredibly different stakes. We seem to have forgotten that as a country.
Indian news media today is communal and reckless. Just compare the News Broadcasting Standards Authority guidelines on how to cover the Ayodhya land dispute case (until the Supreme Court announces its verdict in November) with the debates and reporting that followed on primetime news. The NBSA advisory asked channels to not speculate on the Supreme Court’s verdict, not show celebratory images of a particular side, not call panellists with extreme positions on the case, and to avoid communal instigation of any sort.
These guidelines have been brazenly flouted by almost all news channels. Most are vocal in their support for Ram Mandir as the only solution to the dispute, often with sweeping visuals of Ram and the Ram Mandir proposed by the Vishva Hindu Parishad. Endless inflammatory debates have been conducted, where fringe elements are called on to create a communal spectacle. A news debate on Aaj Tak was advertised on Twitter with the tagline, “Janam bhoomi hamari, Ram hamare, Masjid waale kaha se padhare”.
With this in mind, I have started a petition to demand action against this dangerous and communal nature of news, and the brazen disregard for the NBSA’s advisory. Addressed to the NBSA as well as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, it has already received over 80,000 signatures.
You’re probably wondering, is there any scope to fix TV news? To answer this, we must pose another question: when was the last time you heard any negative news about any major industrialist?
Never. The bleak reality is that corporate giants not only control the media, but also the politics of our country. This is made possible by the anonymity that electoral bonds offer, the legalisation of foreign political funding, and the removal of any checks that limited corporate donations to political parties (through amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act in 2017 and 2018). For corporate bosses at the very top, having the political establishment and the media follow the same narrative is just a matter of good business.
Does this mean that we kowtow and stop fighting the dangerous misinformation and communal hatred being spread under the guise of news? Absolutely not. As one Indian TV journalist who actually does his job once said, “Not all battles are fought for victory — some are fought to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield.”
Our only chance to save our democracy is to completely boycott this news media, which I like to call “Modia”, and the advertisers who sponsor this kind of propaganda-driven news. At the same time, we must build a parallel independent news industry on the Internet, led by individual citizens and small organisations. We need new gatekeepers of news, who believe in the sanctity of information that is important, relevant and driven by facts. Our democracy can only flourish with news that seeks to inform and enlighten, when media is used to broaden our horizons, instead of catering to our worst impulses.