TV debates are toxic, but speculation on whether they killed Rajiv Tyagi must stop

Tyagi himself was an aggressive and enthusiastic participant. His death cannot be simply ascribed to TV debates.

WrittenBy:Akanksha Kumar
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Late on August 12, Congress spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi died after a cardiac arrest. In a 45-second video clip taken shortly before his death, Tyagi, 52, was seen looking uneasy while participating in a TV debate: he fidgeted and then gasped. Tyagi died half an hour after this debate on Rohit Sardana’s show Dangal on Aaj Tak.

The hour-long discussion was on the violence in Bengaluru last week that resulted in the death of three people. Tyagi faced off with both Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Sambit Patra, who called him “Jaichand”, or “traitor”, and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue Sangeet Ravi — so much so that Sardana later turned off their microphones.

Tyagi’s sudden death sparked a row on the “toxic” nature of TV debates, even as others pointed out that Tyagi “gave it back just as good as he got” during these discussions.

On August 13, a day after Tyagi’s death, Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill wrote a letter to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, requesting that an advisory be issued to media houses enforcing a code of conduct to curb the “sensationalist, slanderous and toxic nature of televised media debates”. Shergill and Tyagi go back seven years, when they both began appearing on TV together.

“Everyday, you’re doing two or three debates,” Shergill told Newslaundry. “You’re running on a treadmill with high blood pressure, high decibel volumes multiplied by 365 days. This boxing arena takes a toll on the body.”

Tyagi was a Youth Congress leader in the Nineties, who was jailed five times since 1998 in Ghaziabad district while, as his Facebook page says, “fighting for the causes of farmers, youths and labourers”. His other accomplishments include disrupting a public meeting by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, and participating in an “Akhir Kyon” yatra in 2005 across 48 districts against then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mulayalam Singh Yadav.

From an aspirational leader from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, Tyagi made a space for himself as a TV commentator known for his theatrics in the last few years. Did he change tactics after the rise of the BJP in 2014?

In April 2018, when Rahul Gandhi went to meet Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad Yadav, Tyagi participated in a debate on News18. As tempers flared, Tyagi stood and approached anchor Sumit Awasthi. Awasthi was rattled, slapped Tyagi on his shoulder, and told him to retreat to his seat. In another show in July 2018 on Aaj Tak, Tyagi tried to hug Sambit Patra, a gesture symbolic of Rahul Gandhi trying to hug Narendra Modi in the Lok Sabha.

“During the United Progressive Alliance years, the media would hold the government accountable,” claimed Congress leader Manish Tewari. “These days, the media holds the Opposition to account.”

Shergill also agreed that there’s added pressure due to agenda-driven debates on TV. “This vitriolic atmosphere puts pressure on us. We are interrupted and the topic for that debate is declaratory enough to divert the issue.”

‘Toxicity on TV is reality’

Soon after Tyagi’s death, #ArrestSambitAndSardana began trending on Twitter. Senior journalist Tavleen Singh described it as a “humiliating moment for India’s media”, decrying how “celebrated TV anchors” are “bullied night after night by BJP spokesmen”.

Singh added, “We were better off in the old Doordarshan days.”

But this analogy might not be appropriate, as public discourse has changed drastically over the decades. Ashutosh, a journalist and former member of the Aam Aadmi Party, told Newslaundry, “Toxicity on television is reality. Even before 2014, TV panelists used to attack each other. But the kind of abuse and language that’s used now is a new thing.”

Ashutosh himself moderated TV debates for over a decade until he entered politics in 2014. He raised questions on the role of an anchor today. “The trend is evident: a kind of panelist is supported by a certain kind of anchor, the latter encouraging carpet-bombing [during the show]. The sad part is that anchors appear as contract killers.”

Be that as it may, it would be unfair to blame Sardana or Patra’s over-the-top behaviour for Tyagi’s untimely demise. Journalist Nidhi Razdan told Newslaundry, “I don’t want to subscribe to blame theory here. But I do think Sambit Patra needs to reflect as a national spokesperson if such behaviour behoves him and whether he needs to question someone’s patriotism and make such personal remarks.”

Razdan, who reiterated that Tyagi’s death can’t be attributed to the Aaj Tak debate, pointed out: “The incident does show how toxic and coarse the language has become.” In 2017, he was asked to leave a show by Razdan, then the executive editor of NDTV, after he accused the channel of having an “agenda” during a debate.

On August 14, Manish Tewari, who is also a former information and broadcasting minister, called Tyagi a “frontline casualty” and suggested “big bang reforms”, starting with the government cancelling all TV licenses.

In a telephonic conversation with Newslaundry on the need for regulation of TV content, Tewari said, “The issue here is the revenue model of TV channels. You have to be vitriolic to get eyeballs which, in turn, translates into revenue.” Citing clauses under the Cable Television Networks Rules, Tewari said he favoured the ministry monitoring channels that allow and enable “aberrations”, and handing them notices.

But journalists in India have often opposed regulation by the government fearing that it may amount to censorship. “Government regulation will open a Pandora’s box,” said Razdan. “Ideally, there has to be self-regulation. We need to strengthen press bodies and let them be the arbiters.”

Newslaundry reached out to both Sambit Patra and Aaj Tak’s Rohit Sardana for comment, as well as the BJP’s media cell. This story will be updated if they respond.

‘If we lose civility, we lose civilisation’

As a piece in Congress mouthpiece National Herald points out, Tyagi was considered to be the only Congress spokesperson who could outshout Patra and beat the BJP spokesperson at his own game. “He was a perfect foil to Patra,” an unnamed anchor said in the piece. This is evident in a November 2018 debate during the Madhya Pradesh Assembly election, where Tyagi and Patra launched into a slogan battle of sorts, overpowering anchor Anjana Om Kashyap.

Earlier that year, in July 2018, a clip of Tyagi went viral, showing him hurling abuses at News18 anchor Amish Devgan on live television. This was during a debate on the mob lynching of Rakbar Khan. Tyagi called Devgan a pimp, among other things.

“He was very, very aggressive,” Ashutosh said, while emphasising that TV panelists “have no option but to give it back”.

Shahid Siddiqui, a political commentator, said, “They all copy Fox News. It’s worse than dog fights and bull fights.” Siddiqui himself stopped attending TV debates a few years ago, he said, since he was never invited as an expert — he was only cornered as a Muslim.

Nalin Kohli, a BJP spokesperson who spoke to Newslaundry in his individual capacity as a lawyer, said, “I have consistently held that if we lose civility, we lose civilisation. TV debates are just a subset of the general lack of civility in our daily lives including on social media.”

Kohli cited Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech and expression. “The debate on the limits of Article 19 is far from settled,” he said. “At one end of the spectrum are those who feel slogans calling for the dismemberment of India are their cherished right under Article 19. The polar opposite expects that such utterances require the state to immediately jail these people.”

He concluded: “In this context, when what we can speak under our constitutional rights is still being debated, can we expect regulating how we are to speak?”

But in the absence of any direct link, any campaigns that blame Patra for Tyagi’s death need to stop. Instead, it’s a good time to rethink the toxicity on display every night during primetime debates, all in the name of journalism.


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