Playing favourites or finding balance: How does Bengali media report on political parties?

In this battle for media space, here’s a rundown of print, TV and digital news.

WrittenBy:Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
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During home minister Amit Shah’s roadshow in Singur in Hooghly district on April 7, a journalist from ABP Ananda asked him to comment on the repercussions of the TMC’s four-time MLA, Rabindranath Bhattacharya, switching over to the BJP ahead of the election and contesting on the saffron party’s ticket.

Pat came Shah’s reply: “ABP too is now with Mamata Banerjee but will be with us after the election.”

Shah was referring to the ABP group, West Bengal’s largest media group. Apart from other publications and ventures, it owns the 99-year-old Anandabazar Patrika, which is the highest circulated Bengali daily; the English daily Telegraph; ABP Ananda, one of Bengal’s leading news channels; and Hindi language news channel ABP News. The conglomerate has a total readership of over 12 million.

Of the lot, the Telegraph has gained a reputation over the last few years of being a staunch critic of the Modi government at the centre. Anandabazar Patrika has not gone overboard with criticising any party but, as its readers and political observers have pointed out, it’s a little more critical of the BJP than the TMC. We will come to this later in the story.

Now, whether ABP Ananda sides with the TMC or the BJP is a subject of heated debate among viewers and party supporters. Interestingly, in December, BJP supporter Rishi Bagree – who is often accused of peddling misinformation and is followed by the who’s who of the party – tweeted the following:

For context, the ABP group is owned by the Sarkar family, with former editors Prafulla Kumar Sarkar and Aveek Sarkar being among the most illustrious names. The group is presently under the control of Arup Kumar Sarkar, who is its director.

Shah’s comments on April 7 may reveal that he isn’t too happy with the group. But a recent interview with Shah in Anandabazar digital might appease him. What makes this even more important is that the interview was conducted by Aveek Sarkar.

Sarkar offered no critical questions. In fact, he seemed to agree that no development had happened in Bengal over the last 44 years since the beginning of the Left front's rule in 1977. He also commented that the state of education was far better under Syama Prasad Mookerjee, which is historically questionable. Mookerjee is the BJP's prime icon in Bengal who had served vice-chancellor of Calcutta University during the British era.

“The BJP has virtually no influence on the Bengali print media, while they share the space almost equally on TV channels,” said psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, who teaches political science at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati university. “However, on the digital media, they have greater influence than the TMC.”

He also said the Bengali print media is “quite hostile” to the BJP than “the Delhi-based media.” These comments are in stark contrast to the popular perception that the Indian media has lost much of its spine and credibility since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.

Chakraborty continued: “The majority of the Bengali print media has been hostile towards the BJP for two reasons: the pressure from the state government over advertisements, and that the majority of editorial staff in the Bengali print media adhere to left-liberal, socio-religious views and are opposed to the BJP and the RSS.”

Journalist Sudipta Sengupta, who has worked in leading positions in both print and broadcast media for over two decades, said the BJP has little success in influencing the local media in Bengal.

“The BJP has not been able to influence the Bengali print media the way they have influenced the Hindi media,” he said. “However, they have a far more influence in Bengali TV channels.”

Print media

Here’s a look at some of Bengal’s leading Bengali papers.

A reading of Anandabazar Patrika reveals no overt bias towards any political party but a common theme in its pages is a criticism of the communalisation of Bengal politics.

In its edition dated April 8, the top story on page 6 was headlined “Joter michhiley rong tarunyer-i”, roughly translating to “it’s the youth who add colour to the alliance rallies”, referring to the alliance between the Left, the Congress, and the Indian Secular Front. Another report on the same page discussed the politics in Sonarpur’s constituencies and said the “new strain” in Bengal politics – communalism – has not made inroads there.

A third report was on a music video released by celebrities who support the BJP. The video was a counter to this and protested the rape of a Hindu girl in Bangladesh. Anandabazar Patrika’s response was to ask whether it’s legal to cite foreign incidents in order to seek votes.

However, when it comes to the editorial page, the BJP found plenty of criticism.

For example, Anandabazar Patrika’s April 11 editorial by Goutam Chakraborty said that “Hindutvadis” have a long way to go to to understand Hinduism beyond their “hullabaloo around temples, mosques and ripped jeans”.

An opinion piece by Saikat Bandopadhyay on April 10 criticised the NRC and the BJP’s role in it, while Debashis Bhattacharya rang an alarm bell over “communal polarisation” on April 8. April 7’s editorial page had a piece criticising cow-centric politics, April 6 had one on the “persecution” faced by Bengalis outside the state, and April 5’s was a scathing attack on the centre on bigotry and the shrinking space for free thinking. On April 4, Arindam Chakraborty wrote in the editorial page that examples from Hindu texts prove that it is unacceptable to criticise other religions.

With respect to other newspapers, Bartaman, the Bengali daily with the second highest circulation, overtly favours the TMC. It uses tell-all headlines, such as: “Women chase BJP candidates with brooms”; “After farm laws, centre hits people by increasing fertiliser prices”; “Women welcome TMC candidate with flowers and blowing of conches”; “Didi has worked a lot, don’t worry; voters assure Om Prakash”;

Going through the paper between April 1 and April 9, one finds multiple instances of Bartaman covering TMC candidates in depth, with their rivals being mentioned only in passing.

'Mamata Banerjee is the face of protests in Bengal', says this caption in Bartaman.

Bartaman was founded in 1984 by Barun Sengupta, a staunch critic of the Left regime and a vocal supporter of Mamata Banerjee. When the TMC came to power in 2011, the paper briefly took an anti-government stance before becoming what it is today: more critical of the BJP than the TMC.

Ei Samay, which is owned by the Times group, tries to maintain a balance in its electoral coverage but it too has been less harsh towards the TMC than the BJP in its editorial pages.

Sample its opinion pieces over the last eight days: On April 8, teacher Arnab Saha criticised the BJP and the Sangh Parivar for how it wanted women to remain “subdued” and subservient to men. On April 7, Vishwa Bharati University teacher Manas Maiti cited the resignations of Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian from Ashoka University as proof of shrinking space for free speech. April 6 had Indian Statistical Institute teacher Subhamay Mitra mulling the possibility of the Left returning to power in Kerala. On April 2, Calcutta University’s former vice-chancellor Sugata Marjit argued against policies like “one nation, one soul, one language”. And on April 1, social activist Bolan Gangopadhyay captured the voices of the farmer protests in Delhi.

However, a senior employee told this writer on the condition of anonymity: “We have been instructed not to go overboard with criticising either side.”

Two dailies with relatively smaller circulation numbers are Aajkal and Sangbad Pratidin. Aajkal is visibly pro-TMC while Sangbad Pratidin maintains a balance, or tries to. Pratidin is owned by the Bose family which has had two TMC MPs in the Rajya Sabha: Swapan Sadhan Bose and his son Srinjay. The latter quit politics after

Finally, there’s Uttarbanga Sambad, possibly the most influential daily in north Bengal which does not seem to take sides.

A general trend observed in Bartaman and Aajkal is that TMC candidates get the spotlight, followed by those from the Left-Congress alliance with the BJP coming in third. Among the alliance members, the CPIM, with its Hindu support base, tends to get the most favourable coverage, unlike the Congress and Indian Secular Front that are based in Muslim-dominated areas.

Broadcast media

Then, there’s the broadcast media. The buzz began in January with the launch of TV9 Bangla while Zee group’s 24-Ghanta had a relaunch. This was followed by the much-hyped launch of Republic Bangla in March. The latter used this catchline for its launch: Kotha hobey chokhey chokh rekhey. In other words, we’ll hold you accountable.

Republic has often been accused of siding with Modi and his party, and the launch of its Bengali channel enthused BJP supporters in the state. Editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami speaks Bengali, albeit with a slight non-Bengali accent.

Unsurprisingly, the channel’s programming stands very much against the TMC.

For example, Republic Bangla interviewed AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owasi, whose party launched in Bengal this election, contesting in 13 seats. The channel chose to ask him how the TMC had “curtailed” the AIMIM’s democratic right to hold rallies and campaigns in the state.

Republic Bangla’s advertisement in Kolkata. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

Republic Bangla’s modus operandi is to diligently report on BJP candidates and leaders, as seen from their Facebook page. The channel’s debates highlight issues like alleged attacks on BJP workers and leaders and others, but only when the TMC is the alleged perpetrator. Allegations by the TMC find no space.

Next up is 24-Ghanta, owned by the Zee group whose head Subash Chandra Goel is an independent Rajya Sabha MP who served as the chairman of Ekal Global, an RSS-backed initiative. The channel tilted towards the BJP since the beginning of the year but managed to make most of its coverage balanced.

For instance, of its 21 stories uploaded on April 9 on the assembly election, five favoured the TMC, eight the BJP, one the Congress, and the rest were general.

Then there’s News18 Bangla, owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Network18 group. One of its anchors triggered a controversy in February when she stopped Partha Pratim Biswas, a Jadavpur University professor, from criticising the Ambanis in the context of an alleged nexus between Modi and Ambani. “You can’t keep criticising Ambanis through a channel owned by the Ambanis,” she said. But none of the channel’s reports on the election – see here, here and here – reflect any bias towards any political party.

TV9 was taken over by Jupally Rameshwar Rao’s My Home group in 2019. Since 2021, there have been speculations that Rao will join the BJP. Does this reflect in its coverage?

Well, between March 15 and April 7, the channel listed the electoral rallies that were being held in Bengal. From the TMC, it noted only those rallies addressed by Mamata Banerjee whereas the BJP’s side included a plethora of rallies addressed by Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Dharmendra Pradhan, Rajnath Singh, Santosh Kumar Gangwar, Smriti Irani, Arjun Munda, JP Nadda, Locket Chatterjee, Mithun Chakraborty, Ravi Kisan, Nitin Gadkari, Manoj Tewari, Yogi Adityanath – and a lot more.

TV9 Bangla’s top videos on April 10.

This difference is also seen in TV9’s reports. Its top nine videos on April 10 included four on Amit Shah, one on the CPIM’s criticism of the TMC, and one on an investigation into a coal scam involving Mamata Banerjee’s nephew. The other three video reports were non-political. Its coverage of the BJP tends to parrot what BJP leaders say, while that of the TMC and Left-Congress alliance are more critical.

On April 10, for instance, four Muslims and alleged TMC supporters died in firing by security forces while a Hindu woman alleged her child was snatched in a Muslim-majority crowd at a booth, TV9 highlighted the latter over the former. The channel’s anchor said: “Five persons have died, very sad...But a mother having lost her child during an election?...Questions are being raised, which game of democracy is this?”

Importantly, the anchor used the phrase “khela” for “game”, while Khela Hobey or ‘game on!’ is one of the TMC’s slogans this election that is often criticised by the BJP.

Among channels with smaller viewership, Calcutta News owned by a local businessman openly favours the BJP while Kolkata TV, owned by another businessman, is visibly pro-TMC. It is due to this role of Kolkata TV that a section of TMC supporters are saying on social media that it was the only channel worth watching.

Journalist Suman Bhattacharya told this writer that the BJP managed to secure the “near complete” support of TV news channels ahead of the election.

“The BJP has gained massive influence on the print media, except for Bartaman, and near complete influence on the electronic media,” he said, adding, “But in case of the digital media, the BJP has exceptional influence and there has been a flood of fake news being spread through nondescript web portals.”

According to him, the TV channels that try to portray a neutral approach towards reporting incidents show a pro-BJP tilt during live shows and debates.

Sambit Pal, a journalist and faculty member at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Dhenkanal, said print and TV news which once favoured the TMC have now become more “balanced”.

“The TMC accuses the BJP of intimidating and influencing the media at the national level but they too try to do the same in West Bengal,” he said. “However, over the past couple of months, the major print and electronic media houses are mostly trying to maintain a balance, as they seem to be unsure of the electoral outcome.”

He added that the smaller media houses, however, were taking one side or the other.

The digital media

Bengal has a handful of news organisations reporting on YouTube.

Arambagh TV reports on events from Arambagh sub-division of Hooghly district. It has over two lakh subscribers. Last week, journalist Himadri Ghosh wrote on Facebook that its editor, Safikul Islam, has become “Bengal BJP’s blue-eyed boy”.

Ghosh isn’t wrong. Arambagh TV clips are often widely shared by BJP supporters on social media and WhatsApp. Islam’s relentless criticism of the TMC in Arambagh is well-known. He was arrested twice after exposing alleged corruption by TMC supporters and leaders and spent nearly two months in jail last year. Even the Calcutta High Court asked why he was being “harassed”.

Since his release, he has been criticising Mamata Banerjee on almost all major issues, from the CISF firing at a polling booth in Cooch Behar (253k views as of April 13) to how prime minister Narendra Modi never promised Rs 15 lakh in everyone’s account as alleged by his opponents (160k views).

Additionally, a handful of digital media portals launched over recent months, with the majority of them not only siding with the BJP but openly posting fake news, often with a communal twist. Sunday Times Kolkata, for instance, has been called out twice for posting misinformation on Prashant Kishor’s IPAC. India Rag and Bangodesh have also been publishing provocative articles that are shared in their thousands, for example, this, this and this.

“It’s extremely difficult to maintain objectivity," said Halim Mandal, the owner of Sting Newz, which has over 2.6 lakh subscribers and is based in Nadia district. "Whenever we publish a story that goes against one party, our correspondents face harassment while covering the next rally of that party. Besides, there is trolling on social media and intimidation over the phone. To remain independent, one not only needs to ensure revenue through their own channel but also [have] the spine to resist intimidation.”

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