Hectoring doesn’t win friends or influence people. Indian anchors on Ukraine need to learn this

More than their faux pas, however, we need to dissect how they may have ended up hurting India’s image in some quarters.

ByDavid Devadas
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Hectoring doesn’t win friends or influence people. Indian anchors on Ukraine need to learn this
Anis Wani
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Let’s call them bull-anchors. You decide whether that’s short for bullish anchors, as in bull markets, or something else.

So, during their respective programmes on the war in Ukraine, two of Indian television’s shrillest bull-anchors got slapped down by participants. One became viral comic relief after yelling at the wrong panelist, repeating the wrong name ad nauseam, during a rant. (Do they really think naming panelists in taunting tones is a rhetorical putdown?)

The other was silenced by an equally aggressive panelist from Hong Kong, who yelled, “Don’t interrupt me. I haven’t spoken one minute and you interrupt me!”

As is their wont, both anchors asked questions that went on and on. I surfed channels during one such moment and when I returned, the question/speech was still spewing relentlessly.

One of the anchors said “one line from me before you come on”, repeated it, and then proceeded to utter a dozen more lines. The other stated, without a blush, that “we are having an intellectual discussion”. The otherwise smarter one blithely accepted as a compliment a foreign participant’s laconic “thank you for discussing important issues”.

Both news channels had lined up panelists from across the world to discuss the war in Ukraine. But some panelists looked like polite guests shiftily eyeing the door at an impolite acquaintance’s party. There was even a yawn or two – or perhaps that was a slightly suppressed, open-mouthed eye roll. One panelist said, “I am speechless; I am heartbroken to be in this discussion.” That didn’t help him.

Several Indian news channels also tried hard to project their presence on the war front. Rajesh Pawar on India Today stood out daringly. But I failed to figure out why two Indian correspondents on another channel were describing the war while ambling down an obviously safe street while saying they could not reveal the city they were in since the situation was delicate.

Equally baffling was an Indian correspondent trying (and failing) to interview a Ukrainian correspondent about the situation in a hospital, even while both of them were in the same city.

Moot issues

Like the anchors and their “questions”, one could go on and on. But it’s more important to dissect the issues at play than to describe faux pas. My point is that such channels may have ended up hurting India’s image in some quarters. They would have done much better to have allowed both sides of the argument, as Al Jazeera did in Listening Post this past weekend, even acknowledging the channel’s own racism in one of its reports.

That sort of responsible, nuanced and insightful programming would have better explained to the world India’s UN abstentions. India Today TV and, to an extent, Wion News did a superb job of covering the war. Meanwhile, both the bull-anchors seemed intent on blaming the US for what is going on. When a panelist asked that India take a “moral stand”, one of the anchors hectored him, saying, “Please don’t say you didn’t arm Ukraine.”

That’s just about the worst response one can think of from one of the world’s biggest purchasers of arms (India is No. 2 now after topping the list of importers for many years). It would have been far better to talk of maintaining good relations with all sides in order to keep open the door to restoring peace.

Instead, an anchor tauntingly demanded of US-based discussants why their country wasn’t taking up arms directly instead of leaving Ukraine to fight alone. If he were to be taken seriously, that would be a demand for global nuclear annihilation. But that didn’t seem to matter; both were determined to put the US on the mat. In the process, their tirades often treated Ukraine as tangential to what is happening.

Interviewing the mayor of a Ukrainian city on Saturday, one of their reporters asked what the mayor would like to tell the world. Then, instead of giving the mayor a chance to respond, the reporter proceeded to expound his channel’s view of the situation. Basically, said he, it’s a war between Russia and the West with Ukraine as a pawn that the West has left to fight alone.

That’s the line both channels have tried to put in the mouths of those with whom they discussed the situation.

Ironically, that correspondent’s reporting right after that interview showed that he was convinced about the ground reality of Ukrainian suffering under the Russian onslaught. In fact, that correspondent obviously matured on the job in Ukraine, which is commendable in the fog and trauma of war.

One wonders how much audience feedback was negative. For, one of the bull-anchors became a little more balanced, highlighting aggression against Ukraine more on Monday evening. His target was still the US; only he now demanded that the US negotiate peace directly with Russia.

Sovereignty and nukes

As long as the debate was about whether Ukraine should be admitted into NATO, there was every reason to support the Russian argument that bringing NATO to Russia’s border was unacceptable. I was among the first to point out, just before the invasion, the parallel with John F Kennedy’s refusal to brook Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962. "To the extent that parallel applies, Putin was being defensive – and one cannot fault him for that," I wrote.

Indeed, until a fortnight ago, Russia wanted Ukraine (and Belarus) to be a buffer state between NATO and Russia’s border. Yet, perhaps in a brain fog, one of the bull-anchors tartly told a Ukrainian panelist that “America was using you as a buffer state”. Further reversing the facts, he went on, “Who started this war? It was America.”

By the weekend, when these pearls were being uttered, it had already been more than a week since President Putin had shifted to two very dangerous strategic positions. First, in his speech initiating the “special operation”, he had denied Ukraine’s right to exist, indicating that he intended to absorb it into his country permanently.

That denial of sovereignty severely undermined those anchors’ whataboutery on the US’s invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. For, the US did not deny the sovereignty of those countries; it cited provocations by them (for example, the Taliban hosting Al Qaeda even after 9/11) or conjured reasons (weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) when it cruelly smashed these countries.

Several TV analysts took the position that India must respond accordingly to its interests. That is correct. But it is not in India’s interest to accept a negation of sovereignty. If Russia had succeeded quickly, China could have been encouraged to move forward its heavy deployments along India’s eastern frontiers, putting forth similarly vague “historical” claims. That could have been happening this week.

Priming Russia’s vast nuclear arsenal is Putin’s second objectionable strategy. It is a cruel fraud on Ukraine, which gave up nuclear weapons (the third largest stockpile) in 1994 in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the US and the UK.

For nuclear weapons to become part of war belligerence is ominous for India too, for China’s nuclear arsenal is better placed than India's, and Pakistan has worked hard to develop tactical weapons. So, it is disingenuous for Indians to turn a blind eye to such belligerence, and the negation of every tenet of international order.

European aspirations

As for the argument that the West provoked this war by prodding Ukraine to become an ally, anyone who understands areas along those longitudes would know that peoples there yearn to be accepted as part of “Western civilisation”.

Finland in the far north is generally accepted. Turkey in the south is disgruntled that it was denied EU membership. Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Belarus – and, yes, Ukraine – hold European identity dear, all the more so since they see themselves as borderline inclusions. (Through history, Russia too has positioned itself as European.) Many of those countries have pleaded assiduously to join the EU, and see NATO as the best guarantor of their security. They have, after all, experienced Russian domination during the Soviet era. A Ukrainian deputy minister even pointed out to a bull-anchor that Ukraine’s parliament put the country’s EU and NATO aspirations into the country’s constitution in 2019.

So, it is Ukraine that has pushed hard for NATO and EU membership, continuing to do so even under such harsh attack. Ironically, Russia’s invasion – even more so, Putin’s arbitrary dismissal of Ukraine’s sovereignty – actually proved Ukraine’s argument for being included in NATO.

That both bull-anchors nevertheless adopted the same quixotic line leaves one wondering. Rants based on pique (perhaps over recent events closer home) are not wise responses from a large and powerful country – which is how one of them described India to a discussant.

Heckling and hectoring does not win friends and influence people, not while the world sees Ukraine being bombarded, its hospitals hit, thousands killed, and millions fleeing with babies and aged parents.

Years of bull-anchoring may have dulled empathy, but empathy remains the currency of soft power. It has long been one of India’s riches.

Also Read :
Calls, rescue appeals, safety hacks and daal: A day in the life of a student trapped in Ukraine
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