The fourth pillar of democracy must be held accountable just like politicians, bureaucrats and the judiciary.
The last two years have been hard on journalists. We’ve had to report on a devastating pandemic, while losing our colleagues to the virus. In the first four months of 2020 alone, 31 media professionals succumbed to Covid, and the toll has since risen to nearly 600, according to a record by the Network For Women in Media.
Add to this, many of our compatriots working in the mainstream media have reported in an extremely stressful work environment: salary cuts, fear of job loss, zero to negligent increments and a political atmosphere that is hostile to the very fundamentals of journalism – to report what you see without acting as a megaphone for those in power. All this and more has ensured that a sizable section of government ad-funded mainstream media falls in line, which leaves those of us in the independent news space increasingly vulnerable to legal action and FIRs.
Here’s where the Newslaundry story has been a little different from others and underscores the very reason why we were born in 2012.
While Wire, Scroll, HW News and many independent journalists are battling FIRs in UP, Tripura, Telangana, and defamation suits from big business, we at Newslaundry have had three Big Media companies take us to court over the past two years. Yup, this is a story of the media going after the media because for far too long it has been an established norm for journalists and their operations to remain above scrutiny, and upsetting that ecosystem comes with legal cases.
During the first wave in 2020, the Pawar family-backed Sakal Media Group filed an FIR against reporter Prateek Goyal. His “crime” was that he reported on firings in Sakal Times despite the Maharashtra government’s order that no employer should terminate their workers, or reduce their wages during the pandemic. Prateek obviously took pains to reach out to Sakal management for their version. Nonetheless, we were staring at a Rs 65 crore defamation notice and an FIR under the Trademarks Act on the grounds that we had used the Sakal logo in the illustrations accompanying our reports. That’s like the BJP suing Sakal Times for using the lotus symbol in an image for a report on the party. The Bombay High Court luckily quashed the FIR against our colleague in April last year, but the case against Newslaundry, meanwhile, is still in court.
(Marathi actor Ketaki Chitale has been in jail for more than a month now for a post on NCP chief Sharad Pawar.)
In February 2021, Times Group served us a Rs 100 crore notice for defaming ‘towering news personalities’ who led the Times Now newsroom. Note that these personalities have targeted ordinary citizens – among the worst example being the channel’s editor-in-chief Rahul Shivshankar accusing an unsuspecting coaching centre owner (Muslim, of course) in Kerala for running a conversion racket with zero proof. Ironically, it is the Times Group’s own newspaper, The Economic Times, that perhaps best describes Shivshankar’s nightly primetime performance – “an Exorcist-style projectile word vomit”. Yes, that’s what the ET noted on the now-famous McAdams mix-up.
These “towering news personalities” of Times Now have comically passed off WhatsApp forwards as exclusive scoops, ran vicious media trials against a film actress, opposition politicians, student activists…the list is endless and I won’t even get into the number of times they have been caught pedaling fake news. But they cannot be subject to scrutiny or satire, much like India Today that sued us in October 2021 for Rs 2 crore for defamation and copyright infringement. Note that copyright infringement is a common objection from Sakal Times to India Today, and the while these cases are still in court, they will set a precedence – which is to say that the courts will now decide whether Newslaundry’s use of bytes, clips or articles from various media organisations for the purpose of critique falls under fair use or not.
But why report on or critique the media in the first place?
Newslaundry began its journey in 2012 with the idea of a satire show that would call out the media. When Madhu and Abhinandan approached various media houses with the idea, they were excited to have them on board but were curious about the ‘scope’ of the critique: Would it include “us too”? All media houses? Every journalist? No holy cows? Since the answer to all this was a “yes”, the show eventually didn’t find any takers in the mainstream and so an entire website was launched. The show is called Clothesline, with Madhu as a host who took no prisoners – Barkha, Rajdeep, Sagarika, Arnab…everyone was material. And the website is, of course, Newslaundry, which has now evolved into a full-fledged news and media critique portal.
Two of our most popular offerings, TV Newsance and NL Tippani, train their eyes on the mainstream television media landscape – since 2012, it has been a race to the pits of darkness for TRPs. Apart from hyperpartisanship and sensationalism, there has been a fundamental shift in television’s media role in society for the worse.
Today, journalism, as we see it on TV news, actively targets the very public it is supposed to serve. Whether it’s the anti-CAA demonstrations, farm law protests or the very recent Agniveer agitation – many star anchors have gone beyond simply presenting the government line and batting for it; they actively demonise citizens, sometimes through clipped videos, at other times through explicitly fake news.
Every other night on primetime, we see a relentless demonising of minorities – I have lost count of the types of jihads that TV news has invented in its efforts to tell Hindus how they are insecure in their own country. In July 2021, Newslaundry reporter Nidhi Suresh wrote about a woman’s complaint in the court on being threatened by the members of the media because she had converted to Islam. That story earned us an FIR, again.
In a macabre spectator sport of sorts, most recently, you had anchors climb atop bulldozers to show their viewers the houses and shops that might be razed to the ground. I am told they struck TRP gold. Meanwhile, news takes a backseat – since March this year, we found that prominent anchors across top Hindi and English news channels conducted zero debates or discussions on unemployment.
When some in the media have completely inverted the very idea of public service, Newslaundry’s role as a media critic has become all the more important. Our shows perhaps reach the maximum audience, but also we have reports, podcasts and interviews that focus on the media. We’ve reported and written on how business interests impact news decisions, the model of patriotism for profit, layoffs in newsrooms and its impact on news gathering, conflict of interest (this one earned us a legal notice), the difficulty of reporting in muffusil India, propaganda in news – the subtle and blatant, the crazy world of TRP battles, the idea of objectivity and bias in the news space, a deep focussed look on media ownership patterns, and more.
Media plays a crucial role in democracy by keeping power in check – from the judiciary to the executive to elected representatives, all are fair game. But the media that is entrusted with this onerous task has virtually zero interest in holding itself accountable or open to scrutiny – it’s hard to think of any business in India that suffers from as much opacity as the media does. It is rare to see a journalist apologise for an error. Newslaundry’s mission in 2012 was to change this proclivity to remain unquestioned – which means everyone, including Newslaundry, is fair game when it comes to the scope and scale of what the media should report on.
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