A new parliament building and the passage of a 27-year-old law have pushed to the background what had the potential of becoming a raging controversy. I am referring to the decision taken by the opposition alliance to and not appear on the shows they host.
On September 20, the daylong Lok Sabha session on the Women’s Reservation Bill – the Constitution (128th Amendment) Bill 2023 – brought back memories of a parliament that once existed, where we heard both sides put forward their views. In the past, this kind of debate allowed the public to be informed about the pros and the cons of a law or a policy. Today, such debates are conspicuous by their absence.
Another takeaway from that day was to see the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, sitting through the discussion and ultimate passage of the bill. He has a record of the lowest attendance in parliament of any prime minister so far.
But whether this special session in its spanking new building will inform the way future sessions are conducted remains to be seen. Old habits die hard, and it is likely, as we enter election season, that we will once again witness little real debate and more walkouts and grandstanding even as important laws are rushed through.
The controversy around the boycott of 14 anchors has also been useful in some ways. It has brought into focus the state of mainstream television media in India. Irrespective of what people think of the opposition’s strategy of naming specific anchors, there is little doubt that this move has compelled viewers to look again at the channels where these anchors appear, and to ask whether what they see each night at prime time is even journalism.
Ideally, we need a forum to debate the state of mainstream media. But as the latter will certainly not provide space for a fair and reasoned debate, once again it is the independent platforms where the issue has been discussed.
There have been several well-argued articles such as by Anjali Mody in and by Ravish Kumar in . The lawyer has written about why he chose not to appear on certain channels and suggests that “broken news will only be fixed by collective action”.
On the other side, those against the opposition’s move, including the BJP, have conjured up scenarios about the freedom of the press being threatened and comparing what is a voluntary boycott to the Emergency. They also interchangeably use the term “ban” and “boycott” even though they must know that governments impose bans – individuals and groups can voluntarily boycott.
Furthermore, it is laughable that a political party that has allowed freedom of expression and the press to deteriorate under its watch until India is ranked amongst the lowest in the world in press freedom ranking, should talk about press freedom being threatened by a voluntary boycott.
Also, while we debate this issue, we cannot forget that the prime “boycotter” of the media is none other than the prime minister. In the last 10 years, he has made his disdain for media amply clear, cherry-picking a few journalists for ‘exclusive’ staged interviews and otherwise refusing to engage or answer questions.
Most of the mainstream media is not troubled by this “boycott”, and Modi knows this. Hence, every day, anything the prime minister says, or does, is reported uncritically in print media, and telecast on TV channels. There is not a whisper of criticism barring an occasional op-ed or an edit, questioning what he proclaims from various platforms. And this in a country that claims there is press freedom.
While the opposition rightly blames some TV channels for spreading hate, and cutting out other viewpoints, there is little doubt that the same media is also responsible for perpetuating and building up the Modi cult.
But coming back to the opposition boycott, the listing of specific anchors has deflected attention from the principal reason the mainstream media, especially TV news, has declined so precipitously in its content and credibility. And that is the ownership of these channels and media houses.
We tend to forget that the corporatisation of the media began in the 1990s and coincided with the growth of private television channels. The media became a “brand” and a profit centre for the owners of these media houses. The job of the media was not just to report all the news but to highlight the news that would sell the brand.
This is also when “celebrities” (film stars, models, the ultra-rich) entered the picture. What they did, or did not, became “news”. It attracted readers and viewers in a changing consumerist-oriented India. And once it was clear that the strategy worked, it was monetised. Soon we had the advent of “paid news” masquerading as reportage by journalists.
On television, Arnab Goswami, when he was with Times Now, can be credited for taking the combative nature of TV debates that had already begun on other channels to another level. His “brand” sold the channel. Soon it became the norm in TV discussions across channels. Goswami moved on to Republic TV, but his style is visible each time you switch on any news channel.
A book worth revisiting at this time is Amrita Shah’s excellent 2019 take on mainstream media, ’ (published by Sage and Yoda Press). It is a new version of her 1997 book, ‘Hype, Hypocrisy and Television in Urban India’. Re-reading the first paragraph of the preface would make you think she is referring to what’s happening today. I quote:
“Loud, sensationalistic, irresponsible, trivial, dangerous – these are some of the ways in which the Indian news media is perceived by many in the country today. Terms like ‘fake news’ and ‘paid news’ are freely and sometimes gratuitously applied to journalistic output. Diminishing public respect has rendered journalists vulnerable to pressures of various kinds. Journalists are sacked en masse, heads of media companies are raided for expressing anti-establishment views, senior news staffers are fired for taking on powerful politicians and attacked for exposing corruption and wrongdoing. Even among crowds, while covering news events, reporters and photographers are liable to be roughed up and assaulted by random members of the public. How did we get here?”
Shah’s is a detailed exploration and cannot be summarised here. But essentially, she has traced how the process of what she calls the “decline of the journalist” and the power of “the salesman, the technician and the entertainer” grew and shaped what we see today.
Whether the boycott decision by the opposition can bring about any change in a system so well-entrenched is difficult to predict. Also, given the power and reach of this media, whether the opposition choosing not to appear on these shows and thereby lending them some credibility will dent their viewership is uncertain. One could argue that in election season, such a boycott might hurt the opposition more than those they criticise or oppose.
What can be said is that it is time that we debated the debasement of what is mainstream television news, and search for alternatives. As long as the owners of these channels allow the named anchors, and others not on the list, their poisonous and performative brand of journalism, and believe that they profit from this, there is little that individual viewers can do to intervene. Yet, boycotts have been effective if they are scaled up to the point where they hurt the bottom line of corporations.
At the end of the day, we are still left with the question: what is journalism? It is not what we are seeing day in and day out on our TV channels. But it is still taking place in spaces away from mainstream media.
Here is a piece that gives me hope that all is not lost. Not many of this generation would even know of Bhanwari Devi. She is not a celebrity. She still lives in her village of Bhatteri in Rajasthan. Yet, it is her life, and her fight for justice against the men who raped her, that led to a path-breaking law on sexual harassment at the workplace. In a deeply reported article in , that focuses on Bhanwari, Jyoti Yadav reminds us of the struggles that Indian women face today. So sensitive and informative journalism is still alive, as the article illustrates.
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