WRITER: Salil Desai*
Watching TV news, one often wonders whether the basic nature of journalism has been turned on its head from being anti-establishment to pro-government? It is disconcerting to see how viciously anchors flay, mock, contradict, interrogate and treat opposition parties while handling the Bharatiya Janata Party with kid gloves and extending remarkable latitude to its spokespersons.
It leaves you wondering who exactly is in power — the BJP or the Opposition — and whether journalism now means thinly disguised state propaganda and PR outsourced to private news channels, rather than Doordarshan.
Is this journalism? Isn't it meant to question the regime in power, even if it enjoys massive popular support? Or is it supposed to sing praises of the government and make a soft target of the unpopular opposition, in deference to public mood? If so, journalism needs a new nomenclature or a new definition.
During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, news channels played a big role in building up the Modi campaign, his invincible image and the inevitability of his coming to power. In the preceding three years, since the Anna Hazare movement in 2011 following the 2G, Coalgate and Commonwealth scams, news channels had turned stridently anti-UPA and were a tad over-zealously performing their role of holding the government accountable. This escalated to overt and covert support for Modi and the BJP in 2014. Many print columnists too joined the pro-Modi chants, but by and large newspapers at least tried to retain some level of non-partisan reportage and coverage.
One expected that channels would return to default anti-establishment settings once Modi took office. Instead, what we witnessed for the first year of Modi's tenure was non-stop hype, with channels following the Prime Minister on his victory lap across different countries like cheerleaders, interspersed with live feeds of his many speeches and rallies on different occasions, including during various state elections. The opposition was trashed, constantly compared unfavourably to the Modi persona and relentless grilling of opposition regimes in different states was rampant, especially formidable challengers like Nitish Kumar, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamta Bannerjee.
News channels tempered their anti-opposition tirades only after the BJP was drubbed in Delhi, Bihar and West Bengal. To uphold the pretence of neutrality, they also half-heartedly started taking on the BJP government on issues like violent incidents of intolerance — the Mohammed Akhlaq case, FTII stir, Rohith Vemula suicide and the JNU fracas last year involving Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid. Here too, a big section of the media while appearing to condemn the BJP for violence, posited the issues as “national” versus “anti-national”, in which the party in power was not unequivocally castigated for its ill-liberal, hard-line viewpoints. This smartly enabled the BJP to legitimise and inject spurious tests of nationalism into every single issue, including demonetisation. What in effect the media has done is to defang all criticism of the Modi regime by providing it with the permanent halo of the only party married to national interest, while everyone else is suspect.
Just how much damage this has done, is evident even from the way demonetisation has been covered. To be fair, demonetisation is the only issue which the news channels have covered with a credible level of consistent, anti-establishment questioning over a period of several weeks, criticising bad implementation, focusing on people's hardships, analysing bad effects on the economy and highlighting the many flip-flops. Yet, it is baffling how channels have simply refused to question the intentions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi behind this completely hare-brained move, which would have been savaged if any other government had done it. It defies the cardinal principle of harbouring healthy scepticism and doubt about all those in power, which is at the heart of good journalism. This is particularly preposterous because the government has blocked all attempts in releasing critical information pertaining to the decision.
Demonetisation suddenly stopped dominating news after Modi's New Year Eve speech, almost as if channels had decided to downplay it in view of the assembly elections in five states.Considering the potential of demonetisation to damage the BJP in the polls, it was certainly curious that channels turned mute in the weeks leading up to the elections or chose to focus on the positive spin given by the government.
While the pre-poll coverage wasn't overtly skewed towards the BJP, star billing was accorded to Modi's rallies. Amit Shah and a host of BJP central ministers, right from Rajnath Singh, Smriti Irani, Uma Bharti etc. were interviewed multiple times across channels. The build-up to the last few phases, along with Modi’s Varanasi road shows were given disproportionate coverage. Even more distressing was how suddenly a flurry of journalists and anchors started calling the election in BJP's favour. Why should they do that and give BJP even a thin advantage? However, the worst has been the euphoric triumphalism with which channels have reacted to the BJP's runaway win in UP. Since result day, journalists seem to be falling over each other to hail Modi, his astuteness, charisma and popularity as if paying obeisance to a demi-God. Astonishingly, they also seem to imply that such a grand electoral victory makes right all acts of commission and omission of the PM, as if no higher democratic principles apply. Even Yogi Adityanath's disconcerting appointment as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has been vigorously justified. Contrast this with how channels ridiculed the Congress for the Goa and Manipur fiascos and asked no hard questions about the BJP bulldozing the sweeping Finance Bill and its grave implications.
One wonders whether we are in for another long spell of Modi paens and opposition bashing masquerading as TV news. Perhaps our journalists need to learn from the American media, which refuses to spare Trump, even though he has been elected as the President.
*The writer is a Pune-based crime novelist and film-maker.