Rajdeep Sardesai, veteran journalist and author, spoke on the problems confronting contemporary journalism at the Venkatesh Chapalgaonkar Memorial Lecture in Pune on Saturday. The annual lecture is named after the late Marathi journalist who worked with the Maharashtra Times, Loksatta, Star News and Star Majha (now ABP News and ABP Majha) and is organised by the Pune Union of Working Journalist along with Venkatesh’s colleagues and friends. The theme of Saturday’s lecture was “Is social media setting up the agenda for mainstream media?”.
Here is the full text of the speech:
Dear friends, members of the Chapalgaonkar family and fellow journalists of Pune,
It is a great honour for me to be speaking at the Venkatesh Chapalgaonkar Memorial Lecture here in Pune. I did not know Venkatesh personally. I think there was one occasion when we spoke on the phone when I was starting CNN-IBN and IBN 7 and was recruiting journalists. As it turned out, Venkatesh did not join us, so I missed the opportunity to work together. I have seen and read about his work. What stands out are his basic commitment to the profession: honesty, integrity, and a passion for news. In normal times, these would be seen as the basic attributes to be a journalist. These, however, my friends, are not normal times: honesty was once a qualification to be a journalist. Today, intellectual and financial dishonesty is probably a qualification for some to be a journalist. Sense has been replaced by sensation, news by noise, credibility by chaos. This is probably more true of television than print.
In fact, I don’t know how journalists like Venkatesh would see the profession today: would they be able to survive and flourish in a profession where news is no longer necessarily about what is in the public interest, but about what will give ratings, where news is no longer about facts but about opinion, where studio debates matter more than stories from the ground, where a reporter is often only a bite gatherer or a guest coordinator. Many national channels today are in fact doing away with bureaus and investing less in story-telling from the ground. In the relentless pace of breaking news, old fashioned detailed news gathering matters less and less since it is much easier and cheaper to simply get four to five people in a studio to argue with each other. We are now in an age of what I call the “Ravana” school of journalism: one day we will have 100 heads peeping out of a television set, each one shouting and arguing with each other even as the anchor shouts the loudest.
Yes, my friends, there is a crisis in television news journalism: living in denial is no longer an option. We have been part of a television news revolution that broke the monopoly of Doordarshan, that brought a passion and infectious energy to the news process, which ensured that there was no place to hide for public figures. But two decades after the ascent of private news television, the truth is that the revolution we were all part of now threatens to devour us. Last week, the great singer Kishori Amonkar died: except one or two national channels, no one bothered to pay fulsome tribute. A classical singer after all is not an instantly recognised Bollywood singer. As one news editor frankly admitted to me, “Sir, Kishori Amonkar par programme karne se shayad aap ke dil ko sukoon milega, but TV news dil se nahin, dimag se chalta hain, aur dimag ko ratings chahiye, sukoon nahin.” He is not wrong: we exist in a news ecosystem where a Yogi Adityanath sells, which is why we track him 24 x 7 as if he is a pied piper of Lucknow, but will not even have space for a decent obituary on someone who was a living legend. Of course, the Yogi makes news as a public figure, but do we need to monitor his bowel movements with a hawk eye?
Forget about high culture, we don’t even care about agriculture. For the last one month, farmers from Tamil Nadu have been in the national capital, agitating in Jantar Mantar for their farm loans to be waived off. They have even brought the skulls, or replicas of the skulls, of their fellow farmers who have committed suicide, in the hope that someone will take notice of their plight. The skulls of farmers made for good dramatic pictures, which is why the story was finally covered by the national TV media for at least one day. Otherwise, like so many anonymous kisans who are committing suicide across the country, the plight of these farmers would have been easily forgotten. After all, the kisan is just a face in the crowd and anonymity has no place in our star-struck lives.
Which brings me to a key point: TV today is primarily about drama. If you need a story to make national headlines, you need to have sufficient dramatic quotient. Contrast our coverage of the crisis of the Tamil Nadu farmers with how the protests over jallikattu were covered just two months ago. Then, every national channel suddenly discovered an ancient bull sport of Tamil Nadu in high-pitched, breathless terms. For almost a fortnight, the entire national TV media covered the story. Not because we suddenly felt a connection with Tamil Nadu culture but because the people of Tamil Nadu succeeded in making a media event out of the jallikattu protests. As thousands of people, including filmstars, gathered at Marina Beach, the visual appeal attracted television cameras as did the fact that the TRP meter for English news channels now showed that Chennai had the maximum ratings. Contrast also the Central government’s approach to jallikattu with how they have dealt with farm suicides. The Centre moved an ordinance to overturn a Supreme Court order banning jallikattu but has chosen to mostly ignore the demands of the farmers as a state issue.
The interesting thing in our coverage of jallikattu is that the demonstrations took place in Chennai, a city that till last year was complaining that most news channels ignored what was happening south of the Vindhyas. In December 2015, there was massive flooding in Chennai, half the city was under water, yet the story barely made it to the national headlines. I was in Chennai to report the story and was accosted by angry people who said to me: “Why did it take you so long to report our story, do we not matter to you?” Their anger was justified. If there is minor flooding in Delhi or Gurgaon, it becomes instant breaking news. If even the drain outside the head office of most news channels in Noida begins to overflow, it could become a national headline. In Chennai, it literally required the water to reach the wall of Jayalalithaa’s house in Poes Garden for us to wake up to the crisis affecting the citizens of one of the country’s largest cities.
In the North East
At least the Chennai floods got some coverage in the end. Think about the plight of the citizens of the North East states, many of whom witness flooding almost every year. Their story is rarely, if ever, covered in the national TV media. I was in Dibrugarh [Assam] in September 2015. The city had just experienced its worst ever floods in more than a decade. And yet, the story simply didn’t make it to the headlines of any national channel. When I did a ground report from Dibrugarh, a resident sent me a tearful email, thanking me for telling the story. In the mail, I could sense the growing frustration and anger of the people of the region. Are we then surprised that so many people in the Northeast feel a sense of alienation from the national mainstream? I call it the “tyranny of distance”: it effectively means that the further you are from the national capital, the less likely your story will be told.
Let me give you an example that will shock all of you. In August 2015, I was in Manipur to address journalists in Imphal. I was met there by a delegation of tribal groups who had been agitating over the killing of tribal protestors as part of an ongoing agitation for greater tribal rights. Imphal and large parts of Manipur, in fact, were under curfew at the time: the price of an LPG gas cylinder was over Rs 2,000 in the black market and petrol was selling at more than Rs 400 a litre. Schools had been closed for months. And yet, the story had not registered in the national media. What do we do, the protestors asked me. My suggestion to them was: you need to do something dramatic to make your voice heard, else no one will listen to you. I returned to Delhi. Two days later, I was told that the home of a minister in Manipur had been set on fire. I got a call from a protestor: “Sir, now that a minister’s house has been set on fire in the protests, will you cover our story at least now?” I didn’t know what to say, I was shocked, alarmed and traumatised.
The tyranny of distance is only one challenge facing the media. A bigger challenge lies in a new beast that has entered the media jungle. Social media is now all around us. Twitter and Facebook are the new platforms for news and opinion. When social media first emerged, I welcomed it wholeheartedly. I saw it as a great way to bridge the gap between the journalist and the viewer, to democratise opinion, to create a large pool of citizen journalists who would be able to tell their stories from every corner of the country. Sadly, instead of democratising public opinion, I am sorry to report that a large part of social media has only poisoned the news ecosystem even further. Twitter, for example, is often used to spread lies, disinformation, hate and propaganda: we now have armies of political operatives who will use the medium to target each other and confuse and corrupt the news environment. Between Bhakts, Congressis and appatards, between Pappu, Feku and Farjiwal, social media has only coarsened the public debate. Abuse is now seen as a badge of honour, defamatory statements are seen as par for the course. Worse, our netas actually celebrate some of these abusive elements. I was shocked to learn that Prime Minister Narendra Modi actually held a tea reception for some of his supporters on Twitter, supporters whose sole task it is to “take down” in the most abusive terms anyone who is critical of the government. One of these Twitter trolls, who even physically attacked lawyer Prashant Bhushan in his chamber, is now a BJP spokesperson. What can be more shameful? But then, why are we surprised? The prime minister targets journalists who may be critical as “news traders”, one of his ministers calls us “presstitutes” and the Delhi chief minister calls us dalals. The Congress, too, has joined the bandwagon: those who were critical of their leader Rahul Gandhi after the recent UP election defeat were accused of being “paid media”.
What troubles me is that even mainstream news channels are now affected by what is trending on Twitter. It is no longer enough to do a story, the story must trend on Twitter. News editors are encouraged to look at what videos are going viral on Facebook and what stories are being talked about in the social media while deciding their news rundowns. We are consciously putting out provocative hashtags to a lead story so that it will then become the talking point of the day. An outrage factory has been created on social media and television news is expected to echo the outrage. Instead of television leading the narrative, it is social media that is influencing the change.
The truth is that a farmer suicide will not trend on Twitter but religious extremism will. Public health and education issues will not trend on Twitter but an insane statement made by some neta will. Moderate voices will not go viral on a Facebook video but shrill, loud voices will. When a Subramanian Swamy questions the patriotism of former RBI (Reserve Bank of India) Governor Raghuram Rajan, it trends on Twitter. That evening, Swamy is on prime time television as the newsmaker of the day, repeating his defamatory remarks. An Asaduddin Owaisi makes a mummy versus yummy remark on cow slaughter, the video goes viral and then becomes a national talking point on prime time television. Swamy and Owaisi are the new prime time warriors: one who speaks the language of Hindu majoritarianism, the other the language of Islamic victimhood. Since they are good orators, they are a made-for-TV couple. But do they really represent the silent majority? Or are they simply playing a role that TV’s format has created for them?
I sometimes wonder whether we have reduced public opinion on TV to black and white polarities: Hindu versus Muslim, Right versus Left, liberals versus extremists, nationalistic versus anti-nationals, them versus us. It is almost as if we have caricatured the medium into stereotypes, with even news anchors reduced to performers on screen. Nowhere is the danger of this more apparent than in the narrative on Kashmir. In the contemporary TV format, Kashmir is now about stone-pelters versus Army, separatists versus “true” Indians. As a result, we are no longer willing to explore the nuanced complexity of the situation in the Valley: either you tell the story of the Army jawan who is under pressure to ensure law and order in the Valley, or tell the story of a young boy who has lost his eye because of a pellet gun. If you tell the former, then you are a true nationalist, desh bhakt journalist. If you tell the story of the stone-pelter, then you must be anti-national. What if I tell both stories, my friends? Isn’t that what good journalism is about, or have we in the New Republic of India reduced news to dangerous patriot games where if I cover a Kanhaiya Kumar speech, I am anti-national, but if I give a voice to those who kill in the name of the cow, then I am truly nationalistic? Social media has no accountability but surely television news, with the instant and powerful impact of the visual medium, cannot afford to be similarly reckless?
But why should we as journalists blame social media for our plight, or even TRP boxes, or politicians? In the end, we must blame ourselves. We have let ourselves down, and by we, I mainly blame those at the top of the profession. It is the editor who is expected to set the moral compass for a news network, to mentor young journalists, to separate the right from the wrong, to be a gatekeeper of the news, to tell truth to power, to hold those in public life accountable. Sadly, many editors are now news managers, not valued for their editorial skills but for their networking ability. It is proximity to power that matters more than journalistic independence. There are editors who have been caught on camera seeking bribes, sent to jail as a result, and yet, now give sermons to the nation from TV studios on morality. Others call themselves independent, but do not think twice before taking money from political figures to set up their channels.
Ownership patterns and business models are under siege. Many of those who own the news media often do not want independent minded editors, they would like editors who toe the line, who can “manage” the environment, who are close to the establishment because “access” is now seen to hold the key. But again, why blame owners who may have their private political or corporate agendas? What about us as editors? The fact is, rather than being curious at all times, looking for the next big story, we as editors and anchors are tempted to play god, to believe that we alone know what the nation wants to know: we want to play judge, jury and executioner. We are economical with the truth, but full of ourselves. It is our arrogance that has let us down when humility is what we should be striving for.
Over the years, the news media in this country has been a watchdog: we have exposed corruption, held a mirror to society, been at the vanguard of protecting democratic freedoms. The watchdog is now, I am sad to report, in several instances becoming a lapdog. In the 1970s, during the Emergency, LK Advani had famously said: when journalists were asked to bend, they crawled. Today, when we should rediscover our spine, we find that there is no backbone left. We have let down Venkatesh and thousands of honest journalists like him. The most fitting tribute to his memory would be for us to, at least, learn to stand up straight, not only when the national anthem is played but when we are faced with the rapid erosion in our credibility.