Talking about ethics to some Indian television channels is like casting pearls before swine. But as viewers and members of the media, we need to keep raising concerns that to these channels may seem irrelevant. So, on Monday, when Times Now, a channel that claims to be the most-watched English news channel in India, decided to make a 2013 rape case the main focus of its 8 pm prime time show, one had to ask: Why? And why now?
The answer to the latter question can only be conjecture. But is it mere coincidence that in the week that the Cobrapost expose was the big story, the TV channel decided to expend its abundant energy on raking up the rape allegations against former Tehelka journalist Tarun Tejpal, a case that is being tried in camera – that is, away from the public and the press? Did Times Now make a deliberate decision to divert attention from a story that warrants discussion in the media? As we know, the best way to kill a story is to ignore it completely.
Cobrapost’s sting operation allegedly reveals that many mainstream media outlets, including the group that owns Times Now, are open to accepting payment for content promoting Hindutva to push the political agenda of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Incidentally, only a handful of mainstream media organisations (essentially those not exposed in the sting) reported on the Cobrapost story. The conspicuous silence of the rest was something that the BBC commented upon. As the BBC article rightly pointed out, “It is a potential scandal that claims to strike at a key pillar of Indian democracy – the freedom of the press – yet it is barely being reported in the Indian media.”
A more relevant question than why Times Now chose the Tejpal story at this particular point is: how does the channel justify airing evidence from a case that is being tried? The former editor of Tehelka was charged with rape after a colleague accused him of sexually assaulting her during a conference organised by the magazine in November 2013 in Goa. The case is finally being tried this year and details of the trial cannot be reported on without court consent, because it is being heard in camera. So how can a news channel that claims it is doing journalism explain its decision to air CCTV footage from a hotel lobby – ostensibly showing Tejpal and the survivor entering and exiting the elevator where the crime allegedly took place – and discuss it with a bunch of panelists as if they were judge and jury? Apart from it being illegal, what is the story here?
As I mentioned earlier, perhaps there is not much point in talking about ethics or decency to news channels that have crossed all boundaries in their desire to grab eyeballs, but even by their abysmal standards, this surely is a new low.
Did the editors of Times Now even pause for a second to consider the impact of this programme on the survivor, who has had to face many trials outside the courtroom because she summoned up the courage to take on a powerful man? What is the message Times Now sought to send out to other survivors who consider taking a similar step? That they are fair game not only to those powerful men, but also to a powerful media?
Secondly, Times Now and several other Indian news channels claim they are in the business of journalism. They are not. Even a rookie journalist can tell them that they have forgotten what constitutes journalism. They are manufacturing content to sell their channel. That is not journalism. And that is the approach that can be sold to the highest bidder. The Cobrapost expose held out no surprises to those who have worked in mainstream media and watched its steady decline from doing journalism to providing saleable content.
We, the people
Apart from fairness, impartiality, truth and accuracy as well as accountability, humanity is one of the core principles of journalism. On all these counts, these channels fail miserably. How things have reached this level is another story, one that needs to be addressed if we believe that an independent and impartial media is essential to the survival of democracy in this country.
For now, we need to seriously consider what can be done. Every few months, television news channels sink to lower depths and trigger some outrage, mostly on social media. But then it’s back to business as usual. As viewers and readers, do we have any options to confront and challenge such gutter-level journalism which is justified as something people want?
It is time that the people who do not want this make it known. Media watchdogs and even courts can play a role in checking what is patently illegal. But ultimately, it has to be the readers or viewers who assert their right to decency and ethics and boycott such products. Media houses for whom only the bottom line matters, even if it means feeding viewers muck, need to be told that enough is enough.