On Saturday, News 18 Tamil Nadu, the Tamil news channel of the Network 18 group owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance, clipped the wings of its senior editor M Gunasekaran.
Employees of the news channel Scroll.in spoke to said Gunasekaran has been divested of some powers and has been asked not to take editorial decisions on news coverage. However, an employee said he has been asked to continue anchoring debates, an important aspect of any television channel’s public image today.
In addition to the purported action against Gunasekaran, employees said several other decisions had been taken. These included asking a senior journalist to resign, while another journalist removed from anchoring the channel’s morning talk show.
The decisions came at the end of two weeks of sustained social media campaigns against Gunasekaran and several other journalists of the News 18 Tamil Nadu and other Tamil news channels like Puthiya Thalaimurai.
At the eye of the storm that has hit the Tamil media sector is a political play between two ideologically opposed groups. On the one side are supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, who have accused the news channels of propagating an anti-BJP and anti-Narendra Modi viewpoint in their evening debates. On the other side are Dravidian groups and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, who have described the action against the journalists as an assault on freedom of speech.
This action in the newsroom has its antecedents in a political controversy that has been widely discussed in the state over the past few weeks.
The main character in this episode is Maridhas, a vlogger who runs the YouTube channel Maridhas Answers. Currently, the YouTube channel has 3.5 lakh subscribers, with some of its videos viewed more than 2 lakh times.
Maridhas positions his videos as an explanatory feature aimed at “students and youngsters.” Most of the videos make absurd and exaggerated claims about how Christian missionaries or Periyarist groups are a threat to the Hindu community. Maridhas also claims that the Dravidar Kazhagam and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are attempting to destroy Hindu culture and Hindu unity.
Early July, Maridhas put out a video that claimed to expose the nexus between the DMK, the Dravidar Kazhagam and Gunasekaran of News 18 Tamil Nadu , along with several of his colleagues. He alleged that journalists specifically aligned to the Periyarist ideology were recruited at News 18 Tamil Nadu and the news coverage was aimed at denigrating Hindus and supporting the DMK. In this, he cited the fact that Gunasekaran is married to the daughter of a top Dravidar Kazhagam official as clinching evidence of the nexus.
Maridhas then pointed to a group called “Karuppar Koottam” or group of black people that a News 18 Tamil Nadu journalist was allegedly linked to. In another episode, Karuppar Koottam’s interpretation of Kanda Sashti Kavasam, a devotional Tamil hymn celebrating god Muruga, in a YouTube video that has been widely condemned for its obscenity, was again showcased as proof of the anti-Hindu mentality of those in the media linked to Periyarist groups.
Maridhas then asked his viewers to send petitions to the Network 18 management to act against the journalists.
The police have arrested several of Karuppar Koottam’s members after the BJP legal wing and others filed complaints.
Maridhas also shared a screenshot of a purported reply from News 18 that most of his accusations were right and that the channel was committed to ensuring journalistic ethics. Hours after Maridhas shared this screenshot, Vinay Sarawagi, an editor of the Network 18 group, tweeted to say that a forged email was being circulated and that his office was initiating legal action against the offender. The group filed a police complaint against Maridhas, accusing him of forgery and inciting communal disturbance.
On Sunday, news emerged that News 18 had made several changes to its editorial hierarchy. An employee said on condition of anonymity that journalist Haseef Mohammed, who was mentioned by Maridhas, was asked to resign. This was because of his role in a journalists’ group called Committee of Media Persons for Change, which had staged protests against other media organisations on issues of journalists’ rights. A sub-editor, Ilayabharathi, was asked to resign for his social media activism. Senthil, another journalist targeted by Maridhas, was removed from hosting a talk show.
Gunasekaran did not respond to calls and messages from Scroll.in.
Tamil television scene
To get a fuller sense of the controversy, a little background is essential. Until the early 1990s, Doordarshan, the national broadcaster, had a monopoly over news dissemination in Tamil Nadu – as it did in the rest of India. With the regulatory changes that came with economic liberalisation in 1991, private news channels began to operate in several states.
In 1993, Sun TV was launched. It was owned by Kalanithi Maran, the grand nephew of former Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam chief M Karunanidhi. The channel had morning and evening news bulletins and was seen as the official mouthpiece of the DMK.
Over the next few years, the Sun TV group expanded swiftly, starting channels in other South Indian languages. In 2000, the year before Tamil Nadu went to the polls to elect a new state government, the group launched an exclusive news channel, Sun News. At that time, the DMK was in power.
Given what was at stake, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam launched its own channels in the late 1990s; first as JJ TV and then as Jaya TV.
Thus, for most of the 1990s and 2000s, television news in Tamil Nadu was extremely partisan. The Sun TV network was pro-DMK and Jaya TV was pro-AIADMK. Smaller channels that put up a semblance of neutrality such as the Raj TV group did not have the same impact as the channels backed by the two Dravidian parties.
The political rivalry between the DMK and the AIADMK was television drama on its own, competing with umpteen soap operas that held viewers’ attention in a tight hold. In the early 2000s, it was common for viewers to watch news on both Sun TV and Jaya TV and balance the narrative on their own.
An executive of a private news channel in Tamil Nadu told Scroll.in that even in the early 2000s, viewers expressed the need for channels that were not aligned to the political parties and that would carry objective news reporting. “But the reality was that launching a channel faced immense political and resources problem,” the executive said.
In 2009, a former DMK leader PV Kalyanasundaram launched the Polimer TV. But it was in 2011 that this monopoly of party-affiliated news channels was truly broken with the launch of the Puthiya Thalaimurai. Backed by the deep pockets of the SRM group, which ran universities and engineering colleges, the channel positioned itself as a neutral player fully dedicated to news that did not swing to the extremes in the political spectrum.
However, in 2019, the founder of SRM Group TR Pachamuthu became an MP in the DMK alliance, shifting from the BJP in the previous polls.
With the launch of Puthiya Thalaimurai in 2011, evening debates became the central attraction, even though Sun News was the pioneer of this format in Tamil Nadu. The debate became a one-stop shop for viewers to get a hang of different political views. “The smaller parties were also very enthusiastic because they suddenly found space to put out their position on the developments,” the private channel executive said.
In fact, it is after 2011 that parties consciously began forming panels of spokespersons to send to these television channels.
Following Puthiya Thalaimurai, a number of Tamil news channels were launched. The Thanthi group, publisher of the largest circulating Tamil newspaper, set up the Thanthi TV in 2012. In 2014 came News 7 from the VV Group, a big player in the mining industry. In 2016, Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance made its foray into the Tamil media with the launch of News 18 Tamil Nadu.
Society, media and politics
While the new Tamil news channels had deep pockets, the missing element was seasoned television professionals who could lead the editorial wings of the channels. The new channels recruited articulate journalists from the newspapers to head their editorial departments. By 2016, two veteran journalists in Tamil Nadu, M Gunasekaran and S Karthigaichelvan, became the main faces of television news. Karthigaichelvan took over from Gunasekaran at Puthiya Thalaimurai, who moved to News 18 Tamil Nadu as its senior editor when it was launched in 2016.
Both started their careers in the lower ranks in Tamil newspapers and periodicals, broke numerous political stories through their careers, made their way into English newspapers such as The Hindu and Times of India before moving into the Tamil television space. Gunasekaran in 2018 became the first Tamil television journalist to win the coveted Ramnath Goenka Award for Excellence in Journalism, while both have won multiple awards from organisations in the state.
According to R Ilangovan, a veteran of 40 years in the English media in Tamil Nadu, journalists who wished to make the transition from Tamil newspapers to English newspapers faced “imponderable hurdles.”
“The very training in Tamil and English newspapers is different,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, English newspapers cater to the educated. As a Tamil journalist, you have to write keeping in mind even the uneducated masses. This leads to a contradiction when journalists make the transition and try to unlearn the processes.”
Ilangovan said the success of Dinathanthi news paper was the result of how its Tamil was simplified and taken to every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu. “The language of Dinathanthi itself was a revolution,” he added.
The journalist said the man who facilitated many to move from Tamil newspapers to English newspapers was former Editor of Dinamani RMT Sambandham. Since Dinamani was owned by the Indian Express group (now the New Indian Express in South India), Sambandham encouraged many Tamil journalists like Gunasekaran to learn English and move to the English broadsheet of the group and other English publications.
Ilangovan said the social composition of Tamil and English newsrooms were very different, adding another layer of difficulty for the free movement of talent. English newsrooms were urban upper-caste heavy whereas the Tamil newsrooms had wider caste and class diversity in its ranks.
Thus, in a sense, journalists like Gunasekaran and Karthigaichelvan, educated in Tamil-medium government and aided schools in small towns and villages, taking over the top post of a large corporate-backed media house undercut the social equations within the Tamil Nadu media scene.
In this transition is reflected the politics of Tamil Nadu itself. As they made their way to the top, some of these journalists were open to admitting the role that social reform movements led by Dravidian organisations had played in facilitating their mobility.
Journalist G Babu Jayakumar said many in the Tamil media in 1990s and 2000s were first-generation graduates hailing from non-Brahmin castes. “In the villages and small towns, they would have been invariably touched by the Dravidian and Left movements,” he added. However, he said the acknowledgement of the role of these movements need not necessarily transform into total allegiance to those movements. “Many who praise the Dravidian movement reject the atheism of Periyar. Many of these journalists are ardent believers.”
This acknowledgement, however, painted them with a political colour that has now become the focus over the last few weeks. “These journalists have become a target in the political game between opposing ideologies,” he added.
And in this the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Centre plays a crucial part.
2014 and after
Since 2014, the nature of political debates in Tamil news channels has seen a significant change. The BJP, hitherto a minor player in Tamil Nadu, could no longer be ignored as it romped to power at the Centre with a thumping majority. While Tamil Nadu’s political ring remained a match between the DMK and the AIADMK, the BJP’s victory at the Centre meant it brought to the table the third viewpoint.
And unlike the Congress that had ruled the preceding 10 years, the BJP in 2014 was not in alliance with either of the two Dravidian parties. Its ideology of Hindutva presented a third angle to the debates and despite its poor electoral performance with negligible vote share, its spokespersons became regulars on the debates.
But BJP leaders said though the channels provided a “cosmetic representation” of their party in the debates, the debates intended to put the BJP in a tight spot. “Often, you have one BJP leader facing a tirade from five or six opposing groups with their voices being submerged,” said SR Sekar, treasurer of Tamil Nadu BJP who headed the media wing for many years.
Sekar alleged that even though the anchors visibly took an unattached position, the personalities pitted against the BJP spread “blatant falsehood”, one of which was that the party was anti-Tamils. Narendra Modi, he said, was faulted for even issues totally unconnected to the prime minister.
Asked why the BJP spokespersons participated in the debates despite this, he said it was a duty of party functionaries to try to counter false propaganda against the party and Prime Minister Modi.
However, DMK leaders criticise the BJP for trying to impose the “Delhi model” in Chennai. According to this line of criticism, in the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, English news journalists in New Delhi were linked to the Congress and were part of the undefined “Lutyens’ gang”. Their liberal worldview was seen as opposed to Hindutva organisations. Now, as Tamil Nadu is getting closer to Assembly polls, those in the Tamil media who question the BJP are being targeted.
“The BJP wants news channels in Tamil to perform like some of the English news channels,” said A Saravanan, DMK spokesperson.
But, he added, Tamil viewers are discerning. “If a channel is terribly biased, would not the people reject them?” Saravanan said. “The commercial viability of the channels and the response these journalists get from people are testimony to their work.”
With the BJP’s political campaign not having a visible impact on voters in Tamil Nadu, it is now using other elements to make personal attacks on the Opposition and the media. “Dravidian ideology does not belong to DMK alone. It is the ideology of the vast majority of people of Tamil Nadu, reflected in all walks of life,” said Saravanan.
Sekar vehemently denied the criticism that the BJP was behind the social media attacks on journalists. “Those who do the campaigns may say they have accepted our ideology but they are not part of our organisation, he said. “Tomorrow, they might even turn against the BJP and we respect that freedom.”
This week, Scroll.in sent questions to the Network 18 group, asking about the status of the complaint against Maridhas and if the internal decisions to change the editorial hierarchy was a response to the YouTube campaigns. In addition, Scroll.in asked what the group’s response was to the accusations that it was pro-DMK.
A Network 18 spokesperson said that the company has initiated civil and criminal action against Maridhas. “The company will vigorously use all the legal means at its disposal to confront anyone who attempts to defame its brands and its employees,” the reply said.
On the change in editorial hierarchy, the Network 18 spokesperson said the top team of News 18 Tamil Nadu continues to work as ever with Gunasekaran as the editor. “Journalists in Network 18 have to abide by a code of conduct and social media guidelines at all times, and any violations of these rules are dealt with using appropriate action.”
On the allegation of pro-DMK bias, the statement said: “In recent times, given the political undercurrents in the state, there are some factions that are trying to project News18 Tamil Nadu in a bad light. There are yet others who are projecting the channel in a favourable light to further their interests. The recent trends on social media both for and against us give us reason to believe that our journalism is transparent, balanced, objective and fair. We will continue to invest in our journalism and accept feedback from everyone to strengthen our core values. We will also not hesitate to correct any mistakes. The team at News 18 Tamil Nadu headed by professionals does not sway one way or the other based on political narratives. We remain committed to objective and unbiased reportage and covering all shades of opinion.”
In the meantime, leaders of political parties such as the DMK, Congress, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the Communist parties have criticised the Network 18 group for succumbing to pressure from Hindutva groups. The AIADMK, meanwhile, has kept an arm’s length from the controversy.
Congress Tamil Nadu media wing head A Gopanna said that his party faced even harsher criticism when it was in power till 2014. “But none of us ever questioned the professionalism of the anchors,” he added. To this, BJP’s Sekar said the Congress always used underhand tactics to make the media toe the line, something the BJP won’t do.
Gopanna said his party was exploring the possibility of all secular parties in Tamil Nadu collectively boycotting News 18 Tamil Nadu to send out a message that media freedom is non-negotiable. “The primary aim of such online campaigns is to paint the DMK alliance as anti-Hindu ahead of the Assembly elections. But journalists should not be made cannon fodder,” he alleged.