Fabricating stories against the AAP

IN Media Practice | 09/05/2015
With its ludicrous nonsense about the AAP's Kumar Vishwas' 'love affair', the media sank to new depths.
VIKRAM JOHRI asks: time for an ombudsman?
It is hardly a secret that certain Hindi news channels such as Zee News, India TV and IBN7, have not been exactly bias-free in their reporting of the Aam Admi Party (AAP).  This may have something to do with the political affiliations of their owners, resulting in either the blocking out of coverage related to the party or accentuating the negative. 
This tendency was much in display before the Delhi elections when the way Kejriwal was grilled on, say, Zee News, in a segment hosted by editor Sudhir Chaudhary, betrayed the journalist’s interests blatantly.
To be sure, the AAP seems to have been hopping from one crisis to the next and since it is a primarily Delhi-based party, even minor infractions assume great weight in the media’s eyes. From the expulsion of Prashant Bhushan and Yogendra Yadav to the controversy surrounding Ashutosh’s bawling during a discussion on farmer Gajendra’s suicide, little that the AAP or its leaders have done since assuming office in Delhi has endeared the party to the public. The media, on its part, has been only too willing to go to town.
But this week the media, particularly the Hindi channels mentioned above, crossed the line. The story of Kumar Vishwas’ so-called affair with a political activist was concocted from thin air. 
Rumours about the affair between Vishwas and the woman, which have been denied by both, began circulating on social media and in Delhi AAP circles last month. The activist, whose marriage bore the brunt of these rumours, wanted Vishwas to clarify that nothing was going on between them. Private conversations between the individuals concerned happened, after which the woman, dissatisfied with Vishwas’ appeal, went to the media. 
The crux of the matter is there was no story here. Without understanding the nuances of the case, these channels began reporting on the story and created a frenzy around Vishwas’ supposed indiscretion. In spite of his repeated proclamations of innocence, these channels kept running the story on a loop.
Zee News, which is not known for maintaining objectivity when it comes to AAP, ran a ticker calling the story “Vishwas Leela”. Even if the story had a kernel of truth, to sensationalise it in this manner arouses disgust. Vishwas was portrayed as a serial philanderer who had had relationships with many women, including a number of AAP volunteers. 
The channel was only interested in milking the speculative story for TRPs and, as is common with some Hindi channels, added music and commentary to give it the feeling of an afternoon soap. Even Headlines Today ran the story on its ticker for a bit before better sense prevailed.
Vishwas’ appeal to the media not to involve his family in the controversy fell on deaf ears. What was worse was that these channels showed a lack of sophistication in reporting cases that involve women. If the woman was indeed facing trouble on the marital front due to the alleged rumours, it is likely that the issue would have been exacerbated when the media made a hue and cry out of it. 
At a time when all media houses promise to show greater sensitivity in reporting women’s issues, these channels’ refusal to abide by basic principles smacked of overkill and sensationalism.
The story got so much mileage that the Delhi Commission for Women, in its skewed wisdom, sent a notice to Vishwas to appear before it and deny any wrongdoing. It was a theatre of the absurd. Who can blame Vishwas if he then claims that the entire controversy was manufactured at the behest of his political rivals?
And of course, when Punya Prasun Bajpai of Aaj Tak indicated as much in a segment called “Avishwas” he was branded an AAP agent. The media scene has come to such a sorry pass that no reportage is possible without allegations of political patronage being lobbed against one or the other journalist. 
This kind of below-the-belt journalism is totally uncalled for. There may be much wrong with the AAP and the media has every right to raise issues affecting the party but why get personal to the extent that you concoct stories? 
The way stories that have no basis in truth are blown out of proportion, enabled suitably by willing enthusiasts on Twitter, shows us the horrendous effects of corporate ownership of the media. When Reliance took over TV18, there were reports that the channels under the group had been asked not to give much weight to Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal had raised a number of issues against Reliance in the gas price controversy and Mukesh Ambani’s ownership of TV18 gave him a ready medium with which not only to ignore Kejriwal but to denounce him.
Sudhir Choudhary’s interview with Kejriwal is not the only instance. Sanjay Pugalia sat down with Kejriwal last year and his line of questioning left no doubt about his intentions. It came to a point when even Kejriwal, who was not known to lose his cool in those days, seemed to be on the verge of lashing out.
Today’s scenario is, of course, different. Now Kejriwal is more given to lashing out at the media, with which he had had a largely anodyne relationship during and in the immediate aftermath of the “India Against Corruption” movement. 
At an event last week, Kejriwal is reported to have called for a “public trial” of the media. As Abhinandan Sekhri of Newslaundry, who was present at that event, has revealed, Kejriwal did not in fact initiate the idea but only agreed with an audience member who made this suggestion.
He even backtracked after another audience member pointed to how catastrophic a trial of the media would be. (Full disclosure: Sekhri has been associated with Kejriwal since the days of India Against Corruption.)
But really, who can blame him? When certain sections of the media are only too keen to blow up non-issues and fabricate stories like the Kumar Vishwas ‘love affair’, the time for a stern ombudsman, if not a public trial, is at hand.
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