Criminalising the public discourse

BY PADMAJA SHAW| IN Opinion | 07/03/2016
A much bigger game is being played out in the JNU episode, involving political power and corporate interests. Eyeballs are not sought for advertising alone,
says PADMAJA SHAW

 Rupert Murdoch (left) and Subhash Chandra: media moghuls with a political agenda?

 

Much media analysis has followed the shocking events of the past fortnight after the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khaled and Anirban Bhattacharya of JNU based on allegedly dubious videos that spread with the help of some television news channels. Media analysts have put it down to chasing TRPs and the consequent disrespect for due diligence.

While chasing TRPs at the expense of diligence may be distasteful, it would still hint at a level of ‘professional’ anxiety to be more interesting and marketable than the competition. This could partly explain the unfolding events but one suspects that it is not the whole story.

There are many news channels in the country that are struggling to survive in the ad-driven television news industry but it is the market leaders, backed by the deep pockets of their corporate parents, that seem to indulge in this unscrupulous chase. The eyeballs are not being sought for the advertisements alone; it is the agenda of political masters and their nexus with corporate interests that is seeking to be served. And this appears to have global parallels.

The sudden closure of Rupert Murdoch’s The News of the World in the UK in July 2011 showed up the murky co-habitation of political operatives, the police establishment, and sections of unscrupulous media. The process of outing the nexus and laying it bare before the unsuspecting public took several decades, by which time much damage was inflicted on the polity.  Importantly, the process of outing was led by media fraternity who cared enough about their profession and the health of their democracy.

Charles Moore, a former editor of The Daily Telegraph of the UK, writing after Murdoch closed The News of the World, in an interestingly titled edit-page piece, ‘The spell is broken for a media sorcerer with a touch of evil’ says, “Above all, the cynicism extends to politics. Rupert Murdoch has genuine political beliefs – probably best described as radical, subversive conservatism – and he advances them fairly consistently. But his main interest is using his existing power to get more of it. … his main game became simply to work out who was likely to win, back him, and then threaten him if he did not grant the commercial concessions which he sought. It was on the basis of this Devil’s bargain that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown constructed the strategy of New Labour.”

"We too witness the issues that are treated as molehills if favoured political conservatives are involved, becoming mountains when it is about the opposition leaders. "

 

Maligning and ridiculing political opponents and manufacturing hype about favoured politicians is a staple, as is being witnessed in British politics and the contrasting ways Murdoch’s stable serves up news about David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn. We too witness the issues that are treated as molehills if favoured political conservatives are involved, becoming mountains when it is about the opposition leaders. 

With the Delhi Police using allegedly doctored tapes to label the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University as anti-nationals and to arrest them, the enthusiastic participation of sections of the media, the police, the ruling party politicians and their cheerleaders appears to have brought us to that moment of truth in India as well.

The news head of Zee News, Sudhir Chaudhary, has a record of dubious news adventures. On 28 August 2007, while he was the CEO of Live India  channel, a video sting was shown on the channel about a mathematics teacher at a Delhi School, Uma Khurana, saying that she was running a prostitution racket and was inducting school children into the business.

The outraged parents and others assaulted and abused Uma Khurana. The Delhi police played a dubious role by arresting and harassing her. After such public humiliation because of an easily convinced ‘public’ who turn into lynch mobs, it was found that the video sting was fake.

As channel head, Chaudhary merely called his reporter a criminal and tried to walk away. But the channel was ordered off air for a month because of the seriousness of the offence.

This is a formula that was also successfully deployed by the Murdoch papers. In 1995, when Lord Spencer cornered The News of the World over transgressing the privacy of his family, Murdoch startled media-watchers and delivered a public rebuke to his editor, Piers Morgan, saying Morgan was a young man who had ‘gone over the top’ and needed ‘to remember his responsibility to the code to which he as an editor – and all our journalists – subscribe in their terms of employment’.  (Bob Franklin and Rod Pilling in Taming the Tabloids: Market, moghuls and media regulation in Media Ethics, ed. Matthew Kieran 2002, p 112). The ethical hollowing out that later led to the closure of The News of the World in 2011 and the revival of Murdoch media since then in the UK with the collusion of political conservatives, is a part of the inglorious history of free media.

After Live India, Chaudhary was welcomed into Zee News and became its news head.   During the UPA regime he was involved in the Jindal extortion case, for which he was arrested and briefly jailed. He is currently out on bail.

The Broadcast Editors’ Association removed him from the position of Treasurer and its primary membership. However, no other punishment for such serious transgressions of the broadcast codes and for causing serious damage to people like Khurana have come forth from the industry that claims to regulate itself. On the contrary, last year the Express Group gave him an award for being the best broadcast journalist in Hindi, for the year 2013.

The interplay between political and corporate interests, in the case of those who own big media, is best demonstrated by the Zee Jindal case and its changing fortunes depending on who is in power. If both Chaudhary and his proprietor Subhash Chandra faced police action during the tenure of the United Progressive Alliance,  their fortunes have altered dramatically now. On June 5 last year, Focus News, a channel in which Naveen Jindal has interests, reported that  a Patiala House court on Friday issued notices to him and another Zee News editor questioning their bail in a case related to extortion of Rs 100 crore from industrialist Naveen Jindal.

But there has been little other coverage of this case. There seem to have been developments in the case in February 2016 but links to these stories are to be found only on page ten of a Google search, and then  rather mysteriously, get you nowhere. For the search result "Feb 22, 2016 - Zee News employee's complaint against Naveen Jindal dismissed."  you get this link.  What’s more, under the  current government dispensation the same Zee editor—Chaudhary--who was under attack when Jindal was influential, gets X-Category security from Delhi police following a threat perception. (In September 2015)

Now, once again under Chaudhary’s watch, a number of JNU scholars and the premier institution itself have been thoroughly maligned as ‘anti-national’ by the video footage which was shown repeatedly by Zee. BJP spokesman, Sambit Patra has taken the footage to other channels and shown it on those too.

The videos have since been questioned for their authenticity even as Chaudhary has presented lab reports to show that they were not doctored. Zee ran newer footage on Umar Khaled, the authenticity of which was also questioned for the way in which the clips were stitched together to create a narrative. A journalist working for the Zee group resigned in disgust over what he calls the manipulated coverage of JNU.

Based on this dubious ‘evidence’, some of the channels like Times Now and NewsX, along with Zee, have run a campaign to rouse mob violence (Umar Khalid’s sisters get threats, youngest unable to attend school, JNU professor attacked by protesters from BJP youth wing in Gwalior, LU Prof faces ABVP’s wrath over article on Umar Khalid and also JU woman student gets death threat for backing Kanhaiya Kumar) against JNU and people associated with it, calling it an ‘anti-national cabal’ that supports Maoists, and separatists and contrasting them with the soldiers who have died on the front. Infantile and jingoistic patriotism - asking co-panellists to repeat Bharat mata ki jai,  or debating about flying oversized flags in universities – is passed off on these channels as a news debate.

Even as all this was going on, on Zee ‘News’ Chaudhary has also reported that a picture of PM Modi’s mother in hospital was circulating on social media. (The ABP channel has called this out as fake.) He also claimed on the show that he personally spoke with the PM and reported an elaborate conversation between the PM and his mother.

This confidence to flaunt access must derive from the perception of proximity to the PM that Zee News seeks to project, which largely remains uncorrected by the PMO and the BJP. Apart from the easy telephonic access that Chaudhary claimed on air, the Prime Minister launched Subhash Chandra’s cryptically titled autobiography, “The Z Factor: My journey as the wrong man at the right time”, at his official residence with Chaudhary introducing the speakers. When he spoke, Narendra Modi said that his relationship with the Goel family goes back many years, and cited anecdotes.

The  Zee empire is into a range of other businesses and its media empire is not just a tool to manage public perceptions but also to control the regulatory impulses of the state. At this point, with a well inclined government in power, Chandra is making forays into infrastructure and looking at the potential in Smart Cities.

"Human rights and civil society representatives are invited to the shows and shouted down as traitors for questioning the government of the day without getting any opportunity to argue their views. "

 

The ‘radical, subversive conservative agenda’ of some of the channels that represent the corporate interests of their parent entities has been to target any rights-based discourse, any articulation of liberal opinion, and to viciously attack it. Human rights and civil society representatives are invited to the shows and shouted down as traitors for questioning the government of the day without getting any opportunity to argue their views. Panellists who speak the language of peace and the need for negotiated political solutions to complex conflicts are quickly labelled as anti-national and unpatriotic sell-outs. With media houses clearly saying that they are in the advertising business and not in news, the profit motive and serving dominant corporate/political interests by hounding all counter-forces that question their power, seems inevitable.

Yes, stories like the Sushma Swaraj-Lalit Modi (SS-LM) passport affair or the Vyapam deaths are discussed by these channels but in such a way that the terms of engagement and the framework within which the discussion is allowed to be conducted is predetermined.

Now we have a student leader who was arrested on sedition charges based on what seems to be a fake video and after that the ‘law must take its course’. Yet, after days of combative and obfuscating coverage of the Sushma Swaraj-Lalit Modi affair or the Vyapam scandal, no legal action is seen. This bestows these channels with feathers in their caps for being “non-partisan” while controlling the conversation. It gives them an aura of impartiality, which they never fail to boast about on prime time.

The ‘News of the World’ did similar sensational stories where paediatricians were hounded as paedophiles, phones tapped, information bought from willing accomplices who had access, corrupt police officers wined and dined and ruling and aspiring politicians schmoozed up to.  The sensationalism of the tabloid style was not just to make money for the News Corporation. It was also to create a captive uncritical audience for the political message of Murdoch’s friends. We see much the same thing unfolding before us.

The circulation/TRPs as metrics merely serve to legitimize the players as popular among consumers. Some channels are peddling false and sensational information as news. It is not a coincidence that these channels are able to repeatedly violate the basic ethics of media practice. This would not be possible without overt and covert political patronage.

In an attempt to distance himself, Vineet Jain, managing director of Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd — sister company of the one which owns  Times Now — began tweeting view points contrary to those recently espoused by Arnab Goswami in his JNU coverage saying that the demand for a separate state (Kashmir) is not seditious. And an editorial page article was  published in the Times of India on February 29 which explains the editorial structure in the Times Group as “Federalism in structure and pluralism of views”. This is a variation on the Murdochian strategy that says if the editorial hatchet men bring in the profits and political connections it is all ours, if they bring opprobrium, its entirely their responsibility.

Using channels for political advantage is perhaps inevitable. But the channels that criminalise the public discourse and violate the basic tenets of public morality by encouraging lynch mobs to attack ordinary people based on a fabric of lies deserve to head down the same path as The News of the World.

 


Padmaja  Shaw is a media scholar, columnist, broadcast journalism trainer, and a retired professor of journalism.

 

 

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