Irony shoots itself with a machine gun every time the dictatorship of North Korea refers to itself by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Closer home, another Republic calls itself “independent” while being invested in majorly by an NDA-affiliated Member of Parliament.
And now, even as allegations rage against sections of the media for attempting to be more loyal than the king himself, former BJP Union minister Arun Shourie has chosen to draw a controversial comparison between the Indian media and its North Korean counterparts.
But is Shourie pushing it, or does he really have a point? And what made him draw the parallel in the first place?
Shourie was speaking to NDTV’s Sreenivasan Jain a day after CBI raided the residence of NDTV founders Prannoy and Radhika Roy. The network has referred to the raids as “a blatant political attack on the freedom of the press”.
Jain began his show Reality Check on Tuesday night with a dire assessment of the state of our fourth estate.
Days after NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan asked BJP’s Sambit Patra to leave her show and return to “other news channels that are glorified versions of Doordarshan”, Jain decided to show people which channels they were referring to.
For example, today, up to 5 farmers may have died in police firing in Madhya Pradesh. But here are what I call crony networks are showing, each of them on a completely different subject. Now, is this because Madhya Pradesh is a BJP-ruled state? I leave it to you, the viewer, to judge.Sreenivasan Jain on his show Reality Check on Monday night
So What Does North Korean TV Look Like?
Here’s a look at a CNN report from 2013 that shows snippets from North Korean state TV.
Effigies of the political head of the “puppet nation of traders” are being blown up by rocket launchers, the North’s brotherly way of paying homage to the South Korean president. When not blown up, his effigies are attacked by dogs that soldiers have unleashed in the snow.
The pyrotechnics also include firing on paper targets symbolising the United States, and a train is shown running over a cutout of the South Korean president.
In short, hypernationalism with a healthy dose of military pride and chest-thumping that need not be entirely rooted in facts. Damn, why does that sound familiar all of a sudden?
The Parallels With the Indian Media
On the same Monday night that Arun Shourie was decrying the tendency of media houses to turn into unquestioning tools of propaganda, Arnab Goswami was busy branding the Left Front as anti-national and anti-Army. Why? Because Left leaders had dared criticise the Army Chief’s nod of approval for the use of a human shield tied to a jeep in Kashmir.
The only purpose of the Left parties, along with a bunch of people whom I call the pseudos, is to somehow attack the Indian Army. Abuse the Indian Army, attack the Indian Army.Arnab Goswami on his primetime show on Republic TV
And it’s nowhere close to being the most controversial thing he’s said on Republic so far. Sample this. During a debate earlier this month on the situation in Kashmir, Arnab thundered against those he deemed anti-national, “I would say ransack these people, take away the properties, seize the banks (accounts), take away the houses, leave them bankrupt, leave them on the streets, leave them with nowhere to go.”
Let them scream and shout, let them say “our human rights are being taken away”, deny them anything, take away their passports, create an Indian version of a Guantanamo Bay and put them there. That’s the only treatment that these people now deserve.Arnab Goswami
And that’s seconds before in-house Republic panelist Major Gaurav Arya questioned why Kashmiris had rosy cheeks if their state was under lockdown half of the time, the colour of the cheeks apparently indicating that the average Kashmiri was getting funded by dubious means. Incidentally, Arnab chose to back Arya’s statements.
In his column for Frontline, Sashi Kumar, veteran television journalist and Chairman of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, calls it a case of manufacturing consent through a “compulsory consensus”.
“It is the new made-for-TV variety of compulsory consensus: as long as your views are my views, you can air them on my show, at my pleasure; when they are not, I will outshout you into silence or insignificance or interrupt and badger and bully you until you are reduced to a sputtering stuttering idiot; and if even that does not work, I will mute your audio so that viewers cannot hear what you are saying and you will end up looking like an idiot all the same, and the people will love it all the more, and the TRPs will soar all the higher. That is the win-win formula for a super news show.”
On the comparison between the Indian TV media and North Korea, he adds, “In Kim’s Democratic People’s Republic, the rogue state, this problem does not arise because there is no need to pretend to be democratic in the first place.”
The Arnabification of TV News
There must be something to the formula because almost every other English news channel in India has adopted it. Almost all the anchors are suddenly (actually have been for a while now) shouting and screaming, including some who started out perfectly reasonably and intelligibly.Sashi Kumar in his column on Frontline
You know how they say God made man in his own image? Isn’t the analogy eerily similar to Arnab and most of the English TV media, especially during primetime?
Take a look at some of the most successful primetime anchors today and you’ll get the drift.
Rahul Shivshankar is renowned for emulating Arnab’s tone, tenor and decibel level while he helmed NewsX. (He’s also accused of making NewsX seem like a carbon copy of Times Now, colour scheme et al, but that’s a discussion for another day.) No wonder then that Shivshankar was chosen to fill Arnab’s shoes post his exit from Times Now!
From Gaurav Sawant and Rahul Kanwal on India Today to even Zakka Jacob on CNN-News18, the volumes they are a rising. Even Jacob, who began his stint on primetime a couple of years ago with refreshingly low decibel debates, has given in to the demands for loud arguments and plentiful rhetoric.
With more channels seeking Arnab’s success by following his editorial stance of fierce hypernationalism and coupling it with shouting matches every evening, English TV news has refashioned itself after its most successful anchor-editor.
For example, following the Maoist attack in Sukma – in which 26 CRPF personnel were killed – instead of questioning the government for the lapse in security, Times Now chose to slam Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid for their alleged silence on the attack.
Arnab chose to vent on Twitter since Republic TV hadn’t launched on air yet. His targets too were “pseudos, the cocktail circuit media and shallow foreign funded anti-nationals”. Not a single of his questions was directed to the government on why a security lapse this major had occurred and what was being done to counter it.
But gems buried in the internet have a habit of surfacing when you least expect them. Here’s a video that shows the same Arnab asking tough questions to the previous government after a Maoist attack in 2014.
Fake News That Fits the Bill
In the race to put out strongly opinionated views, facts have often taken a backseat in the media. Take for example, Arnab’s last episode of The Newshour at Times Now. The topic under discussion was the Bhopal encounter, in which eight SIMI militants were killed by police after they escaped Bhopal Central Jail.
Here’s a quick look at how Arnab twisted the facts in that debate to suit his argument.
Read the full story on Arnab’s ‘alternative facts’ in the Bhopal encounter debate here.
A Crisis of Credibility?
Less than a week after Hizbul militant Burhan Wani’s death in July 2016, India Today ran “exclusive” visuals of a young man confessing that he was paid to pelt stones at security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. The confession video was reportedly used in three India Today programmes and one Aaj Tak debate.
However, as Newslaundry later reported, the person in that video came out stating that what India Today had showed was shot back in 2008, when he was 19.
Bilal Ahmad Dar, the man in question, also claimed that his ‘confession’ had been extracted under duress by the forces.
So did India Today run an eight-year-old video and pass it off as coming from the post-Wani protests in 2016?
Speaking to The Quint, India Today’s Managing Editor Rahul Kanwal defended the credibility of the coverage. “We have an IG, CRPF telling us on camera that the video was from a few days before the date we telecast the story. Also, the stone-pelter’s defence that the video was several years old and had been reported on in the past fell through. Contrary to his claims, the video could not be found anywhere else online. Neither were there any news report to back his claims.”
Given how easily fake news finds its way into our social feeds and inboxes today, the role of the media is more critical than ever. Fact-checking and asking the right and tough questions to the powers that be are roles it cannot abdicate.
That is, after all, the classical role of the watchdog. But the examples above show that we must watch the watchdog too, lest it turn a deeper shade of North Korean!