The furore over the ‘captain’ phenomenon and the divide within the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala on the matter calls for an independent analysis. Whether Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan is the ‘captain’ or ‘comrade’ is being hotly debated, even as the dubious role played by the media in Kerala, in reinforcing the personality cult, needs careful examination.
It seems that the repackaging of Vijayan as ‘captain’ wasn’t organic, and that the campaign was ‘pushed’ by the Public Relations (PR) agency hired to shore-up the campaign. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the PR agency engaged by Pinarayi Vijayan is the same firm used by the UP CM post-Hathras gang rape and murder.
How the ‘Captain’ Tag Came To Be
The ‘captain’ motif itself is not coincidental. In 1933, a poster of Joseph Stalin by caricaturist Boris Efimov, with Stalin depicted as a maritime captain, began to dominate public spaces in the Soviet Union. The poster had Stalin steering the helm of a ship with the Soviet flag flapping in the breeze in the background with the caption, ‘The Captain of the Soviet Union’.
As the chief minister tackling cyclone Ockhi, Nipah, recurring floods and COVID-19, Pinarayi Vijayan has been recast as someone who is able to take care of himself and the state with the skill of a helmsman.
In fact, the caption of the interview conducted by Asianet News’s Sindhu Sooryakumar on 20 March with Pinarayi Vijayan was ‘The Captain Opens Up’. Other channels quickly followed suit, and soon, ‘captain’ began to dominate the airwaves.
The opposition UDF came out with allegations of a ‘quid pro quo’ for ‘favours’ allegedly received as part of the huge advertisement spent on the LDF. The media industry had been badly hit following COVID-19, and the government’s unusual ad-spent came as a boon to many struggling media houses.
The ‘role of government ads in keeping media houses viable cannot be underplayed’, according to senior journalist NP Chekutty, who was the editor of Thejas, a daily which became defunct when the Pinarayi Vijayan government took the decision to stop giving government advertisements to it (Thejas was affiliated to the political party Popular Front of India).
Kerala Media’s Role in Legitimising Govt Propaganda
Rajeev Devaraj, editor of Media One, contended that the media in Kerala is far less utilised by the government for ads unlike the North Indian states. But beyond one-sided surveys which really caused the opposition-led UDF to cry foul, has the Kerala media been totally above board when it comes to advertising?
The media has played a part in legitimising government propaganda through surrogate advertisements and customised content disguised as news. This trend was first witnessed when the majority of Malayalam and English dailies in Kerala came out with customised feature supplements on the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB), on Onam day (31 August) in 2020.
What is more shocking is that almost every news channel in Kerala barring Manorama News has aired anywhere between 15-50 hours of footage paid for by the government without any disclaimers.
On 13 January 2021, replying to Sulthan Bathery MLA IC Balakrishnan’s un-starred question in the State Assembly, Thomas Isaac confirmed that KIIFB was paying for the content, and that it had already expended some Rs 6 crore-odd with Rs 2.5 crore owed further to the channels. Isaac also confirmed that Asianet News, 24 News, Media One, News18 Malayalam, Reporter, Mangalam, Kaumudi, Amritha News, Janam, Jaihind, Kairali News, ACV and Mathrubhumi News aired the content.
How Kerala Audience Got ‘Hoodwinked’ by the Local Media
Apart from Congress mouthpiece Jaihind News (which probably removed the videos), every other news channel has these videos posted on their YouTube channels and it can be independently verified by anyone. And Mathrubhumi News aside, which has a ‘sponsored’ label at the beginning of the show lasting couple of seconds, none of the other channels bothered to put up any disclaimers about the paid nature of the content, despite raking in anywhere between Rs 50 lakhs to a crore for telecasting these shows.
So, how did these channels ‘hoodwink’ unsuspecting viewers into believing it was regular programming?
Apart from not having the ‘sponsored’ label, these shows were tailored differently for every channel, with different names and presentation styles and features to them.
So, Asianet News had the name “MLA-yodu Chodikkam” while it was called “Vikasana Mandalam” on Media One. It was “Kuthikkunna Keralam” on Kaumudy, “Vikasanam KIIFBiyilude” on Janam TV, “Vikasana Vishesham” on 24 News, “Kerala Model” on Kairali News, “Vikasana Mathrika” on Mathrubhumi News, “Janapaksham” on Mangalam, “Vikasana Vazhiyiloode” on News18 Malayalam – to name a few.
What Editors & TV News Anchors Have to Say
On being asked how these shows were telecast without the sponsored label, Rajeev Devaraj of Media One refused to comment, and Media One CEO Roshan Kakkatt didn’t offer a clarification either, despite repeated calls and texts. Most other channels wouldn’t even respond.
Vinu V John, the celebrated anchor of Asianet News, whose bravado on air that the channel “didn’t have anything to hide on advertising revenues”, wasn’t ready to engage or speak off air on the matter. NP Chekkutty, who was part of that particular show, commented that even though he could bring this up on air, he did not want to embarrass the anchor. Another news channel editor who did not want to be named stated that the channels definitely had an option to show it as sponsored content, but that would probably have affected the revenue percentage.
Johny Lukose, editor of Manorama News, the only channel to not telecast the show, said that the channel “didn’t have slots to spare” for this show.
Manorama News had also not telecast the chief minister’s public engagement program ‘Naam Munnottu’ telecast as a ‘sponsored programme’ by other news channels. But when it came to KIIFB newspaper ads disguised as feature supplements, even Malayala Manorama daily published these.
According to Chekkutty, by airing some 500-odd hours of sponsored content as regular programming, news channels in Kerala have failed to ensure a level-playing field for the government and the opposition.
“The majority of the people in Kerala who consume TV news only watch it for a limited span of time. When such programmes are aired as ‘news’ by credible news channels, unsuspecting viewers are easily fooled,” another veteran editor commented.
A ‘Media-Driven’ Narrative?
Consequently, the charge of Leader of Opposition Ramesh Chennithala — that the visual media has been ‘swaying to the tunes’ of the chief minister — may have some merit to it.
But even as the propaganda weaved around ‘captain’ Pinarayi Vijayan reached a crescendo, no less than his fellow Kannur comrades, such as Kodiyeri Balakrishnan and P Jayarajan, came up with clarifications and disowned the coinage as a ‘media-driven’ narrative.
Maybe the Kerala media fraternity should collectively introspect on how they ended up playing the bugle for Pinarayi Vijayan during this election season — a privilege no other incumbent government in the state has received.
(Anand Kochukudy is a Kerala-based journalist and former editor of The Kochi Post. He tweets @AnandKochukudy. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)