Precisely at what point does journalism become nationalism that in turn becomes patriotism that morphs into jingoism and then outright religious bigotry? When does guesswork packaged as reportage become headlines that only peddle baseless allegations as objective facts?
Such philosophical meanderings are important in India today as an increasing number of news outlets, mostly TV channels, tilt so far to the Right so as to make media baron Rupert Murdoch's Fox News look liberal. After all, there is something to be said about doing a crude job of a thing, that is inherently crude in outlook.
NBSA Decision is Rap on the Knuckles to Some Media Houses
Then there are small mercies. Such as it happened last week, when some of the media warriors of dubious ideology were forced to tender an apology and/or pay a fine by the National Broadcasting Standards Authority (finally glad to know that such a thing exists and actually works. At least sometimes).
The NBSA moved to rap three channels, News18 Kannada (owned by the Mukesh Ambani-controlled Network 18 group), Suvarna, and Times Now for their coverage of the Islamic sect Tablighi Jamaat. Their coverage has been confirmed by the industry regulator as one that amounted to targeted hate. For the uninitiated, the story involved a global congregation of the Jamaat in 2020 that took place in Nizamuddin, New Delhi, that led to its members catching the COVID-19 virus in its early days.
Stories immediately painted Muslims as super spreaders by selective information, innuendo and allegations followed thereafter. It turns out that journalism may have in the process suffered a virus of virulent bias.
What we have then from the NBSA is a mere rap on the knuckle for something that could potentially incite riots or social discrimination in a nation that swears by a Constitution promising equality and justice.
But the same Constitution also promises freedom of expression that increasingly spouts hate, which, though constrained by law, is difficult to enforce; even in organisations that officially swear by regulatory standards.
Other Media Houses Should Take Note
It is time for the NBSA's orders to be loudly proclaimed as precedents (as loudly as some of these channels' anchors scream, thank you!) for other journalistic outlets to follow. Presumption of guilt is increasingly becoming the gold standard for kangaroo court journalism. Journalism does excel when there is a moderate tilt, be it to the Right or the Left. That is the process of democracy in which values are decided by debate and discourse that is in the end, constructive.
But what we are witnessing these days increasingly is not the acceptable tilt that goes with the conventional journalistic process of reportage, context, and the occasional skepticism, with an effort to give both sides of the story. What we are seeing, instead, is a media culture in which chosen spokespeople and anchors scream bias, and are ably supported by reporter underlings on the street happy to do what the boss wants.
Journalism, do you call that?
Selective Coverage of Kumbh vs Tablighi Jamaat
The Supreme Court last August wanted reports of both the NBSA and the state-blessed toothless regulator, Press Council of India, on the Tablighi Jamaat issue. We will wait to hear more on that from the top court.
In the months that have passed in the interim, the very Hindu Kumbh Mela took place in Haridwar with not many batting an eyelid even as the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic began to ravage huge parts of India. The channels facing NBSA's ire barely blinked.
Politically Motivated FIRs Undermine Freedom of Speech
In seemingly unrelated news but effectively joined at the hip like Siamese twins, we have had two FIRs (first information reports).
In the first, celebrated TV news anchor Arnab Goswami of Republic TV, who is busy hyper-cloning his former employer-turned-business rival Times Now, is accused by Mumbai police of rigging television rating points that caused huge losses to the Times Group. In the other FIR, microblogging platform Twitter's India chief was pursued by police after it carried a controversial video of a Muslim man alleging violence by Hindu bigots, before the Karnataka high court granted him some relief.
In both cases, there is politics written all over. The first involves police in a Shiv Sena-Congress combine ruled state that targets the BJP and the other in which the BJP at the Centre, invokes rules of its own to police dissenting media or public voices. Either way, the casualties are free speech and decent journalism in some form or the other.
The loud screams of the politically inclined often drown voices of reason, and most certainly whispers of wisdom. In such a context, the NBSA's order comes like a whiff of hope to old-school journalism that - in the age of hyper anchors - is suffering from what feels like a long COVID.
There is a long way to go in restoring news media to, what one hopes would be, a reasonable equilibrium of acceptable tilts.
(The writer is a senior journalist who has covered economics and politics for Reuters, The Economic Times, Business Standard and Hindustan Times. He tweets as @madversity. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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