Ranjona Banerji: Shame on our journalism!

31 Jan,2017

By RanjonaBanerji


Watching the stand taken by the US media against the rants and behaviour of US President Donald Trump and his aides, what can one do as a journalist but cringe at the way the Indian media behaved with an equally self-obsessed leader who has not only made extravagant promises (largely unfulfilled) but has drastically diminished the nation with his demonetisation scheme?


Sadly, once again, the burden of bad journalism – or non-existent journalism – falls on our various news channels to bear. From the time that Mr Modi announced his prime ministerial ambitions in 2013, TV and this includes some of our best-known English news anchors, fell over itself in helping Mr Modi promote himself. Unlike print and web journalism, which at least kept the vestiges of journalistic self-respect intact.


Fairy tales about the “Gujarat model” were spread far and wide so that they became fact. We were assured by our news anchors and their guests and friends that India would flourish under Modi. The Congress and other political parties were treated the way journalists should treat political parties. Every comment made by Rahul Gandhi which did not tick every box for perfection was held to scrutiny. Replace Rahul Gandhi with any other non-BJP leader.


The AamAadmi Party has also been held up to a special standard where it has to perform beyond all reasonable levels. This is partly because the India Against Corruption movement and Arvind Kejriwal let TV journalists down, in spite of initial exaggerated media support. And partly because Kejriwal and his party waste no opportunity to attack Modi.


The biggest failure of TV journalism – why do I even use this word? – today remains its stance on demonetisation. Even while reporters covered the ground situation of people dying, people suffering, businesses collapsing, anchors in the evening tried to pretend that things were not so bad, gave ample air time to guests who supported the scheme and in some cases, anchors themselves attempted to present the “good sides” of the scheme.


How many English news channels have gone into detail about the claims made by this government, all of which have come a-cropper? How many star news anchors have said to some shameless supporters of demonetisation, “You have a point”, even when the supporter has declaimed, “Don’t go on and on about poor people suffering”?


How many star anchors have spoken to their viewers about the lack of access granted to them by the Central government, about the fact that only three people in the Government know what’s going on?


How many star anchors have taken the BJP’s communal agenda head on, without bringing Pakistan into the picture?


How many star anchors have ever spoken about the threat to journalism itself? Not even, you may remind yourself, when the whole “intolerance” debates were going on. And who does the lack of freedom of expression affect the most if not journalists?


Watching the responses of the American media to Donald Trump’s “war with the media” and to his various ordinances – particularly the ban on people from certain Muslim countries entering the US – you wonder if India’s much-awarded (mainly by themselves to be honest) TV anchors feel even a twinge of the need for self-analysis.


I would suspect not: Because what most of television news now practices in India is not journalism, even if it ever was at some point. Look at it this way: through the day some people are sent out to the ground with microphones and cameras to get voices and videos on news events. What these poor people find out has seemingly absolutely no impact on decisions taken in the newsroom by senior staff – drastically unlike the way a traditional newspaper reacts to news. Instead, we have a series of talk show hosts whose main job is to either create a fight or give space and time to one point of view.


All too often as we have seen recently, it is the government’s point of view that our news anchors like and everyone else is a traitor. Yes, not everyone is tainted by this brush but the few that stand against on TV are so few as to hardly count.


In contrast, look at the reactions to Trump and to the recent visa ban. The idea of standing up for individual civil liberties is alien to the Indian idea of democracy and that is reflected in our mealy-mouthed responses compared to reactions in the US from the media, the general public, the judiciary and more. That is why we saw artists and writers returning awards as an affront to the Indian state rather than what it was – a protest against an attack on the idea of India and democracy.


Shame. Shame on us. On our journalism. And our pretensions to democracy.


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