Ranjona Banerji: When the usual BJP spokespersons were missing in action

29 Aug,2017

​By Ranjona Banerji

 

What a tumultuous week for the country and therefore for the media. Last Thursday, a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India delivered one of the biggest and most historic judgements ever, giving Indian citizens the fundamental right to privacy. The news and the significance were both on social media and news websites from Thursday morning onwards. But news channels – a wider medium of dissemination of news despite our rising smart phone use – took time to understand the implications of what had happened. And even then, they largely failed.

The lack of depth and intellectual heft in TV newsrooms gets severely exposed at times like this. The Supreme Court judgment could not be limited to BJP versus Congress or Hindu versus Muslim or patriots versus anti-nationals. The significance went deeper than that, to the core of Indian democracy and governmental control. And therein lay the failure – nothing to sensationalise.

Some news channels made an effort that barely touched the surface. Some – probably misunderstanding the judgment – interviewed lawyers whose arguments had been rejected. Some gave positive publicity to Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s outright lie that the Government of India had always supported privacy as a fundamental right. Others just ignored the issue and tried to foment more Hindu versus Muslim tension in Bengal, in line with the BJP’s current agenda. They made a huge fuss over some notification about immersion days during Durga Puja showing little knowledge of how Bengal works, only to poison the atmosphere as they normally do.

You had to wait for the newspapers the next morning to get a clearer understanding of how life-changing the SC judgment was. Indian Express topped the charts with its slew of articles and opinion pieces. Thewire.in and scroll.in were the champions on the internet. To be fair, all newspapers gave the right the privacy the space it deserved.

But on Friday, TV “journalists” found the kind of story they could understand: the verdict for two rape cases for which Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim had been tried. Full-on coverage of the area around the courthouse in Panchkula, Haryana, the security arrangements, the various devotees gathered, assurances from the state government, the precautions at Sirsa and in Punjab where Gurmeet Singh has many supporters.

Some 30 minutes after Singh was pronounced guilty, all hell broke loose. Dera members and supporters went on a rampage, destroyed property especially in Panchkula but the violence spread to Sirsa, Punjab, Delhi and even Rajasthan. The bulk of the mayhem was in Panchkula and the state administration appeared to be helpless and hapless. Journalists were attacked and their equipment, including OB vans, destroyed.

The result was that for the first time since the BJP won the Centre in 2014, all news channels attacked the Haryana government for its inefficiency and inaction. TV channels ran hashtags demanding that chief minister ML Khattar must go. They referred to the earlier debacle over another “godman” with cases against him, Rampal, and also to last year’s Jat agitations which left the state burning for days.

This concerted effort appeared to rattle the government, which is used to largely favourable coverage – even state channels like Times Now and Republic TV were furious. That night on the “debates”, the usual BJP spokespersons were missing in action. There was Rakesh Sinha of the RSS and Vikas Pandey from the BJP’s social media cell standing in and having a tough time of it. Raman Malik was the sole BJP member available for roasting through the day.

However, being non-partisan and objective is not always easy when you have been a sycophant for three or more years. So when the Haryana and Punjab High Court asked some tough questions of the state and Centre the next day, only half the observations were pounced upon. The High Court’s acerbic comment that Narendra Modi was the ​Prime ​M​inister of India not ​P​rime ​Minister of the BJP was largely ignored. Instead the court’s equally strong indictment of the Haryana government was concentrated upon.

It did not become any easier for the BJP’s spokespersons – the big names still invisible – through the weekend as videos and information about special treatment to Singh, about BJP ministers giving the Dera money and cutting a deal with Singh for votes all emerged.

On Monday when the quantum of punishment was pronounced, once more the rush to be first with the news did television in. Instead of studying the sentence, reporters and anchors rushed ahead with “10 years”. They then outraged that 10 years was not enough. By the evening it turned out that the full sentence was 20 years – two 10

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year sentences to run one after the other. I heard some marvellous sophistry from one anchor, mid-outrage, as she realised that it was 20 years, that in legal matters, information emerges slowly and is constantly changing. However, to get the correct information three hours after the sentence has been pronounced is not the fault of the court. It is shoddy reporting and legal illiteracy.

All in all, it was a very exciting five days for media-watchers. Meanwhile, our thoughts must be with the journalists injured in the line of duty.

 

​Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal​

 

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