Ranjona Banerji: Media houses as publicity agents

07 May,2021

Ranjona BanerjiBy Ranjona Banerji


Sources. That mystical word in the annals of journalism. Someone who does not want to be identified gives you secret, inside information about a matter of public interest or just gossip or just something someone does not want you to know about. Sources can bring down presidents. Or they can just make the lives of film stars difficult. Journalists can and have gone to jail to protect their sources.


But when your “source” is a political party with an agenda to spread lies or to create sectarian divides, is that a source? When a “source” reveals something that can easily be checked and verified, is that a “source” at all? Or are you either a stooge and a patsy or are you a willing and wilful collaborator in someone else’s game?


Twice in a row recently, top editors at India Today became patsies for the Bharatiya Janata Party. Executive editor Deep Haldar, a friend and former colleague, retweeted “news” about rapes in Bengal which he then recanted because apparently, he got the news from the BJP but did not verify it. Executive Editor Shiv Aroor put out photos about pre-Eid crowds in Hyderabad’s Charminar area which anchor Rajdeep Sardesai, consulting editor of India Today (what is going on here?), debunked as old photos by carrying an interview with the Hyderabad police commissioner.


And then there’s the story of India Today journalist Abhro Banerjee who was misidentified as a murdered BJP worker by the BJP. When I say “misidentified” what I mean is that the BJP just picked up Banerjee’s photo and claimed he was Manik Moitro and had been murdered in Hindu-Muslim election violence in Bengal. Banerjee took to social media to say he was alive and threatened legal action.

https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/ bengal-bjp-posts-photo-of-india-today- journalist-in-violence-video-1799487-2021-05-06


India Today’s top anchors like News Director Rahul Kanwal apparently accepted the BJP’s explanation that it had “erroneously” used Banerjee’s photo. It takes a certain amount of effort to “erroneously” morph someone’s image into a video and claim that he has been murdered. Sadly, it is the individual journalist who threatened legal action, while his bosses appeared to accept the BJP’s explanation.


Imagine if it was another political party who had done this. Would India Today have been as sanguine? Ha ha.


Three such episodes in as many days suggests that India Today needs to re-examine its “standards” of journalism, assuming some of these top anchors have any.


The other explanation, apart from the clear links between India Today’s top staff and the BJP, is that because of these close links, India Today and similar media outlets must now try any game they can to switch the nation’s attention from the massive Covid19 carnage going on in India now. The Narendra Modi government has proven itself to be criminally negligent in dealing with Covid’s devastating second wave. People die across India because of lack of access to oxygen and medical attention, not so much from the virus itself. We have run out of vaccines. International attention has been scathing. The government itself is missing in action.


This is when real journalists expose every shortcoming. And when publicity agents dance to their master’s bidding.


The electoral loss in Bengal has obviously bitten deep and the BJP is trying to recover in the only way it knows – by demonising Muslims and whipping up Hindu majoritarian anger. The normally garrulous prime minister appears to have swallowed his tongue. The rest of the Union government is involved in party work abandoning the nation to itself. Courts across India are trying to get the Centre to take responsibility. And India’s prominent TV channels carry on amplifying BJP lies and BJP efforts to increase sectarian hatred.


In Uttarakhand, where I live, the recently ended Hindu festival, the Kumbh Mela has had a devastating effect on Covid cases in the state. The number of cases has in a month gone from under 100,000 to over 200,000. We are in lockdown, with restrictions getting more stringent every other day. Our meagre health facilities cannot cope. How much coverage has Uttarakhand got in the national media? The intent to deflect attention from a super-spreader Hindu festival to a Muslim festival is blatantly obvious. Picking Hyderabad which has a high Muslim population is also blatantly obvious. This is the BJP’s game. And it is despicably shameful that media houses would prefer to ignore the pain and horror that the Modi government mismanagement has caused to the people of India by playing that BJP game.


Of course, to cover the Covid mismanagement, you need eyes and ears on the ground. Not sources. If you really had any worthwhile “sources” they might tell you where the Government of India has vanished in this time of dire need. Instead, we’ve got sections of the media obediently playing out the BJP’s deflection tactics.


What words should I use to describe this?


Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia every Tuesday and Friday. Her views here are personal.


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