PrimeTime Debates: Hate Story 2022

10 Jun,2022





By Shailesh Kapoor


Shailesh KapoorIt had to happen someday. The vitriolic nature of prime-time debates on Indian TV channels has been there for everyone to see over the last decade. It was only a matter of time that this daily dose of toxicity snowballed into something serious and threatening. A comment by BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma on one such debate has resulted in a major diplomatic crisis. In turn, it has resulted in BJP putting down some guidelines regarding the code of conduct for their spokespersons on TV channels. I’m afraid, it’s a case of too little, too late. The damage may have already been done.


Nupur Sharma is not one of a kind. It could have been anyone else instead of her. Spewing venom on prime-time debates has been par for the course. It’s a format and style that was first championed by Arnab Goswami, whose own debates have degenerated with every passing year. Other channels followed suit, and on any given weekday, we now have more than 30 prime-time debates competing on decibel levels as well as on absurdity.


How did we reach this nadir? A part of the answer lies in the mad rush for TV ratings. In a multi-channel scenario, where you are looking for a share of eyeballs in times of low attention spans, outshouting the next channel on the remote is a temptation that’s hard to resist. I don’t have much of an issue with the noise and the outshouting per se. Even if you believe such content is lowbrow, it is still harmless. You can simply switch channels, or watch news online or on social media.


But over the last four years, the discourse has started peddling hate, which, unlike noise, is dangerous. The transition from distasteful but harmless noise to hateful and divisive communal witch-hunts started in the build-up to the 2019 general elections, and continued to get worse in the pandemic years. And here we are, in 2022, in a diplomatic tangle, because a hate-spewing spokesperson went too far one day.


Will anyone learn anything from this at all? Will our politicians, who are generally over-enthusiastic in supporting censorship of entertainment content, self-censor their own people? Will news channel bosses have some tough talks with their offending anchors? Much as we wish the answers to these two questions is ‘yes’, the compulsions of electoral politics, coupled with the subservient nature of Indian media, especially television news, makes that ‘yes’ wishful, almost like a fantastical idea that can no longer exist. Not watching TV news is no longer a solution either. That’s like the ostrich-in-the-sand argument. The social ramifications won’t go away if a handful of people stop watching.


The only community who can action a change are the advertisers. Brand safety has been a growing topic of conversation worldwide, and there cannot be a better time for some of the biggest spenders on television news to introspect if their message is being seen in the right context and environment. If the money dries up, TV channels will have no other option but to fix their domestic problems. While the Central Government does so too, in a crisis of its own making, one could argue.


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