You cannot have Ambani owning TV channels when he owns half the nation: Journalist Sandeep Bhushan

18 June 2019
Courtesy Sandeep Bhushan
Courtesy Sandeep Bhushan

India’s rapidly evolving television news industry has come a long way since the days of Doordarshan’s plodding monopoly. With the influx of private players in the post-liberalisation era, newsrooms began diversifying vastly in ideologies, tone and tenor. Television news, especially in the English language, expanded its disproportionate influence over India’s national conversation, owing, particularly to its proximity to power.

Today, Indian newsrooms operate in a near-opaque environment with minimum regulatory oversight, coupled with increasing pressure from the establishment to toe the state’s line. The senior journalist Sandeep Bhushan’s upcoming book The Indian Newsroom is an attempt to deconstruct the agenda-driven journalism purveyed by corporate ownership, and the concentration of editorial powers in the hands of a star-elite within the studios, among other things. For his analysis, Bhushan relies on his 20 years of experience as a television journalist with channels such as NDTV and Headlines Today. He is also a regular contributor at The Caravan.

In an interview with Appu Ajith, Bhushan spoke about an industry mired in a moral and institutional crisis, and how this impacted the recent general elections. He was scathing in his assessment of the role the media played in the elections, saying that “it infantilised politics, made politics into a game.”

Appu Ajith: In your upcoming book, you have illustrated some disconcerting aspects of the Indian television news scene, including access journalism, marginalisation of reporters, power asymmetry in the newsrooms, and the rise of the “star system.” Which among these is particularly worrying?
Sandeep Bhushan: Let me speak a little about why I wrote the book ... Nobody in India writes about their profession, that is, journalism. Nobody knows what is happening in the world of media. Having taught in some of the universities, I see there are parallel discourses [what is taught versus how media actually functions]. It is a very incestuous, self-referential world. I tried to write what I think as a reporter: the way I saw it and then connect it to the broader scheme of things. The second aim was introspection. There is a lot of introspection happening globally in the media industry but in India, unfortunately, it does not happen. Especially the liberal space in India—how the liberal media’s shaped up, what are the issues facing it. While there is a lot of discrediting of the liberal media, there is still a case for looking inwards. Then there is the rise of this very powerful, right-wing ideological movement among the journalists.

I think it is important to put on record the journalists who have been hired and fired because that really is the crux of the issue. We talk so much of Modi media—that the establishment gets away with doing anything in news organisations, they arm-twist promoters, they arm twist editors, and in turn the reporter gets arm twisted. This is because we have this whole power asymmetry at work. But first and foremost has been the culling of reporting. It has driven news content out, completely. There used to specialist reporters and all those have been culled.

Appu Ajith is a Deputy Editorial Manager at The Caravan.

Keywords: 2019 general elections Sandeep Bhushan Mukesh Ambani NDTV judge loya newsrooms Narendra Modi BJP Raghav Bahl Arnab Goswami Subhash Chandra Rajeev Chandrasekhar Election Commission