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

Courtesy Sandeep Bhushan
18 June, 2019

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.

Then, stars are a problem because the star is the one who is going to be omnipresent—the person who knows everything. They replace reporters. Stars devour resources because [channels] divert all resources to showing-off the anchor’s persona. The anchor becomes a brand.

AA: Do you think this has made the reporter's role mechanical?
SB: If I just bite-hunt the whole day, who needs any editorial skill? Any fresh graduate can do your job and you will have five of those guys, instead of one good reporter. Because the studio guys decides what goes on air. They decide how it is going to be debated, what issues will be shortlisted for the evening. The reporter goes out of the picture after six in the evening, mostly. And this is not just the English-language space, it is across the television spectrum.

AA: The evolution of the Arnab Goswami template—a perpetually angry and confrontational showman—which is being replicated across newsrooms, is one of the central concerns of your book. How much has this affected the news and newsroom culture? What does it tell us about the audience?
SB: In India, any kind of data relating to this [audience] is not monitored anywhere. Who are the Twitter users? Who are the social-media users? There is two-way traffic between news content in all the right-wing channels and what is figuring in the social media and what is figuring on the government and the BJP’s agenda. What is happening is that there is a new class which I think the BJP is politically able to map very well. There is a new class which is aspirational, non-English speaking, irreverent; they perhaps take to social media, they watch Times Now. So, Times Now and Republic, they are in itself, they’re very impactful.

But what is even more impactful about Arnab is that he’s spawned copycats across Hindi networks. Like [AajTak channel’s] Anjana Om Kashyap, or Amish Devgan [now with News18], ABP News, they all have screaming, shouting, hysterical, partisan anchors.

Arnab is a post-meltdown anchor, essentially. In the time of scarcity, where there are no revenues and ten channels that are squabbling to gather eyeballs, his kind of a daily theatre just fetches a lot of eyeballs. This is why access journalism, to me, is extremely important.

AA: Could elaborate on that as you have talked at length about access journalism in the book as well?
SB: Across the world, whenever there is a slump, like 2008–09, there is a shake-up: media houses have shut down, shed flab. But if you look at India, through the meltdown, in an industry that relies entirely on advertising revenue, the actual number of channels increased. I think it’s something like 380 today and 250 then. You have 130 odd channels despite the dirge we hear everyday, that there is no money. And I think that the whole thing is access, in a very real sense.

I may not make money but I need to be there because it gives you clout, gives you an entry point to the elite. You become a media owner and your whole status changes. Like Subhash Chandra, the Zee owner. In the absence of any regulatory structures, access has become extremely important. As it happened with Kapil Sibal’s channel [referring to Tiranga TV], they had huge run-ins [with the government] and now also one does not know whether it is going to survive the new government. Access becomes a very important point but it is tied up to the media economy that is emerging.

AA: When it comes to access, you have talked about the blurring of boundaries between the boardroom and the newsroom citing Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the Newslaundry investigation of Asianet. Do you think this factor impacted the coverage of the general elections?
SB: In India, if I am the promoter, I set up the network; I am bound to have a huge say in its affairs. If Mukesh Ambani has set up a shop, he runs the business as he wants. Media, which is a public good, cannot be run the way you run your own private dukan [shop]. This distinction between media and non-media properties is not being made by any government, whether it is the Congress or the BJP. Consequently, there are no special regulations to deal with the media.

In India, it is an open season sort of thing, you do what you want to do, you use the media platform the way you want to do. What this media did in these elections is basically this; it infantilised politics, made politics into a game. Everything is a masterstroke, everything is in essence trivialised.

[The prime minister Narendra] Modi goes to Kedarnath and its given blanket coverage when the media should have been questioning the Election Commission. The Swachh Bharat message was conveyed surreptitiously through TV serials. Cinema was used to promote him in whatever ways. Modi did not just make a political pitch, he colonised every single cultural space that is available through any source. And the media, instead of questioning any of this, consumes and promotes it like some kind of political pornography.

AA: The media coverage of the Pulwama attack and the Balakot airstrikes was blatantly jingoistic despite multiple analyses concluding that no significant targets were actually hit during the strikes. Do you think this affected public perception during the elections?
SB: The media blacked out the Indian helicopter downed by its own forces [An Mi-17 was brought down by friendly fire on 27 February, killing six personnel, in the middle of an intrusion by Pakistan’s jets]. Has there been any press meeting about the fact that your air force shot down and killed their own forces? And it was not even a war-time operation. Where do you begin when you say that media contributed to Modi’s win? Media was not the only cause of victory; there are multiple causes. But in the media you just had Modi, Modi, Modi. I am not a young man, I have seen several elections. I have not seen anything like this [the media coverage of and leading up to the general elections 2019] in my life, and a lot of senior journalists will vouch for it.

Everywhere journalists are working in sheer terror. Three days ago, I was speaking to a Hindi news journalist who is a colleague of mine from Aaj Tak and he said he has his job only because he knows Modi very well. Another way how Modi operates is, he has bypassed the star system in Delhi. He sidesteps the big editors in Delhi. None of them get an audience with him. He only operates with the beat reporters, which in many ways appears more democratic. But it is basically designed to subvert the system.

AA: Modi did go on an interview spree right before the elections. But Modi never answers anything that is serious, such as what happened in the Akshay Kumar interview, or he side steps issues. What is your take on these media interactions?
SB: The interviews are a non-story. We saw it happening in 2014, these doctored interviews. Modi’s media policy is actually more complicated than it looks. [The Akshay Kumar interview] was designed to be a stage [performance]. He addresses various constituencies, caters to a wide sort of diverse audience—like a 20-year-old kid, a first-time voter, with the Akshay Kumar interview. All these diverse things were gamed. Everything was segmented. His media strategy is segmented to have one set of images and conversations with you, another set with somebody else. He knows exactly to how to crack the code.

And that is where I think liberal media has gone wrong. They thought they could corner him. But Modi has perfected the art of appropriating a hostile agenda and turning it to his benefit. If I was in politics, I would not know how to deal with this guy.

AA: What do you have to say about the liberal media in this context?
SB: Liberal media in India is in no mood to introspect; you can look at the post-loss discourse [referring to the losses of opposition parties, such as the Congress]. They are just heaping the blame on Modi, that he is the main culprit, but what has the liberal media done? Digitisation has led to a low expense dumbing down in the media. Some guy sitting in Meerut sees somebody getting hit because they are Muslim. He just puts this footage either on social media, or if he is a stringer he will give it to a news channel. And then all the channels will just debate that: get one Sambit Patra [a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson], one Congress guy, one RSS guy, one regular and you have your debate. I think it’s posturing to say digital media is going to come to the rescue. At the moment there is nothing, simply because digital media has been unable to generate viable revenue models.

I think the only way is some kind of regulation, some fix on who can and cannot own television channels. You cannot have Mukesh Ambani owning television channels when he owns half of India.

AA: This brings us to the entrenched power structures in the media. In your book, you have talked about how the public-school groomed, upper-caste elite control most media houses. Do you think this lopsided power structure influences the range of issues covered during elections?
SB: Yes. In the specific context of NDTV, I think it is important to know that it is not a democratic network. It is run through a particular kind of clique—if I am a promoter, it is run through my acquaintances, my wife's acquaintances and my pal’s acquaintances with higher people. If you are from [the private school] Doon School or St Stephens [a Delhi University college], these were institutional loyalties that they [NDTV] valued. It was specific, but also upper-caste.

This is true everywhere in the English language space. What it means is that these are the people who take the editorial calls, so the newsroom becomes top-heavy, unequal and agenda driven. In specific cases like NDTV, it is classist, it is a top-heavy newsroom and it also can run the risk of being out of touch editorially with the kind of things people want. Should media organisations be organised in this way?

It has been a raging issue in India for several years that our newsrooms are monochromatic, upper-caste driven and do not have a democratic representation. So what happens to that question? In NDTV, I have actually done stories about this: should Dalits be organised? Should there be reservations for Dalits in the private sector? I have done a story in NDTV about that and yet is NDTV prepared to give [anchor positions] guys who do not look “good,” who may not speak good English by which they mean who are from a lower-caste, are you willing to give them a chance? This goes beyond bare news delivery and organisational issues, to what is the responsibility of a media organisation. How do you serve public good? Can you serve public good by having just one lot of people in power in perpetuity?

AA: So, you think the media needs to demystify itself and take a reflective stance?
SB: Media in India is loath to showing the mirror to itself. If there is a lay off in Jet Airways or Kingfisher Airlines, these have blanket coverage. But every day people are getting fired across the news spectrum. But for digital portals like Newslaundry, which sometimes carries this information, you don’t get information on these things.

AA: The media situation looks very pessimistic, as you say, but have you mapped any encouraging trends?
SB: I really cannot see any silver lining. Even news portals are falling in line with the government. There is a political polarisation among serious news portals. When you talk about digital media, what do you imagine? You imagine a freer media where comment is free, where reporting is freer. But no, we do not have that. The public-spirited news portals are financially crippled or relying on either crowd funding or benefactors. At the moment, there is no revenue model that looks viable.

In print, it has all but come down because the reporter has no elbow room, no freedom to do anything. It is very tough to be optimistic at this point.

If you look at my book, even that has been muzzled, the review has been muzzled. You can come and slam my book. But there is a kind of omerta. Nobody seems to want to talk about it.

Television is a dead game now. Reporting is dying in India. I know people who have quit well-settled jobs and are freelancing because they say that getting squashed every day, running agenda journalism on a full-time basis, is not worth the money. If you look at the Rafale story which N Ram broke in The Hindu—at any other time in history that would have been followed by the whole media. The Jay Shah story by The Wire, all the Judge Loya stories by The Caravan—all these stories should have been followed up but this just has not happened. In fact, the available evidence seems to suggest that people in television are trying to just dump it and jump. The nature of a reporter’s job is now pure drudgery. It is just uplinking. There are falling budgets and losses, so companies do not want reporters. In fact, there is a telling quote by Raghav Bahl, which I have used and that is the attitude which exists today … “We do not need reporters anyway.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.