The AAP’s Tussles with Big Media and Big Parties Reflect the State of TV News Today

While television news content is plumbing newer depths, the AAP, which has lost its moral compass, finds itself helplessly flailing between the big media, the BJP and the Congress.
17 October, 2016

These are surreal times for the Indian news media—especially television. On the evening of 6 October, the news network NDTV dropped an exclusive interview with the former home and finance minister P Chidambaram, despite having aired promotional snippets from the interview during the day. During the interview, Chidambaram had expressed his view on the surgical strikes conducted by the Indian army in Pakistan, and criticised the statements made by Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar regarding the strikes. The channel claimed that it would “not air any remarks that risk security for political advantage.”

Barely 48 hours later, Barkha Dutt, the consulting editor with NDTV who had conducted the Chidambaram interview and was complicit in its gagging, lauded Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper for its courage in standing up to the military establishment (On 10 October, the Pakistani administration responded to a story that Cyril Almeida, a journalist with Dawn, had written on the rift between the civilian and military leadership in the country, by placing his name on the Exit Control List—which would prevent him from travelling abroad—prompting widespread criticism. His name has since been removed.) Shekhar Gupta, Dutt’s co-founder at The Print, a news media start-up, had briefly pinned a tweet on his timeline in praise of Dawn’s editor Zaffar Abbas. Not a word was found on his timeline, however, on NDTV’s decision to hold the interview with Chidambaram and its utter capitulation to the BJP government’s interests. Perhaps, the irony here is that it would be tough to find a single story criticising Chidambaram on either NDTV, or in the Indian Express—which Gupta headed for nearly two decades—from the time the Congress-led United Progressives Alliance was in power.

Compare this to Gupta’s bold tweet indicting the Delhi government for deaths during the dengue and chikungunya epidemic that peaked in the city in August and September. The Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal responded by calling Gupta a “dalal”—broker—for governments in power. His over-the-top reaction put him squarely in the line of fire by other journalists. But to give the matter some perspective, Kejriwal is not alone in questioning Gupta’s conduct. In 2011, during Gupta’s tenure as editor-in chief, a post titled “Is Indian Express now a pro-establishment paper?” was published on Sans Serif, a media blog started by the former Outlook magazine editor-in-chief Krishna Prasad. The post noted the Indian Express’s relentless front-page campaigns against the Anna Hazare movement:

Over a 16-day period (April 6 to 21), through 21 news reports, seven editorials, 15 opinion articles, three cartoons and one illustration…it has been a relentless torrent of scepticism, cynicism, criticism, distortion, inneundo, insinuation and plain abuse in The Indian Express. Words like “illiberal”, “fascist”, “dangerous”, “self-righteous”, “self-appointed”, “authoritarian”, “dictators”, “Maoist” and—pinch yourself—“missing foreskins” have spewed forth…

In the past months, the AAP and Kejriwal have had frequent run-ins with nearly every TV editor in the country. In September, Rahul Kanwal, the managing editor of India Today TV, responded to an online jibe from the chief minister by calling a “troll” on Twitter.  Subsequently, the India Today group’s digital portal DailyO published a piece recounting their Twitter exchanges. A few days later, one of Kejriwal’s ministers, Kapil Mishra, had an online spat with Deepak Chaurasia, the editor-in-chief of the channel India News (a sister network of News X)—both Chaurasia and Mishra publically released each other’s personal mobile phone numbers, leading to complaints of alleged harassment from both sides.

It is difficult to think of another instance in which a large section of the electronic media has so determinedly closed ranks against one political formation and in favour of the ruling party. Lately, every single utterance by an AAP politician appears to have been met with a cacophony of derision from the media, and worse, complete media apathy to the union government’s onslaught on the AAP government.

In contrast, not one leading journalist was outraged when, during an interview to the journalist Madhu Kishwar held just before the 2014 general elections, Narendra Modi alleged that Rajdeep Sardesai and Barkha Dutt stoked the 2002 Gujarat riots with their reporting. Later, in April 2014, as Modi’s election campaign neared its end, he termed journalists “news traders,” and one of his ministers later called them “presstitutes.”

Though Kejriwal’s spat with journalists is indefensible and his language unbecoming of a chief minister, the criticism of the AAP in the media has to be seen within the context of the larger media discourse: the search for easy binaries and the consequent trivialisation of news. The former presupposes that unless an issue is explained in black and white by pitting opposites, the audience would not comprehend it. In television, these binaries are becoming increasingly bizarre, and the medium is losing its capacity to explain and communicate intelligently.

The online exchange between Gupta and Kejriwal over the dengue and chikunguya outbreak is related to the coverage of health-related issues. Yet, across the country, few networks invest resources in reporting on health and education in depth. In late August 2016, when the shocking visuals of Dana Manjhi, a tribal man, carrying his dead wife’s body for 12 kilometres surfaced in Odisha, it was courtesy the local TV network Odisha TV. Social media ensured that the channel’s clip became viral. But not one national network had a role to play in this sequence of events, and with good reason—most leading channels do not have an Odisha bureau. This could partly be attributed to the fact that with the Biju Janata Dal in power, it is hard to construct a binary, especially since no one is certain of the Chief Minister Navin Patnaik’s stance on the central government. Besides, the death of tribal people is rarely given a primetime slot. All that Times Now had to offer was a brief two-minute clip—predictably, there were few follow-ups across other major news networks.

Contrast this with the combined onslaught of all TV networks when Delhi came under the spell of dengue and chikungunya. Kejriwal is relatively easy game. The proverbial “outsider,” he is a parvenu, the comparatively powerless “other” who has dared to challenge the BJP—in this instance, with a remark that the epidemic should be dealt with by the Lieutenant Governor since he is the de-facto repository of power following a judgement of the Delhi High Court that named the LG the administrative head of the city. He was made to pay in ample measure. Delhi Health Minister Satyendra Jain’s remark that chikungunya cannot lead to fatalities resulted in a high-decibel media campaign against him for nearly two days. But all the media attacks did were to show that the news networks themselves knew little about an epidemic that comes calling each year—on 24 September, an Indian Express report confirmed that chances of death were minuscule. The report cited a specialist from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi’s leading central government hospital.

In the past few weeks, Kejriwal has been heckled at the Delhi railway station, and ink thrown at his deputy, Manish Sisodia. In mid September, during a press conference, a reporter from the Hindi news network News24 threw a phone at Satyendra Jain, prompting the minister to throw it back. The actions of the reporter would have been unthinkable if this were a high-ranking politician was from either the BJP or the Congress. They are also reflective of a prevailing attitude. “Almost every TV journalist has a low opinion of AAP leaders,” an India Today TV reporter told me. “They say these guys were nobodies sometime back. They were small-time netas who survived by doing small jobs. They ran around us begging for a bite or an interview. Now they are ministers and MLAs.”

The attitude of the media towards AAP is not the only problem. Anjana Om Kashyap, the anchor of Halla Bol on the channel Aaj Tak, recently hosted a programme on the dengue and chikungunya outbreak that began with the acknowledgement that legally, the lieutenant governor was the de facto and de jure seat of power in Delhi. But this position was soon abandoned in favour of an all-out attack on AAP and its spokesperson, Vivek Yadav, who was a guest on the show. Even as Yadav struggled to point out this anomaly, the anchor made fun of his English pronunciation and handed the floor over to his BJP counterpart Sambit Patra, and the BJP’s Subhash Arya, the mayor of the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC). It is worth noting that, Mangesh Kashyap, the anchor’s husband, an IPS officer, reports to Arya, which constitutes a conflict of interest in this regard. Mangesh was recently appointed the Central Vigilance Officer for the SMDC, edging out a hopeful backed by the Delhi government.

But it is unlikely that the Broadcast Editors Association (BEA), the watchdog organisation for TV editors, or the India Today group, which owns Aaj Tak, would consider this an issue of any consequence. The treatment meted out to the AAP by the electronic media is symptomatic of a larger trend—anyone regularly watching news networks would likely agree that the media’s outrage is selective. Since the 2014 elections, all non-BJP state governments have been under attack—be it in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, or West Bengal. One would be hard put to find reportage or studio discussions on developments in BJP-ruled states, such as the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh, the rice scam in Chhattisgarh, or Haryana, where Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was allowed to get away with his casual dismissal of the Mewat gang rape of two Muslim women as a “small issue.”

News shows such as the one anchored by Kashyap on Aaj Tak have spawned a whole army of prime time anchors who seem to owe no editorial responsibility to anyone, not even their audience. Star power prevails over news content—there appear to be absolutely no rules guiding studio outrage. These anchors also decide the cast of characters in their shows, and the editorial line. It is here that they can game facts, and dole out sops and favours as they please.

An oft-heard assessment of the AAP’s continuing face-off with the media face is the charge that the party is a creation of the latter. This is of course, partly true. But what is also true is that when the AAP was still a part of the India Against Corruption movement, it bolstered the TRPs of TV channels and bestowed a moral halo upon the likes of Arnab Goswami. The Business Standard reported in 2011 that, during the anti-corruption stir, “Among the English news channels, Times Now gained the most in terms of viewership, with its share growing by eight percent.”

The reality is that the fates of news networks and the AAP are intertwined. The Anna Hazare-led agitation injected a much-needed moral element into a decaying body politic. Television captured the anti-UPA zeitgeist accurately, simultaneously feeding off of it, even as it provided both momentum and geographical spread. Today, however, events have come full circle. While television news content is plumbing newer depths, the AAP, which has lost its moral compass, finds itself helplessly flailing between the big media, the BJP and the Congress.

In a perverse manner, vapid studio binaries have obfuscated systemic issues plaguing the party. For one, the moral edge of the party has steadily corroded since Yogendra Yadav, Prashant Bhushan and Admiral Ramdas left. The party’s larger political project, aims and objectives remain unclear. Recently, Kejriwal created a minor storm by not just endorsing but also defending a stark naked Jain muni’s address to the Haryana legislature—an address that appeared to undermine the legislature’s pre-eminent position. The AAP’s political identity, which was based on negating whatever the Congress and the BJP stand for, has pushed it into a corner. Although it initially emerged as a moral alternative to both, it has failed to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer a movement. To add to this, there is a very real concern that the party is succumbing to a high-command culture, as was evidenced in Punjab recently. Baited by the BJP and egged on by the mainstream media, the AAP has been reduced to making noise across media platforms. In a media-saturated polity, this only adds to the ambient noise and amplifies the negativity currently surrounding the party. As it gears up to take on the BJP in states such as Gujarat and Goa—which the BJP will not let go easily—the AAP needs a fresh media strategy. This will not be easy, given the almost public complicity between the ruling party and the mainstream media—perhaps best reflected in the BJP president Amit Shah’s recent praise for the media following the surgical strike.