Television Tantrums and the Art of Fuelling Public Rage

“The broadcast media has created the conditions for a civil war in India. What kind of journalism is this supposed to be?” said Vishwa Deepak, a former producer at a Hindi news channel who quit following disagreements over the coverage of the recent JNU students row. Indeed, Indian media, especially broadcast, had been at the forefront of a concerted campaign to galvanise public opinion against a protest on the basis of a video – now found to have been doctored, proving that “intellectual shallowness and superficiality” rules this news medium.

The whole ‘debacle’ was primarily a creation of the broadcast media, especially of a bespectacled prime-time jabberer and a formerly jailed editor-in-chief who was caught in a sting operation. By conveniently telecasting the footage of a pro-Afzal Guru protest, without checking for its veracity, TV channel bosses ensured that more and more viewers get glued to the narrative that was being weaved in their studios.

The formula to sway the public is quite simple: whip up popular sentiment and then create an information asymmetry where there is no difference between opinionated and objective news. People can get carried away by what the media says. That’s the power of framing and agenda setting for you!

However, the central point in this fiasco pertained to the application of sedition charges over sloganeering students. The 19th century sedition law does not prohibit sloganeering. Whether students raised pro-Afzal slogans should have been an non-issue unless people were incited to rebel against the ruling dispensation. Fortunately, after the “anti-India” sloganeering video was declared fake, the sedition angle has been quashed.

Nevertheless, TV anchors – to garner higher TRPs – focused their debates on “anti-national” elements, repeatedly raising questions on sedition. By talking vaguely on the sedition law, our “holier- than-thou” anchors misled gullible viewers, many of whom later logged in to Twitter and Facebook to vent their anger at the students.

The issue is, thus, not about free speech at all. It’s about the irresponsible coverage of the broadcast media. Instead of debating on reforming the now redundant sedition law, our anchors were busy with their jingoism. Alas! Principles of journalism went for a toss.

However, the fact remains that every political party has misused the sedition law. JNUSU president Kanhaiya Kumar was slapped with “sedition”, but public intellectuals – aided by our media – helped release him. Isn’t this the triumph of free speech? And his “victory speech”? Didn’t TV news channels broadcast it live across India? Is this not sufficient proof of free speech in India?

This fiasco, though, must act as a reminder to our TV channels to restrain their “misplaced rhetoric”, inform the public rather than misguide them with doses of “infotainment” and stop manipulating news for the sake of higher ratings. Had they focused on the issue objectively, without playing into the hands of certain vested interests, the issue would have just fizzled out.

I won the second prize at the monthly essay writing competition held by the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics.

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