The Economic & Political Weekly has an editorial in its January 26 issue on the dangerous role played by Indian TV channels when the news of the beheading of an Indian soldier on the border came in two weeks ago.
“Television news,” says EPW, “is fast becoming the most dangerous extremist in India’s civil society.
“It has not just been the reporting of news but rather the sustained and well-planned build-up of a mass hysteria over the issue. It is not just one, or a few, channels which are guilty of this. With a few, and notable exceptions, television news channels and anchors have competed with each other to get people angry and hysterical.
“Stilted news, half-truths, outright falsehoods, a careful selection of “opinion makers” and “experts” who push hawkish positions and a shrill intemperate language have all been deployed each evening in a calculated move to ratchet up anger in the drawing rooms (and by extension, the “street”) and thus enhance viewership.
“In this particular context, the television channels have single-handedly built up a serious, yet minor, issue into a national hysteria. The parties and politicians of the right – from the Shiv Sena who collected a bunch of stragglers to attack Pakistani hockey players to leader of the opposition, Sushma Swaraj who demanded 10 Pakistani heads for the one soldier who was beheaded – merely took up the issue which was built up from scratch by these television channels.
“There are various reasons given for this behaviour of television news channels. These include the overcrowding of the television news space with more channels than are sustainable with the concomitant pressure on finances requiring increased advertisement revenues through higher viewership, which lead to the need to constantly create sensational news to lock in viewers.
“Television news channels are not only competing with each other for viewers but with general entertainment channels, sports channels and even non-television events as they try to get more eyeballs. Many of these pressures on television news are not unique to India and different media cultures have found solutions to this in ways that address their specific contexts. However, the Indian television media seems to have decided to use shrill chauvinism as a way out of this.
“The Kargil war of 1999 first illustrated the potential for such a business strategy but it was the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008 that finally seems to have convinced India’s television journalists of the profitability of rabid demagoguery. There is nothing inevitable about this business strategy and those who have initiated it and been its willing purveyors have to assume responsibility.
“As various people have already noted, by getting coerced by television news’ manufactured hysteria and sending back the Pakistani hockey players and postponing the agreement on visa-on-arrival for the elderly, the Government of India has allowed its foreign policy to be held hostage by Indian television media’s dangerous chauvinism.
“There is no easy way out of this dead end that we appear to have reached. Government regulation of media is dangerous and unacceptable, but equally so is a media that often outdoes India’s virulent right-wing in stoking xenophobia.
“Can we think of creative methods of oversight on the media which do not involve government or corporate influence? Or perhaps, should we reclassify television news channels as general entertainment (of the “Big Boss” reality television variety) and deal with it accordingly?”
Read the full editorial: Frothing at the mouth