Reject journalism that drives hate, worried about ratings: Rahul Kanwal's Harvard address
Those who like the government will say that we are way too critical. Those who hate the government will say that we are not critical enough.
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Journalism in India today seems to have become a multiple-choice question. Are you a Bhakt, a Pidi, or an Aaptard? My answer – I am none of them. I am NOTA. And I am here at the Harvard University to ask all to join me in rejecting the journalism that openly takes sides and brazenly peddles political propaganda.
Reject biased, TRP-driven journalism
Reject journalism that drives hate, journalism that is more worried about ratings than it is about the impact that incendiary stories and false binaries have on society.
Choose journalism that believes in telling both sides of the story.
Journalism that asks tough questions to all parties. Journalism that holds governments to account and isn’t always finding a way of pinning the opposition down.
Reject journalism that takes extreme positions on either side of the political fault-line. And choose journalism that points out flaws on both sides of the political divide.
Reject journalists who act as cheerleaders of one political ideology. Also, reject those who are so blinded by their hate that they only see what’s wrong and can’t see anything that is right about the party they don’t like.
Being fair, unbiased, telling both sides of the story are basics of storytelling and should actually be fundamental to all journalism. But in India it sounds like the toughest thing to do.
I recently heard one very aggressive, popular anchor at one of "India’s North Korean news channels" say: “I take a side, I have an opinion, I put it out strongly. So what?"
The moment you take a side, you are not doing journalism. You are not telling an unbiased story. You are in the business of political propaganda. And to all such propagandists I say: give up the pretence. Stop claiming to be a journalist. Join the party you support.
So are we 100 per cent unbiased? Is the journalism that we do completely flawless? No, it’s not. We are humans. We slip up. Often. But at least we try to tell both sides of the story. And in today’s India, I wonder how many news channels, how many TV anchors, how many editors are even trying to be unbiased, trying to tell both sides of the story. Would the nation not want to know?
People ask me what’s your political ideology, which party do you support. I come from an army family. The worldview that I was brought up on was "sab neta chor haian – they are all corrupt"; line them up; shoot them all and you will solve India’s problems.
My current worldview is a more evolved version of the fauji take on politics. I don’t believe shooting netas will solve India’s problems. But I am mighty suspicious of all politicians and I support no one. Like all of you, I may have likes and dislikes of my own. But I believe in leaving those likes and dislikes at home when I go to work every morning.
Indian journalism in crisis
Journalism in India faces its greatest credibility crisis ever. Never have channels and editors batted so openly for or against a political party. What was earlier a personal political opinion, never to be shared in public, is now put out night after noisy night on a screen with 10 talking heads shouting away at each other.
Anchors sit back and watch the fun. Not once attempting to interrupt, to try and make sense of what’s happening. Such journalism, if I can even call it that, is not helping our country. It is disrupting the social fabric that holds this great country together.
Reject the noise. Choose journalism that tries to make sense. Journalism is not and cannot be about setting up a cock-fight every night. Pick a polarising topic, bring a few extremist maulanas, square them off against some hardline pandits, let them fight, while the anchor sits back and watches the fireworks. This is pathetic and is not journalism.
When we talk of the state of Indian media today, I hear of a growing sense of despondency. A lot of sensible journalists say it is not worth being a journalist any longer. It’s very messy. Let’s leave this and do something else. Corporate communications is easier. Political communications is fun. It even pays more money. So what if some of that is black?
This is what I have to say to everyone who is already a journalist or wants to be one. Just because the pond is mucky and the road is full of slush, doesn’t mean you sit at home. It means you put on your boots, strengthen your resolve, dig in your heels and say "I will not give up". I will not be corrupted by the mess around me. Just because everyone else is taking sides, doesn’t mean that I have to. Because others are peddling propaganda that I give up my thinking cap. "I am here and I will fight the good fight."
A lot of this mess has been created just over the last few years. When I came to the United States for the first time about two decades, I happened to tune into Fox News. I was shocked beyond words when I heard the network’s star anchor Bill O' Reilly shout out at one of his young guests. Over the next few minutes, I saw a totally one-sided line of questioning play itself out. In horror, I changed the channel.
Thank God, I muttered to myself, this can never happen in India. I leaned back with a sense of contentment that in India we show both sides of the story, ask tough questions to all parties and don’t bat openly for one side or the other.
Unfortunately, the days when journalists at least attempted to be bipartisan seem to be long behind us. Indian news TV is now Fox News on steroids. Even Fox would be embarrassed by the viciousness of the witch-hunts that pass for news on some of India’s North Korean channels.
Propaganda infecting Indian media
The plague of propaganda is infectious and, unfortunately, at this moment in India, it is riding a wave of popularity.
With news channels tracking television ratings points closely, it seems quite evident that channels and anchors toeing a more nationalistic line seem to be drawing more eyeballs than those who choose to tell both sides of the story.
This has a ripple effect. This trend may have been started by a handful of anchors and journalists, who may have actually believed in a certain point of view. But because they were popular they are now being aped, with varying degrees of conviction, by other anchors and editors who may not have originally subscribed to this ideology.
There is someone who I won’t name but who worked as an editor in our newsroom a few years ago. One day, in an offline conversation, he told me of his post-retirement plan and how he hoped to provide intellectual insights to the Congress party and join the Grand Old Party’s think tank.
This same person is now a key editor at one of India’s North Korean news channels. I look at what he said in private and square this with what his channel does day in and day out. I’m flabbergasted. A man who through his own ideological persuasion leaned towards one party is playing out an act, for the sake of ratings, of being a cheerleader for another party. If this is not rank opportunism, what is?
The one question that will be asked by those sitting here is that all this gyaanbaazi is okay but to what extent do you practice what you preach. Now, each one of you will have his own view on this, but to illustrate I would like to cite six examples.
*The only BJP minister who was forced to resign on corruption charges after Narendra Modi became PM of India was a man called Eknath Khadse in Maharashtra. Khadse had to step down because of a series of investigative stories done by the India Today Group on land scams perpetrated by the minister.
*A series of three investigative stories we did on cow vigilantes or Gau Rakshaks saw the Prime Minister break his silence on the violence unleashed in the name of protecting the holy cow. The president of the Gau Raksha Dal of Punjab is in jail even today because of Operation Gau Rakshaks.
*At the peak of the controversy at Jawaharlal Nehru University the only news network that did a forensic analysis of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech and pointed out that Kanhaiya never chanted anti-India slogans was the India Today Group. Not just this we also exposed the lawyers who mercilessly beat up Kanhaiya Kumar and captured them on camera admitting that the police abetted them by looking away.
*Most recently, we exposed the goons of the Karni Sena and captured them on camera asking for money to allow Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat to release.
*Because of an expose we did on the Hurriyat Conference -- the Hurriyat Truth Tapes -- 10 Senior Hurriyat leaders are currently behind bars and the true colours of the Hurriyat have been laid bare before the people of India.
*We also exposed hardline radical madrasas taking funding from the mid-east and Saudi Arabia with the aim of propagating Wahabi ideology.
Journalism is colourless
I can go on. But the point I wish to make is this. We try to the extent we can to ensure that our journalism has no colour, it has no bias and we work hard on telling both sides of the story.
Those who like the government will say that we are way too critical. Those who hate the government will say that we are not critical enough. That’s for the audience to judge.
But here’s what we know: we work hard on exposing both sides; we walk with our heads held high; we are not the story; we are only storytellers and we get damn excited with a fabulous story no matter who it exposes.
Thank you for inviting me to Harvard and thank you for listening to me so patiently at the end of what’s been an engaging conference.
(This post first appeared on the author's Facebook page.)