Political discourse is coarsened as biggest news barons make their peace with state patronage

Rather than stand up for good journalism and take editorial positions on principles or policies, media companies and TV channels have mortgaged their channels to the ruling party and the government.

“These people killed me …” — Congress spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi’s last words to his wife, as he suffered a stroke and passed away after a heated television debate.

Tyagi’s death, in the past week, was a shock to all of us who knew him even remotely. Politicians who appear on television as spokespersons are familiar with each other and have at least a nodding acquaintance. Politicians disagree on political and policy issues — which is why we are in different parties — but, most often, there is a healthy mutual respect.

After all, each of us has at some point or the other defended and tried to explain a tough situation or been in a minority on a television panel.

For me, politicians from another party are political rivals, political opponents — not my enemies. If they attack me or the Trinamool Congress, I don’t take it personally. I try and give it back. There are some arguments you win and somewhere you live to fight another day. A television debate — or even an election — is not “the end”. There’s always another chapter, there’s always a “next time”.

But this thinking has begun to change. And Rajiv Tyagi’s death, after an Aaj Tak debate on the Bengaluru violence in which he was abused and called “Jaichand” and a traitor, is a turning point. Our news television debates are a cruel joke and targeted to bring out the worst and most vituperative emotions in participants. To some degree, a handful of ruling party spokespersons, cum trolls, who make shrill objectionable remarks and statements, are surely working to a brief outlined by the topmost leadership in that party. Even more shameful is the role of media barons and their television platforms.

What are these media companies and television channels doing? Rather than stand up for good journalism and take editorial positions on principles or policies, they have mortgaged their channels to the ruling party and the government. At times, they spin off smaller brands — whether channels or newspapers or editions — to “balance” and play to another gallery. But the mother brand is completely in cahoots with the ruling establishment and a ready mouthpiece for its most extreme views.

A few days after Rajiv Tyagi’s passing, my party, Trinamool Congress, received an email from a Mumbai tabloid, a spin-off “liberal” brand published by the same, chameleonic media house that runs the country’s highest-selling English newspaper and a slime-spewing TV channel. The email sent a few questions on the nature of television debates, requesting that a spokesperson, specifically Derek O’Brien, answer. My answers were sent well in time for the Sunday morning publication.

In the written interview, I tried to be as honest as possible. So one of the questions and answers went like this:

Spin-off brand’s question: Have lives of spokespersons really turned stressful with the high decibel debates? How do you personally deal with the stress? How do you unwind?

My answer: Glad that my party has a simple way to beat the stress. Just stay away. Why should political leaders go to channels that create noise not debate. Or to outlets that are shamelessly biased and agenda-driven. So we avoid sending spokespersons to such channels. Our motto: You treat us with respect, we will reciprocate.

The next question allowed me to expand on this point.

Spin-off brand’s question: Do you think there is a need for a change in the TV debate discourse and environment? If yes, how?

My answer: It’s not only about TV debates, the political discourse even in Parliament and on many other platforms has changed a lot since two men moved into their bungalows in Delhi. No more time for tweaks, there needs to be an overall change. All stakeholders have a role to play but the ones who need to stand up and be counted are the owners of these media networks. They need to reflect. They need to act. How do they sleep at night? I can call them out, but will (you) publish the names? Or edit this line out! Jain, Purie, Chandra… and this is certainly not a complete list. Most anchors are partisan pawns eager to toe the editorial lines marked out by their media owners, their employers.

I had said what had to be said. It had been boiling within me — and within many right-thinking politicians and political followers — for quite some time. Much of news television has been reduced to Hate TV. When political parties choose not to send official spokespersons, channels find their own “sympathetic analysts” and try to pass them off as official spokespersons.

Abuse, incite, threaten — anything goes. Political discourse has been coarsened as the biggest and richest of our news barons have chosen to look the other way. And made their peace with state patronage.

Postscript: I sent my response to the Mumbai spin-off “liberal” brand on the morning of August 15. On the evening of August 15, I received a message saying the interview had been dropped from the issue dated Sunday, August 16, for “lack of space”.

Of course, the right of the press to publish or, more importantly, not to publish something is sacred but… media barons!

[This article appeared in the Indian Express| Tuesday, August 18, 2020]