The CPI(M) in Kerala officially announced on Monday a first-of-its-kind boycott of Asianet News on charges of indulging in one-sided coverage and unfair practices on its debates as also meting out abuse to party representatives. Speaking to Outlook, Asianet News editor M.G. Radhakrishnan responds to the allegations and shares his thoughts on how the boycott – which is hardly the first in his channel’s history – will play out.
Q) Were you surprised by the CPI(M)’s decision to boycott Asianet News?
It’s unfortunate, no doubt. But this is not an entirely new thing for us. This has been going on for the entire history of Asianet News. At some point, we have faced this threat from every political party whenever we have levelled sharp criticism or mounted an aggressive interrogation of their policies. Prior to this, the most recent one was a 48-hour ban imposed by the Information and Broadcasting Ministry in March. We were taken off the air for our reportage on the Delhi riots. In 2014, the BJP had boycotted us for reasons that were similar to those of the CPI(M).
Q) What have some of those prior experiences been like?
Unfortunately, it seems such intimidatory tactics and threats of punitive action appear to have become the default approach for dealing with media criticism, irrespective of the political party involved. The BJP’s boycott lasted about six to seven months. After that too, there have been various instances of hostility – both professionally and personally – whenever we have aired criticisms of the BJP or the Union government. Our correspondents were verbally abused without any thought given to decency for months on end.
The UDF too came down heavily against us for our critical coverage of the Solar scam – to the point that former chief minister Oommen Chandy filed a criminal defamation petition against us ahead of the 2016 assembly polls. We are still fighting that case in court.
Q) But is there some merit to the CPI(M)’s charges of one-sided discussion and unfair debate practices?
The charges being levelled against us are unfair. As to CPI(M) representatives not being given enough airtime to put forward a defense or constantly being interrupted, television discussion panels are not school elocution competitions where each participant is given equal time to speak. That is not how these debates are structured at all, as everybody who participates knows. The debates are entirely dependent on the logic and the gravity of the issue being discussed. In this particular instance, it is the CPI(M) that is in power. Obviously, more questions will be asked of their representatives than those being asked of the Opposition’s representatives. The line of questioning too will naturally be more critical. Why should the anchor do otherwise?
Q) And the allegations of excessive interruptions?
Likewise, the number of interruptions will definitely be more. Take the gold smuggling issue for example. It is the CPI(M) and the government that are more answerable to the people than the opposition parties. Always, the primary responsibility of the media in any democracy is to ask hard questions of those in power. So, while there may be plenty of blame to go around, it is to be expected that there will be a greater airing of criticisms against the government. TV debates such as the NewsHour are not meant to be platforms for equal or equitable sharing of screen space. We have reviewed our coverage to see whether the CPI(M) did not receive an appropriate amount of airtime. Nothing objectionable was found.
Q) How about the contention that softball questions are being asked of Opposition representatives?
It is our duty to keep asking questions. We have never let anyone off the hook. Whenever there has been an instance where tough questions need to be asked of the other parties, we have always asked them. That is part of our credibility and news culture and the reason why we have been hauled before courts, taken off the air and blacklisted. In the last five years alone, there is ample evidence of that. If the CPI(M) does not want to answer the hard questions we pose or become engaged in vigorous and healthy debate, then that is on them.
Q) Do you expect this boycott to play out along the lines of that BJP boycott?
The short answer is that we just don’t know. I’m not sure if the CPI(M) has ever done a formal boycott of this kind in the past. This is a very strong statement that the state committee has come out with. It might go on for a year or more or they may withdraw it before then. Who knows? What happened in the BJP boycott is that they changed their tune when election time came. Whether that will be the case this time around remains to be seen.
Q) Here too, the state polls are coming up fast...
Correct. I don’t think they can... or rather, should... keep abstaining from engaging with the media. Especially Asianet News, since we are the major player in the field. But it’s not just us. I would hope that there would be space for critical engagement and healthy debate in a vibrant democratic set-up as we have here. And this is not for television alone. I have been saying the same thing when the government or the chief minister had not been holding enough media interactions or press conferences in the past. In these times, when serious issues are rocking the states, that holds even more true. Let them come with rejoinders or scripts to read off, but the key is engaging with the media.
Q) Leaders like M.B. Rajesh say the party will lean on alternative avenues like social media to air its views instead of relying on news channels alone. Your thoughts?
This is a universal and contemporary phenomenon. Increasingly, political leaders around the world don’t want to engage in two-way dialogue. For obvious reasons, they would much rather prefer the one-sided conversation format of a ‘Mann ki baat’ where they can indulge in monologues. It appears Kerala too is not immune to such developments that are clearly unhealthy to the practice of democracy. Although airing one’s views on such platforms is welcome, pluralism is not served by ducking difficult questions.
Q) What is the endgame here?
I think common sense, or rather better sense, will prevail. There have been so many instances in the past where the CPI(M) has butted heads with the media over much more serious issues. From the times of great leaders like EMS on, there has been public castigating of the media. But never a blanket boycott of one section of the press. This may be an emotional over-reaction. After some time, cooler heads might prevail. That is what we want and hope.