The past few months will surely go down in the annals of history as black days as far as news broadcasting is concerned. A few opportunists have pushed this noble profession onto a path where there is no looking back.
Gone are the days when TV news used to be the key voice to hold the government accountable for its actions/inactions. When your own house is on fire, you can’t afford to look beyond. A few of the TV news channels have betrayed the objective of their existence and turned the profession into a business focused solely on bottom-line numbers. The end has dominated the means, and the wretched outcome is for everyone to witness.
Throughout my personal, professional and public life, I have always upheld the belief that media is the fourth pillar of democracy and perhaps the only pillar that does touch millions of lives on a daily basis. For this reason, I have always vouched for a free, independent but responsible media. A free media translates into a strong democracy. TV news channels should have complete autonomy over what, how and when to telecast. But the beauty of a democracy is that every institution, however autonomous it might be, still needs to be bound by accountability. With recent revelations about a few TV channels allegedly manipulating viewership ratings, the credibility of all news channels has taken a severe hit. This isn’t an anomaly or the first time when TV news channels have invited bad press. While the world was getting accustomed to the new normal after COVID-19 kicked in, for the last few months, a few news channels have been trying their best to breach all benchmarks of indecency and set the new normal. Foul language, vitriolic statements, high pitched, insulting panellists has become the new normal on live television.
The race for higher viewership numbers or Television Rating Points inadvertently decides the advertisement revenues for these channels. Like any set-up where the eventual objective is a commercial benefit, fudging the viewership numbers illegally in this event is in fact a case of financial manipulation too. What makes us believe that certain channels when resorting to illegal means for viewership numbers will decide to act within legal boundaries for their other operations? We need to act immediately to keep this as an anomaly and prevent it from becoming a common practice because the challenge for survival might push a few others beyond the edge too.
Over the years, news has started being served as a 9 PM prime time entertainment show instead of retaining the soul of factual news. It has turned into a commodity that is spiced up with sensationalism, with debates that bring out extreme emotions and create divisions along caste, religious and other fault lines. It’s as if the news channels are running a no-holds-barred race while blindfolded. The only losers in all of this are the viewers.
As I pointed out earlier, this has been a gradual shift towards mediocracy. It hasn’t even been two months when my friend and colleague Shri Rajiv Tyagi ji, while featuring in one of these toxic debates suffered a heart attack and left for his heavenly abode on August 12. Since I too participate in such debates frequently, I was as shocked and shaken up as any of us around. The fundamental question that I kept asking myself was: Should we be so indifferent towards this toxic garb of TV debates? If you have to find out what’s wrong, the short answer is: everything. Right from the choice of topics to how it’s run-- instigating morbid feelings of hate, bias, inequality, discrimination and verbal violence-- everything is off-track and doesn’t do justice to the concept of either news or debates.
The limits to which some political opponents stoop to is unimaginable- petty personal attacks on the colour of your clothing, your representations etc. Can you watch such a debate with your family, where a bunch of current or prospective lawmakers feast off each other’s flesh? Who benefits from such discussions?
Although I am a strong advocate of a free press with no regulation by the government, the current structure of self-regulation is failing us at some levels. As someone who was once a consumer of TV news to someone who is now a stakeholder featuring on news channels as a panellist, I propose the following recommendations that I believe would be useful for the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to intervene in this matter, without regulating the autonomy of the media:
- Notify News Broadcasters Association guidelines under the Cable TV Act and regulations
- All key stakeholders in a news debate, namely, the anchors/moderator and the participants need to be bound by a code of conduct (through law if needed)
- The code of conduct should layout professional conduct/guidelines to be adhered to by each stakeholder- no remarks that are derogatory, no misuse of religion or caste references, no comments that can potentially incite violence among a few
- With complete autonomy to NBSA, as it is now, there should be a strict vigil around the implementation of penalties and punishment prescribed in their regulations for all violators
- Specific provisions in the law for strict punishment to any member of the media involved in financial irregularities or manipulating viewership ratings
- Instructions should come from the I&B Ministry to revive the mechanism to collect viewership data- DTH companies should be allowed to collect data based on usage on their set-top boxes and submit their data to an agency (BARC or any other). The DTH companies to be held accountable in case of any manipulation in numbers.
Let’s bring back the news.
The author is Professor of Finance and National Spokesperson, Congress Party. (Views expressed are personal)