Prime time news, toxic and botoxic

Are the two things connected: the decision by Parle and Bajaj Auto not to advertise in shrill TV news channels and the trolling of the Tanishq TV spot?

The former is about toxic news while the latter is about an advertisement that right-wing trolls on social media have deemed toxic to 'Bharatiya sanskriti’. As with all other things in these polarised times, the answer to whether there is a link between the two depends not on logic but on faith.

If you are not a 'bhakt’ of PM Narendra Modi or even if you are apolitical, chances are that you see a cause and effect; the pushback against toxic news leading to a counter-attack by the saffron brigade on the secular brigade. In fact, chances are that you may have missed all this as you have stopped watching prime time news, disgusted with the hate, hype and hypocrisy.

If you are a Modi fan, you will certainly see a plot by the 'sickulars’ and the 'libtards’ to defame India and derail its first Hindu ruler in 800 years. You will see the hand of the 'tukde-tukde’ gang in the use of advertisements, such as the one by jewellery brand Tanishq, in promoting 'love jihad’, allegedly a concerted effort by Muslim men to marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam.

The advertisement by Tanishq, a Tata company, shows a pregnant Hindu wife of a Muslim man being pampered by her mother-in-law who organises her 'baby shower’, a ceremony not observed by Muslims. Among the thousands of trolls who found it offensive was actor Kangana Ranaut who said it promoted 'love jihad’.

Although the advertisement won widespread praise for depicting India’s syncretic culture at a time when news TV channels are stoking Islamophobia, the Tatas pulled it out the same day ''keeping in mind the hurt sentiments and the well-being of our employees, partners and store staff”.

Just a couple of days prior to this, industrialist Rahul Bajaj had said he would be pulling out advertisements from 'toxic media channels' because he did not want his child to 'inherit an India built on hate'.

Despite the capitulation by the oldest corporate house in India, Tanishq showrooms in Rajkot, Indore and other towns faced hostility and even had to apologise for the advertisement.

The message is clear: the rule of law is an alien concept; lynch mobs will rule the streets and troll armies will rule the information highways. The Constitution be damned, majoritarianism rules.

By this logic, M K Gandhi too should be erased from Indian history because the top trend on Twitter this October 2 was not 'Mahatma Gandhi zindabad’ but 'Nathuram Godse zindabad’. Well, the Twitter trends algorithm can be gamed and Gandhians can be shamed.

Further confirmation of the 'irrelevance’ of Bapu comes from the first 10 responses to Gandhi scholar Rajni Bakshi’s thought-provoking piece in the Indian Express dated October 1, 2020; all ten responses are by those mocking the Mahatma.

It does not matter who these trolls are; they could be the Class XII student from Mundra in Gujarat who was arrested for threatening to rape M S Dhoni’s infant daughter following his poor form at the ongoing IPL tournament or the MBBS student from Mumbai who threatened the city’s police commissioner Parambir Singh, influenced by rants against him on Republic TV. One is not even talking of threats and abuses faced by critics of the government.

It also does not matter if the ratings that drive TV news content are rigged, as the TRP scam being investigated by the Mumbai police shows. This is how the Sushant Singh Rajput case and the Bollywood drugs story take precedence over the pandemic, the border situation with China and the economic crisis.

If you go by the troll army, there is something called 'UPSC jihad’ as well; Muslims 'infiltrating’ the civil services. Recently, the Supreme Court had to be petitioned to stop TV channel Sudarshan News from airing an episode on UPSC jihad.

These are the kind of people who were upset over the Tanishq advertisement, as it contradicts the ruling dispensation’s vilification of Muslims. And these people can go any extent, including spreading fake news on social media about a non-existent 'Muslim Regiment' of the Indian Army refusing to fight in the 1965 war against Pakistan.

The way TV news is competing with Netflix crime thrillers, the way mundane happenings are being labelled 'breaking news’, the degeneration of debates into cock-fights, the partisan approach of the anchors all add to a toxic environment. No wonder that Congress spokesperson Rajiv Tyagi died of a heart attack soon after a TV debate.

The trash that passes for news on TV is proof that journalism has gone out of journalists’ hands. Decisions are taken by finance managers in search of revenue; hence advertorials, infotainment, paid news, fake news, clickbait journalism, conspiracy theories, jingoism, Islamophobia; anything but news. The prize for hypocrisy goes to Sudarshan News, which defended its UPSC jihad in the Supreme Court in the name of investigative journalism.

A meme sums up the situation: 'The news used to tell us what happened and we had to decide how we felt about it. Now the news tells us how to feel and we have to decide if it happened.’

Instead of leaders of thought, editors have become production managers with titles such as Editor (Mumbai market) to remind them of their responsibility to the bottomline. They have even ceded the editorial page to politicians. With shrinking budgets and the sheen of the profession having worn off, journalism is no longer attracting the talent it used to. Young idealists join the media hoping to change the world but quit when they realise they can’t even change a word.

Republic TV’s J&K bureau chief Tejinder Singh Sodhi revealed in his resignation letter that the Republic TV team in Delhi was not allowed to cover a major Congress press conference. Instead, he wrote, we were asked to protest outside the Congress office in our respective states by wearing black bands.

Media houses have pompous taglines, such as, 'the leader guards the reader’ when they throw their own correspondents to the wolves at the first sign of trouble. This is the reason for self-censorship. No wonder the profession now attracts youngsters who can’t distinguish a policeman from a postman outside Kangana’s Bandra office, who came to blows outside the office of the Narcotics Control Bureau. Everyone except the viewer is asked, ''Aap ko kaisa lag raha hai?”

Media houses claim to 'afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted’ and 'speak truth to power’ when the reality is that stand-up comics speak more truth than journalists.

The real news of today is how dissent is being criminalised, how the RTI is being strangled, how the mainstream media botoxifies the ugly truth, how journalists uncovering lies are being hounded and arrested. No one mentions it but the liberal use of sedition to silence critics is part of the Gujarat model.

To end, a Turkish joke: A political prisoner goes to the jail’s library to ask for a book. The librarian says, we don’t have the book but we have its author.

The writer is an independent journalist based in Mumbai

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