Gone is the old veneer of neutrality, which, at least on paper, went by the norm that opinion is free, but facts are sacred. Today, both opinion and “facts” are mangled freely to mean exactly what the media wants.

Two Incidents involving this writer, going back to the mid-UPA years, serve to illustrate what may really be going on behind the scenes in newsrooms. One major TV channel, often alleged to be close to the Congress, invited me to participate in a prime-time programme. Within hours, though, the guest contact person called me back to say the plan had changed and there was no need to come to the studio.

A few months later, a similar thing happened. Neither programme was actually cancelled.

I wondered how the same thing happened with the same channel twice. Either they were careless about their invites or their programming. Or both. It is possible that my location in Mumbai was a hassle for the Delhi-based channel. But I would also like to speculate that the invite was offered by someone lower down the hierarchy, which, when vetted by the bosses, didn’t pass muster.

I was a strong and trenchant critic of both the UPA and the Gandhi family’s indirect control of the Prime Minister’s Office. I may be wrong, but I have often wondered if the fact that the PMO had recently recruited a senior journalist from this media group had something to do with this double cancellation of a critic’s invite.

Another night, another programme, same channel. This time my role was only as a TV viewer. The occasion was a discussion with young people and college students about the impact of Narendra Modi’s speeches versus one just made by Rahul Gandhi.

The responses were fairly one-sided in favour of Modi and the anchor felt the need to balance it when one young man was expressing a decidedly poor opinion of Rahul’s speechifying abilities. But she did a funny thing. She broke up the anti-Rahul flow by observing that “you are a Modi fan”—which the young man hurriedly denied. This was a needless interjection, given that at that point of time the media-built narrative on Modi and the 2002 riots had made Modi’s supporters wary about disclosing their admiration for him. This was probably why the young man was quick to deny he was a Modi fan though he seemed one.

The point of these digressions on personal experiences and observations is not to suggest that one channel, or even many channels, may be biased, but that it is not possible to be clinically neutral when anchors are human and tend to have strong views of their own. Plus, they tend to have source biases. When you are intensely covering a political party or organization as a reporter, your access to stories often depends on how gingerly you treat negative stories about that party. For example, it is highly unlikely that someone who has a poor opinion of the Gandhi dynasty will have access to news sources close to Sonia Gandhi, or be the first person to get stories that the Congress party may want to leak to the media. So one naturally tends to be protective of the party’s interests to the extent possible without being blatantly biased.

The media reportage structure tends to accentuate this inherent bias, as reporters are assigned by newspapers and TV channels to cover either the Congress or the BJP, but usually not both. This is to ensure access.

It is important to keep these in-built biases in mind when discussing the heavily lopsided coverage of “growing intolerance” in the country, a phrase invented to nail all the blame for it at Narendra Modi’s door. It is worthwhile remembering that for 55 of the 68 years since Independence, it is the Congress party that has been in power; and in those 55 years, 47 were run directly or indirectly by a member of the Gandhi family (one counts the Manmohan Singh years as a Gandhi family tenure since the former PM himself has accepted that the primary centre of power was Sonia Gandhi; the only exceptions to Gandhi family rule were the Narasimha Rao and Lal Bahadur Shastri years). This backdrop explains why the Lutyens media has been feeding off the Gandhi family and vice versa. It has no love lost for an interloper like Narendra Modi, who, to make matters worse, does not think it is important to wine and dine the media. He leaves that largely to Arun Jaitley, and the latter surely gets a good press in the bargain.

However, it would be foolish to pretend that it is only the longevity of the Gandhi family in power that is behind the anti-Modi biases in the English media. There are at least four other reasons for biases getting more pronounced—direct ownership of many media houses by politicians, the entry of large corporate houses in media, the basic unviability of the advertiser-fed big media model, and the different ways in which media anchors now see their roles.

A few years ago, Mint newspaper quoted from an earlier rediff.com report of 2009 that had Union Minister Kapil Sibal claiming that it would be possible for the Congress party to “carve a legend out of Rahul Gandhi” on the basis of the party’s direct or indirect ownership of more than 150 media publications.

While I have not been able to find the original article, there is good reason to believe Sibal could have said this in an unguarded moment after the party’s thumping win in 2009. Reason: ownership facts on the ground support this statement. Media watcher Vanita Kohli-Khandekar once wrote in a business newspaper that “more than a third of news channels are owned by politicians or politico-affiliated builders. An estimated 60 per cent of cable distribution systems are owned by local politicians. These have influenced and funded several local elections.”

This statement does not mean only Congress politicians own the media—far from it—but it is more than likely that the bulk of the politically-affiliated media is tied to the Congress party for the simple reason that it was the source of all favours for longer periods than the rest of the political spectrum. In the run-up to 2009, for example, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s son Jagan Reddy launched an expensive chain of newspapers and TV channels called Sakshi with money sourced from corporations—possibly through arm-twisting or exchange of business favours. Hyderabad’s main English paper at that time, Deccan Chronicle, was owned by a Congressman. Eenadu was said to be close to Telugu Desam, and it was probably to counter Eenadu’s political affiliation that Sakshi was launched. In Maharashtra, the Lokmat group has pro-Congress leanings.

The idea is not to list every newspaper’s political predilections, but to show that the media has ownership interests. Investigative magazine Tehelka spent most of its energies trying to debunk the BJP, including an effort to shift the focus of the 2008 cash-for-votes scam, in which votes were being bought to enable the Manmohan Singh government to survive the no-trust motion, from who was doing the bribing to who helped conduct the sting to expose it (the BJP had a hand in it). One channel even refused to air the sting after initially agreeing to do so, leaving viewers to wonder what pressures were applied behind the scenes to prevent what could have been damaging to the UPA.

More recently, as big media houses tottered towards unviability and excessive debt, especially post-2008, when many of them had taken too much leverage, big corporate houses entered the picture. The Aditya Birla group in India Today, Reliance in Network 18 (at one point, even NDTV), Uday Kotak in Business Standard, etc. Hindustan Times is owned by another wing of the Birlas, K.K. Birla’s daughter Shobhana Bhartia. Both K.K and Shobhana were Congress-nominated Rajya Sabha MPs. Today many more business houses—the Congress-backed Jindals, among them—are into the media game. Now big business has interests, and to protect them they tend to kowtow to the party in power. One can hardly presume that they give their editors unfettered rights to write and report what they want.

But corporate ownership does not have to be direct to impact the political direction of reportage. Since all publications depend on corporate advertising to stay afloat, the Chinese wall separating the newsroom from the sales office has been breached repeatedly, most directly in The Times of India Group, which is profitable beyond imagination. This model has been willy-nilly copied by all other major newspaper groups. Groups that once sneered at the low practices of the Jains of Times of India, now rush to emulate them—private treaties with advertisers, native content, and all.

However, this brings us to another reality: given the fundamental unviability of big media houses, newsrooms are under pressure to generate more bang for the buck—that is generate more TRPs for as low a staffing as possible. This means shouting louder above the media cacophony to be heard, and more brazenness. TV newsrooms have become inquisition chambers, and anchors tend to express their opinions more often than guests. Since news is driven from the headquarters, where news angling and direction of prime-time news is decided in advance in order to catch the viewer’s eye (or rather, gouge it), questioning on TV is highly tendentious.

TV anchors no longer ask open-ended questions like what is your view of, say, the current state of tolerance in the country. Instead, there will be a leading question, where the anchor will ask a question that runs like this: “In view of the growing intolerance in the country, what is your opinion on the subject?” In other words, the opinion is embedded in the question, and few guests have the temerity to question the anchor’s hypothesis. The anchor can anyway you off mid-sentence, and turn to a more pliant guest. Countering on facts is difficult, for questions are posed for a yes-no binary. There is no scope for nuance, with Times Now’s superstar anchor Arnab Goswami being the inventor of this inquisitional approach where all answers are self-incriminating or wrong. Your best option is to agree with the anchor and mutter something incoherent. With Times Now topping the TRP charts, other TV channels are forced to mimic Arnab to some degree. TV reporting has largely been Arnabbed.

To make matters worse, the general news media is largely numerically challenged, and is linear in its thinking. If there is one incident involving a church, every news regarding a church will be lumped as a church attack, with numbers being added: fourth church attack, fifth church attack, and so on, even if one has no relationship with the other. No attempt is ever made to compare figures for the previous year, or whether there have been similar kinds of incidents involving, say, mosques or temples or gurdwaras, which might put the church attacks story in a different perspective. But then, today’s story cannot be jeopardised by references to the real picture. Facts are not allowed to get in the way of a good story.

This is how the intolerance debate has been conducted—through a linear addition of instances that show the Modi government in poor light, and subtraction (ie. disregard) of other instances of intolerance that would show that the rival political parties do not necessarily preside over tolerant states or benign political dispensations.

Sadanand Dhume, writing in The Times of India on 17 December, showed how large Muslim mobs in several cities demanded death for Kamlesh Tiwari, who had allegedly ranted against the Prophet. These mobs and their rants were generally ignored by the media and didn’t make the cut on the “rising intolerance” scale. Reason: This did not fit into the basic storyline that intolerance was being stoked by the BJP and its Sangh compatriots. Only Sangh rants were being added up, not the other rants.

The sad conclusion is this: large sections of the media—old, new or social—have become players in the game and not just remained observers. Gone is the old veneer of neutrality, which, at least on paper, went by the norm that opinion is free, but facts are sacred. Today, both opinion and “facts” are governed by partisanship and can be mangled out of shape to mean exactly what they want.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” In India’s media world, facts can be used to mean exactly what the mediaperson using it wants it to mean. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but nothing close to the truth.

The author is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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