In a wide-ranging interview, the iconic TV journalist discusses his recent decision to urge the profession to break the mould of an anchor as an image of distraction and incitement
In recent years, TV viewers have observed the relish with which channels have packaged news in the hyper mould of debates, presided over by anchors as grand masters of ceremony who have nurtured their image and immense following with signature styles, typically shrill and designed to offend. Aided by an arsenal of distraction – hammering tone, looping replays, ticker tapes with nano-second news breaks, graphic minefields, and an ensemble cast of speakers chosen for maximum outrage, many an anchor has created a republic of virtual reality based on the principle of naming and shaming as primetime entertainment. Largely unencumbered by basic journalistic conventions such as authentication and gatekeeping functions, the anchor has metamorphosed from being a tracker of news to becoming the news himself/herself. Understanding issues that are human, lying close to the skin, is not really part of the game.
But even by the standards of television news, these past weeks have seen several channels touching a new low – or achieving new predatory heights – in handling the entire chain of incidents sparked off from what was, at the end of the day, a student meeting on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Whatever else it was, it certainly wasn’t journalism: the distasteful eagerness of anchors to brand an entire institution as anti-national, give free rein to spokespersons uttering murderous threats, even playing an unauthenticated video allegedly showing Kanhaiya Kumar’s ‘seditious’ side. Worse, the hysterical rants of several anchors themselves seemed to be in the nature of a call to arms, uncomfortably close to the reality of mobs marching through Delhi’s lanes threatening to kill anybody who was ‘anti-national’ like those in JNU. The babel of violent voices emanating from most channels, resembling a bloody arena, was relentless. The tyranny of the anchor’s overbearing image and iron in the soul was absolute.
Then on February 19, something truly remarkable happened, something which has never been attempted on Indian television before – an intuitive act of journalism that in the best traditions of subversion broke the mould of the anchor as an image of distraction and incitement, reaffirming the journalist’s pact with the viewer as one of conscience and conviction – and accountability. That night, Ravish Kumar of NDTV India came on the primetime screen for a few minutes to tell viewers that television has become diseased. It has been afflicted by TV; first we fell ill, now you – some of you have been writing letters threatening to assault us, burn us alive. Has this venom in you been communicated to you by us perchance? So I am taking you to a dark world, the darkness being an image of our world of TV. And then the anchor vanished from the screen, asking viewers to listen and reflect on whether they wanted to be part of the terrible world that he and his fraternity create day after day.
What followed was the audio of bites from TV debates of the past week. Released from the snare of the image, one could finally hear with a sense of mounting horror the ugly reality of hatred and violence dripping from the voices – anchors as well as speakers. In another set of voices, the contrast between the desh bhakts’ frenzy of ‘kill, kill’ and the energising note of ‘zindabad’ in the slogans affirming faith in JNU came out loud and clear. In another segment one felt the fear of a young reporter who saw her ideals crumble within the court before a mob baying for the blood of journalists.
In a long-ranging conversation as elliptical as his richly textured programmes, Ravish Kumar, who has been ceaselessly hounded and trolled for speaking truth to power, told Chitra Padmanabhan about his love for the medium but an urge to leave it at the same time, the immense love he has received from viewers and the worrying threats that have become a part of his life. He shared his concerns about the state of television journalism: the perils of the entire TV space having become oriented around the anchor – who has become ‘reporter, editor, channel and star’; the way in which the medium’s possibilities have been killed by ‘debate windows’, with nobody bearing any accountability for what they say; the unnerving similarity between the anchors’ tone and the patriarchal language experienced within homes and in the prevailing political climate; the commandeering of social media as a tool of fascist propaganda; the viewer’s expectation that the journalist should be with the people and not the state; and the urgent need for journalism to return to its first principles.
Excerpts from an interview:
Your act of banishing the distracting images from the screen was purely subversive. How did this idea come to you?
The idea came to me in a flash. On Friday (February 19), I woke up earlier than the usual 6 am after a restless night – my wife was not well; moreover, through the night many senior school students – children of my wife’s relatives – were messaging her that they had seen my February 18 programme on the JNU march and liked it.
Early morning a friend in the US called saying he had watched my programme and was concerned about my safety, almost giving me the feeling that I should not step out of the house. I lay in bed in the other room wondering what I would do on the Friday primetime show. The violence-filled slogans of a crowd of hundreds just a day before – “Ghar mein ghus ke maarenge Afzal ke yaaron ko” (“We will break into homes to kill Afzal [Guru]’s supporters”) – were pounding in my head; do you know such marches are being taken out in Delhi’s lanes and bylanes?
Next I saw several tweets about how some TV channels had aired what seemed to be a doctored video allegedly showing Kanhaiya Kumar mouthing azadi (freedom) slogans pertaining to Kashmir. It struck me afresh that as it is our medium has many limitations, but if we continue to work in such insensible ways, where will we end up? The thought was frightening.
That’s when an idea flashed through my mind. I kept quiet not wanting to share it. My wife asked if I could do something that would bring me home early. I was doubtful. After calling my colleagues to office around 1 pm I forgot about it. When I sat in the car, I remembered I wanted to do something relating to the image – a programme urging a return to reason. By the time I reached office I had the entire script planned out.
How did your team respond to the idea?
My editor initially said a dark screen without any image would be like radio, would I be able to go on for an hour, and then told me to go ahead. Some could not visualise a programme made up of just sounds initially.
Just before going on air, I was a wreck, worried about trying something out that I had not discussed with anyone, worried about how people would react to a black screen. I did mention that some people might switch channels and then some might not, which presented an opportunity. In any case other channels’ promos show me as coming last in TRP ratings and no one in my office has as yet told me, Ravish Kumar, you have failed, shut down the show…
You did away with the distracting image so that faced with a dark screen the viewer could actually concentrate on the real import of the shrill statements being made in the TV debates.
Well, that’s how we meditate – close our eyes to listen and hear. I was away in Columbia University when the JNU affair happened. When I returned on February 14/15 there was this terrifying babel on the social media saying, “kill, kill.”
I couldn’t fathom where this level of violence and hatred was coming from. When I meet people I don’t see them being so aggressive or enraged. They are more concerned about their jobs, unemployment and the sluggish economic scenario. This world is very different from the world portrayed on TV where we anchors are driving our viewers to the point of insanity. A world so polarised that entry points into discussions are becoming fewer and fewer.
When TV Today and ABP questioned the authenticity of the video purportedly showing Kanhaiya indulging in ‘seditious’ slogans, the fact that there is an element of doubt became evident. The benefit of the doubt must be given to the person being accused of all sorts of things. To target an institution and its alumni as anti-national straightaway is unacceptable: many JNU alumni are in the Government of India and are BJP supporters as well. Not all JNU-ites are naxals or Maoists. Even if they are, the government’s stand is that it is willing to enter into talks. Jab sab koi apna hai (“when all of them are our people”) then why is there so much madness on TV? We TV folks – anchors – end up making every serious occasion worse.
In your programme you mentioned television’s proclivity for media trials on earlier occasions. Are you at your level trying to create an institutional memory for a medium that is purely event-driven, in the hope that those who want to learn from past mistakes may do so?
The medium does not want to learn. Why should channels that are number one, two or three feel the need to learn?
So who were you addressing yourself to through your programme?
I was speaking to my viewers, telling them not to watch TV, that is, this kind of television. I routinely tell my viewers I do not watch TV. For that matter I never tweet information about my programmes either.
As for the present-day phenomenon of reporting being replaced by five hot-shot anchors, I have been critiquing it for some time now in my blog. If everyone becomes a star, who will be a journalist? Isn’t it important to get some information before coordinating speakers and anchoring?
Fine, the pattern of debate has changed. People want to know about the accountability of political parties. So, call two spokespersons on primetime and let them talk about issues. But no, we must have a dozen people giving free rein to indulge in their anxieties, dreams and obsessions on screen. I am talking about my show here, things are far worse in leading channels. In the name of opinion we are slowly but surely killing opinion in the true sense – diversity of opinion – through the current, closed format of TV debates.
It is interesting to see how you constantly try to draw viewers into the frame by telling them they might feel they are safe on their sofas as they watch on, but the issues that agitate you will ultimately have an impact on them, too. This dangerous imbalance in the medium, between the aggression of the TV anchor and the passivity of the viewer, seems to agitate you greatly.
Yes, more so since I love this medium. But it has been killed by the four windows that are created on screen day after day, with nobody bearing any accountability for what they say. Some CEO from Bangalore waxes eloquent about every ill plaguing India without knowing India. We too allow it for we want ‘new faces’ on our shows.
Secondly, anchors too try to fashion debates on party lines, and people are seeing and commenting about it. While this is not a new trend, not by any stretch, the format of TV debate in which the anchor is seen as a messiah outdoes everything else. It scares me, which is why I keep telling viewers not to become fans. I turn down many invites for public appearances for I do not want to become a messiah. But the fact remains that the entire TV space has become anchor-oriented.
And this troubles you.
Yes, there are anchors doing about 20 ‘exclusive’ interviews of five defunct politicians in Lutyens Delhi through the year trying to create the ‘definitive’ discourse.
How should the medium be used?
The way I used it on February 19 is one of the ways. Not even five rupees was spent on the programme, not a single cameraman was needed. If you want to connect with people, money is not important. My programmes based on field reports, shot on a hand-held camera, are not known for their polished camera angles, but till date no viewer has asked me why my shots are shaky. Viewers want to be closer to reality.
Is that why you wondered in your programme if the anchors are as strident off screen – with their loved ones – as they are on it?
Yes, the way many anchors speak is how, across north India, many men speak to their wives, and brothers to their sisters. This patriarchal culture now being seen on TV is very dangerous and I am trying to communicate to women that this culture will curtail your freedom in the end, so don’t get swayed by this argument of nationalism. Are you ready to lose your hard-won freedoms – which need to be transferred to many more women – because of the insane passions being stoked by TV anchors?
I was asking male viewers to introspect on whether they liked the patriarchal style of debate because they also speak to their wives similarly. Similarly, I was asking female viewers whether they respond to the same style of debate because it reminds them of the way their brothers interact with them. I deliberately wanted to connect this kind of language with the home environment.
Take minister V.K. Singh of “presstitutes” fame. Does he use this kind of language at home, too? Or is this how the former chief of the army, known for its social decorum, started speaking after entering politics? You can tell a journalist that his question to you is bad; instead you target journalists. Then anchors adopt your language and tone; party spokespersons adopt the anchor’s language and tone. Everyone gets into an uncontrollable frenzy and the debate goes overboard. I am also guilty of shouting a couple of times but quickly sobered after receiving sharp reprimands from several viewers saying they would stop watching my programmes if I did so.
Is that why you seem to be constantly questioning as to where news is made or distorted – in the field, television studio or social media?
News is created out of bits that can give rise to perceptions and then people start playing football with these perceptions, parroting that Congress did this in 1984, BJP did this in 2002. That is all on record, so why not speak about the issue at hand? What this means is that there are some fixed positions which can never be debated. The sense of enquiry that should drive journalism becomes a casualty.
How does the establishment respond to your programmes?
Let’s put it this way, I am not their hot-favourite, but that means I am doing something right. As for the concerns of friends and family about the threats I receive, they have become a part of life.
But I am particular about certain things. When I talk to a party spokesperson, say Sambit Patra, he is not just Sambit Patra for me but someone representing lakhs of BJP workers. I can ask him tough questions, sometimes interject in anger, but I cannot insult him. Who am I to look down upon him?
On social media are you viewed as being close to any particular power dispensation?
I have been branded a dalal (tout) of every party ranging from the BSP, AAP and Congress to the BJP during the Anna Hazare agitation. I wish they would give me my fee so that I can retire from this profession. I don’t want to do television journalism any more. Ghame rozgar hai to kar lenge (“one has to make a living”).
For someone ‘making a living’ you bring an energising texture to news. Is it the result of being connected to the two streams of history and literature?
It’s a kind of training that helps me remain organically connected to my viewers. Actually it is more they who keep us connected. People come to me bearing all sorts of gifts – rice, gur, vegetables, honey, a watch. Today my bank manager gifted me a pen, I have been given innumerable pens. It is a form of respect they accord to the journalist whom they want to see in a different light.
Viewers have got me lassi from Sonepat, dates from Saudi Arabia, sattu from Ballia. I may be the last in TRPs but my viewers have given me immeasurable love. When I come on screen I am not just me – in fact I am more theirs. I might be wearing a shirt or tie gifted by someone, or carrying a gifted pen. The viewers want to see me so.
From all this, what is the definition of news that emerges in your mind?
Primarily viewers want to see the journalist being impartial and as working for the country but not in the inciteful ways that one has witnessed these past weeks. That is largely the result of the entry of political circles in social media.
People expect you to belong to the public and not to the government. If you did belong to the government at any stage, they want you to change and will recognise and accept you if you do.
Would the viewers’ expectation that you belong to them also extend to instances where an individual like Kanhaiya Kumar comes up against the state?
I think people do have sympathy for Kanhaiya because he is visibly weak and vulnerable against an all-powerful state. Now, one TV channel has been saying that Umar Khalid phoned Kashmir 26 times. So what? Is calling Kashmir an offence? Is Kashmir Pakistan? Is calling Pakistan an offence? I also get calls from Saudi Arabia. Should I fear being framed?
I believe if the police have important information in a case where the reputation of the state and individual is at stake, every disclosure should be on record. There should not be any planting of stories through sources. Similarly, all stories coming from intelligence and security agencies should be on record as far as possible.
Again, instead of crudely talking about Ram Madhav’s recent meeting with Mehbooba Mufti – how traitorous, secretly meeting the party that considers Afzal Guru a martyr – an anchor can be creative. If two parties with extreme stances try to come together it is a welcome step in politics. I feel Ram Madhav fell victim to the perception trap regarding Afzal Guru fashioned in the mainland. There should be detailed disclosures in detail, especially in today’s circumstances when debate is greatly polarised and anchors too are almost exhorting viewers to be mob like.
Is full disclosure necessary in the case of the video that seems to be doctored?
Absolutely, when the source itself is in question, the whole thing assumes a very serious turn. Bodies such as Press Council of India and Broadcast Association should see to it that the channels in question come out with clarifications that their source was wrong.
Further, as journalists we need to stay focused on the incident as Rahul Kanwal of TV Today did in dealing with this news. But the damage had been done by them – in small towns and villages people are being branded gaddar (traitor). There is tremendous anger in Kanhaiya’s village in Begusarai about media channels that have been quick to brand him anti-national. Even officers of the establishment are angry saying this does not augur well for the country.
Many astute commentators have spoken of how the democratising potential of social media is used more often for narrow nationalism interests.
I agree. The idea was to debate freely issues arising from various mediums. But big news organisations are on it. Political parties are on social media in an organised manner. In villages and towns party workers have been transformed into cyber units. They instill fear with their organised abuse and actions so that people feel apprehensive about expressing their views.
See how Rajdeep Sardesai’s aged mother has been insulted. Did Dilip Sardesai, who played cricket for his country, ever think his wife would be spoken of in such terrible terms? How can you call my mother a whore (Ravish Kumar, son of a whore)? I wrote in the social media that my mother is Mother India, how can you call her so. The question is can this kind of political culture last in India? Those who are tolerant of this political culture should understand that after me it is their turn to be targeted, and they will have no one to turn to for we will be long gone from our jobs.
The so-called free spaces are free no more.
Yes, I was hopeful that the social media would provide a creative space for women to express themselves beyond their domestic confines. Our young girls should understand that the aim of this political culture is not to intimidate me but to attack, through me, their rights by telling them what kind of clothes to wear, what time to come home, whom to marry…
It is not that women do not understand. A former colleague, an independent woman living in Mumbai, told me she was afraid of expressing herself openly on Facebook, after all she stays alone. This means the social media has become a tool of fascist propaganda. It is measuring your footprint and can do anything.
Thankfully it does not always decide the political discourse of India, although it may seem it does at a certain juncture. But social media does decide the discourse in Delhi’s newsrooms, snatching away the time that should be spent on real issues. To the ordinary Indian all I can say is, if someone states we should be killed, good luck to you, for we are your voice.
In your programme on the journalists’ march to protest the lawyers’ attack on newspersons within the Patiala House court you said you were marching not for yourself but for the viewer.
Seeing the mob in the court and hearing my young colleague Sonal Malhotra say that she preferred to be at the mercy of 15 people within the court than face a 500-strong mob baying outside shook me up completely.
What the viewer sees in me or wants to see in me is not myself as much as himself. He may occupy a different political space but he also wants to see the journalist as a separate agency. His feeling of empowerment is directly proportional to the courage with which we ask questions. The government that gives more space is seen as a more credible government.
In that sense the attacks on journalists in the Patiala House court have fore-grounded the issue of asking questions to those in authority.
Our journalists, however, are split down the line. Just as I feel there should be a debate on the role played by TV anchors, a serious assessment is needed of our political news bureaus – the 500 reporters who cover BJP and Congress. What do they do the whole day, what is their story and how much of it do they file. The public needs to know how political reporters change their alignment the minute a new government comes into being. There are good political reporters, but many start seeing themselves as extensions of power.
For instance, one journalist tweeted that two of the three students who resigned from JNU’s ABVP unit were from the history department and were forced to resign. This is pure disinformation – two of them are economics students, and two of them are Dalits who were already talking about burning the Manusmriti.
So what should be done?
For starters there should be a rule that no journalist should cover a party for more than three years. The Press Council should be able to ask a newspaper why this is not happening. Since the present system is failing, why not test out this alternative?
To those youngsters who come to the media, what would you say?
Keeping one’s integrity intact is a huge struggle, but that must be one’s effort. One must learn to fight inch by inch to occupy space.