New Delhi: In a rare instance of good news about the news business, a trade site for the advertising industry has reported that, “Leading advertisers say they are concerned about the rising toxicity on news channels and may even reconsider their ad spends if the news broadcasters don’t get serious about their content. Advertisers feel there are serious questions related to brand safety when it comes to advertising on news channels.”
Serious advertisers on TV news stated the problem upfront and even had a ‘solution’. Krishnarao Buddha, senior category head, marketing at Parle Products spoke of the need to state the reason why ads were being pulled down and to thereby work to fixing the hate being spewed from TV screens. “As a viewer and advertiser, I really feel the news channels have stooped to a pathetic state and if the advertisers have the opportunity to break this vicious cycle, they must do it collectively and be a real purpose-driven brand. While doing this, we should state the reason that we are all doing it because of the content. I agree that such an environment is dangerous for any brand because it comes back to hounding it.”
An FMCG brand CEO, “requesting anonymity”, was quoted as saying, “I strongly feel the news channels are going overboard and they need to be told that our monies are not for instilling hatred, disrespect and aggression in our consumers.”
It is too early to tell if Indian advertisers will actually go ahead and do something similar to what has happened in the United States – some heavy spending big brands have stopped advertising on Facebook and Twitter on the grounds that they are too reluctant to act on the sewage of hate facilitated by their pipes. More than 1,000 companies boycotted Facebook in response to the call from #StopHateforProfit. Vanita Kohli Khandekar, a Delhi-based media and entertainment industry specialist noted the fact that advertisers were finally speaking up in India, but was a tad sceptical if a pull-back would happen. “Will they? It would be nice to see some integrity and spine among advertisers, broadcasters and audiences. This monster was created by them,” she tweeted in response to the bestmediainfo.com story.
There is no doubt that advertisers, broadcasters and audiences would all be seen as facilitators if and when a trial like that for ‘Radio Rwanda’ were ever held for all the mainstreaming of hate and horror by Indian TV news channels in recent years. But till then, it is welcome news to see advertisers, whose money pays for this content, at least making India’s big TV bosses wince at the thought of plummeting revenues.
However much TV channels may pretend their programming is merely catering to public ‘demand’, media scholars around the world have documented the ways in which ‘supply’ creates its own demand. The liberalisation of TV screens after 1995 spawned a deep ‘soap culture’ that first dominated what had been popular culture for decades before affecting other genres too. So there was reality TV (which relied on TV stardom via talent or reality shows as a displacement of the earlier ‘making it big in Bombay’ dream). And there were crime shows where semi-fictionalised and problematic accounts of ‘real life’ crime made it on air. It was only a matter of time that journalism as gladiatorial performance – sometimes with anchors dressed in war fatigues posing near battle charts simulators – would grab the controls.
In her 2019 book, Telly-Guillotined: How Television Changed India, Amrita Shah described the scene which had emerged by the end of 1990s:
“The decline of the journalist and the emerging power of the salesman, the technician and the entertainer was a clear and unequivocal statement of the attitude that was shaping Indian media and would continue to do so in the future. It was an attitude that indicated a preference for fantasy over facts, packaging over content and profit over achievement.”
Scholars like Arvind Rajagopal in Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India wrote in 2001 about how the serial Ramayana played a role in fusing popular culture with a certain politics. But now, things are at another level and directly about news media.
As entertainment merged seamlessly with news and became a genre of its own, it would be short-sighted to blame the ‘market’ alone. A survey by a media watching social media handle of 202 TV ‘debates’ across four top-rated Hindi channels (Aajtak, News 18, Zee, India TV) in the run-up to the 2019 general elections revealed a disturbing pattern when it came to the choice of subject:
Attacking Pakistan – 79
Attacking Opposition, including Nehru – 66
Praising BJP/RSS – 36
Ram Mandir – 14
Bihar floods – 3
Moon mission – 2
PMC Bank scam – 1
Economy, Education, health, Public infra, Poverty, Environment, Lynching or questioning any policy – Zero.
Since the 2019 election, there has been a clear escalation of the communal agenda with TV anchors mainstreaming the sort of views earlier associated primarily with and online trolls or the BJP’s IT cell. A clear nod to hate television by the government was brought out during the Supreme Court’s hearings in the Sudarshan TV case. The government’s affidavit did not at any point unequivocally condemn the channel’s misinformation and anti-Muslim hatred underlining the ‘UPSC jihad’ show but used the moment to demand that digital news platforms – the one media space beyond its direct control – be regulated.
Most big TV channels were happy to go along with the government’s agenda of using the Tablighi Jamaat bogey to spearhead a patently false campaign abut the Muslim group deliberately spreading Corona. As research scholars Soundarya Iyer and Shoibal Charavarty have catalogued, there were as many as 11,074 stories about the Tablighi Jamaat across 271 media sources. It was finally left to the Aurangabad bench of the Bombay high court to set the record straight by stating the obvious – that the Tablighis had been wilfully and wrongly scapegoated.
The fact is that pushing hate on TV – whether against certain communities or those seen to be serving as resistance nodes or influencers in ways that cannot be directly controlled by the party in power – serves a deep political and social function, of altering the general sense of the times. What this elaborate trick from the book of an illusionist does is create heat and froth that distracts from issues that have convulsed the lives of millions of Indians – the economic decline, the public health emergency due to COviD-19 and its mismanagement and the border crisis with China.
According to Amrita Shah, the roots of the ecology of what we see now run deep. “The framing of this as the journalist out of control who needs to be tamed by good advertisers is totally misleading. I applaud this move by companies to not fund hate TV, but it is the advertiser over the years who has become the hidden editor and shaped this new ecosystem by insisting on ratings and consumption as the primary goal This needs to be acknowledged and the advertiser (not just the journalist) needs to abide by ethical standards if anything is to change.”
If television news wishes to claim its space, as it must in any functioning democracy – of providing a forum for debate, of helping viewers join the dots by providing the tools – facts, evidence – for making sense of the world, of being a watchdog that keeps an eye on the powerful and holds those in power to account – it will be a long and arduous journey.