Backstory: The Toxic News Studio Enables Hate-Mongers Like Nupur Sharma

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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The trail of consequences that one flap jaw in a TV studio unleashed on the country continues to unspool. But first let’s spare a side glance at Nupur Sharma, one of the protagonists of this tableau.

Incubated within the BJP’s toxic politics, schooled in its Hindu supremacist ideology, buttressed by its social media capital, pumped up with the arrogance of knowing that she could get away with vile, provocative statements because of powerful connections which extend right up to the prime minister, she knew exactly what she was doing. Her pro forma apology came 10 days after her outburst, after widespread outrage in over 20, predominantly Muslim, countries around the world, and after her party was forced to suspend her.

The protests that broke out over those statements, spreading across the country, led to deaths, arrests and demolitions. The media covered them largely as a law-and-order problem, making little effort to remind their audiences of the original provocations of Sharma and her cohorts like Naveen Jindal.

In the process, they allowed the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath to frame the protestors as “criminals” and “terrorists” who cannot but invite his revolting brand of instant retribution in the form of bulldozers and police torture. Very few media entities sought to point to the sheer illegality of these actions and their clear and monstrous violation of human rights.

Meanwhile, Nupur Sharma is steadily being built up as a mini Hindutva icon through WhatsApp forwards, viral Twitter hashtags and glowing endorsements from Pragya Thakur and the like.

But what concerns us here is the original setting for this crisis that is roiling the country: the studio news chat show and the studio news show model cannot be understood without some inkling into why news television is so important to the media industry although it accounts for a modest share of total television viewing and total revenue. In his 2015 book, Behind A Billion Screens, Nalin Mehta argues that news television may make little or no money but it brings access to enormous power.

A detail from a photograph of people shouting slogans as they hold placards during a protest march demanding the arrest of Nupur Sharma for her comments on Prophet Mohammed, in Kolkata, India, June 8, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri

Put simply, it is this patronage that feeds the content of most news television. A senior television manager whom Mehta interviewed had put it like this to him: “A news channel is a useful asset. It brings influence and access, and opens doors in politics and in government.” Large corporate entities are essentially looking for the same dividends when they make news media acquisitions, but this of course is at an infinitesimally larger scale.

In 2014, the acquisition of news television entities Eenadu-Network 18, with their pan-Indian presence, allowed Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), to influence policy making within the government and consolidate its hold on the media market. Today RIL owns over 72 media channels with a user base of 800 million and the news channels among them are faithful to the interests of the ruling party.

The news studio chat show came to be emblematic of this exercise of power and patronage. But for politics and its patrons to find acceptance with audiences, it also needed an anchor to play a role of the God in the Machine. When Bennett Coleman and Company was seeking an entry into the news television business in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the model that drove Vineet Jain as its owner was Fox News.

For Times Now it was about creating the illusion of “breaking news” without too much emphasis on the real investigation and fact-finding that goes behind real news breaking; it was about talking heads chosen to play their assigned adversarial roles arguing at each other with no real interest in furthering public discourse in ways that benefit the country.

People often forget that it was Times Now that created an Arnab Goswami, not the other way around. Goswami was chosen by Vineet Jain to play that God in the Machine. It was another matter that over time the God took on the contours of a Frankenstein and went on to rewrite the rules not just of television programming, but of common civility and the cultural script of everyday life. Over time he created an aura of infallibility by plucking out a news development as the defining “Arnab Goswami prime time news event” and showcased as the country defining ‘News Hour’.

The audiences appeared hypnotised by the Goswami effect, as the TRP meter ticked away (or was made to tick away) and the advertisement rupees flowed in. When the time came to stamp, seal and deliver his viewers to the Narendra Modi electoral machine, Goswami did not fail that mission either. By now, his innumerable clones – all of them marked by his boorish uncivility and conspicuous rejection of the traditional norms of journalism – anchoring TV news shows across languages and regions.

That was how large sections of the television-viewing public in broad swathes of India transmogrified into BJP-voting EVMers. Today they comprise an ersatz community that loves vicariously, hates with absolute viciousness, and believes blindly in what they are told to believe. Over the years, their sensibilities have become irredeemably coarsened by the steady drip feed of bully pulpit diatribe dished out to them night after night.

Goswami went on to build a Republic in his own image, leaving his deputy – a nervous Navika Kumar – to be the new keeper of the Goswami ‘News Hour’. She knew the drill well enough but her anxiety to fill her former boss’s gargantuan shoes made her often appear gauche, gaudy and occasionally giddy. Her greatest strength was that the political establishment needed her almost as much as she needed them.

Every “scoop” that landed in her handbag was more evidence that she had become its ventriloquist’s dummy.

If Navika Kumar was fazed by the rocket that Nupur Sharma fired from the ‘News Hour’ studio on May 26, she did not indicate this, choosing to tweet instead about how outraged she was by the unfortunately predictable social media mauling that her much favoured star guest had received. What is significant is that while her employers felt pressured enough to issue a public apology and distance themselves from Sharma’s comments, it is striking that Navika Kumar herself has still not felt the need to publicly disassociate herself from them.

This speaks volumes for the power she has come to wield, albeit as a ventriloquist’s dummy.

IT Rules: MeitY keeps finetuning its tool of repression

The manner in which the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) of the Government of India has been tinkering with its Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, introduced in February 2021, is only more evidence of how deeply invested the government is in controlling the digital news media, and
by extension the media in general.

The latest amendments of June 6 finetunes the idea of oversight over digital content through government-appointed appeal committees armed with legal sanction to reject the content-moderation stand taken not just by social media intermediaries but by digital media portals like The Wire. This is in addition to a three-tier structure that these platforms are required to set up for purposes of self-regulation.

Those members of the public who are aggrieved over a platform’s content – and going by the present climate they are not just multitudinous in number but are extremely well-organised to promote their distinct ideological agendas – or not satisfied with the platform’s own self-regulation, can now directly approach the “one or more” Grievance Appellate Committees set up by the government for redressal of their grievances. The directions given by the appeal committee will have to be complied with by the targeted portal.

If this is not enough, the new amendment also set down tight time lines for the grievance redressal action undertaken by these portals. In cases where the content threatens the country’s integrity, infringes copyright or is false information”, a limit of a fortnight is set to address the issue.

Instead of working on improving the constitutional rights of digital citizens, this pursuit of the Political establishment to seek ways to exercise unbridled power over digital platforms is deeply disturbing. The courts need to step in the breach – and urgently so.

India’s sharp decline in media freedoms, as registered by credible media watchers across the world, does not seem to have deterred the Modi government from pursuing these misguided and wholly unjustified attempts to gag digital media.

Readers write in…

How genuine the Arab response?

What does the Arab response to Nupur Sharma’s statements on prime time television really entail? A perspective from Ramana Murthy:

“Most of the media and opinion writers are exulting at the Arab reaction to the Nupur Sharma episode. They seem to think that Modi-Shah-BJP finally got their comeuppance. But is this really the case? Has the world changed so much so soon? It seems to be too good to be true.

“To any regular follower of news, it would appear that the Arab world has reacted thus in order to please their own constituencies, not because they are concerned about the fate of Muslims living in India. For them business matters more, not the lives of Muslims in any another country. And Modi-Shah know that.

“If proof of this is needed, remember that the Arab world has made up with Israel and has kept quiet about the treatment of the Uyghurs in China.”



Aman Kumar has insights into Old Hindi:

“The writer of the piece, ‘The Story of Old Hindi – Which Is Now in a New and Alien Costume’ (May 23) uses Amir Khusro to assert that Hindi ‘actually dates back’ to the 12th century. But there is no citation for the verse. This is because there is no non-Persian writing by Amir Khusro, only memories. Khusro was ‘writing in the 13th century’, and did write that he loved and composed Hindawi, but chose to preserve only his Persian writing. Where we do have are stacks of lyrics going back centuries …Kabir, Sur, Mira… it is easy to see the language changing with the times, as the writer of this piece describes, because who would sing in an archaic tongue? To discover just how old our Hindi or Urdu really is, it is more honest simply to read written survivals of the ‘vernaculars of the North’, which do go back centuries, but won’t look ‘shockingly familiar’ to everyone.”


A mysterious call

A Wire reader, Gautam Sen, wants some clarity:

“This is a query. It’s not about The Wire’s editorial policy, but about its mode of interacting with its supporters/contributors. Recently, on 17 May, I had sent Rs 8,000 as financial support to The Wire and received an acknowledgement.

“Later I was contacted by someone …who called to say that he wanted to thank me for the contribution. He did not give me a name, but I did ask him why I was unable to log in to The Wire. He replied that The Wire had no login for its readers.

“I found this surprising, because I did make an attempt to log in. On checking again, I was able to confirm that he was wrong. I tried calling back, but each time, the call ended on its own. I think you’ll agree that I have sufficient reason to be suspicious of this call, and wish to inform you about it. I suspect that it may be a phishing call.

“Could you please investigate this and let me know what you have found? If you do have someone calling to thank supporters, would you please confirm that this call was harmless? Looking forward to any communication to allay my anxiety.”

[The Wire‘s Support team responds: 

Hey Gautam,

Thank you for reaching out to us. This is to confirm that the call was harmless and the miscommunication about the login is regretted. Perhaps what the person on the call meant was that no one needs to log in to read anything on The Wire.

Besides, kindly login using the Google login option and make sure to use your email to login (or signup).

The Wire]

Copy-able text

A response from another reader, Cyrus D:

“The Wire has become the lifeblood of what are remnants of credible free journalism in India. The matter that is put out in its columns is essential reading for anyone wishing to seek truth in India and about matters of public interest.

“Having achieved this very difficult and highly creditable status, we can see that it is also quite dangerous. To strengthen this one would imagine that The Wire would need support of all kinds from donations to readers who quote them in their messages, to fight the current era of oppression brought on by the merchants of misery.

“Even so their text is un-copyable. It will not permit highlighting and copying in our social media conversations. We understand that this may have something to do with the fact that most people who use such material do not provide proper attribution. I, however, believe most of us would do so. The point is that we need every intellectual resource to mount a second freedom struggle. I have written to The Wire on this issue earlier as well but with little success. Please look into this. It is extremely important.”

[The Wire’s Tech team responds: 

Dear Cyrus D, The Wire does not use any system that makes its text un-copyable. Text from its stories can be copied on iPhones and Android phones, as well as on any browser on any platform. We suggest you switch the browser you currently use and check once again.]

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