Full Text | N Ram on INDIA Bloc's TV Anchor Boycott List and State of Journalism

Ever since the list has been out, there have been polarising reactions, with those supporting the move and others describing it as an attack of freedom of press. The interview with the veteran journalist covers various aspects and implications of such a boycott call.

The 28-party INDIA alliance has drawn up a list of 14 television channel anchors, who according to it, are whipping up communal passions and propagating hate through their shows. The opposition alliance has announced that none of the constituent parties would send their representatives to appear on the shows moderated by the said anchors. Ever since the list has been out, there have been polarising reactions, with those criticising the decision to “boycott” specific anchors and others supporting the move by the opposition. There has also been a political slugfest, with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) describing it as the “Emergency” mindset on the part of the opposition while Congress called it “non-cooperation” and not a “boycott” call. 

On the same issue, Karan Thapar for The Wire interviewed veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hindu, N. Ram, on September 15. The interview looks at the boycott call given by the INDIA bloc from a critical view, covering different aspects and implications of such a move. How fair is it to single out individual anchors while letting television channels go scot-free assuming that hate is being propagated by certain anchors on their shows? What is the political message behind drawing up such a list? Does it actually serve a purpose? Would it have been better for the opposition bloc to take a call on a case-by-case basis, like turning down offers to appear on such shows, rather than come up with a list? What does it indicate about the state of Indian journalism? These are some of the many questions and angles that are part of this 35-minute interview.   

The following is the full transcript of the interview. It has been edited lightly for style, clarity and syntax. 

Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire. The Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance’s (INDIA alliance) decision to boycott 14 television anchors who’ve been identified by name has created a storm of controversy. Today, it is my intention to examine several aspects of this decision, and joining me for the discussion is a man that many people consider India’s foremost journalist – indeed the doyen of our profession, the former editor-in-chief and publisher of The Hindu, N. Ram.

Mr. Ram, I want to raise different aspects of the INDIA alliance’s decision to boycott 14 television anchors who’ve been identified by name. But let me first start with what I would call a moral concern: Is it fitting in a democracy for politicians to boycott fellow citizens? Is there not something distasteful, or even unethical, about boycotting fellow human beings?

Karan, it’s always a pleasure and an educational experience talking to you. This is more a conversation than an interview – I take that for granted, let me say that first. As a starting point, I would agree that those in politics and public affairs should be accessible – not that all of them are and the man right at the top is not really accessible in the way previous prime ministers are. Having said that, I would agree with the starting point, but it depends on the kind of journalists or anchors who want you [a politician] on their show, and if some of them are bullies or conduct aggressive propaganda with a clear agenda and view, then I think the issue becomes a little different.

Of course, the INDIA alliance’s explanation says that ‘we don’t want to be part of a hate-filled narrative, that’s the basic idea, and those who are biased and those who are communal, we have targeted them, and sort of shortlisted them for a boycott’. Now, I think bias is very common in journalism – I don’t think you can discriminate against people on the basis of bias. But if you’re talking about being aggressively communal or bullying, then I think it becomes a gray area, that’s what I’d say.

Let me put a follow-up question to you: If a politician doesn’t like an anchor, and doesn’t want to appear on his/her programme because he considers the anchor a bully, because he believes the anchor has the wrong agenda or the anchor is rude, surely it’s a simple and sensible thing to do, to refuse the invitation. That would achieve the same outcome without incurring the controversy of a boycott. It seems to me that the INDIA alliance had a very easy option, they could’ve said, ‘We will not accept invitations of anchors we don’t like’, rather than go public and announce a boycott and attract controversy. 

Yes, that’s an interesting point. I must tell you that just before we had this conversation, I had several journalists here – it was to do with the Chennai Press Club trying to revive it because there hasn’t been elections for a long time, and there are about a dozen people, including well-known names in media and Tamil Nadu. So I took advantage of that meeting to have been something else, to pull the group. It included people like Nakkheeran Gopal, Bhagawan Singh, veteran journalists as well as young journalists Kavita Muralidharan and so on. Without exception, I was surprised, they said this was the right answer but one of them said exactly what you said – that you’re sort of making an announcement, you just made a decision not to accept invitations from those anchors.

Also read: India Alliance to Boycott TV Shows That ‘Conduct Inflammatory Debates’

But as against it, the others said; and I think it was quite interesting, we spoke for about 10-15 minutes on this same issue. I told them that I would be in this conversation with you, so they were interested. They said this is to send a message out there, that these people are in a sense beyond the pale, so to say.  The argument was well met, the issues were well discussed. I think it depends on who is beyond the pale, but the clever way of responding would have been to, unless you buy into this question a political message that these people meant and so on, was to just do what you said.

Can I interrupt and ask, I get the feeling from your answer you don’t buy into this view that we are sending a message and that this is worth doing, you prefer instead the subtlety of politely but repeatedly declining and achieving the same outcome. 

Yes, I agree with that, unless the message proves to be a big thing. So I asked a follow-up question, in fact, to this group of my friends and colleagues, that would this hurt the image of the anchors, their professional position? They all said, “Yes, by boycotting these people, the loser would be the anchors and not the…”

I’m not sure I agree with that, because I think these anchors are already disliked by those who don’t like their alleged hate hunger. So, as far as the critics are concerned, it won’t have any great change in the way they are viewed, but in the case of their fans and their supporters, they might actually go up in their eyes because now they’ll be seen as ‘martyrs’ or as people who are being targeted unfairly. So, I think the chances of their popularity amongst their fan base increasing is greater than the collapse of their image amongst their critics.

Yes, you’re probably right in this. The straight answer to this question would be a more subtle approach would have suited the INDIA alliance better. They can still do that, because I’m sure that not everybody is on board with this issue because there are so many parties there. But what I don’t buy is the kind of attack that has come from some saying this is a sort of violation of…

You’re talking about the response from the News Broadcasters and Digital Association (NBDA)? Let’s come to that in a moment’s time, let me first pursue a little more what the INDIA alliance has announced. Let me raise a second issue with you: channel owners are not embarrassed by, or ashamed of these anchors. Not only do they employ them and pay them well, but they believe the anchors are doing a good job. Indeed, more importantly, what these anchors are doing, may be hateful in your eyes and mine, but it is clearly part of the channel’s policy. So, instead of boycotting individual anchors, shouldn’t the alliance have boycotted the channel as a whole?

Yes, that’s a good point. I suppose they don’t want to lose the opportunity to disseminate their views on these channels. But the question is, will the channels then invite them using some other anchors? No self-respecting channel should allow the person to approach the politician, or the interviewee to choose the journalists to talk to them. Would they do that? Therefore, the real question is, who’s going to be hurt more in this?

There’s something else, isn’t there? A certain pointlessness to what the INDIA alliance has done. Let me give you an example of India Today. Shiv Aroor and Gaurav Sawant are boycotted because they’re considered hate mongers, Rajdeep Sardesai and Rahul Kanwal are not. So as far as India Today is concerned, they will still have INDIA alliance politicians on two shows, that is probably sufficient for the channel. But Gaurav Sawant and Shiv Aroor will also be free to carry on with their alleged hate-mongering. So what has the boycott achieved? India Today will still have INDIA alliance people, and the other two anchors can carry on allegedly hate-mongering, it won’t affect the channel at all.

Yes, that is true, but I think they want to – I fall back on this answer that it is to send a message, that there are some notorious anchors and journalists out there who shouldn’t really be in journalism, that they are beyond the pale in the view of this alliance, or this grouping if you like. I don’t know if it’s quite an alliance, although it calls itself an alliance. That’s the issue.

But do you agree that messages can be sent both ways? INDIA Alliance believes it is sending an essential message about 14 people who they think are beyond the pale. Fox News, to take that example, we don’t have Fox News-style journalism in India, but Fox News frequently sends messages about politicians who they believe are beyond the pale. Were Fox News to be adopted in India, messages will be going backwards and forwards. What would you achieve except that you’re targeting people on the basis of their personality, and the fact that you don’t like them? It serves no ethical purpose and no journalistic purpose, but it certainly makes individuals on both sides pretty happy.

Yes, I think that’s a good point of comparison, and I think the idea is to get television rating points (TRP) and so on. Thi,  then may play into the hands of these channels, so I think professionally speaking, it would have been a smarter thing for the alliance to leave it to individual leaders to decline or accept invitations from particular anchors, and then it wouldn’t be a point of controversy at all. But that is to really reject the idea that they want to send a message that these anchors, these 14 are beyond the pale in their view. But it’s not so clear that the message is going to work, that’s your point and I think there’s a good point there.

Let me at this point take up the issue that you touched on a moment ago, of how this should be responded to from the point of view of the channel owners. Firstly, they have a duty to stand up for their anchors who’ve been boycotted. Secondly, channels also have a right to adopt whatever political position or stance they want.  The INDIA Alliance decision affects both issues, so how should channel owners respond now? You’ve been a newspaper owner, how should channel owners respond when their right to be a particular type of channel is being challenged, and when their employees are being, in their eyes, unfairly targeted? 

The first part of my answer to your question is to sack some of the most notorious of these anchors. Get rid of them and clean up your channel, because no channel has the right to propagate hate and this kind of bullying. I think after you moved out of television to the present platform, there’s been a serious deterioration. I’m serious here, not because I’m talking to you.

Let’s take you as an example – you are known to be a very, very hard interviewer, asking hard questions, even hard talk, and so on. But you were never rude or offensive or a bully. I want to touch upon two famous instances where I think in 2005, I believe that chief minister Jayalalithaa didn’t walk out, but it ended very interestingly with her saying that, “Oh it wasn’t a pleasure talking to you”, or words to that effect, when you said that it’s a pleasure talking to her. She was very unhappy and objected to your line of questioning.

The other, of course, is the then chief minister of Gujarat. I believe that was in 2007, Mr. Narendra Modi. He handled it much more subtly, but only for two and a half minutes and he walked out, saying he wanted water and so on. I saw that again before this, and also I watched Siddharth Varadarajan’s interview with you explaining what happened.

Mr. Ram, I’m flattered and touched that you’re bringing that up, but a bit embarrassed as well. Let me bring you back to the subject we are discussing. We really ought to stick to it.

So what I was going to say is that we have some of the worst news television in the world. I really avoid these channels, I don’t want to name names here, because the 14 have to be named, but I don’t want to name individual names here because they are not here to present their case. But what I watch, based on my occasional watching, this is completely unacceptable. I tell my friends who come from abroad, we have some of the worst news television in the world. There must be others also elsewhere, but that is a fact I think.

Let me put to you this issue about how channels should respond. As I said in my earlier question, they have a duty to stand up for their anchors, they are their employees. Those anchors, in the eyes of channel owners, are doing good work. Secondly, as you know channels have a right to adopt whatever political positioning they wish.

Now let me give you an example – if President Biden were to boycott top Fox News anchors, would the channel readily accept that another anchor will go and do the interview, but not the top ones that we prefer? Or, should Fox News say to President Biden, ‘We’re going to shut you out of the channel completely and the belief would be that Fox News would say, ‘You, President Biden, lose more from the audience you’re missing out on than we lose by having you or not having you’. In other words, the channel must believe it’s bigger than the individual or the party boycotting it.

Yes, I think any self-respecting channel will not allow the interviewee to choose the interviewer. But are they like that? Are these channels like that, or are they part of the propaganda apparatus or the central government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government? Some of them certainly behave like that.

Answer that question for me, because that is at the nub of how channel owners respond. If they are self-respecting, they ought to turn around to the INDIA Alliance and say, “You will not decide who interviews you on our channel. If you don’t want to be interviewed by our choice of journalists, you will not appear on our channel, full stop bye bye”. But that requires, as you said, self-respect. It also requires confidence that your channel is better than the person seeking to boycott it. Does that self-respect exist amongst owners?

No, it doesn’t. It used to be said, the line by Humbert Woolfe, “You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God! the British journalist. But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to”. You remember that very well, and I think some of them clearly behave like that. We also have a homegrown saying by Lal Krishna Advani saying that –

He said, “They were asked to bend but chose to crawl”.

Yes, which I think was then the case and today is the same.

You’re saying something very important. You’re saying that this has also become a test for channel owners. How they respond will determine how dignified and how honest and upfront they are, but if they also buckle under, then they will be showing they have no self-respect. What was meant to be a challenge, is actually becoming a test that could show them up badly. 

Yes, I entirely agree with you. On another matter, Karan, if I may bring it in at this stage because I think it’s relevant. I learned from my friends I referred to earlier today when we met in my office, that the BJP in Tamil Nadu boycotts all Tamil channels without exception, although their supporters appear. Instead, they’re going to YouTube channels, some other political parties do that as well, and they support those YouTube platforms in different ways. I was surprised, I didn’t know that there was a general ban on their political leaders going to any channels, and these include Thanthi TV and Puthiya Thalaimurai, which are perfectly independent and professional channels, not channels run by other political parties or tilting in any particular way; there’s also a call for boycott that comes from that. So we have to understand the factors that may have influenced the alliance.

This is a very important point you’re making, Mr. Ram, because when the president of the BJP Mr. Nadda or the Information and Broadcasting Minister Mr. Thakur tell the Indian Express that in fact, the INDIA Alliance decision is a denial of freedom of expression and freedom of speech because this is not democracy, they are being hypocritical because they themselves are presently boycotting Tamil channels in Tamil Nadu; that’s no different to what the INDIA Alliance has proposed.

I know for a fact that in the last years of Prannoy Roy’s ownership of NDTV, the BJP wouldn’t appear there. If I can throw in my own personal example,  from 2017 I’ve been boycotted by the BJP, something that was confirmed to me by Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah, Prakash Javadekar, Ram Madhav and Sambit Patra. When the BJP now tries to adopt a higher moral posture, they are being hypocritical in their criticism of the INDIA Alliance.

Yes, I think this is a very important point. I listened to that interview where you clear chapter, on what happened to the people you went to and the answer you finally got in practice, Mr. Amit Shah promised to come back with you in 24 hours and and didn’t till date and so on. That I think it does expose them and any political party that follows. This is a clear decision, there’s no doubt about it.

So, we have reached a very interesting if paradoxical, or maybe the word ironic is better, position. The INDIA Alliance has not covered itself with roses, they don’t emerge out of this smelling innocent and good. But equally, the challenge that’s posed to channel owners is going to create a crisis, because they will lack the self-respect to do the right thing. Both sides, in a sense, will lose. That will be the outcome.

Yes, both sides have something to lose, and the question is which message will prevail.

Let me refer to that press release which you referred to earlier, which I said I would bring up later, issued by the News Broadcasters and Digital Association. They say that boycotting individual journalists amounts to “stifling freedom of speech and expression of the media”. Now do you agree, or do you think this is a bit exaggerated?

This is completely over the top, and it looks like they’re going out of their way to have that knife and the INDIA alliance, because they say it’s a dangerous precedent. I have a chair with the text. They refer to these people, there’s 14 I guess, as some of India’s top TV news personalities, seemingly in a laudatory way. The really over-the-top statement is, “The boycott of certain journalists/anchors takes the nation back to the Emergency when the press was gagged”. I mean, this is ridiculous, this statement; because I lived through the Emergency, there was total censorship.

Leaders of parties in the INDIA alliance in Mumbai on September 1.

There’s something else that’s very interesting. We were talking a moment ago about how this is a challenge for channel owners, how because they lack self-respect they will not stand up either for their channel or their anchors, and look as if they’ve buckled down. This press release is the first indication that is precisely what’s happening, because here the news broadcasters echo almost word for word what JP Nadda and Anurag Thakur said to the Indian Express. They’ve repeated it almost verbatim. It seems that rather than take an independent position which would enhance the News Broadcasters Association, they’ve sided completely with the government.

Yes, I fully agree with it. I am shocked to read this statement by a supposedly professional body and association, and deeply anguished and concerned by their decision. They have to answer the charge, that these people indulge in not just bias but communalism, and hate speech.

Mr. Ram, surely that is a charge they would not only deny but refuse to accept because these people continue as anchors, and these people are not just employed but well paid; and clearly, these anchors are fulfilling channel policy. Some channels deliberately have two sets of anchors, such as India Today: one section is of the Rahul Kanwals and Rajdeep Sardesais, who are secular, balanced and not sectarian; and then allegedly, I’m using the word allegedly deliberately, the Shiv Aroors and the Gaurav Sawants, who can appeal to the Hindutva brigade. That’s general policy – we have therefore a spectrum that attracts people from whatever.

Yes, that’s the thing, it makes sense from a commercial standpoint. I don’t know if it really works, I have no idea. But suddenly those are the calculations, it appears, having this not to foster pluralism, not to encourage diversity, but to take care of commercial viability at a time when even television is facing huge challenges, revenue challenges and so on, especially news television in particular.

Also read: As INDIA Bloc Defends TV Anchor Boycott List as ‘Non-Cooperation’, BJP Calls it ‘Emergency’ Mindset

Would it not have been wiser to adopt a strategy that would be more likely to, not guaranteed but more likely to, silence hate-mongering on TV completely? If the INDIA alliance had said, “Channels like A, B, C, D we will boycott completely”,  rather than choose the anchors you’ll boycott, then those channels would have had a very difficult time doing political programming, even worse when elections come. Therefore, you might have forced them to rethink, but if you pick the anchors then those anchors will continue to be communal, and you will be still going to other anchors, so the channel will still have you. In other words,  the channel hasn’t really lost, but INDIA Alliance hasn’t gained very much.

Yes, I get your point, and I’m almost persuaded that distinction is very important – between sanctions against the channel and against individuals, because your point being that the channels want that. It’s the channels that created these anchors, in effect. They picked them and they also have both sides and on the spectrum, as you said. It depends on that strategy, I agree with you on this.

Finally, I want to raise briefly before I end a deeper issue, but it is still connected to the INDIA Alliance boycott and controversy. You are a proprietor of one of the most important papers in the country, your family has been involved in running a paper and thinking about the interest of the institution for decades. 

It’s 1905 to be precise.

There you are, in fact over a century. That’s why I put this question to you – why do proprietors on television channels permit and even encourage hate-filled discussions? Is it because they themselves are full of hate, particularly for Muslims? Or is it secondly because they believe these discussions bring TRPs, advertising and therefore profit, so this is a commercial way of making money? Or is it possibly because these proprietors face enforcement directed and Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) cases, and this is a way of protecting themselves? 

Yes, I think the last is the most important factor in this. I don’t think a lot of them believe in hate against Muslims and so on, at least people I know. But most of them have fallen in line because they are afraid. They also want favours from the government; advertising and other favors for businesses, so they want to be on the right side as they see it as the safe side. But the real fear is – I mean, there was a case of a major Hindi language newspaper which did exceptional work in covering bits, COVID-19 deaths and then there was a raid, at least that’s what I read in the press, and then they fell in line if it’s true.

It’s not that they want to suppress the truth – many of them are professionals, they have a tradition of good journalism, but something has happened just as during the Emergency. They caved in completely, almost without exception. I don’t buy the story that so and so was heroic and so on – I was there. You must have been there, watching this. Very few put up any kind of resistance, other than the small underground publications. A similar thing is happening now, but the difference is, that I still have hope – there are spaces and the new technology and platforms are giving us opportunities for voices to be raised in defense of democratic rights, freedoms and things like this. It’s not easy to come to an answer, because on the one hand I’m against hate and communalism, but how do you figure out ways of dealing with it? That’s what we are talking about here.

But you know, there’s a very sad conclusion that’s suggested by what you said just now. The one quality one looks for in channel owners, in newspaper proprietors, is spine – the capacity to withstand political pressure; political pressure more than commercial pressure because that is the pressure that really hurts, and that is the one quality that seems to be missing for whatever reason. Whether they are personally vulnerable or whether they are liable to seek commercial solutions that bring easy money, the spine that is required to stand up is not there. These guys have become intimidated, they have become spineless and that’s the sad thing. 

They had it during the freedom struggle, I guess, and they had it I remember 40 years ago, we believe that India was in an enviable position when it came to press freedom; there was mainly the press at that point. In the late 70s, after the Emergency regime was overthrown in a peaceful way, there was a very good period for the press. But other than that, there have been plenty of instances when this spine has been lacking. I think this is one of the worst periods when there’s no Emergency, when there is diversity, there is pluralism out there and yet so many of them fall in line.

But I don’t want to end on a dismal note, because there are spaces and there are voices that give us hope, and discussions like this have to take place. There are newspapers, I’m not talking just about The Hindu, there are many like The Telegraph, Deccan Herald, Indian Express and so on. There are very good journalists out there, and you can’t get rid of a tradition, a proud tradition of independent journalism – journalism of integrity, some quality aggressive issues that matter, professionalising the whole pursuit. I think it’s still there, and some people fall into a sort of very dejected state about media freedom that it is all gone, I don’t buy that.

Let’s then hold on to that note of hope, even if it’s slender. I’ll end by reminding the audience about that wonderful line from Gone With the Wind as Scarlett O’Hara said to her departing husband Rhett Butler, “Tomorrow is another day,” and she ended by saying, “I’ll get him back”. Maybe we’ll get back the good journalism, the good days of stalwart newspaper and channel proprietors who can stand up to governments, as Catherine Graham did and basically tell them, “Sorry, no. The truth will prevail, because remember sir our country’s motto is satyamev jayate (truth will prevail)”. Jayate means it will continue and live – let’s hope that’s true. Thank you very much indeed.

Thank you.