In my early days as an expert invited to be a television commentator, I received valuable advice from Kashish Gupta, the anchor of NDTV‘s “The Social Network”. She suggested a straightforward approach: condense my points into three concise statements, each lasting no more than sixty seconds. This structure provided clarity, enabling me to prioritise information for the broader audience’s comprehension and persuasion.
Television panels, I soon realised, are largely shaped by the anchor and the show’s format. While I, like many, was there to fill in the sentences, the anchor played a critical role in determining the topic, debate title and framing. In later years, even aspects like time allocation and audio levels became tools of manipulation, affecting the narrative’s direction.
Journalists inherently carry an opinion, a natural outcome of their chosen profession’s constant engagement with political matters. While some decry this “bias”, it contributes to media diversity.
However, it should be tempered by a commitment to reasoned, scientific inquiry to uncover the truth. In an ideal scenario, panel debates would feature clear, opposing positions, with the anchor moderating rationally. Yet, this often seems like a fantasy, and media entities in India historically served power and profit.
Press censorship in India has been a stark reality. However, should we abandon our pursuit of an ideal and engage in a race to the bottom? What, then, is the role of a panellist or expert? And, why is today different than it was before?
My perspective on this issue has been shaped by my work in the technology, society and rights sector, where digital rights have become an issue of public curiosity since 2012.
I’ve had the chance to participate primarily in English and some Hindi debates as a legal expert. While it boosted my public recognition, what I cherished most was the opportunity to explain technical nuances around topics like web censorship or mass surveillance to a broader audience.
However, I’ve observed a concerning trend. In 2021, various analyses, including those by Newslaundry, highlighted a not only decline in journalistic standards, but open and virulent bigotry against Muslims in India. Faced with this reality, I made a conscious decision to stop appearing on specific television channels, starting with Times Now.
I never saw Republic TV as a platform for truth or journalism, so I didn’t feel compelled to make a similar announcement regarding them. But for those who still do, I would like to furnish two studies.
First, as per a quantitative study by Ashish Sharma and Sandeep Kumar,
“Although, Republic TV‘s debates haven’t covered any pressing issues that affect society, such as the economy, education, employment, or health conditions. Instead, they primarily focus on the core issue of politics which mostly attacks the opposition and any group or individuals opposing the ideology of the ruling government.”
Also, Ashwini Ramesh has crunched the numbers and her comparative assessment holds that,
“Republic TV involves in media framing the most as compared to India Today or NDTV 24×7 news channels. Conflict and anti-journalistic objectivity frames are the most popular frames for prime-time television debates.”
It’s not as if these choices have been easy or certain. Even before 2021, I found myself in a similar situation concerning Times Now. It was during Faye D’Souza’s tenure at Mirror Now when I decided to halt my appearances there due to no fault of theirs.
This was a period when Times Now targeted civil society activists and human rights defenders, labelling them as “anti-national” for their dissenting views. Selective facts from their public and personal lives were unveiled, accompanied by doctored videos and unfair characterisations, creating public turmoil and eroding trust.
Tragically, these broadcasts resulted in real-world harm, including criminal prosecutions, loss of livelihoods and the destruction of homes for many individuals. I grappled with internal moral considerations, as the progressive broadcast by Mirror Now was under the umbrella of the Times Group, which also operated Times Now. While I can’t recall the exact decision-making process, I opted to increase my contributions to national newspapers by shifting time from TV debates.
Despite concerns about certain newspapers advancing a majoritarian agenda, there was a marked difference between them and late-night primetime shows. Concerns, if any, were more subtle and mostly on themes of neoliberalism and market-based interventions. Here, I continue to benefit from these platforms for professional growth through increased visibility and the opportunity to publish commentary on a wide range of public issues.
For this, I do not have to be in complete political and moral agreement, but refuse to be an accessory to a media entity directing threats and hate speech. Through these instances, I maintained a clear boundary – I steadfastly refused to participate in debates hosted by Times Now.
Recently, on X (formerly Twitter), I reiterated my stance with an addition. I believe that not only should more experts and panellists be deliberate in their choice of anchors and television platforms, but also make it public.
Transparency serves their own ethical obligations but also fosters greater accountability towards themselves and broadcasters. This is not mere “virtue signalling”; for many, it will entail a cost, as it means forgoing airtime and opportunities that could lead to personal advancement.
While such public declarations may not be flawless, they aim to reduce inconsistencies and build solidarity. Inevitably, private individuals may make exceptions to their non-participation stance to support junior journalists or address issues of strategic or emotional importance.
However, public statements can serve as a check against undue compromise. I acknowledge that I am not the first to make this call, but I believe that more voices taking this step and repeatedly stating it in public is a meaningful contribution towards the restoration of constitutional sanity.
In a media landscape under constant attack by primetime anchors, such actions even when minor gain importance. Broken news will only be fixed by collective action.
Apar Gupta is an advocate and the Founder Director of the Internet Freedom Foundation, Delhi.