Backstory: 'Masterstroke' Is the Master Key to Understanding Media Capture in India Today

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Every once in a while, a door flies open to afford the outside world a view of the intricate machinery of government-media dealings which are normally wrapped in opaqueness.  The resignation of Punjya Prasun Bajpai, anchor of a popular prime time television show – Masterstroke – on a major channel – ABP News – was one such door-opener. It helps us find answers to an intriguing media riddle: why has journalistic professionalism all but disappeared from India’s television news space?

Despite the proliferation of media platforms in the country, television continues to be the most important in terms of reach and influence. Given the nature of its operations, the competition that marks the sector, the costs involved in keeping channels afloat, the anxieties of remaining relevant, television is also the most amenable to state and corporate capture. I once had occasion, at a media workshop, to listen to the CEO of ABP News Network talk about the financial pressures news television in general is facing and the rise of internet media as a challenger. As he put it, “All we can see is that our TV revenues are likely to shrink and we don’t know where fresh sources of money are going to come from.”

Such anxieties are precisely what a government as astute in media management as the Modi dispensation would want to capitalise on, especially in election season. We are fortunate for the clarity and detail with which Bajpai himself told his story. (‘Exclusive: Punya Prasun Bajpai Reveals the Story Behind His Exit From ABP News’, August 6).

The government’s strategy, going by the Bajpai instance, can be summarised in two words on the keyboard: Control and Delete.

The 200 member-strong edifice to exercise such control is so meticulously conceived that it could beat ISRO’s preparations for a satellite launch: while 150 members monitor TV channels; 25 members suggest the shape in which the government would like the news to be presented; and 25 others review the final content. Three officials of deputy secretary rank then prepare the report based on this data that reaches the PMO through the I&B ministry, which in turn sends out their directives to various news channels. What’s striking about this exercise is that even though ABP occupies only the sixth place among the dozen odd national news channels in Hindi, it still warranted the closest attention of the control team.

In the Bajpai instance, the attempt to shape the content of Masterstroke came in the form of instructions from the proprietors of ABP News to him to stop naming Modi in the programme, presumably because it pulled no punches. Later, instructions came in that even his images were not to used. The channel’s owners knew that Masterstroke was well put together and was proving to be a hit among their viewers. They would also have known that airbrushing the prime minister from the frame would deeply undermine its credibility. Yet they were actually prepared to sacrifice editorial quality and viewer popularity of their own programme in order to appease those they perceived as their political masters.

Failure to be controlled invited retribution in various forms, including the withdrawal of advertising (‘Ouster of ABP News Editors Preceded by Ramdev Withdrawing Ad Campaign from Channel’, August 10); refusal of party spokespersons to appear on programmes; and the targeting of ABP’s annual public event – a disciplinary measure that has been successfully used by this government to bring even bigger media houses, like Bennett Coleman, in line.

Bajpai’s professional competence and capacity for independence demanded the deployment of the ultimate measure, the use of the delete button. So the programme itself was disrupted with the satellite link started to mysteriously “misbehave” just when it was on air which was, as Bajpai points out, as good as a surgical strike on the channel’s TRPs. It was only when Bajpai himself was deleted from the rolls of ABP News that the signals immediately stabilised.

Those clumsy Emergency era censors would have fallen off their chairs applauding the finesse with which all this was done. Meanwhile, I consider it as something of a master stroke to have Bajpai’s story make it to The Wire in both Hindi and English. The wide circulation the piece enjoyed, the enthusiastic response it provoked (the piece in English has notched up almost 24,000 interactions at the time of writing; also see Dhruv Rathee’s video below) seems to point to a change of public mood and a new receptivity to the questioning this government.

It also signals that the time has come to use our multilingual intellectual and media resources in building a counter-narrative to the government-driven one – something that can only be achieved through bridges provided by good translations. By translating the Hindi interview with Pooja Shukla, who was roughed up by the police for protests against UP Chief Minister Adityanath, many more readers got to know how articulate young women are being punished in that state. From being  constantly trolled to having people on the streets give rape threats, and ABVP goons ensuring that she couldn’t attend classes, Pooja has faced it all. She was also refused admission into the MA course in Women’s Studies at Lucknow University only because she had shown a black flag to the chief minister (‘Interview | Why Is Adityanath Afraid of This 23-Year-Old Student?‘, August 10).

Sing to celebrate Independence

Last year, The Wire had marked the 70th year of Independence with a remarkable series of articles and videos commemorating a historical development that has stamped the consciousness of three countries of South Asia and their respective multitudes.

The mood in India this Independence Day eve is sombre, with a distinct sense of a gathering storm as important elections loom on the horizon. It makes you look anew at the Indian state. Has it become a new space where the expression of freedom is based upon the practice of instilling fear in others, where the “janta has reincarnated itself as trolls and crowd, with an army of news anchors to lace them with ‘facts’ and arguments”, where “memes and messages are the new texts of history and sociology” (‘The Man and the Mob’, August 8)? A place where internationally reputed historians are not allowed to speak (‘Historian Audrey Truschke’s Lecture Cancelled After Right-Wing Pressure’, August 9) and even comic routines have become verboten as the Kunal Kamra episode demonstrated (‘Bleak Times for Freedom of Expression, Whether Emergency or Not’, August 7). A place where important tools to further citizenship rights like the Right to Information Act are being undermined and an “invisible hand” seems to be protecting economic offenders (‘Attempts Being Made to Dilute Anti-Corruption Laws, A.P. Shah Writes to Modi’, July 31); where the prime minister sees himself as a Mahatma Gandhi while maintaining a “complete lack of transparency in the single largest domestic offset manufacturing opportunity under ‘Make in India’ created by the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets” (‘While Interacting With Businessmen, Narendra Modi Used His Most Audacious Spin Yet’, July 30) and where PhD students are blocked from submitting their thesis because of their politics (‘We Want to Submit Only Our Theses, Not Our Voices‘, July 30).

Perhaps we should sings songs in the dark times (‘Kodaikanal Still Won’t’ and the Role of the Privileged in Activism’, July 28). Perhaps we should sing songs while making sure that there are two versions of them – with one that can get past the censors (‘Makers of ‘Fanney Khan’ Release Two Songs on ‘Achhe Din’ to Avoid ‘Political Colour’, July 28).


In my previous column, I had carried the response of Anand Grover to the piece, ‘Experts Oppose Proposed Anti-Trafficking Bill, Ask for It to Be Sent to Standing Committee’ (July 19), which he had argued was seriously biased in terms of sources cited. The writer of the piece has now written back: “I quoted the sex worker, the labour rights person and Grover himself. Whose views does he think the report didn’t cover? I saw a bunch of other reports quoting the same people I did. Does his objection arise from the fact that I had foregrounded the sex workers’ voice? Also the press conference to which he (Grover) refers was not the only source for my story. I quoted from and linked a critique by the coalition for an inclusive trafficking bill. So I don’t understand why Grover is only emphasising the press conference.”

Audrey Murphy, who introduces herself as a regular reader of The Wire, was drawn to the article, ‘India’s Endangered Languages Need to Be Digitally Documented’ (June 8), on how India’s endangered languages need to be digitally documented. It prompted her to do a little more research on the subject.  In the process, she says, she came across a “very good page which is very well organised with everything you might be interested in knowing about world languages” which she would like to share with readers of The Wire who are into the subject.

Roshen Roy, presently working as an engineer in a leading media company, finds articles on this portal “trustful and independent”. Since he and his friends believe in independent journalism, they would like The Wire to build mobile applications to take its content to a wider audience and have volunteered to develop these, pro bono. True journalism, not profits, is what they are looking for. Thanks for your generosity, Roshen!

Vidyadhar Gadgil, a careful reader, is unhappy with the strap line given to the article, ‘Why Reliance’s Financial Power Alone Won’t Suffice to Raise and Rank Jio’ (July 27). The strap line reads: “Current government regulations are inimical to initiatives like the Jio Institute, and the government has done the right thing by selecting it as a to-be eminent institution. But that’s just the start.” This, argues Gadgil, is not the message of the article, but a paraphrase of the views of Maheshwar Peri, the founder and chairman of Careers 360, and is a misrepresentation of the views expressed in the article.


Mea culpa

As the ombudsperson/public editor, one has to critique the media and pick up errors in content, but rarely does one’s eye fall on one’s own work. Sometimes I read what I have written and what appears in cold print under my name and wince at inapt constructions, grammatical errors, malapropisms and what have you. My fingers on the keyboard seem to get ahead of my thoughts and little care is paid to re-reading the sentence that has just formed itself on the page. One extremely generous reader, while complimenting me on my last column, also pointed out the magical way in which the word “arraigned” appeared where the word “arrayed” should have been and several other omissions and commissions. Many thanks to her, who shall remain unnamed and many apologies to readers!

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in