In Retrospect

Drama and Disgrace

Shamelessness is the new creed of the Indian media. Unprofessional and heartless, many parts of it are self-imploding. Take the coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput’s death over the last few months. It only exposes a flair for theatrics, as report upon report laden with lies and half-truths is churned out

My father was a journalist for 25 years, for all of his career. Around that time, each of the 324 other houses in our colony also had at least one journalist. These were India's then-toughest Editors and writers, literary luminaries who breathed fire in newsprint when anything smelt fishy or something went askew in Indian polity or society. Growing up in a journalists' colony was a rich experience for a foal like me, much as I learnt to trot and take great pride in the fact that we could neigh, or rant. As age and physical malaise caught up with these scribes, though, many passed on to the afterlife, as did my father. And with him and them, my colony changed too, with a majority of the next generation choosing alternate career options, most with the desire to make 'real money'.

Fast forward to the present. We now find ourselves facing a paradox. While many parts of the news world today pays what my friends chased, 'real money', there is no visible fire in the belly in most still pursuing journalism. Over the years, there's been a disgraceful fall in the quality and tenets of reportage. Few, if any, reporters write straight and accurate anymore, and fewer Editors still have the stomach and gumption to carry truthful reports, if they are written at all. Take the coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput's death over the last few months as the latest example of this. Shallow and full of lies, the inaccuracies and near-fiction astound and worry me, for they bespeak the impending death of our once-stellar Fourth Estate.

Grievous situation

This turn of events with the Indian media has not happened overnight, but is something that has been done carefully, with the industry being culled in a planned, deliberate and systematic manner. Over the last few years, as new TV channels were launched and competition became cut-throat, the electronic media was slowly but surely pulled into a race for TRPs (Television Rating Points). This race saw 'Breaking News', 'Exclusive' and 'First-to-Air' become the new and only mantras of the Indian television news world.

And in the process, the basic ethics of journalism were shrugged off, left to rot by the wayside. Facts and the authenticity of news reports was often not checked in this new, mad race to be first. And the latest, stark reminder of facts being twisted or just ignored altogether is the recent statement of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which is probing the high-profile case. The CBI bluntly pointed out that most of the media coverage was factually incorrect and misleading: "Certain media reports attributed to the CBI's investigation are speculative and not based on facts. As a matter of policy, the CBI does not share details of ongoing investigations with the media. No CBI spokesperson or any team member has shared any details of the investigation with the media. The details being reported and attributed to the CBI are not credible. It is requested that media may please confirm details from a CBI spokesperson before quoting (the investigative agency)."

Disregard of HC order

In the last few days of August, things came to such a hairy turn that eight former Indian Police Officers (IPS) moved the Bombay High Court, with a plea challenging the "unfair, malicious and false media campaign" against the Mumbai Police in the young actor's death case. The ongoing media trial should be stopped forthwith, the top cops urged the court. The plea was filed by former Maharashtra DGPs MN Singh, PS Pasricha, DK Sivanandan, Sanjiv Dayal, Satish Mathur and K Subramanyam, former Mumbai police commissioner DN Jadhav and former additional DGP KP Raghuvanshi.

After hearing the case, the Bombay HC took a stern view of the matter and directed the media to display a more professional approach to their reportage. "We urge and expect the media to exercise restraint in reporting the investigation with respect to the death, (reports) which should not hamper the (ongoing) investigation in any manner."

Despite the court's observation, sections of the television and print media continue to chug away, devoting large amounts of prime time to the case. We were all witness to cacophonic, heated and raucous debates involving 'expert panelists', many of whom are asked to 'shut up' on live TV the moment they began airing views or thoughts that did not conform to the script decided by the channel Editors and the anchor. Over the last three months alone, there have been hilarious (yet painful to watch) altercations on live TV, between panelists themselves and also between panelists and the moderating anchor. In one particularly delicious case, two panelists came to blows after a heated argument and one of them tore the other's shirt off, again on live TV. Mind you, one of these two panelists was a lady. Indeed, we have fallen to incredible depths.

Virtual hate campaigns

The Sushant Singh Rajput death case has also ripped Bollywood apart, exposing the various 'camps' that exist in tinsel town, supposedly making or breaking film careers at will, with vicious heartlessness and no celebration of actual talent. On this front too, sections of the media have been literally running a 24x7 hate campaign against some of the industry's biggest names and production houses. Some channels have been raucous about senior members of the city's police machinery as well, and that is what led to the matter reaching the halls of the Bombay HC.

The media has clearly been fed with information by various sources, including political parties, and slanderous stories about who is leaning which way, who triggered what scandal and who has killed or is about to massacre someone are commonplace. The CBI, in its statement, found this particularly concerning, highlighting the investigations are ongoing and that the agency itself is not clear yet on what really transpired in this case. But that doesn't seem to be deterring the Indian media in any manner whatsoever, for they believe they know all that there is to know, and continue to spend hours each day reporting the latest 'Breaking News'.

Shameless even after lying

Some stark examples of the media's irresponsible and unethical reporting on the Sushant Singh Rajput death case have been highlighted by some media houses which are still practicing clean journalism. In a recent report, India Legal pointed out a few instances. In a sensation-pumped report, the anchor screamed out shrill and loud about a phrase, "imma bounce". The late actor's ex-girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty had apparently ended an online chat with a friend with this particular sign-off. Immediately, this leading news channel pounced on the phrase in bold letters, with the tagline 'Exclusive. Explosive. Breaking News'.

The channel further claimed to have "irrefutable proof" of financial wrongdoings by Rhea, claiming she had been referring to a bounced cheque. The anchor then went on to pompously report: "Here's the reality. Look at this. This is 'imma bounce'. This reveals details of a bounced cheque that this channel has accessed and is in possession of." This report went viral on social media within minutes and the channel was trolled for its goof-up – in online chats, all 'imma bounce' means is that "I am leaving this chat".

Did this incident get the channel to issue an apology and be more careful from then on? No way – the same channel and the same anchor were on air the very next day, dishing out more exclusives and more exposes, many of which were later proven to be without any authenticity or factual accuracy.

Others went even further

A competitor TV channel, on this same day, was even more flippant as it displayed a flair for the dramatic, bordering on the macabre. It ran a program on live TV where a post-mortem was staged in the studio itself by 'experts' and reporters dressed in white lab coats, apparently in 'doctor mode'. And ooh la la, they had a male mannequin dressed as the late actor and one reporter all but strangled the mannequin, displaying exactly how the deed was carried out.

Not one to take this lying down, the first channel sprang into action and hit back with its own deluded theatrics. In the middle of a live show, the Senior Editor of the channel barged in to the studio and interrupted the show with more (yes, you guessed it) 'Breaking News'. Holding up a bag 'full of evidence', she claimed she had proof that Rhea Chakraborty supplied drugs to the late actor. And how did she know? Well, in another online chat in 2017, Rhea had apparently mentioned the word 'Green'. "Green also means weed (marijuana). This conversation proves she (Rhea) supplied drugs to Sushant," the learned anchor claimed, conviction and authority lacing her cantankerous scream of victory.

Even a bit of research, some digging and common sense would have seen her chase down the real meaning – Rhea had apparently been talking to a friend about a particular brand of hair oil prescribed by doctors. Shame.

Newspapers too joined in on the fun, now caught up in the maniacal frenzy. One leading newspaper went on to publish on its front page a morphed picture of Sushant Singh Rajput's body lying on a bed. This was despite the Cyber Police already having issued a stern warning that the publication of such pictures by any newspaper was in contravention of legal norms and the court's directions.

All to divert attention?

It really is a theatre of the absurd, a veritable circus. And many people across sections of Indian society feel that a lot of this is being done due to political intervention and malice, an attempt to divert attention from the real, burning issues. Just imagine – this frenzy comes amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which is getting worse by the day and daily infected numbers are nudging the 1-lakh mark. Through the merciless pandemic, India's harsh monsoons this year have seen many rivers break their banks and bridges collapse. On the sidelines, state governments are being made to topple like nine-pints.

On the economic front, the country is going through a crisis like never before, with Gross Domestic Product numbers falling by around 24 per cent. The Government continues to lag behind on GST payments to states and Corporate India is shedding jobs in the crores. A dangerous trend, because scores of educated Indians with once-secure jobs and big EMI liabilities suddenly find themselves with no salaries. A debt and bank Non-Performing Assets '(NPA) crisis is looming, with the Reserve Bank of India itself warning us a few weeks back that NPAs could increase by around 4.25 per cent to over 12.5 per cent, come March 31, 2021. If that happens, around Rs 20 lakh crore of banking assets will be wiped out in one go.

In this widespread chaos, India's media has not stood up. In fact, it now stands depleted, impotent, frivolous and devoid of reason or resolve. This is a cruel paradox, because today is when a clean and transparent media is needed the most in a nation that stands at the very brink of many crumbling precipices. And at this crucial time, the media is displaying a chutzpah that borders on the scary, and a lack of professionalism that's barely short of being self-destructive. We are damping out the real issues, not focusing on things that matter right now, and are highlighting only those issues that grab headlines and lead to greater TRPs. The only aspect that we have in abundance is doubt and public deficit.

Not the first instance

A scary part of this trend is that it is not a one-off instance of media madness and arrogance. It happened in the Aarushi murder case, where the parents Rajesh and Nupur Talwar were pilloried by the media and declared guilty; this left their reputation and careers tarnished beyond repair. Some months later, they were proven innocent in the courts, but their lives had been thrown asunder. It also happened in the so-called telecom '2G scam', in which a huge financial misappropriation figure of Rs 176,000 crore was thrown up and bandied about. This decimated a few telcos. And it later turned out to be no scam at all. It also happened in the case of India's purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France's Dassault Aviation. The Government and some Corporates eventually got a clean chit from the Supreme Court, but not before they were heckled and mauled by the media for months.

At the end of this piece, I will not toe the soppy, pallid line being used by many a scribe today – "Today, I am ashamed to be a journalist..." Me, I most certainly am not. At times like these, it becomes particularly critical for those not struck down by the malaise of 'Breaking News' and incorrect reporting to continue to bring out the facts as they really stand. Someone has to write the truth, and highlight the disgraceful fall of quality in the rest of the media. Expose the exposers. Few reporters are reporting straight today, and fewer Editors still have the stomach and gumption to carry such reports when they are written or filed in-camera. I am glad to remain a part of a rapidly-diminishing brigade, one that still carries the torch for truthful and responsible journalism.

The author is a communications consultant and clinical analyst.

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