Political alignment is in the media's DNA in West Bengal as much as it is in Tamil Nadu, and nobody is apologising for it in either state. But voluble and sometimes combative Bengali scribes help to make the media story in ‘Didi's' land a more colourful one to document.
When you are watching news on Bengal's channels on satellite television, the alignments on some of the more professional channels are sometimes clear, sometimes not. Star Ananda allows all views on its channel, but there are tell-tale indications of where its sympathies lie. Its prominent anchor Suman Dey was recently interviewing Mamata Banerjee on her helicopter after a not very well attended election rally. “Not too much of a crowd, but it was vibrant, wasn't it?” he offered helpfully.
Chobbish (24) Ghanta, clearly CPM-controlled, always gives generous space to the party leaders and the accusations they level against Ms. Banerjee, but can, on occasion, ask the Chief Minister tough questions.
But on Channel 10, which serves the Trinamool party well, the alignment is always clear. Mamata Bandopadhyay is how Bengal TV addresses Mamata Bannerjee. On channel 10 a programme title will simply say Didi, as in “Didir Sathey Alap” (Meet Didi) which you can watch on YouTube. Shades of Kalaignar TV and Jaya TV. And the channel will offer programmes like the one on which the state's leading artists discussed Ms. Bannerjee's talents as a painter, after she displayed her paintings at an art show.
Along with the newspaper Sangbad Pratidin, owned by Trinamul Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Sadhan (Tutu) Bose, Channel 10 (which has the same editorial leadership as Pratidin) is part of Didi's electoral armour as she seeks to unseat the Left in the West Bengal Assembly elections. The channel is now owned by the Sharada group. Kolkata TV is another pro-Trinamul TV channel, as is NE Bangla. The CPM is not lacking its own platforms. The party mouthpiece Ganashakti provides the editorial leadership for two channels in which the Zee Group has invested: Aakash Bangla and Chobbish Ghanta.
In a story titled ‘The Party, Live' the Indian Express some time back explained thus: “Aakash Bangla: News and entertainment TV channel, controlled directly by the CPI(M). CPI(M) state committee member Avik Dutta is managing director of the channel, launched on April 14, 2001, just before the Assembly elections… Chobbish Ghanta: A round-the-clock news channel with content from Akash Bangla and cash from Zee. Again, Avik Dutta heads the body that runs the channel. Launched in 2006 with exclusive telecast of state committee meeting that decided on a successor to Anil Biswas”. Avik Dutta is a former student leader of the CPM and is assistant editor at Ganashakti.
Looking at stories filed over the last two years for a media watch website is most illuminating. All of them are about what it means to be a journalist in West Bengal today. Some talk of how Left supporters terrorise district reporters, others of how Trinamool-aligned journalists browbeat fellow reporters! If Mamata Bannerjee does sweep triumphantly into Writers Building in the weeks to come, she will bring with her some delighted journos, eager to claim rewards for loyalty.
Because the pattern has been set during her two tenures as Railway Minister. In a story titled ‘Mamata's media carrots' Ajitha Menon, chief of ANI's Kolkata bureau describes how media people have been given contracts to run railway canteens, as well as party tickets. And how some journalists act as gatekeepers at Mamata's South Kolkata residence. “They decide which of their fraternity will have an audience with their leader, which ones will wait like stray dogs outside – and mind you, they do wait.”
The Trinamool leader, for her part, does not confine gifts and favours to loyalists. At Puja, each year, several journalists receive outfits — Fab India kurtas, saris, etc. — from Didi, who always seems to know who favours what kind of dress, and sometimes rings up to ask if she got preferences right.
On the other hand, she does not intervene when her supporters physically attack and prevent journalists from Chobbish Ganta or Akash Bangla from functioning. Last year she filed an attempt to murder complaint against a woman reporter from the 24 Ghanta channel. But she is not the only political leader in the state to demonstrate contempt for journalists.
Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has been known to twist the ear of a photo-journalist, and Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has been known to insult a senior journalist by calling him a rat. It is a charming state to function in, for a scribe. And it does not help that when one journalist is assaulted or insulted, others watch as spectators.
The Left Front government, on its part, has been known to detain journalists attempting to do their job in Jangal Mahal at times of siege. A senior police officer, briefing during an encounter, snapped at a senior scribe, asking which side of the war zone he was on! The Sahara Samay Chief of Bureau Saadia Azim described last year how both leading political parties make it difficult for journalists not seen as friendly to ask questions at a press conference. There is so much intimidation, that a follow up question requires considerable courage. Another journalist, Sankar Ray, described in 2009 how CPM cadres in the districts attack journalists, citing instances of attacks on reporters of Sangbad Pratidin, Aaj Kal, the Dainik Statesman and The Hindu.
It is not surprising then, that this is a state where the media chooses whom to cover, and the politician chooses whom to talk to. On April 18, during polling, a Kolkata TV reporter tried to get a sound byte from RSP politician Biswanath Choudhury, Minister for Prisons in the Left Front government. Which channel, asked the Minister. Kolkata TV, said the reporter. And prompt came the reply, “Tomar shongey to kothai bolbona”. (With you I will not speak at all). Wrong alignment, as far as he was concerned.