Sevanti Ninan

Media Matters - Partisan stances

Aligned media in India are growing in number, and are increasingly identifiable by party or personality allegiance rather than by ideological affinity. There is no liberal and conservative divide here. Except for newspapers and TV channels identified with the Left formations in West Bengal and Kerala, politically aligned media in states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and West Bengal are difficult to identify on the basis of ideological bias. They are spawned by political families and promote specific parties. Or they are owned by business groups with political allegiance. And when the owner falls out with his party, they promote the owner! The latest round of elections, including the by-election in Kadapa in Andhra Pradesh, has helped to delineate the emerging contours of aligned media in this country.

Jaya TV and Kalaignar TV in Tamil Nadu are primarily political vehicles and make no bones about it. They sport the party symbol as their logo. Joining them is Channel 10 from West Bengal, which seems to have emerged primarily to be a vehicle for Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Party. Sakshi in Andhra Pradesh was founded by the late Y.S.R. Reddy's family to gift his party with a large media house equipped to counter the Telugu Desam Party's media loyalists. While YSR was alive nobody could have foreseen that the newspaper and news channel would end up increasingly becoming a family weapon, deployable against the Congress party too when required.

We may never know for sure how much of a role Sakshi newspaper and TV played in securing Jagan Reddy's five lakh margin, but it cannot have hurt to have captive media with the sort of circulation Sakshi had attained very quickly.

StudioN in Andhra Pradesh, the TV channel acquired by Chandrababu Naidu's son, helps to serve the media needs of the TDP. Last November, however, it was happy to lend its platform to Congressmen faithful to the High Command who used it to criticise both Jagan Reddy and Sakshi.

Then there are media vehicles owned by political families which are conducted like professional news businesses, even if they promote the party cause when required. Sakshi the newspaper in fact belonged to this category in its initial years. A current example is News Live in Assam, owned by the wife of Himanta Biswa Sarma, a Congress leader. And though Sun TV may have been seen in its early days as a DMK vehicle, housed in the party headquarters, it has left that stage far behind and is a flourishing, professional media business, quite happy to annoy DMK politicians with its news reporting when necessary. It is Kalaignar TV which has taken over the role of being a house channel for the DMK and was seen as a clear beneficiary of political clout, even before it began to figure in the 2G spectrum scam.

The giveaway

How does one separate those that are primarily political vehicles from those which value their role as professional news media? By watching the news component of the channels. Jaya TV and Kalaignar were not dissimilar in the run up to polling day. The entire news bulletin would be focused on each party's campaign and leader. On Jaya TV Jayalalitha was the face of the campaign, occupying the TV screen for at least 20 minutes of the 30-minute bulletin, on Kalaigar you got a greater array of family members, the Kalaignar himself giving an interview or a speech, M.K. Stalin claiming a wave in favour of DMK, M.K. Alagiri saying Jayalaitha was afraid of being beaten by Vijayakanth, and so on. On her channel, Jayalaitha returned the attacks: “Corruption on this scale not seen anywhere in the world,” she said. The rest of the day these channels show entertainment. While much has been made of how quickly Kalaignar TV switched to movies on the day results came in, Jaya TV too was showing an old Jayalalitha and MGR movie after she finished her press conference on the day of her victory.

Channel 10 in Kolkata has a totally unhurried one-and-a-half hour evening news slot which before the polls resonated each day with the word Poriborton. The only visuals were those of the Trinamool leader. In the week before polling it was fascinating to watch Kunal Ghosh, the CEO of the Sharda media group which owns the channel, steer the discussion. A long defence of Mamta Banerjee using helicopters, an equally long defence on how the group's newspaper, Pratidin and Channel 10 got land for their premises. The rest of the time actors (Mithun Chakraborty) painters, poets, and others discussed what needed to be done in Bengal. On the Poila Baishakh edition of this news slot, people sang, painted, recited poetry. Nothing dry about Mamata Banerjee's propaganda vehicle, which also has a daily Bollywood bulletin called Enter-10. All propaganda vehicles seem to know the value of offering entertainment.

In contrast, Chobbish Ghanta, the vehicle for the Left, looks and sounds much more like a news channel. On the final voting day the anchor went to reporters in different parts of the state, asking restrained, rather than leading questions. And every reporter stolidly said that it was proving very difficult to read the voter's mind! The same day of course Star Ananda reporters were having no difficulty reading the voters' mind. While the investment in Chobbish Ghanta is from Zee, its editorial operation is headed by an assistant editor at the CPM newspaper Ganashakti.

Kerala too has its share of aligned media, the CPM-owned newspaper Deshabhimani, and the Kairali TV bouquet, owned by Malayalam Communications Ltd., begun many years ago with shareholding from CPM supporters, and mentored in its early years by CPM leaders like M.A. Baby.

Then there is Doordarshan which does its own bit of party pushing when it can. Track their bulletins in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu and you can see a discernable bias in terms of space given to the ally of the Congress party in that state.

Sun News and News Live are in the Chobbish Ghanta category, in terms of being much more professional sounding news channels. But if you wanted critical views on the Congress performance in Assam, you were more likely to get it on another Assamese channel, DY 365. Every politically aligned professional channel has learned how and when to criticise its own party. And when to concede that the Opposition is gaining ground.

Flush with the party's victory, News Live's editor-in-chief, Atanu Bhuyan, used his channel to assert that it was not a Congress channel, and declared that following the decimation of the Opposition in the state, the channel would henceforth play the role of an Opposition.

Following the elections, we are not much wiser about how much media vehicles contribute to a party's success. Certainly Kalaignar TV did not help its owners. And we have Khushboo's assertion, quoted on Headlines Today, that giving TV sets to people may have proved counter productive in Tamil Nadu because those sets helped a larger number of people watch the spectrum scam unfold.

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2021 6:03:24 PM |

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