She sat in the cockpit of the plane, with the transparent flight deck canopy above her half open, against the backdrop of a cloudy sky.
Only his face was visible from the front view of the cockpit, with the closed canopy of the jet giving it the look of a spacesuit helmet-like halo around it, two other fighter jets flanked on either side of the main jet in fly past mode.
Cut to: Three people dressed in medical scrubs stand around a dummy laid out on a stretcher. They are discussing something in what looks like an operating theater. Two of them have stethoscopes around their necks. Surgical lights shine on the model stretched out in front of them. At one point, one of the men, ties a rope around the dummy’s neck and demonstrates strangulation.
Think these are scenes from a B-grade war film or some pathetic attempts at making medical thrillers? Or perhaps even spoofs of Top Gun or CSI? Nope, think again. These are prime time ‘news’ segments from a few of India’s mainstream private broadcasters.
While the country battles with increasing Covid-19 cases, sparse medical staff and supplies, floods in two major states of India which have impacted over three million people, doomed businesses, rising unemployment and an imminent threat of Chinese infiltration and occupation of parts of the country–India’s mainstream broadcast media chose to focus on a live, minute-by-minute commentary of five French fighter jets arriving in the country, and conspiracy theories surrounding the tragic death of a young Bollywood actor.
Venerating the “Golden” Jets
India signed a hugely controversial inter-governmental agreement with France in September 2016 for the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets. The first tranche of these jets, five in total, arrived in India on 29 July 2020. A few days ahead of the fighter crafts’ flight into the country, prime-time slots of the country’s mainstream broadcasters (like Zee News, Times Now and ABP News) were devoted to the Rafale jets. A few, like Aaj Tak and News Nation, even created models of the aforementioned models of the jets with anchors aboard, against poorly executed cromas of blue skies, and gushed about the aircraft’s’ capabilities. Upon arrival of the jets, all hell broke loose on the majority of the channels, each engaged in running commentaries covering the jet’s departure from France right through to their landing in India.
From calling them “Golden Arrows” (Republic TV) to Bahubali (strongarmed, ABP News) and The Golden Birds (CNN TV 18), the news stations welcomed them as ‘saviours’ for the country against nearly all evil. Zee News ran the tagline: Rafale ki jai, Dushmanon mein bhay (Hail Rafale, (arousing) fear in the enemy). The adulatory coverage went on to describe the capabilities of the jets — anchors casting them in cosmic and even mythical terms, India TV saying Aa raha hai Ram, that they were akin to the Hindu God Ram.
So jingoistic was the coverage that even the international media was a little bewildered. According to The Eurasian Times, “The arrival of the fighter jet has received more coverage than the deadly floods plaguing the north-eastern half of the country or rising coronavirus cases. Today, the entire day was spent discussing the Rafales, sharing its pictures or comparing it with the fighter planes of Pakistan.”
Trial by Media
In other coverage, that same week, TV channels took to rather insensitively scrutinizing and analyzing the sudden death of Sushant Singh Rajput, an upcoming Bollywood actor. Rajput, aged 34, was found dead, his body hanging from the ceiling fan at his home in Mumbai on 14 June 2020.
A virtual media circus followed his death, with reporters accosting his grieving relatives in the privacy of their homes, and discussions of conspiracy theories about murder, and blame being cast on some so-called A-list actors and directors for fostering a culture of nepotism in Bollywood and effectively driving Rajput to suicide. All guidelines issued by the WHO to avoid sensationalizing news of suicide were ignored amidst the graceless coverage.
Arnab Goswami, editor-in-chief of Republic TV, known for his extremely biased and sensationalist reporting and very loud and aggressive approach anchoring spent a good part of his prime time bulletin on the possibility of homicide and coming close to accusing some big names in Bollywood of murder. He later went on to suggest that the police of Mumbai, the capital of Maharashtra state where the ruling party is a rival of the central government, should be made a suspect in the case. (There is wide speculation that he is picking a bone with the Mumbai Police who questioned him for purported communal coverage of a lynching case).
In extremely misogynistic and biased coverage, Aaj Tak, India Today’s Hindi news channel made the allegations of Sushant Singh’s family against his girlfriend, the tagline of their feature drawing attention to how Rajput’s girlfriend might have practiced “black magic” on him. A well-known female anchor Anjana Om Kashyap went on to question what sort of “jaal” (web) the actor’s girlfriend spun that “did not let him breathe.”
Less than a week after Arnab decided to milk pure soul Sushant Rajput’s death, other channels which make promos calling themselves different from him have started doing the same. Because editors know that pain of Sushant’s fans can be utilised for TRP. They are all C-grade Arnabs— Saahil Murli Menghani (@saahilmenghani) July 31, 2020
CNN News 18 chose to pronounce a verdict of sorts on the girlfriend with the borrowed film title Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (betrayal). ABP News went a step further by calling in medical experts and showcasing a mock strangulation in an operation theater-like setting.
Just when you think Indian mainstream media can’t stoop any lower…. pic.twitter.com/2oe5fUPyDf— Dr Prerna Bakshi (@bprerna) August 2, 2020
From sensationalism to sycophancy
The question is what drives such sensationalism and hyperbole? Is it guided by what American sociologist Robert McChesney calls “hyper commercialisation” (Rich Media, Poor Democracy), which inevitably leads to what is called “dumbing down”. According to The Guardian: “To succeed, the media industry tries to appeal to the lower instincts of people” — “sensationalism and simplification.”
From watchdog to lapdog
While this may be partly true, in India, it needs to be seen in the context of its current polity. The fact is that Indian TV news has been sensationalizing unimportant issues in inane breaking news segments and scandalous headlines for some time. The channels have been inundated with long debates on Bollywood, even soaps and cricketing techniques of politicians and even horse trading between political parties for a long time. The common Indian and his/her issues have been ignored from prime time news for a long time. All of this has long been commented upon. The excuse always has been the pressures of running 24-hour news channels in aggressively competitive environments. Bowing to populism has thus been justified. Who defines this ‘populism’ is of course up for question. Yet, while farmer suicides, famines, droughts, train accidents, gender and caste-based atrocities and even pandemics were seen as ‘depressing stories’ for middle class dinner times, they did get covered at some point during the day until a few years ago. They could be ‘in more news’ or ‘around the country’ segments of newspapers or 10-second segments of ‘top 50 stories in 2 minutes’ segments for TV channels. The decline towards populism and ‘infotainment’ was slow and steady.
However, what has fundamentally changed in the last 5 years is that the fight today between channels, somehow, does not seem to be a fight for TRPs, it looks like a sibling competition to find favor with the establishment. From a time when tension between the political establishment and the media was considered a healthy sign of a democracy; India seems to have come to a stage where a large section of the broadcast and print media have become mouthpieces for the ruling party. Censorship, especially in broadcast media, is not new for this country. However, what is new is that the flavor of stories has changed from guardedly critical to eulogistic for the regime since 2014 and even more so since 2019.
The minuscule section of dissenting media has now been pushed into the digital platform and is aggressively attacked by the mainstream anchors at slightest sign of anything that may put a shadow of a doubt over any action or inaction by the regime. Gone are the days when journalists stood up for each other irrespective of personal rivalries and even ideological or political leanings. This is the time when one’s erstwhile colleagues, who dare question the government, are to be ridiculed, their stories poked fun at and even their integrity questioned. The trolls are no longer fringe, the trolls today are TV news anchors and they epitomize the, perhaps, irreversible fall of the fourth estate.