The TRP trap: Media seems to have hit the self-destruct button

This is a column sparked by the ugly street brawl that has broken out among TV news channels — or more precisely, between Arnab Goswami and his Republic, on the one hand, and many of the rest, on the other.

At one level, it’s such a delightful irony that so many channels, or their “maharathi” (stalwart) anchors. with egos larger than their humongous followings, would make common cause over any issue. We know that Arnab Goswami divides. But now we know he can also unite the bitterest adversaries if he is the common threat.

At the outset, I am not going to tell you who I think is lying or telling the truth. That’s a waste in these polarised times when once you believe in a person or a leader, you believe everything he says. And anything the other side says must be false.

From Donald Trump to Narendra Modi, from Arnab Goswami to Ravish Kumar in our limited connect, that phenomenon rules. And there’s another reason: As school children would say, what goes of my pop (mere baap ka kya jaata hai)? Let these self-styled masters of the universe fight it out. Unfortunately, we can’t be so indifferent.

To explain why we can’t be so indifferent, I will tell you a story — an apocryphal one from the era of the mega historical war movies in Hollywood. It seems a producer assembled the largest ever cast of extras for his war scenes so he’d be hailed as the showman who brought the most realistic war sequences ever.

This is spectacular, his financier told him, but I am not about to pay for all these. How will you pay? Not a problem, said the producer. In the last scene I will give them real weapons so they all kill each other. It will be so realistic, and there will be none left alive to pay.

Do you see similarities between this and the situation in our news media today? We’re all —  the most powerful, popular, the best and worst of us — now caught in this mad battle scene with real weapons. Abusing, cursing and name-calling each other.

This has gone on for some time since we learnt tricks like, the best way to counter a rival who had scooped a story before you was to start dissing that story right away as fake, motivated, exaggerated, etc. Or, you simply stole it and used the “exclusive” tag. The idea of following up on somebody’s break is now so 20th century, for the losers.

We are not talking of just the television channels. This virus is as contagious as Covid-19 and the problem is nobody is wearing masks or sanitising either. TV just happens to be the more visible player. It was a matter of time before the hostility of the studios, newsrooms, fake and exaggerated claims of ratings, exclusives, super exclusives and the latest, “explosive exclusives”, would spill over to the ground.

The entire country has seen, therefore, over the past couple of weeks, reporters and cameramen of rival channels caught in fisticuffs. Studio anchors have run dangerous campaigns against individual reporters of rival channels, never mind if they are women, in a manner that would get a mob interested in a remote heartland village where the story is playing out.

Why are you bothered then, you might ask? In any case, since you told us that story of the producer who gave real weapons to the thousands fighting his most realistic war, let them all kill each other. You can, meanwhile, watch the show from a peepul tree and suck on sugarcane (as we say in the heartland), or munch popcorn. Good question, and here is the answer.

First, from the parochial view of the small demographic of us in the media, it isn’t as if a few hired people are fighting so the rest of us can enjoy as spectators. The news media is an institution, not a show to end in a couple of hours. Second, if you see the state of all media institutions, from the various rival broadcasters’ associations to other societies, “clubs” and even housing cooperatives run by journalists, you’ll find us at each other’s throats. This war is a mass scale fratricide. We are all the same expendable extras.

Third, think about who gave us the weapons. The producers of this bloody movie are the owners and they aren’t just driven by market economics. The few who might be are, in fact, among the more honourable. But the media’s power is monetisable in many other ways.

That is why so many with deep pockets and much larger interests in other sectors buy media companies. They come at a tiny price, give you a great profile, you can receive and see off the prime minister or the chief minister at your annual event, preen on the sofa next to him. Those that matter for your other businesses, ministers, civil servants, even judges are taking note.

You get that immediate rub-off. Of intangible value but sizeably more than the economics of your media company. Later, a change of land use for a shopping mall, a residential colony for example? Contract for building a dam? A couple of mining licences? All these are real examples.

The other set of owners and senior journalists see themselves as “players” in politics and the game of power. They have to choose a side quickly and almost always the winning side. When you see one television channel under pressure from the police and rival media for allegedly faking its ratings and within hours statements appear in its support from the president of the nation’s dominant, ruling party and the Union information and broadcasting minister, you know what is at stake.

Illustration: Binay Sinha
The temptation to be a part of the establishment today is stronger in our media than our dated old notions of questioning it. And, let’s not judge ourselves too harshly. Questioning the establishment no longer has the consequences we were trained to deal with. A phone call from an unhappy minister, a few taunts, even the denial of the odd interview. It now begins with a complete denial of journalistic access, and may end up in visits by the “agencies”. And the powers that be also know that if they go after the odd “black sheep” that is stupid enough to stray from the admiring herd, the rest will cheer along.

If the owners, whether motivated by financial gain or power, are the ones who gave out the real arms to those enacting this scene -- this includes owner-editors too — the government is what all governments are: The tax collector. And therefore, the guaranteed beneficiary.

The more the news media weakens, especially at this juncture of economic ruin with lay-offs and wage cuts, the more the owners and journalists weigh their value in terms who they are close to, the more they depend on the state to bail them out of trouble, slow-fry their rival, the faster it pushes us towards institutional destruction.

We then have this unfortunate situation where everybody, from the Supreme Court to the Central government, wants to “regulate” the media. People, aam janata, by and large, are tired and sniggering at us. Of course, the Centre would prefer to deal with the pesky, new digital media first. In the Supreme Court, we have talk of setting up eminent members’ committees to regulate the media because self-regulation isn’t working. How can it, when the media is a raging war within itself?

It’s an ideal situation for an establishment to step in. Why should India’s most powerful government in almost four decades miss such an opportunity? They will move in professing the best of intentions, for “riot control”, to restore order. What can we do, they’d say, when all regulation is shot, your own professional institutions are divided or compromised and you are all caught in this bloodletting. They are also reading the playbook of the Maharashtra government and Mumbai Police.

Our profession has hit the self-destruct button. There are no elder voices to listen to. No Pranab Mukherjee, Bhishma Pitamah, no judge or referee, nobody to blow the whistle. That is what “goes of our pops” in this brutal melee.

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