There are a few exceptions. But largely Indian news television and its anchors have brought this country international shame. It is now the stuff of memes and jokes not just by Indian stand-up comics and scriptwriters, but also by journalists in other parts of the world.
How did we get here? Television reaches over 836 million Indians against the internet (660 million) or newspapers (400 million). Of the 836 million, news channels reach over 260 million people, says Broadcast Audience Council Research data. Add the 50-100 million unique visitors, most large news broadcasters get online. From about 10 news channels in 2000, India has over 400 of them; the highest in the world. To this oversupply, add the demands of 24-hour news cycles, lack of training, utter dependence on ad revenues (and therefore ratings) and dodgy ownership. The result is the Indian news broadcasting market.
Much like fake news sites that rely on clickbait headlines such as “Hilary Clinton is a murderer”, Indian news channels and their star anchors rely on the most fantastic, far-fetched version of events to get audiences in and keep them there. In the failure of their journalism lies the success of fact-checkers such as Alt News, SM Hoax Slayer and Boom. They do what journalists should — check the provenance of a picture, video, report or fact. The pusillanimity of India’s news anchors is matched by their disdain for the basics of human decency. Their partisan, polarising coverage of the Delhi riots prompted one cartoonist to portray them as vultures feeding off the carcasses of the dead.
This vulgarity has no financial rewards. News television remains a small Rs 3,000-4,000 crore part of a Rs 74,000 crore television industry with just a couple of players making money. But the social impact is huge. It is, along with other things, destroying India’s reputation as a diverse, liberal democracy; a country whose people are welcomed as intellectuals and CEOs.
And this has happened under the same set of owners who created some of the best media brands in India in the last 50 years.
That brings us to this column’s oft-repeated suggestions to tackle this.
One, tweak ownership norms. These are key to how owners behave if it is a choice between quality journalism and other pressures. Globally some of the best news brands are owned by companies with a trust in charge — The Economist, The New York Times, Financial Times.
Two, set Doordarshan and All India Radio free. An independent public service broadcaster does wonders for the news market. The BBC has done a remarkable job not just in informing the British public, but also in keeping private news broadcasters in the UK in check.
Three, allow private FM radio channels into news. This brings in another media with a wide reach.
Last, and probably a more wishful suggestion: Can we as viewers and advertisers eschew news channels that sell hate and bigotry? You could argue that they do it because it works -- the viewership share and ad revenues of the shrillest Hindi and English news channels have increased in the last three years. But, living on a steady diet of hate is hardly the best way to build a country. If millions of viewers chose healthier options in online or print and advertisers chose to stay away, could it break this vicious circle of hate, audiences, revenues, polarisation and therefore more hate?