Churning Out Clean Chits for Celebrities

All TV news channels in India are largely resorting to high decibel, chest thumping nationalism and in the process, truth is often sacrificed. 

LAST week, Bollywood star Salman Khan appeared on NDTV’s prime time news programme, ‘’The Buck Stops Here’’. In the last few months, the superstar has been in the news headlines, for various reasons – some good, some bad. Earlier this year, he was convicted by a lower court of killing a pavement dweller in Mumbai and was awarded five years imprisonment. Not that he spent any time in jail. With his battery of lawyers, he got a bail, the same day, from the Bombay High Court. 

Talk of judicial delay in India. The Indian media, especially the TV news channels had covered the case and most of them, with liberal support from Salman Khan’s Bollywood colleagues had declared the ‘’good hearted’’ actor innocent even before the court gave its verdict in the case. Such is the camaraderie between celebrities and news channels and anchors in India these days. The actor was in news again recently for his latest flick ‘’Bajrangi Bhaijaan’’ which went on to become a runaway hit at the box office. The movie’s plot revolved around a Pakistani child, who is lost in India and Salman Khan, takes her home, despite all odds. NDTV had called the film actor on its show ‘’The Buck Stops Here’’, which is anchored by the channel’s star anchor Barkha Dutt to talk about an Indian girl, Geeta Basra. In its introductory remarks, the condescending anchor told her audience that superstar Salman Khan was advocating for Geeta to return home. Geeta is a deaf and mute girl who has been stuck in Pakistan for over a decade. When she was eight years old, she had mistakenly crossed into Pakistan. She was found by the Pakistan rangers at the Lahore Railways station and for the last 15 years, she has been raised by a Muslim family in Karachi at the Edhi shelter. She was recently in headlines when it was found out that her real life story mirrored the story of the girl in the movie ‘’Bajrangi Bhaijaan’’. Never to miss out an opportunity that can be eye catching and generate audience interest, NDTV, which claims to be a serious news channel, unlike its other counterparts, decided to make the best use of this real life meets reel life story.

Over the last few years, Indian news channels have specialised in the art of ‘’Hashtag journalism’’. One would expect some official from the Indian Foreign Ministry or the Indian High Commission in Pakistan to be invited to the show to inform its viewers about Geeta’s story and the Govt’s plans to bring her back home. In fact the External Affairs Ministry had decided about a week earlier to airing of this show, to bring back the 23-year-old deaf and mute girl. The decision had come after the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan T C A Raghavan and his wife met the young woman in Karachi and they were reasonably sure that she is an Indian national. India’s Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj had also tweeted that Indian High Commissioner in Pakistan had met Geeta in Karachi and the Indian High Commissioner believed that Geeta was an Indian and that the Govt would bring her back to India.

But of all the people, NDTV found it worthwhile to invite Salman Khan, a convicted criminal, to enlighten its viewers about Geeta and her story and invite her back home. The show appropriately used the hashtag #SalmanForGeeta. One can understand Salman Khan’s willingness and even eagerness to be on such a show, given that it would act as free PR and help him clean his tainted image. Salman Khan played the role of the good Samaritan in his latest super-hit movie, in which he rescues a Pakistani girl. The reel life image and character somehow puts his real life image, which is that of an ir-responsible person who killed a footpath dweller without remorse, under wraps. He couldn’t have asked for anything better for himself. But one may ask what was NDTV, which claims to be a serious and sensible news channel, doing, promoting Salman Khan on its news show? The channel is not in the business of making movies and promoting film stars or so we are told. On a recent episode of the same show, Barkha Dutt had incidentally told a Pakistani guest that he didn’t need to raise his voice, or shout, given he was on NDTV and not on Times Now. But this was not the first time that NDTV was doing something crass to garner TRPs. Earlier this year they had stooped to another low by getting the Nirbhaya rapist to speak on its show ‘’India’s Daughter’’ and duly marketing it as an exclusive and the first time ever.

On the show, Barkha Dutt not only praised Salman Khan for his ‘’secular values’’ but also asked the Bollywood star to give advice to the girl. A convicted criminal doling out advice to a deaf and mute girl on a news show – that is a low even by the low standards of In-dian broadcast media. When Barkha Dutt kept alluding to the movie, it was quite obvious that she was acting as Salman Khan’s PR agent, trying to make a hero out of a criminal. NDTV had no business providing a free platform to Salman Khan to engage in PR on a news show, with it’s over rated news anchor. Ironically NDTV prides in calling itself India’s only non tabloid news channel.

Not that the rest of Indian TV news media has set itself any high benchmarks. Over the years, as TV news channels have mu-shroomed, there is an out and out fight to grab more eyeballs. Since the business is commoditised, there is essentially no USP that any channel can claim to hold the interest of the viewers. In such a sce-nario, every TV channel and anchor is trying to outshout the other. The institution is facing a crisis of credibility. Barkha Dutt herself was embroiled in the Radiagate a few years back and was found in-volved in gross journalistic impropriety. But she was never censured by the channel for her misconduct, but continued as the channel’s start anchor. She used her own TV channel’s platform to issue herself a clean chit. In fact Salman Khan couldn’t have found a better foil to undertake his PR campaign on a news channel.

At the heart of the problem facing India’s news media is the Corpo-rate-Media-Politician nexus. Nira Radia represented India’s two biggest corporate houses — the Tatas and the Mukesh Ambani con-trolled Reliance Industries.  In late 2010, more than a year after the Radiagate, Reliance Industries announced a joint venture with DE Shaw, a multi-billion US based Hedge Fund. Subsequent to this an-nouncement, DE Shaw picked up a 14% stake in NDTV. It is no secret that many Indian news channels, including NDTV are running loss making businesses and their financial condition is in a mess. Yet they not only continue to run their operations, but NDTV in particular often gets strategic investors to invest in the TV channel. The Indian media industry is largely non transparent and there is a growing unholy cosy relationship between the corporates- politicians and media houses. Given the conflict of interest that comes in an owner-editor model or even a high profile journalist having substantial stake in the media company, the trivialization of the medium is bound to happen.

All TV news channels in India are largely resorting to high decibel, chest thumping nationalism and in the process, truth is often sacri-ficed. Be it the hanging of Afzal Guru, which was carried out despite inconclusive evidence or the recent hanging of Yaqub Memon, Indian media’s role in sending these men to the gallows can’t be overlooked. The same media, which has been whitewashing the crimes of Salman Khan, gave a ‘’clean chit’’ to Narendra Modi, even when many court cases were going against him and which made a hero out of a known criminal Bal Thackeray when he died, is unfortunately given legitimacy by its uncritical urban middle class viewers, who eagerly watch this drama unfold every night in the comforts of their drawing rooms.

—Tariq Jameel is a columnist for the Kashmir Observer. He can be reached at: [email protected]>

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