Opinion
The trouble is, they haven’t been able to do much to actually rein in their recalcitrant colleagues.

Jignesh Mevani has the distinction of hitting the headlines on primetime television for refusing to be on it. In this, he joins a growing list of activists and political leaders who are trying to change the rules of engagement with the media, but there’s no telling who will lose in this face-off with a powerful, and increasingly polarised, ‘rogue’ media.   

Oddly enough, even as Gujarat’s Vadgam MLA succeeded in dividing the media, one section of which defended his stance while the other decried it, votaries of both sections are united in their criticism of the rogue media Mevani has rejected. The trouble is, aside from the boycott of Mevani and the criticism of channels like Republic and Times Now, they haven’t been able to do much else to actually rein in their recalcitrant colleagues.

In this scenario, how does one react to a boycott when both television channels have also completely overturned the rules of the game – whether it is in the whipping up of opinion, in the nightly performance that has replaced serious debate, and much more seriously, in the very reportage of hard facts and news?

First of all, there are really two boycotts and there is obviously quite a bit of history preceding the Chennai boycott. While there are two narratives on what exactly transpired at the Chennai meet, whether it was a press meet called by Mevani and others or whether journalists happened to land up for an interaction, the fact is Mevani did perceive hostility from Republic Television and has decided not to interact with it.

Both Republic Television as well as Times Now targeted Mevani since his address in the Elgaar Parishad organised in Pune on December 31. In the violence that followed, both held that Mevani and JNU leader Umar Khalid ‘stoked the fires’, and alleged that their speeches led to the violence. The two channels hardly focused on the two right-wing Hindu leaders – Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide – who Pune police had booked for their role in the violence.

The blatant bias was by no means new, as both channels have sought to outdo one another to portray the newly elected MLA as a dangerous person. Mevani, who has decided to launch a blunt and strident criticism of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in colorful colloquialisms, found himself fielding questions and responses, not from a BJP spokesperson or the PMO as one would otherwise expect, but from a Republic Television journalist, posed in a shockingly offensive and familiar manner.

Barely a few days later, a Republic Television correspondent found herself heckled by Mevani supporters at a rally in Delhi that she described as a ‘flop rally’ as her camera panned empty chairs. Other journalists pointed out that she went an hour before the rally began, and videos of the rally shot by non-commercial media outlets showed a sizeable crowd at the rally. 

The confrontation continued with a Republic Television correspondent pursuing Mevani for a question and the latter refusing to answer, and finally ended with Mevani telling the journalist to stop shoving his mic into his face. And in Chennai, Mevani refused to speak into a mic from the Republic Television channel.

Mevani is by no means the first political leader or celebrity to seek a boycott of a section of the media or even the entire media, and be boycotted in turn by the media. In post-Emergency India, the film media banned Hindi film superstar Amitabh Bachchan in the ‘70s for his alleged role in the crackdown on film magazines during the Emergency. On his part, Bachchan also banned the media from his sets and the mutual ban lasted almost 15 years.

There have been other unspecified boycotts. The relationship of AIADMK leader J Jayalalithaa with the media in Tamil Nadu was governed by a slew of defamation cases, and a few press conferences. Her two brushes with ‘national’ media were memorable – in 1999, she was charm personified with interviewer Simi Garewal, and in 2005, ended a Hardtalk interview with Karan Thapar by refusing to shake hands, preferring a formal Namaste, and a put down that it was not a pleasure to speak to him! As R Balaji writes, Jayalalithaa believed she was accountable to the people, not to the media.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi qualifies as another leader who has virtually boycotted the media. As Prime Minister, Modi has monopolised the use of both state-owned media and social media. During his campaigns for the BJP, his election team has been innovative in its use of virtual media like holograms and video clips circulated on pen drives. Formal interaction with the media is nil, minus the one interview with Network18 in 2016 where he did most of the questioning and answering, and yet another round two full years later with Zee TV and Times Now.

A head of government – whether of a state or of the nation – commands access to state-controlled media and to public money for advertisements through the Directorate of Advertising and Publicity (DAVP). Thus far, the media has only made feeble protests over this one-way channel of communication.

Who is boycotting whom?

Now comes the Mevani-Republic imbroglio, which has taken the boycott media game into completely new territory. This rejection – for that is what it is – is an attempt to change the rules of engagement with mainstream broadcast media that they see as partisan and motivated. It is also making an important point that those who reject this media don’t care about the consequences, whether it is a blackout or even, as is happening now, a demonising by the rejected media.

In 2015, in the wake of the hysterical and demonic coverage of the ‘offloading’ of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai, an open letter was written to then Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami. The signatories – Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover, Madras High Court lawyer and civil liberties activist Sudha Ramalingam, feminist and senior journalist Pamela Philipose, Right to Information, NREGA and Democratic Rights activist Aruna Roy, Right to Information activist Anjali Bharadwaj, women's movement and left activist Kavita Krishnan, Women's movement and civil liberties activist Kavita Srivastava.

The letter said: We have, for the present, decided to stay away from Times Now debates. The purpose of this gesture of protest is to demand accountability of the television media, including Times Now, to the norms outlined by the NBA’s Code of Ethics. We take this step as an effort to promote public debate and a responsible engagement with opposing ideas and stances in order to deepen democracy.

In September 2017, JNU student leader Shehla Rashid refused to allow a journalist from Republic Television to record her speech at a protest meeting called in the wake of the killing of Bengaluru-journalist Gauri Lankesh. Rashid said, “I am sorry, I do not want Republic TV here.” The channel, she said, covered up the assassination of Gauri Lankesh.

It is important to note that these attempts by these activists (Mevani, despite his status as a recently elected representative of the Gujarat Assembly, describes himself as an activist) to change the rules of engagement with the media do not come from a position of power. None of them hold any institutional positions of power. They cannot claim any ‘rightful’ access to state-owned media or even to privately owned, corporate, big mainstream media, apart from their considerable presence on social media platforms.

Nevertheless, due to their work, they are influential and do generate public opinion. They are confident that they can continue to do so without the oxygen of media publicity, minus the toxicity. They have a right to choose the media they wish to interact with.

When Grover and others announced their boycott of Times Now studio programs, there wasn’t much of a reaction. After all, studio guests are invited and often play musical studio chairs as they feature on successive channels.

Working journalists ≠ studio bosses

The decision of both Rashid and Mevani to single out a section of the media has divided journalists. In articles, WhatsApp groups, on Twitter and Facebook, journalists have hotly debated whether Mevani was right in his refusal to speak to a Republic Television mic or in a press meet where the Republic Television journalist was present.

For the journalists, the rejection of one of their kind was keener since these two incidents were not in a studio setting but on the field. For those outside the media, it is difficult to fathom the solidarity of field reporters and correspondents, who spend long hours with one another chasing the same story, even as they represent different media houses with vastly different agendas.

But now, it is this solidarity that is really at stake. Television journalists are amongst the most exploited of media workers, working under immense pressure and with the ever-present threat of layoffs. Additionally, television channels are investing less and less in solid news-gathering, and pushing their correspondents to get the story or the footage that can lead the studio agenda for the evening.

The nighttime purveyors of biased and distorted news as spectacle really don’t care about the boycott, beyond the fact that it gives them more grist for their mill. Boycotts ultimately harm both journalists who seek the ‘real’ story and those who seek to give voice to it. But it is the media which bears the onus for exercising accountability from unethical media in its midst, not the activists who reject it. If it doesn’t do so, the polarisation and divisions within the media will only deepen.

Geeta Seshu is an independent journalist and Contributing Editor of the mediawatch site The Hoot. She is based in Mumbai.

Views expressed are the author's own.