A Tamil news channel just raised standards on self-criticism, will others follow?

The anchor and panelists debated whether the channel should have been a platform for a murder-accused.
 A Tamil news channel just raised standards on self-criticism, will others follow?
A Tamil news channel just raised standards on self-criticism, will others follow?
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The murder of Dalit youngster Gokulraj allegedly by members of a caste-group and subsequent developments in the case including the suicide of investigating officer DySP Vishnupriya have taken the state of Tamil Nadu by storm. In the past few months, the story has consistently hogged headlines in the Tamil media. Here at The News Minute too we have been following the story closely.

Recently, popular TV news channel Puthiya Thalamurai (PT) surprised everyone by airing an exclusive interview of the main accused Yuvaraj, who has been absconding from the police but continues to keep in touch with his followers through WhatsApp audio messages and statements. You can read about his interview to PT here and view the interview here. Following the airing of the interview on Sunday morning, there has been severe criticism aimed at the news channel for providing a platform for the accused in a possibly caste-motivated murder, especially from Dalit leaders and outfits since it is for gaining community traction and publicity that often such crimes are committed by caste-outfit leaders. Leftist parties and other members of the civil society had also criticised the channel.

But instead of shying away from the accusations, or brushing the accusations against the channel under the carpet through one or two line justifications, the channel took it upon itself to hold a 20-minute debate on its prime time show, with guests ranging from former police officers to political leaders and a senior journalist, most of whom were critical of the channel. The anchor and panelists debated whether the channel should have been a platform for a murder-accused regardless of the nature or the severity of the crime.

Offering an explanation in the show ‘Nerpada Pesu’ which has aired over 1000 episodes, the channel’s Senior Editor and a popular face of the channel, M Gunasekaran said that as far as they are concerned, they have no religious or caste bias, and that they are a neutral media house, and they do not have the need to set up a platform for anyone. But he asks, “Can’t we look at the interview from this point of view, that because of the interview, it has now come to light that the police is unable to do their duty by arresting a person who can be interviewed even by a news channel?” Importantly, he adds, “We are not holy cows, if we are wrong, the civil society and viewers have the right to point it out to us and raise questions, and we at PT believe in it strongly.”

Not everybody agrees with the TV channel’s argument, but even those who have criticised the channel for its stand on the interview have appreciated it for debating the issue openly on primetime.

The debate is difficult, for it has a strong under-current of caste, it has embarrassed the state police which enjoys the reputation of a strong force and in an atmosphere where media organizations are equally targets of attacks by citizens self-criticism can often backfire.

Explaining the reason for their decision to hold a debate on the criticism they were facing, Gunasekaran says that it was borne out of their commitment to neutral and ethical journalism. “We found striking criticism on social media for the interview, and we value our viewers. So when we debate all other issues in the society, we decided that we should debate this issue also. And we did not want to blow our own trumpet in getting the interview, but focus on the real issues around the story, including our involvement in interviewing Yuvaraj,” he says.

“This is a welcome step. A media house subjecting itself to criticism even when there is a raging threat to media freedom in India is healthy,” says R Mani, a senior journalist in Chennai. “And English TV channels must learn from this. Even though there have been instances of criticism in English TV channels, the self-criticism has not been enough, keeping in mind the larger picture,” he adds.

“English media also have much to learn from the standard of debate in Tamil channels. It is not like the shouting on some English TV news shows. In Tamil Nadu PT has pioneered it, and people are talking about real issues because of them,” says Vijay Shankar, Editor, Frontline.

During the debate on PT, General Secretary of the Dalit-based party VCK D Ravikumar suggested ' Viewers Editor ' for visual media and the importance of framing ' Ethical Standards ' like BBC.

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