He may be the hottest political property in Tamil Nadu today, but Vijayakanth’s image as the chief comedian of TN politics usually drives the mainstream and social media discourse on him. On December 27, when he responded to a journalist asking a mundane questing by figuratively spitting on him, the initial reactions from many were the expected jokes and laughter.
We have written elsewhere about the overreaction in filing police complaints against him. What is even more interesting, however, is that his “thoo” has snowballed into a major debate on the state of TN media and its bias. Vijaykanth lashed out at the media in such a manner as he claims to be upset at the media for not asking tough questions to Jayalalithaa.
For the most part, the debate on media bias and ethics has been fuelled by social media outrage and responses to the media’s reportage on it. Several voices on line have asked, while condemning Vijayakanth, “Doesn’t the media deserve it?” Following this there has been a debate within the journalist community as well. Puthiya Thalaimurai even held a primetime discussion on this.
To be clear, no one is defending Vijayakanth. His behaviour was uncouth. There is all round condemnation, with even party cadres privately accepting that their leader should have been more measured in his reaction. The questions being raised however are different. Isn’t Vijayakanth right in being angry at a 'biased' media? Should media not introspect and drop their arrogance, and be open to criticism? Is this the right time to discuss media ethics? Has the media been more docile during the current government?
The debate around TN media’s bias and ethics has deeper roots, and isn’t just about Vijayakanth’s blunder.
Several media organizations in Tamil Nadu have been blatantly biased, some of the most popular ones even being owned by politicians, their families or their parties. For every Kalaignar TV, there is a Jaya TV. For every Dinakaran, there is Dinathanthi. There is an active political culture of trying to muzzle the media with defamation cases, enticements in the form of advertising revenue or just plain criminal intimidation. Many 'neutral' journalists and media houses are known to crawl when asked to bend, and ideological bias is a defining characteristic of Tamil media.
This is not the first time politicians are calling-out or abusing the media either. “In my career, I have seen other senior politicians say far worse things to journalist both in person and in public,” says Gnani, a journalist and political commentator, during a TV debate on this issue. Several leaders including Karunanidhi, Vaiko and Jayalalithaa have shown their anger and dissatisfaction with the media openly in the past.
So what was different this time around?
In the past couple of years, with the advent of politically-neutral TV channels and social media, the relationship between media and politicians, viewers and media, and politicians and the people have changed. Information is out in seconds, so journalists are under increasing pressure to break news or sensationalise it to stand out. Politicians in Tamil Nadu are now facing a media in TN which holds primetime debates and public campaigns, and the pressure on them to answer questions is considerably higher. Politicians also have realized that social media is a key element of political communication.
Yet, many believe that media is not open to criticism. “We have criticised Vijayakanth for his actions, why can’t we take criticism then? Why are we so arrogant, especially when we are at fault?” asks R Mani, a senior journalist. “In my 26 years as a journalist, I have not seen the media being more docile. Yes, all parties have muzzled the media, but the media was not like this even during Jayalalithaa’s previous two terms,” says Mani. Either under fear or with advertising appetites being whetted by the government, it is has become a norm for media owners to not take on the government, he says, adding that media intimidation is not restricted to the AIADMK government.
The political class too is unable to cope with the 24/7 beast of TV and social media. Even today, spokespersons of the two major Dravidian parties are not very forthcoming for all political debates, say senior journalists. “They are trying to adjust, but I don’t think they are able to,” says Mani.
Not everyone however agrees with Gnani and Mani. “My view on this is clear. This is not the time to discuss media ethics, Vijayakanth’s crass response to a journalist cannot be the starting point for debate on media bias,” says K Venkataraman, a senior journalist with The Hindu. “Let’s say Vijayakanth had lunged and held the reporter by his throat, can we then talk about media ethics? The state of the media would still remain the same?”
“It is important to consider what question was asked of him,” says Frontline’s editor Vijay Shankar, during the TV debate, “the question was about politics and alliances. There was no need for him to react and spit at the journalist like that. It is a disproportionate reaction.” He later asks, “If Vijayakanth comes to power tomorrow, how will his Captain TV act?”
“This is a falsely constructed debate. We should discuss media ethics and bias, but not when Vijayakanth is acting in such a manner. There are several other instances where we can have such a debate,” says Venkataraman.
The final answer perhaps lies in one question raised by Gnani in the course of the TV debate, “Which is a bigger issue for us, Vijayakanth’s reaction or a weak and biased media?”