Kunal Kamra’s video on ‘Ambani for PM’ on his YouTube channel, uploaded in March 2019, has been viewed over 14 million times, last I checked. Meanwhile, the video of him trying to get a response from television owner and editor Arnab Goswami, a co-passenger on an Indigo flight, has gone viral – in just two days, the video that the comic uploaded on Twitter has reached 3.4 million views. This is of course not counting the numerous WhatsApp forwards and views on other platforms. The confrontation has clearly caught the eyeballs of people across the country. It is not a part of his regular performance or his shows. It raises mirth, lots of glee – and distinctly, and some discomfort.
The video has earned Kunal Kamra a completely unjustified and illegal ban on at least three airlines operating in India, despite the fact that there’s little or no agency, really, in the actual exchange. The power, if anything, in Kamra’s attempt to aislestep and sting Goswami into a response, comes from the virality of his video and of course, from the ridiculously excessive response of the Union Minister for Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri that he endangered lives by ‘heckling’ Goswami.
Why, then, does it make us uncomfortable? After all, Kamra was merely doing an Arnab on Arnab. As he said in his statement on Twitter, “If expressing myself to an important public figure who himself points a camera day in and day out catching people off guard is a crime, then both of us are criminals.”
Kamra's is an angry, if unpremeditated, effort. It's been variously criticised (and justified) for violating the privacy of a co-passenger. It even strikes a rather desperate note as it demands a response from an obdurate Goswami, earphones plugged in and pretending not to hear.
So why the discomfort? After all, Kamra’s reaction is essentially a citizen’s pushback and an attempt to call out a television anchor.
Personally, I believe the discomfort stems from the fear that none of this will bring any real change to the manner in which television channels run their business.
Kamra's quite discernable desperation stems from the fact that people have no other avenues to hold media accountable. The public is left with very few weapons: humour, dark as it may be; confrontation and shutouts; denial of access; refusal to talk or engage; or the more serious - the attacks on journalists who are perceived to be offensive, intrusive, 'misrepresenters' of reality; and spokespersons for the powers that be – the infamous ‘godi media’.
India really hasn’t had a serious forum or movement of readers/viewers to hold these channels accountable. The failure of self-regulation is already a depressing situation. The privacy violations can cut both ways (the ‘if you can do it, I can do it too’ argument). And with the government falling all over itself to protect one section so blatantly, the power imbalance is already so skewed. The spectacle will only get bigger and more powerful.
There is no doubt at all that Goswami, part owner and editor in chief of The Republic, is one amongst the pack of television owner/anchors/editors who have produced blatantly partisan, unethical and dangerously inflammatory programs, night after night. There are multiple examples of the manner in which they have reduced all debate to narrow notions of nationhood, utilizing shockingly crude props in their combative montages.
For most of us, none of what happens in television studios, either in The Republic or Zee or India TV (to name just a few) is even remotely close to journalism. The nightly shows are essentially performative, with invited guests who are chosen to represent allegedly diverse viewpoints, political party spokespersons thrown in along with ‘experts’, usually regulars who are paid (undisclosed amounts), transported to the studios and we are told, quite well-fed too.
The performative nature of television requires opponents (anti-national, tukde tukde gang, Islam, NGOs, urban naxals...) to work. I recall watching a show, which Goswami anchored in Times Now, his earlier place of employment. While the issue being discussed escapes memory, I recall how disastrous it was for Goswami since all the guests agreed with one another. As the show progressed, one could sense Goswami’s panic. If everyone was in agreement, there was no show. He tried to provoke the guests and finally one of them, a senior editor who was an authority on Maharashtra politics, obliged by making a half-assed comment that seemed to be in disagreement. Goswami pounced on him and for the rest of the show, our senior colleague was the fall guy. The show was salvaged for the night.
Samir Jain (Vice Chairman BCCL) has the dubious distinction of ushering in news as infotainment in the late eighties and much of these nightly spectacles may seem harmless fun, news as entertainment. There’s a shockingly huge amount of really bad ‘journalism’ on television. Television correspondents have jumped into bath tubs to re-enact the death of actor Sridevi, taken boats to flood-hit areas or donned battle fatigues and joined security forces on their rounds, crawling through bushes and coming out with their hair and make-up intact.
But this is really about the increasingly partisan nature of the television channels, broadcasting shows that have had criminal repercussions. The shows have incited violence and war-mongering; they’ve violated the privacy of students celebrating after exams in Hyderabad; demonised trans and queer people; doctored videos that actually formed the basis of the FIRs lodged by the Delhi police against JNU student leaders in 2016; conducted sting operations falsely implicating school-teachers in a prostitution racket (the Uma Khurana case); falsely charged Dr Gauhar Raza, a renowned scientist and activist of reciting poetry at an ‘anti-national’ event…the list is endless.
Accountability is near-zero. If self-regulation is a guiding principle, there was, till last year, only one mechanism to seek redressal – file complaints with the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA), a body set up by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA). There has been no compliance with its orders against the big fish. Zee has resisted the order on Gauhar Raza while Goswami exited the body to set up his own outfit last year.
Most of the jockeying of these channel heads is for both political clout as well as business interests. As I wrote when Goswami started his News Broadcasters’ Federation (NBF) last year: The 50-odd channels that have signed up for the new federation are a mix of politically-partisan channels close to the governing National Democratic Alliance, those owned by industrialists who are under the scanner for dubious business deals, regional channels with considerable local viewership and even a spiritual channel.
There’s another serious repercussion that channel heads are least concerned about: the effect their hate-mongering has on field reporters. In our study on attacks on the media in India for 2014-19, we have documented how the public has targeted correspondents and field reporters of these television channels. These field correspondents, seen as spokespersons and representatives of the partisan channels, are mostly young journalists who are either trying to sincerely report on any event or mischievous contributors to the slant their studio heads try to push.
Indeed, it can be seen as another dimension of the reaction of the women and men at Shaheen Bagh to Deepak Charasia’s visit or the refusal of Jignesh Mevani, Shehla Rashid, Kavita Krishnan, Vrinda Grover and many activists across India to even talk to these television channels. The channel anchors have been furious at this rejection as they do realize it robs them of their agency in showcasing the ‘other’ they demonise and gain so much currency from. In earlier times, especially when Jayalalitha was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, field reporters used to mask the logo of their mikes so that they could get the all important sound-bite, but now the gloves are off and the aggression is more entitled.
In India's broadcast media, there's less journalism or news, more flexing of muscle and rabid assertion of jingoistic identity. There's zero accountability or consciousness of any high falutin principles of media responsibility. Online media has provided the strongest alternative to this so far but it is still not enough of a challenge, subject to censorship, regulation, fragile revenue streams and reach.
Geeta Seshu is an independent journalist and was Contributing Editor of the mediawatch site The Hoot. She is based in Mumbai.
Views expressed are the author's own.