Even by the plummeting standards of television journalism, this prime-time broadcast took the cake. A five-minute news story on Zee News on September 29 that started off by questioning TV editor Rajdeep Sardesai’s conduct with NRI Modi supporters in New York soon degenerated into a no-holds-barred attack on his wife Sagarika Ghose, his father-in-law Bhaskar Ghose, NDTV and its promoter Prannoy Roy, and an unnamed New Delhi-based print media organisation. The ‘story’ had no interviews/sound bites, and no evidence to back the vituperative claims. Neither was there anybody to give Rajdeep’s side of the story—a standard practice in journalism.
It was stated as a matter of fact. Much in the manner in which the network had earlier carried stories about the ‘discovery’ of Ravana’s body in a casket high up in the mountains of Sri Lanka (The ‘reporter’ actually did a piece-to-camera from the location!). The stunning attack on Sardesai and crass defence of the NRI mob in Washington has not been condemned by any media body except the Editors Guild of India, which issued a statement on the latter. Sardesai’s current employers, the India Today group, did not see it as an issue relating to press freedom. Nor did the group’s channels—Aaj Tak and Headlines Today—consider it worthy enough for a discussion.
As if the story was not enough, Zee followed it up with an hour-long ‘discussion’, where the anchor provoked all and sundry to attack Sardesai. But the high point was the ‘live’ wisdom emanating from New York by Zee Media editor Sudhir Chaudhary, better known for his fake sting on Delhi school teacher Uma Khurana, and his 20-day stint in Tihar after he was caught demanding money from steel baron Naveen Jindal in exchange for watering down the details pertaining to the latter’s alleged involvement in the coal block allocation scam. Chaudhary’s wisdom was uncomplicated—Rajdeep was tarnishing India’s image abroad at a time when Modi was burnishing it bright. In a word, he was anti-national!
While there was no BJP spokesperson on the panel, on rival ABP News, party spokesperson Nalin Kohli refused to condemn the mob or defend Sardesai. All Kohli repeated was that the network ought to be discussing Modi’s visit rather than the attack on Sardesai.
The question is if this rant masquerading as news had anything to do with the Zee boss’s well-known proximity to the BJP. He was last seen sharing the stage with the PM at a rally on October 6, and had earlier unsuccessfully sought an assembly ticket from Hisar, in Haryana. Is he ingratiating himself with the BJP by echoing Modi’s well-known distaste for the English media? Just a few weeks ago, Arun Jaitley had admitted that Modi had started talking to people ‘directly’ after the ‘vilification campaign’ against him in the media over the Gujarat riots.
The issue goes much deeper. For, not one of the so-called ‘experts’ on the discussion panel—an academic, a retired diplomat, a strategic affairs expert and an editor—thought it fit to contest the calumny heaped on Sardesai by the anchor. This points to yet another elephant in the room—experts who are willing to mouth whatever the network wants for a fee.
The episode also points to the ease with which news can be ‘manufactured’ to serve promoters’ agendas. Technology has obviated the need for a reporter and made possible the manipulation of visual and editorial content.
Not a word of condemnation has emerged from the fanatics of self-regulation—powerful networks and editors who have resisted ‘external’ regulation till now. This has allowed TV networks to function as a cosy club of mutual back-scratchers, with dishonourable exceptions.
It is about time networks are compelled to observe transparency and disclose the political affiliation of promoters and owners. The viewer has a right to know the source of his information, since this will influence his news consumption.
On a different note, Sardesai owes it to the media at large to come clean on charges that he attacked provocateurs in the mob. Not only will this put a lid on the issue, it will also strengthen the hands of journalists battling a political dispensation that looks at making the media irrelevant by denying it access to the processes of governance—something critical to the functioning of democracy.
Post Script: The above was published in the print magazine that hit the stands on Friday, October 10, the evening of which saw this statement from Rajdeep Sardesai -- Web Editor
(Former NDTV and Headlines Today reporter Sandeep Bhushan is a fellow at the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia)