On Wednesday night, while seated in a heated television debate, I got the message that my friend and comrade Rajiv Tyagi had passed away just moments after he completed another heated debate from 5 to 6 pm on a national news channel. The message and the lifeless body I saw thereafter at his residence shook me up.
I met Tyagi Bhai for the first time in 2013 and since then, we shared love and respect for each other. Today, I remind myself of the quote he loved to use, "Destiny can't be changed" but I think it is my obligation as a friend and as a colleague in the same profession to appeal to the conscience of all stakeholders to introspect on how the format of TV debates can change for the better and for the saner.
In my limited journey as a spokesperson, I have witnessed and experienced the transition of most debates (if not all) from news to noise, facts to friction, truth to tussle, from being a platform of discussion to an arena of verbal bloodsport. The public discourse on national televisions, particularly audience-based shows, is at a new low in terms of factual content and a new high in terms of decibel and toxicity. Rather than creating 'informed citizens', such shows are creating a frenzy mentality.
News has lost its battle to noise. Prime time debates have consequences for the mental health of the anchors, the spokespersons and the audience as well. And, I think, all the stakeholders - from media houses to anchors and from spokespersons to the audience - are to be blamed for this.
Ratings, and ultimately advertising, is what runs the media show these days. The more eyeballs you grab, the higher ratings you get and the higher ratings you get, the more advertisements you receive. More than 400 news channels are competing for the same viewership. Therefore, sensationalism has become the new normal on TV debates. Facts have taken a backstage. And this triangle of viewership, ratings and revenue is the reason why news rooms across the country, with the exception of a few, have become more amenable to the viewpoints of the owners than ever before.
Ideal news reporting is 'informative' not 'persuasive' in nature. Rather than providing a conducive, calm atmosphere, a hostile and volatile boxing ring scenario is created in studios where spokespersons do not speak to each but at each other and resort to mudslinging, name-calling and personal attacks. TV anchors shout down guests and do not allow participants to speak. Instead of acting as unbiased referees, a large section of anchors behave like catalysts who provoke, interrupt, instigate to create "masala" to feed the monster of sensationalism. The guidelines issued by authorities like the National Broadcasting Standard Authority for the conduct of live discussions seem to have been made extinct by sheer non-compliance and, as a result, verbal combat is flourishing with the blessings of sponsors and viewers and all this diverts attention from throb issues of employment, economy, foreign policy, governance.
Spokespersons are not judged based on the facts they present but on the basis of the decibel of sound they produce on television screen. Appreciation and applause from audience comes not for putting the truth before rhetoric, but for pouncing upon an opponent and outshouting him or her. It is true that TV gives spokespersons recognition and fame, and they get more followers and 'likes' on social media, but the toxicity kills them from inside like a termite because of what they go through. The sheer nature of most (if not all) debates coerces spokespersons to surrender to a slanderous, highly exaggerated, defamatory and vicious high-volume atmosphere created solely for the purpose of entertainment, ultimately killing the the very basic ethos of Indian democracy i.e. "we agree to respectfully disagree with each other". Since 2013, I have participated in thousands of debates and I should honestly admit that I sometimes see a different me, a demonised me, on television.
The toxicity in public discourse especially on TV channels must end. Also, the personal attacks that follow on social media has to end. Let there be no more Chakravyuhas for any spokesperson of any political party. Spokespersons also should not stress themselves beyond a point to earn claps and become fodder for news capsules. Let civility return to public discourse on television. If the tragic death of Rajiv Bhai does not change the public discourse on TV, then political parties and spokespersons should rethink their media strategy. If the river can't change its course, it is our obligation to build banks so that our houses are not flooded. Political parties must build their firewalls against toxic news channels as their policies of self-regulation do not seem to be working either. At the end of the day, as are the strange ways of nature, life will move on but this slanderous beast called TV debates needs to be tamed.
(The author is a Supreme Court Lawyer and National Spokesperson of the Indian National Congress.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.