Today when I sit back in a corner of my room, I am reminded of Mason Williams who said, "I am qualified to criticise television because I have two eyes and a mind which is one more eye and a mind more than television."
But I also want to criticize TV for a different reason. I spent almost two decades in TV and I belong to the first generation of TV professionals. It is true that I am no more an employed journalist but my heart still beats for TV. I feel extremely sad today when I see the conduct of a few TV editors and anchors particularly in the context of the JNU episode and Kanhaiya's arrest. Once more the question arises about whether self-regulation is working or do we need an institutional framework like Ofcom in London.
What has been the issue all along these past three weeks? That anti-India slogans were raised in JNU, Afzal Guru was iconised by students in the campus and they indulged in anti-national activities, that JNU has become a den of terrorists (it should be shut down was the war cry by one of the more prominent intellectuals in the BJP, Chandan Mitra).
A few video tapes were the reason for the nationwide Hungama. TV anchors created a Tamasha in their treatment of news and debates; they called themselves nationalists and those who did not subscribe to their brand of nationalism were openly called anti-national. They were more jingoist than the members of the RSS/BJP/ABVP.
I don't deny the fact that every channel and every editor has the right to decide his/ her editorial line, but this constitutional freedom doesn't give license to any journalist to compromise with facts and pronounce anybody guilty without waiting for the court's verdict. The building of our system of jurisprudence is built on the concept that every accused is innocent till proven guilty. But TV anchors, in their rush for ratings, have turned this upside down.
They pronounced Kanhaiya anti-national. They pronounced Umar Khalid a terrorist. Is their conduct constitutional? I have no quarrel with the BJP/RSS TV panelists if they call people opposed to their ideology as anti-national because they are practicing politics, but TV editors are not in politics and they are not politicians. Their primary function is to search for truth, and to analyse truth, put facts before viewers, and let people decide. I know TV has turned into a platform of strong opinions in the last few years. But this does not allow the confusion of fiction with facts and views with news.
Some TV channels have forgotten the fundamentals of journalism in the last three weeks. It is a cardinal principle of journalism that any fact or video which cannot be authenticated should not be aired. But since February 9, seven audio-video tapes were aired on almost all channels except a few. None of these editors bothered to check the veracity of these tapes. A few tried to be more correct and ran a declaration that the channel could not vouch for the authenticity of the video. This is hilarious. How can they put any fact out when they are not sure about its correctness? But happen it did, and on that basis, judgments were pronounced in TV studios.
Finally, the Delhi government inquiry found that out of seven tapes, two tapes were doctored and one was edited. These were no ordinary tapes. They disturbed peace, incited people to violence. Media professionals, JNU teachers and students were beaten up in a court room; the whole of Patiala House was turned into a war zone and Kanhaiya was thrashed; Supreme Court observers and senior lawyers were abused, jostled and threatened openly. Incidents of violence and vandalism were also reported from other parts of the country.
The Delhi government report on JNU has also given a clean chit to Kanhaiya. The inquiry failed to establish that he raised anti-India slogans or glorified Afzal Guru. There was no video evidence regarding this. The Delhi Police has claimed that they have eyewitness who will vouch for Kanhaiya's criminality. But the inquiry report tells a different story. It states that all three JNU guards failed to confirm the same.
Therefore the point is that if there was no video proof, no corroborative evidence, and no mention in the FIR of his seditious culpability, then on what basis were allegations levelled against Kanhaiya and why was he arrested on the charge of sedition? Why did a few channels, especially Times Now and Zee News run a campaign against Kanhaiya?
The Modi government can have an agenda. The Delhi Police might have worked under pressure. But it was incumbent upon journalists and TV editors to hunt for the truth and not accept the police version at face value. India Today and ABP news did try to investigate the matter, they did succeed in their endeavour and broke the story that some of the tapes were fabricated. A Zee News producer who resigned alleged that in one JNU tape, his office assumed that slogans of Pakistan Zindabad were raised, despite the inaudibility of the sound.
Was it done deliberately or was it a mistake?
I am not willing to give the benefit of doubt to the TV channels that ran the doctored tapes; for this, I have a reason. There is an unsaid rule: if incorrect news is published or aired, then a corrigendum is published after the discovery of the truth and an apology is tendered to the aggrieved. Here, despite the exposé about the doctored tapes, the concerned TV channels did not bother to be truthful to their viewers. They did not air any corrigendum, did not say sorry. So then can somebody tell me why should I not assume that these TV channels were in cahoots with the ruling regime to help them further their political interest?
This is not the end of the story. The partisanship was so naked that when Kanhaiya was granted bail, one of these channels did not air the story at all. It was the biggest story of the day but the channel refused to acknowledge the existence of Kanhaiya. Similarly, when Kanhaiya was released from jail, the very same channel did not bother to carry it live. Was it done deliberately or is the person in-charge of the news room without any understanding of breaking news?
As a former editor, I can say that today, the credibility of TV channels is at its lowest. Editors and anchors don't command the respect they used to. To such editor/anchors, I want to tell a story that David Biancully tells in his book Teleliteracy. He says- "In February 1968, Walter Cronkite of CBS Special returned from Saigon and wrote a half an hour special on the Vietnam war. He wrote, 'It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in stalemate.' President Lindon. B. Johnson was quoted as saying if he had lost Walter Cronkite, he had lost Mr. Average Citizen." That was Cronkite's credibility. Johnson lost the election and America lost Vietnam. This was the power of truth and also of journalism. Alas, today in India, there is a race to tap TRPs and to also enjoy the trappings of power. Not what news should stand for.(Ashutosh joined the Aam Aadmi Party in January 2014.)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.