This is a guest post by ASIFA ZUNAIDHA.
[Some time ago, I wrote on Kafila about my experience of attending a televised interaction with HRD Minister Smriti Irani. The audience, packed with supporters of the particular party Irani belongs to, was set up in that debate as the neutral ‘public’, thereby killing two birds with one stone – boosting the popularity of the Minister on news media, and legitimising the news channel as a site of punchy political debate. We have below a similar case of manipulation of the powerful medium of electronic news media, this time by another channel.]
What is the role of the news media in a society if not to disseminate information and opinions as an impartial media(tor)? ‘Half truth is no truth’ is a popular aphorism, but ‘selective’ truth is also a lie and certainly does not befit the content of a news channel. It seems that in an age of corporate media, one would be foolish to expect impartial truths, let alone ‘undiluted or uncensored’ opinion of diverse groups. A recent episode inside the JNU campus shows how ‘news’ presented by News Channels can be easily manipulated and the opinion of a ‘select few’ is showcased as the ‘unanimous opinion’ emerging from the premier higher educational institute of the country.
On 22 August, 2015, TV crew of a Delhi based Hindi News Channel visited JNU campus to take interviews of JNU students on ‘what was their opinion on the cancelled India-Pakistan NSA (National Security Advisors) talks and Pakistan’s insistence of including the Hurriyat members in these talks?’ The immediate political context of the NSA level talks agreed between the Prime Ministers of the two nations has been the increasing cross-border violence between them in Jammu & Kashmir and the Gurdaspur attack. According to the reporter they had arrived in front of the JNU administration block on the invitation of “a JNU professor” by 7 p.m. Since the crew members did not have the contact numbers of any of JNU’s political groups or JNUSU members or individual students, they stayed there and waited for students to come and put forward their opinion.
My friend, who hails from the border district of Kashmir (that is currently experiencing heavy shelling in cross-border fire, loss of seven civilian lives and migration to towns away from borders) was informed at 9.45 p.m. that some TV channel is taking interview on J&K at the administration block. When we reached, the interviewer was wrapping up with concluding remarks from JNU’s ABVP President, the professor and a popular Left sympathising Ph.D scholar, none of whom hailed from J&K. Just as they were wrapping up, someone from the security approached the News reporter and said that interview before the administration block was not allowed without permission and asked them to leave immediately. The professor who had invited the crew gave her name and contact address to the security person and allowed the crew to complete the interview.
My friend and other J&K students, who got information about the interview at the last moment arrive late (9.50 p.m.) and questioned, “If there is a fight between X and Y over Z, then why did you not get the opinion of Z? Instead, you have interviewed A, B and C to present them as the only view of the students of the premier JNU institution.’ One J&K scholar who arrived late commented, “Jhagda agar Ram aur Sita ta ke beech hua hai tho aap jaake Raavan se puch rahe ho ke kya hua (translated: “If the fight is between Ram and Sita, then why bring Raavan into it?”)! The crew came up with amusing answers like “We were here by 7 p.m. No one came here to answer us” (!!!); “We did not have anyone’s contact numbers” (surprisingly they had assembled the members and supporters of ABVP without any hitch); “why didn’t you speak when we were interviewing others?” (While they had singled out the persons who are to give answers, as far as I could observe in the last five minutes that I was there). The cameramen said that he was ready to get the interview of the newly arrived students of various regions of J&K, who were willing to give their opinion. But the professor shooed them off saying the interview was over for the day. The reporter, on being questioned about the representativeness of his sample of JNU’s heterogeneous student population, said that next time he will call us up before coming for interview but then left without getting the contact numbers of any of us!
Now if this is not a staged interview, then what is? All the TV channel reporters who come to JNU know the places that are populated by students in the evening (Ganga dhaba, Sabarmati dhaba, Godavari dhaba). If not, at least they contact the JNUSU office about it. Instead, this crew arrived at the administration block at dinner time when very few students are passing through (to and from library). To be fair, they had interviewed a person from Jammu who held a view similar to that of the ABVP President. How can a TV channel air the interview of a select few people from JNU claiming it as the unanimous view emerging from the ‘premier intellectual’ institution? Should not media – the ‘fourth pillar of democracy’ uphold the freedom of speech of all people? Who is the media to decide whose views should be censored and whose matter? Was not it the ethical responsibility of the crew to move around in the campus and gather the views of different people or at least to go to a place where you know for sure that people with different political views frequent? It is high time that we remind today’s corporate media, as the ‘fourth estate’ it is their moral duty to defend the right to speech of every human being, even if it differs from the approved official lines.
Asifa Zunaidha F is an M.Phil Research Scholar at the Center for Political Studies/JNU.