NDTV’s promoter, Prannoy Roy, did not conceal his gratification at the solidarity expressed by media persons and several superannuated editors at the Press Club in New Delhi after his premises were raided. Most of the speakers reminisced about the dark days when Indira Gandhi declared an internal emergency and smothered the press. In the reckoning of these worthies, the country was sliding inexorably towards similar media darkness and it was a matter of time before some kind of emergency – in the name of terrorism – is imposed once again. Roy also warned his listeners that this government comes down harder on those who crawl. He, though, did not explain the reason for this realisation. NDTV’s ambivalence on Narendra Modi and his government has been visible in its programming. Last year, Roy astonished his legion of admirers when he called the Bihar Assembly elections in favour of the BJP within an hour of counting. In normal circumstances, he would not have been so hasty in declaring the BJP a winner merely after the counting of postal ballots which seldom capture the mood on the ground. What compelled a veteran psephologist to commit such a basic mistake? In his interview, he dismissed the Bihar embarrassment as professional misjudgement but for many who have enormous respect for his understanding of Indian elections, this did not wash. The question that kept going around was why did he declare an early winner in such a manner? Could it be that his committing such a mistake would appease the BJP government in power? The only way such a “misjudgement” could help the BJP government was if NDTV and Roy lost their credibility.
Since the BJP has been in power, the channel – still the most watchable – has steadily lost its bearing. Not too long back it refused to air an interview of former finance minister P Chidambaram, with one of its directors defending the decision by calling the interview “drivel”. Not just that, the channel also stated that it would not allow any criticism of the Indian Army. It was evident that little by little, the channel, which had been attacked by Right-wing trolls, had begun to respond to a different tune. It strenuously tried to present itself as a nationalist channel not just, seemingly, to shake off the abusive trolls who repeatedly call it “pro-Pakistan”, but also to be on the right side of the government. The programming was aligned to government policies like ‘Clean India’ – with endless shows related to them. Save for some anchors who preserved their independence, the leadership of the channel was visibly crawling. Did it help? Unlikely. The TRPs slipped to 3.5 while credibility, which has a little measure, also took a quiet dip. The channel that had once redefined TV journalism in this country was losing its way primarily due to the fact that it had stopped doing what it did best – produce quality, cerebral journalism. Instead, it began to look over its shoulder at how the government of the day perceived it.
Yet, NDTV is not the first to have come under pressure from the Right-wing establishment and its supporters. Long years ago, the mass-circulated weekly tabloid that I worked with, Blitz, and its flamboyant editor, RK Karanjia, began to flirt with Hindutva ideology. Karanjia hired an executive editor to do their bidding and write absurd stuff to reach out to the faithful. Blitz, which had a massive circulation amongst the secular intelligentsia, professional class and minorities, lost most of its readership and, more important, its credibility. Though Karanjia eventually yielded his new-found fondness for Hindutva in a signed front-pager, by then it was too late. Both his readers and his health deserted him.
There is great merit in holding firm to one’s principles rather than submitting meekly. What stopped the Roys from addressing a similar press conference when they were being pressured to be on the right side of the government? If they had fought hard in the early days of the BJP government, like the New York Times and the Washington Post have been putting up a resistance against Donald Trump and his boorish and eccentric ways, it would have been a different story. The truth is that the fundamentals of our media businesses are so fragile that they cannot withstand any pressure from banks, investigating agencies and a nasty government.