CHRISTOPHE JAFFRELOT AND VIHANG JUMLE December 2020

Republic TV’s debates have been consistently biased in favour of the Modi and its policies, as well as the ideology of the BJP. What’s worse, these debates have rarely featured some of the most pressing issues that impact Indians, such as the state of the economy, education or health. ILLUSTRATION BY SUKRUTI ANAH STANELEY

Ever the news itself, Republic TV recently hit the headlines after Arnab Goswami, its owner and star anchor, was arrested by the Maharashtra Police, in early November. Goswami was arrested in connection to businessman Anvay Naik’s death by . Naik had named Goswami in his suicide note, writing that the Republic TV head owed him money. Goswami remained in custody for eight days. The Supreme Court of India, which dealt with his case in record speed, directed that he be released on interim bail.

Goswami’s arrest sparked reactions from across the political spectrum. Among the more surprising reactions were public comments by many members of the Narendra Modi cabinet, who said that putting a journalist in jail was an attack on freedom of expression. (Far be for the same politicians to pay attention to any other newspersons presently behind bars.) Others, many journalists among them, refused to consider this arrest a crackdown on the media because they did not see Goswami as a member of the press. His particular style of self-proclaimed “nationalist” and partisan reporting, they argued, misled viewers in the name of journalism.  

Whether or not one disagrees with this line of argument, the accusation of partisanship against Republic TV is undeniable. We studied all prime- debates held since the channel was launched in May 2017, until April 2020, when we began the study—1,779 in all. Our conclusion was clear: Republic TV’s debates have been consistently biased in favour of the Modi government and its policies, as well as the ideology of the BJP. What’s worse, these debates have rarely featured some of the most pressing issues that impact Indians, such as the state of the economy, education or health. Instead, they have consisted mostly of attacks against the Opposition as well as any groups or persons that oppose the ruling government’s ideology.

Some figures are staggering, if unsurprising. Nearly fifty percent of Republic TV’s political debates criticised the opposition, but it has not conducted even one debate that we could classify as being in the opposition’s favour. Republic TV aired approximately 8 anti-BJP debates for every 100 anti-opposition debates. The channel amped up its anti-opposition debates in the lead up to the 2019 elections, increasing steadily from February to April, when elections began. In late 2019 and early 2020, it conducted 54 debates on the CAA, nearly thirty percent of which criticised the Shaheenbagh sit-in. Every other debate favoured the ruling party’s stance and opposed the CAA protests. Debates on issues such as agriculture, health and economy formed barely one percent of its prime-time discussions. Consistently and aggressively, Republic TV promoted hashtags that lionised Modi, saying he “crushed” Pakistan, worked “magic” at the G7 meeting, that he “strikes” corruption and “punishes” cheats.

For the sake of comparison, we contrasted Republic’s debates with those of NDTV. Why these two? Because, we hypothesised, in the current spectrum of popular mainstream English news channels, these two are far apart. All our data was collected from the debates uploaded to the channels’ respective websites. 

The Republic TV debates we studied were held between 6 May 2017 and 3 April 2020. Republic TV runs only one debate show, The Debate, most often hosted by Goswami. The NDTV debates we studied were conducted between 4 February 2001 and 8 April 2020. NDTV’s website did not feature any debates from 2002 to 2004, and hence, any debates held during this time did not form part of our data set. NDTV runs four prominent debate shows—The Buck Stops HereWe the PeopleLeft, Right & Centre; and NDTV Dialogues. Both Left, Right & Centre and NDTV Dialogues are mixed shows that feature both debates and interviews. The Buck Stops Here and We the People are primarily debate shows that intermittently feature interviews. For the ease of this study, we considered them purely debate shows. Our data for NDTV consists of 1,171 titles from the mixed shows and 1,582 titles from the debate shows.

For this study, we also expanded the concept of debate to include not only opposing speakers voicing their opinion, but also bilateral dialogues between invitees and the anchor, who may not necessarily hold opposing stances. This conceptual expansion of debates was necessary to bring programs across the spectrum at these two channels on a level ground for comparison.

We then studied and categorised debate titles under different categories, such as: Politics (Neutral), Anti-BJP, Anti-opposition, Pro-BJP, Pro-opposition, Economy, Crime and Justice, Health and Safety, and so on. For the sake of comparison, we used these terms only in a post-2014 context. This fit the study—even though the BJP was in the political opposition from 2004 to 2014, the political NDTV debates during this time were limited in number and qualified largely as “Politics (Neutral).” We further used the term “opposition” to refer to the broader opposition in India, including opposition parties, activists, journalists and so on, who could be seen as opposed to the ruling BJP. The categorisations were made on the basis of the language and expressed idea of the debate titles—for Republic TV, this included hashtags. We used the debate title as a relevant variable because it usually reflected the content of the debate and the intent of the channel.

Any debate that dealt with a political issue or had a clear scope of politicisation but with no clear, direct, or explicit favour or disfavour towards the BJP or the opposition was categorised as Politics (Neutral). Day-to-day political developments with no broader themes were also categorised under Politics (Neutral). Titles that directly dealt with specific topics and their issues, such as purely to do with agriculture or health, were categorised likewise. Debate titles that clearly favoured or disfavoured the BJP or the opposition were marked pro or against a side, respectively. In titles where important issues such as agriculture or economy were clubbed with politics, we either categorised these under Politics—pro or against a side—or under their respective issue, depending on the debate title’s focus. We qualified some debate titles under their own categories—Kashmir, the CAA and Ram Mandir for example. Where there was a clear politicisation, that is, a political side was accused, discussed or vilified, these debates were classified as pro or anti the side in question. There were some overlaps, but as much as possible, we favoured classifying these in the specific topical category over a broad political category.

Republic TV conducted debates on 28 different topics between 2017 and 2020. Its top five debate categories came out to be Anti-opposition (595 debates), followed by Politics-Neutral (288 debates), Pro-BJP (204 debates), Nationalism (179 debates), and lastly, Crime and Justice (154 debates). These totalled—1,420—amounted to 79.8 percent of all debates conducted on Republic TV since May 2017.

Republic TV tends to centre its content on politics. In the time period we studied, the channel aired 1,136 political debates, which formed 63.8 percent of all its debates. Anti-opposition debates amounted to 33.4 percent; Politics (Neutral) debates to 16.2 percent; Pro-BJP debates to 11.5 percent; Anti-BJP to 2.8 percent. None, not even one, of Republic TV’s debates could be qualified as Pro-opposition, in the sense that the debate title did not speak strongly in favour of the opposition as it did in favour of the BJP.

A closer look revealed that Republic’s Anti-BJP debates did not directly criticise Modi, but did criticise the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath, the former union ministers Maneka Gandhi and MJ Akbar, and the MP Pragya Thakur, who stands accused of a terror attack. Anti-opposition debates tended to overwhelmingly criticise the Gandhi family and the Indian National Congress.

Between 2001 and 2020, NDTV conducted debates in at least 54 different categories. The channel’s top five debate topics include Politics-Neutral (334 debates in the debate shows, and 293 in the mixed shows), followed by Crime and Justice (181 and 89, respectively); Society (159 and 60); Health and Safety (79 and 21), and Anti-BJP (65 and 84).

These totalled—818 and 547 respectively—amounted to 51.7 percent of all debates on the debate shows and 46.7 percent for the mixed shows. Top shows aired on NDTV’s Left, Right & Centre and NDTV Dialogues included Politics (293 debates); Crime & Justice (89 debates); Anti-BJP (84 debates); Economy (67); and Society (60). In all, these 593 debates amounted to 50.6 percent of all shows conducted on Left, Right & Centre and Dialogues.

Data suggest that NDTV tends to centre its content on both politics and larger societal issues. The channel aired 481 and 439 political debates respectively on the debate and mixed shows, which amounted to 30.4 and 37.5 percent of all its debates. The Anti-BJP debates have directly criticised Modi and other government office bearers. Anti-opposition debates tended to make multiple direct critical references to the Gandhi family and the Indian National Congress.

Republic TV has debated overwhelmingly against the opposition since its inception in mid-2017. Anti-opposition debates in most cases occupied nearly fifty percent of the space given to political debates on its debate show. Anti-opposition debates were generally followed by neutral political debates and then by Pro-BJP debates. Anti-BJP debates tended to remain low. The channel did not run any Pro-opposition debates.

Republic TV further makes sure to explicitly portray its anti-opposition stance in its debate titles. It then confirms its debate’s theme with a hashtag that sounds like a pre-decided conclusion of the debate—take for instance, a debate from January 2020, on the “liberal” opposition to the militarisation of Kashmir. Titled “Provoking to grab attention now?” the debate bore the hashtag “FrustratedLiberals.” Goswami referred to posters and graffiti saying “Free Kashmir” that had been spotted at protests against the CAA and in Delhi University. He said the “pseudo” liberals had unnecessarily opposed the “unfortunate provisions” of Article 370 and Article 35A, but had been shown their place by the Indian people. He chastised these liberals for criticising any actions of the Indian armed forces, as did many of his guests. Another such debate was titled “Pseudos Cheering Anarchy,” where Arnab claimed that “pseudos … from JNU to Jamia to Gaya to Seelampur,” who opposed the CAA and the National Register of Citizens, were spreading lies to incite riots. The hashtag used was “PseudosBackViolence.” Some other debates employed the same formula to criticise the Congress or the Shiv Sena, two of the BJP’s main opposition parties.

Of the Republic TV’s 595 Anti-opposition debates, 342 debates directly dealt with Congress, its members, the Gandhi and Vadra family, and Lutyens Delhi. Most critical references were made towards Rahul Gandhi, and Priyanka Gandhi. Its remaining debates were critical towards the politicians Asaduddin Owaisi, Arvind Kejriwal and Mamata Banerjee; the “Tukde tukde gang,” a term often used by the BJP against its detractors claiming them to be those who want to divide the nation into tukde tukde, or pieces; the “Lobby,” a term Goswami often uses for an undefined set of supposed “liberals”; and the UPA government.

Similarly, Republic TV has been extremely explicit about its support for the BJP while debating Pro-BJP topics. The debates have openly praised Modi’s developments and the government policies, featuring hashtags such as “ModiMeansBusiness” and “ModiG7Magic.”

For a direct comparison between the two channels, we picked the overlapping period of January 2018 and April 2020. In this time, Republic TV did not air debates on key issues such as civic infrastructure, discrimination and equality, the environment, the judiciary, or on poor governance. It also aired limited debates on crucial issues like the economy, education, society, health and safety—these debates came up to just about one percent of its total discussions. Most of its aired debates focused on daily politics, which occupied 64.2 percent of its aired debates during this time.

 NDTV, on the other hand, aired more diverse content through its debates. When calculated over 28 topics in common with Republic TV, political debates occupied 16.6 percent and 45.6 percent of NDTV’s debate and mixed shows, respectively. Caste, economy, education, society and health and safety occupied 48 percent and 12.5 percent, respectively.

 Republic TV aired 479 Anti-opposition debates and only 37 Anti-BJP debates. This is a ratio of 0.0772—Republic TV aired 7.72, or approximately eight, Anti-BJP debates for every 100 Anti-opposition debates. On the contrary, NDTV’s ratio for the mixed shows suggests that it aired 2.6, or approximately three, Anti-BJP debates for every Anti-Opposition debate.

 On the flipside, Republic TV aired only two Anti-BJP debates for every 10 Pro-BJP debates, whereas NDTV aired approximately four Anti-BJP debates for each Pro-BJP debate on its mixed shows. Broadly, Republic TV debated overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP.

 Over the same timeframe, NDTV aired more debates than Republic TV in the categories of Politics (Neutral), International Affairs, Economy, Health and Safety, and Society. Meanwhile, Republic TV aired more Pro-BJP and Anti-opposition debates as well as more debates on Nationalism, Ram Mandir, and Crime and Justice than NDTV.

The channels stayed true these patterns for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The charts below show the number of political debates conducted by both Republic TV and NDTV’s debate shows during the 2019 election year. NDTV’s debate shows conducted a total of 5 debates on Politics (Neutral).

The charts make clear Republic TV’s biases towards the incumbent government during the election year. Among its debates in the lead up to the elections were titles such as “Modi Brings All Nations Together” with the hashtag “ModiCrushesPak,” and “PM Modi provides blunt answer to every opposition attack” (#ModiParliamentSpeech).

While NDTV predominantly aired Politics (Neutral) debates and maintained a balance between debating about the government or the opposition over most of the year, Republic TV kept neutral political debates suppressed. Anti-opposition debates for Republic TV peaked in April—Lok Sabha election were due to start that month—at 33 debates, with approximately one Anti-opposition debate each day. This was likely in a bid to sway voters away from the opposition. While the number of Anti-opposition debates dropped to 28 in May 2019, Pro-BJP debates eventually picked up to compensate. Republic TV’s Anti-BJP debates remained close to the bottom throughout.

 After Modi won a resounding victory in the elections, Republic continued its approving tone of his government. Debate titles it featured included “PM Modi Sets Global Agenda” (#ModiCreatesHistory), “The Road to USD5TN Economy” (#ModiMeansBusiness) and “Amit Shah Smashes NPR Lie” (#NPRForIndia).  

So, is Republic TV its master’s voice? The channel’s debates clearly have a theme that aligns with the incumbent government’s ideology, politics, and priorities. Its top five categories—Anti-opposition, Politics, Pro-BJP, Nationalism, and Crime and Justice—are followed by the hotly-debated Ram Mandir at Ayodhya and the CAA, both with 54 debates each. Anti-opposition, Pro-BJP, Nationalism and Ram Mandir debates amounted to 58 percent of the debates aired on Republic TV.

In 2018 and 2019, when the dispute over the Babri Masjid site was reaching its final stages in the Supreme Court, Republic held 28 debates on the Ram Temple. On the CAA, which was passed in late 2019, Republic TV held 26 debates on the subject before the year ended. By April 2020, it had held 28 more debates on the issue. 

 Of the 54 debates conducted on CAA, 16, or 29.6 percent, portrayed the sit-in at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh negatively. The hashtags that Republic used included “ShaheenBaghScam,” which claimed the protest itself was a “scam”; “ProtestOnHire,” which discussed claims that the protestors had been paid to show up; and “SharjeelShaheenPlot,” which presented selected quotes from a speech given by the scholar and activist Sharjeel Imam and characterised him as anti-India. The list of some of Republic’s hashtags is below.

Nine, or 16.7 percent, of its debates portrayed university campuses negatively.

The remaining debates were pro-CAA and anti-opposition, and centred around the violence that took place in Delhi in February 2020. Here, like it had done in previous years, Republic TV’s tone sided with the government and constantly praised its policies.

Republic TV is undoubtedly a popular channel, and likely even more watched now in light of Goswami’s arrest and release. But of course, the channel and its belligerent editor are only part of a new generation of unapologetically nationalistic and aggressive news anchors. These anchors, who were supposed to de-clutter current affairs, have instead become the self-appointed judge, jury and executioners of trending issues. It is commonplace now for TV debates to have an evident bias, to either portray the ruling government in a good light or the opposition in a bad one. These news channels increasingly serve as political tools of distraction, by flooding mainstream conversation with certain narratives and diverting attention off issues that matter more. The Sushant Singh Rajput’s death in June and the overwhelming reporting that followed it is an apt example: Republic TV was unmatched in its high-pitched coverage of Rajput’s death. Across channels, the coverage of the case singlehandedly managed to get the mass’s attention away from India K-shaped decline—its rising COVID cases and plummeting economy. Our qualitative and quantitative survey exposed this design. It showed how channels like Republic TV, which pretend to be information-oriented but are actually pro-government, can provide rulers with the room to shape national agenda.

 This is particularly dangerous in India, where for years, the middle-class voter has worked in the day and returned home to stretch in front of a TV at night. These channels are now also accessible to viewers on their mobile phones. As if the descent into pliability was not enough, “news” channels have begun substituting entertainment for journalism. Sure, who would not enjoy a barrage of speakers on whether Pakistan was using pigeons to spy on India? But as much as people would like to watch a cat video after a tiring workday, it is not what news channels should be reporting as the day’s big issue.

The media has a moral responsibility towards its viewers for reporting issues that truly matter, providing them with an informed opinion, alerting them of possible consequences and empowering them to ask questions. By having the ability to direct large public attention to certain issues, these media channels determine what to talk about, whom to target and what to worry about. When these directions are politically motivated, they have negative consequences on a state’s democracy by directing public attention to what the people in power want them to see and think—and often, what they want them to forget about.

Few issues illustrate this danger more than the economy, which has been on the decline for more than two years, resulting in loss of jobs and income for millions of Indians. Republic TV had only conducted seven debates on it until April 2020.

Mudit Khandelwal, a college student, has contributed to the data categorisation in this article.

courtesy Caravan

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