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Friday, 11 September 2020

The Red Ocean : Unfiltering Sushant’s Story & New Normal of TV News.

While pursuing my MBA, I learnt about Blue Ocean & Red Ocean strategies. Blue ocean is an unexplored market where there is no competition & ample scope to grow. On the other hand Red Ocean in management parlance is a market where there is cut throat competition and the players compete with each other to get the biggest pie. Today, TV news industry has effectively become a Red Ocean where all the players struggle to get maximum viewership. High viewership for a channel is important for its revenue and sustenance...but the channels don’t get viewership just by showing pure journalistic content (ask Mr.Roy)...hence you see the hyperactive reporters, the hysterical anchors, the chasing of cars, the lining up of OB vans outside residences of suspects & witnesses & offices of investigating agencies...And yes this coverage also gives you a feeling of time travel & takes you 4 months back, the pre-Covid days. There is no fear of infection ,no physical distancing & no precautions. (btw 3 young journalists across India lost their life due to Covid-19 during last 10 days) As soon as reporters see some suspect or witness arriving at DRDO guest house in Santacruz (where CBI team has camped) they pounce on them making everybody susceptible to the virus. The TV channels are giving maximum airtime to Sushant's coverage at a time when our GDP is going to Pataal Lok, figures of Covid infections and deaths are rocketing towards Aakashlok, China is expanding towards its west & floods have brought doom in India's north & east. Except one, for all other news channels Sushant's coverage was the most important news event of the nation. That one channel which didn’t cover Sushant like others remains at number 8 or 9 in the weekly ‘merit list’ of ratings. (I don’t know whom to blame for this) Here is my take on why the media arrived at this mess.


When the news of Sushant Singh's suicide came all crime seasoned reporters of Mumbai knew that the follow up coverage would stretch for many days to come. Suicide cases of Ziah Khan, Viveka Babaji & Pratyusha Banerji from the past suggest that such deaths from glamour industry are followed for long time and in great detail. However, nobody expected that Sushant's coverage would stretch over to 4 months and would overshadow all other national stories. Many channels had planned big coverage for 1st anniversary of abrogation of Art 370 in Kashmir & groundbreaking ceremony of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya but such was the impact of Sushant's story that these two events were confined to just one day coverage on most TV channels. Nothing seemed more important than Sushant’s story.


I don’t doubt Mumbai Police's line of investigation which treated Sushant's death as suicide with the initial inputs it had.(Yes, the CBI may or may not come out with a different finding).  Almost, all the crime journalists with whom I discussed the case concur with my view. Prima facie nothing came in Mumbai Police's hands to suggest that it was a case of murder. But then Mumbai Police & Maharashtra government made certain mistakes which are the root cause of mess which we are seeing today.




Lack of Transparency:


The Mumbai Police on the instructions of Maharashtra government acted on the tweets made by some film personalities who cried that Sushant was killed due to nepotism (the same ones are now talking about drug angle after nepotism was ruled out and Rhea was made accused for abetting Sushant’s suicide) Calling of over 50 personalities from film world for investigation on nepotism angle was generating suspicion, more so because Mumbai Police was not officially coming out to speak what was being achieved from the said investigation. You may counter me by asking why the cops should reveal details of their investigation. Here, I feel that they should have been prudent by deputing some officers of DCP or above rank to atleast provide minimum details to media. People were called for interrogation just on the basis of an ADR (Accidental Death Report). It was not a criminal investigation as no FIR was filed. Lack of transparency damaged Mumbai Police. Lack of information often leads to misinformation which very soon began happening.


The Conspiracy Theorists of Social Media:


The misinformation campaign began with a Facebook post of one small time actor residing in a western suburb of Mumbai. His post linked death of Disha Salian, erstwhile manager of SSR with death of SSR. According to his post both had been murdered, Disha was pregnant & Sooraj and his accomplices were the culprits. He added that some politicians were also involved. He added 'Fw :' before draft of the post so that it looks like it was written by somebody else.


Following this actor's FB post there were many other posts spread by the Whatsapp University where photoshopped images of  SSR's dead body was shown with questions being raised about ligature marks. Such posts attempted to convey that SSR was killed & his murder was made to look like suicide. Some self proclaimed experts and video bloggers went into great detail explaining the `coverup’.  Meanwhile, some people added name of Aditya Thackeray, son of Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray & a minister in his cabinet.


With adding of Aditya's name a narrative began against Mumbai Police. A campaign for CBI enquiry started & it was alleged that Mumbai cops were trying to protect someone powerful. 


Here, the fault of Mumbai Police was that it remained passive or unresponsive to the various conspiracy theories which were getting viral on social media. A stitch in time saves nine &  Mumbai Police should have acted as soon as rumour mongering began. It should have traced the origin of such social media posts & have pulled up the originators - "Tell us who told you all this? What is the evidence to corroborate your theory?" However, no action was taken in this regard. Infact, being perturbed by such viral posts Aditya Thackeray released a defensive statement saying he had nothing to do with the matter.


Enter the BJP:

The BJP which has been struggling to topple the MVA govt & find some issue to corner the incumbent jumped in the fray. With one shot the BJP aimed at two targets. Apart from pulling up the MVA govt of Maharashtra, the party also made an emotional appeal to the electorates in Bihar. It was quick to read the emotions of Biharis attached with the case & decided to capitalize in it. Last week a poster by Bihar BJP's cultural wing was released which indicates that SSR death would be the biggest issue in Bihar assembly polls. (sadly, a state where last months lakhs of people were displaced and hundreds died due to floods)

BJP demanded a CBI enquiry and the central government led by it also announced an investigation into financial trail by the Enforcement Directorate.

Then came Narayan Rane. Rane who is former CM of Maharashtra & MP of the BJP took a press conference and made all those allegations on record which were doing the rounds on social media without anything to substantiate. He alleged that SSR was murdered and the evidence was destroyed. His press conference & subsequent interviews to some news channels lent credence to social media conspiracy theories- "An ex CM will not speak anything without any basis. Right?"

Enter the Patna Police :

The media (except the vengeful anchor about whom we will discuss further in this blog) which had almost lost interest in SSR case got activated once again when SSR's father registered a case in Patna alleging that Rhea, her family members and others abetted SSR's suicide. He didn’t allege that he was murdered (but the vengeful anchor and social media conspiracy theorists continued to call it so) Patna Police instead of registering the case as "Zero Number FIR" itself began investigating the case. In view of my many lawyer friends it was absurd. As per the law Patna police should have simply transferred the case to Mumbai Police. Somebody asked whether a crime committed in Kanyakumari could be investigated by Kashmir police because complainant desires so? (later Supreme Court settled this debate with its own reasoning)


Four Patna Police officers airdropped to Mumbai and began their investigation. They hardly got any co-operation from their counterparts in Mumbai. In this case also Maharashtra administration made a mistake. When IPS officer Vinay Tiwari landed in Mumbai from Patna to supervise the investigation he was stamped and quarantined by the BMC & asked not to move out of his guest house. The BMC is ruled by Shiv Sena & the blocking of Tiwari in such manner gave air to various conspiracy theories that Shiv Sena was hiding something. In my view, Shiv Sena feared that Patna cops would drag Aditya's name in the case due to political colour the case has taken. The BJP is sharing power with JDU in Bihar.

Entry of the Vengeful Anchor :

Whatever was being circulated on social media was soon picked up by a TV journalist who runs an English & a Hindi news channel. In my view this journalist had to settle a score with Thackeray Sarkaar & Mumbai Police chief. Few months ago he had targetted Sonia Gandhi & MVA government on his channel allegedly in a derogatory manner. A criminal case was filed against him & he was made to sit in police station for long hours.  Hence, with SSR case he got an oppurtunity to take revenge for his alleged harassment. On his channel he began to show the content & conspiracy theories which so far were floating only on social media. He alleged that Mumbai Police & MVA govt were covering up the case by calling it a suicide. His channel began the narrative of "Sushant Murder Case". His reporters were not allowed to call it a case of suicide or even "alleged suicide" but were told to call it a murder case. His animosity towards Maharashtra CM & Mumbai Police Commissioner reflected in the bitter manner in which he referred to them on screen.

Everybody is trapped by the Vengeful Anchor:

The Vengeful Anchor adopted a "no holds barred" approach in his coverage.  While doing live chats his journalists behaved like political leaders giving speeches. Their body language displayed aggression and they appeared fully committed towards "Justice For Sushant". The reporters of the Vengeful Anchor were at every location related to the case and chased any person related even mildly with it. An aggressive campaign began on his both the channels.

The Vengeful Anchor benefitted by his loud, hysterical campaign & toppled Aaj Tak from number 1 position & continued to do so week after week. This success of the Vengeful Anchor led to a bandwagon effect & most of mainstream Hindi & English channels focused on SSR's coverage with full strength dropping all other serious news events. Most of the channels air dropped 5 to 6 reporters from Delhi to join their Mumbai teams. From morning to night, airtime of all bulletins was occupied by SSR's coverage. However, the rivals of the Vengeful Anchor failed to notice that he had created his own pitch based on his histronics, venegeance, speculation & conspiracy theories. 

Now all the channels in the fray were playing on his pitch. He appeared to be impregnable. Aaj Tak inspite of getting long exclusive interview of Rhea lost to the Vengeful Anchor and it is enough to substantiate that everybody has fallen in his trap.

It appeared that all the news channels were compelled to focus on SSR coverage. However, TV-9 played smart by sticking to its India-China border dispute coverage which it has been doing since past few months & gave least importance to SSR coverage. By doing this the channel managed to keep itself at number 3 or 4 position in the weekly `Merit List’ of TRP.

Reporters: The Silent Sufferers.

TV reporters & silent? Doesn’t this sound ironical when you see many of them screaming and shouting on TV screens? The biggest recipients of admonishment and criticism have been field reporters. Being on field myself during this coverage provided me an insight of what they have been feeling. Most of them know that they are mere foot soldiers in this crazy war. They are frustrated and a major cause of their frustration is that they are part of a rat race where winner is the one who has come up with a strategy which is a cocktail of speculation, conspiracy theories, hysteria & arrogance. The channels have fallen into the trap and so have the reporters. Most of the reporters have been pressurised by their respective channels to get something exclusive in the case...some leaked statement, some Whatsapp chat, some pictures, some videos and so on. Anything mildly related to the case is being treated as 'exclusive' if the rivals don’t have it. Some of the statements I overheard from discussions of reporters who were posted outside the DRDO, the NCB office & the courts reflect their disgust, their helplessness & their unwillingness to be part of this coverage.

 A TV journalist who has been in the profession since past 20 years said -"No journalist worth his salt is part of this coverage with the approval of his conscience",

“I have to unlearn whatever journalistic skills I have acquired over the years to be part of this”, a Delhi based reporter spoke to his colleague.

A lady reporter working for an English news channel commented – “I am worried that the way mockery of spot reporting has been done & importance to conspiracy theories has been given, this will become a new normal for TV news. Every channel will emulate this”.

My counterpart in a rival channel whose journalistic career began alongwith mine called me in a depressed voice and said – “We must write a book to tell everybody what this profession was when we entered it over twenty years back and what it is today. Paani ab naak ke oopar jaa raha hai”.

(Disclaimer: This is personal blog of the author. Views & observations expressed in this blog are author’s own & doesn’t reflect the opinion of news organisation he works with.)