On April 5, JNU PhD student Shehla Rashid tweeted that the National Broadcasting and Digital Standards Agency (NBDSA) had ordered Zee News to remove links to a show it had broadcast in November 2020, alleging that Rashid was indulging in “anti-national activities” and that she was “funding terror”.
The program was hosted by Zee News editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary, who, the NBDSA statement found, hadn’t bothered to present Rashid’s defence of herself on the same show nor stopped to check if the claims being made on the show – by Rashid’s father, from whom she her mother and her sister are estranged – were true.
Even if they haven’t watched the show in question, readers of this blog must know by now what its tone, style and decibel-level must have been: shows like this have been regular programming at a clump of pseudo-news-sites trumpeting Hindutva ideals and hate. These outlets deserve without exception to be brought to book by the relevant national institutions, including the NBDSA – even as Rashid added, agreeably, that simply asking hateful content to be taken down from their pages doesn’t suffice. They need to issue public apologies and pay steep fines, say as a fixed percentage of their revenues, for every transgression identified by the NBDSA.
But even as we rejoice – just a little – in the knowledge that the NBDSA had some integrity where many other national institutions haven’t, I wish it had used different language in its statement upbraiding Zee News. Rashid had shared a screenshot of a part of the NBDSA’s statement showing the bottom fifth of one page and the top four-fifths of the next one. In this portion, the NBDSA is concerned repeatedly with the “impartiality and objectivity” and their absence in Zee News’s show. To quote:
With regard to the broadcast, NBDSA was of the view that the issue under consideration is whether the programme lacked objectivity, impartiality, neutrality and whether it violated the complainant’s privacy. NBDSA noted that by allowing the interviewee … the channel had presented only one side of the story. Further, not only had the broadcaster failed to approach the complainant for her version prior to telecasting the impugned programme but bymaking only a fleeting reference to her denial of the allegations, the broadcaster had also failed to adequately present her version. In any case, the Authority noted that to broadcast the version of the complainant available in her social posts was not sufficient compliance of the [Code of Ethics and Broadcasting Standards and] Guidelines.
That Zee News failed to accord any meaningful screen time to Rashid in a programme about slinging mud on her work and views is a cardinal sin. Even if you have a great investigative story on your hands, with documentary evidence for every claim, not giving the implicated parties a chance to defend themselves will only undermine the story. It’s a small step and often an easy one: either the parties will decline comment, as many in India have chosen to do of late, or seize the chance to air their side of the story. This opportunity reflects, among other things, the media’s refusal to serve as an arbiter but also its implicit acknowledgment of the possibility that it its narrative isn’t the ‘ultimate truth’, however that’s defined.
However, the NBDSA has tied this rule to “objectivity”, which doesn’t make sense. This is because Zee News, from its point of view, surely believes that it has been objective: Rashid’s father does hold the views that he does, and Zee News has broadcast them without alterations. There is no violation of objectivity here per se.
Even when unscrupulous outlets like OpIndia quote ministers and government officials spouting hateful rhetoric or articulating policies grounded in dubious assumptions, they are being objective in the sense that these statements do exist – i.e. their existence is a fact – leaving the outlets to simply report these facts to a larger audience. And even if OpIndia, and Zee News for that matter, aren’t objective in other ways (esp. when they publish false news first-hand), the definition of objectivity encompasses the reporting of facts and thus allows them to claim to the consumers of their bilge that they’re being “objective” where others aren’t.
This is how the pursuit of objectivity can be, and often is, anti-democracy. Many feckless (pseudo) news publishers in India have hijacked the false virtue of objectivity to project themselves as the purveyors of ‘real journalism’, while many of the rest of us have allowed them to do so by vying for the same objectivity. We don’t need to be objective; we need to be pro-democracy: the latter compels a greater fidelity to the truth, in substance as well as spirit, that proscribes technicalities of the sort that pro-Hindutva ‘reporters’ have been known to employ.
If the NBDSA had instead pulled up Zee News for not being on the side of democracy, instead of not being on the side of objectivity, (that part of) its statement would have been perfect. It would also have set an important precedent for other news outlets, at least those that are interested and willing, to follow.