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Chronicling the tragic death of television news

Ironically, this year has reminded me of both why I became a journalist, and why I sometimes think of dumping this profession and moving onto other things.

If that sounds confusing, let me explain.

I spent close to four months travelling across India, from Ladakh to Kerala, reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, its humanitarian and economic consequences, its medical ramifications and its resultant social and psychological churn. On this 24,000-kilometre journey, on the ground as an old-fashioned reporter, sometimes without food or a place to stay, I relived the passion and hunger that first drew me to this job more than two decades ago.

Like many of my colleagues, my later years in television, as a prime-time anchor, had dulled me, made my mind stale, chipped away at my energy and frankly, bored me. So, when my reporting on the pandemic drew questions about whether this was Barkha 2.0, I turned around and said that this was Barkha 1.0 who had lost bits of her core self somewhere along the way. It felt wonderful to reclaim news. It felt even more gratifying that there were so many people who responded so well to hard-nosed reportage.

My old medium, television (I am now the editor of a digital video platform), did not cover itself in glory during the pandemic. As the biggest exodus of Indians since Partition took place, television was missing for nearly the first two months. Its more benign stars were either lazy or fearful or both. They did not stir out of the studios or their homes till much later. Its worst offenders sat inside too, and then looked for ways to turn the coronavirus into some sort of Hindu-Muslim claptrap. The pandemic has been consistently reported only by newspaper reporters, local stringers, some extremely brave photographers and a handful of digital journalists. On TV, you only got the formulaic talk shows, sometimes banal, sometimes dangerous for the poison they spewed.

But nothing has, as dramatically, underscored the death of journalism as the coverage of the Sushant Singh Rajput tragedy. I don’t watch television news and, so, whatever I know is from online snippets released by various channels. Nor do I know anything about the protagonists involved. I did one interview with Susan Walker, a Mumbai-based therapist who treated the actor and who reached out to me through a professional acquaintance. It was a complicated decision for me to broadcast her assessment because it was evident that she was breaching patient privilege when she told me that Rajput was bipolar. I finally decided to air her statement because she told me that she feared more lives were at risk because of the toxicity of the media circus and it was her “duty” to speak.

Subsequently, I have mostly stayed away from it all for a number of reasons. First, in the age of Covid-19, a damaged economy and a seriously precarious situation with China, this should not be a news priority. Then there is the invasiveness, the misogyny, the gossip and rumour masquerading as reportage and the sheer idiocy of it all. WhatsApp chats have been leaked to the studios, with various sides using the leaked content to make a point that suits their client. Even the so-called enlightened TV channels, whose anchors tweet daily about how they are above the story, have spent hours of video-time on their digital platforms covering it. Not one person has paused to wonder about the ethics of using these private conversations in the public domain. Not one of these journalists who so sanctimoniously judge everyone else would be willing for their own WhatsApp exchanges to be released for the world to scrutinise.

I don’t know if Rajput killed himself or was killed. I have not followed the twists and turns of the case. I barely know the names of the protagonists. And, of course, I hope anyone who is guilty is punished.

But there is something sordid and dangerous in the way this issue has been unpacked. Even those who argue that they are offering a counter-narrative to the media vilification of Rhea Chakraborty have become participants and traders in the same sort of tawdry content. We are now spending hours of air time on people’s private lives, break-ups, relationship woes and the supposed friction between girlfriends and parents. It’s unlikely that we would be willing to talk of any of this stuff when it comes to ourselves, if ever asked. The hypocrisy all around is staggering. Wherever I go, people complain about what they see on television. Yet, if you are lapping this up because it’s random entertainment or from morbid fascination, you are enablers. It isn’t just Rajput who died; it’s also television news media.

And who is responsible for this murder? Or should I say, abetment to suicide?

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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