By Gaurav Sharma
In a rare move, Sun TV, a popular Tamil news channel, has apologised and corrected an earlier report on the riot in Little India which said the Tamils in Singapore were hiding in their homes because of a hit-back from the Chinese.
But such reporting is no surprise to those familiar with Tamil Nadu politics and the nexus of media and politicians there. It all comes down to politics. The media is owned by different political parties and TV, radio and newspapers are used to push their own agenda and derail that of others.
When the opportunity arises, countries with significant Tamil populations get dragged in.
Their coverage of Sri Lanka has always been about the atrocities committed against the Tamils there. Just last month, the Tamil media in India went hammer and tongs on the issue of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scheduled visit to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth summit. Media somehow connected the visit to “Tamil pride” and how the PM’s visit will mean India’s tactical approval of Sri Lankan government’s alleged war crimes against Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. The Indian PM had to ultimately bow down to the pressure and cancelled his visit citing “internal political reasons”.
This was irrespective of what the Sri Lankan Tamils were thinking. There were numerous reports indicating the exact opposite of what the Tamil media in India was saying. Observers, at that time, had pointed out how the Tamil media in India is not concerned about reporting the facts [that Sri Lankan Tamils actually want Indian PM to visit Sri Lanka]. Rather, it is playing to the domestic gallery at the behest of its political masters.
The riot in Little India got the same treatment.
A long-standing joke in Tamil Nadu is that it probably has the most balanced media in the entire country. But, to achieve that balance, you have to watch two different news channels. Watch Jaya TV to know how bad the opposition is, and watch Sun TV to know what ails the ruling party.
To add to the spice, Jaya TV is owned by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, a former film star, and Sun TV by M Karunanidhi, the leader of the Opposition. And they are bitter rivals.
Things were not so bad in the 1970s and 80s. But as television became commonplace in India in the 90s, politicians were quick to realise and exploit its reach and power of influencing public opinion. More so in South India, where almost every major political party owns a news channel whose sole aim is to advance the owner’s interests.
About Sun TV in particular, it is owned by a conglomerate which also owns other TV channels, publishes newspapers and a magazine, owns a film company and operates several radio channels.
Political biases and the TRP business
While the role of media – that of an unbiased informer – is vital to any healthy democracy; in India this has come into intense scrutiny in recent times. This is the case in Tamil Nadu too, where, as indicated above, media is owned and manipulated by political bigwigs for their vested interests.
The problem becomes all the more precarious when elections are round the corner and correct reporting based on facts is pushed into the background. Sensationalism and rumour-mongering take centre-stage instead. Notably, India is going to vote for its central government in a few months, with this election being touted as the most polarising one in decades.
Apart from political biases, another consideration is the television rating points (TRP) system, which is a tool to measure the popularity of a channel and its various programmes.
For calculation purposes, a device called People’s Metre is attached to TV sets in few thousand homes, which records the time and the programme a viewer watches. This data is then complied for a period of one-month to determine the viewership status and popularity of particular channels.
Simply put, more TRP means more eye-balls, and thus more advertisement revenues. And the “best” way to attract viewers [and thus the advertisers] is to sensationalise every news story. At least, this is what some news organisations seem to think, with Sun TV proving to be the leader of the pack in this recent case.