BJP Wades Into Politicised Tamil Journalism Six Months Ahead Of Election
Truth is often a casualty in Tamil journalism.
And when questioned about this, journalists and the parties that they identify with or in some cases, are even affiliated to, react with anger, character assassination and innuendoes.
A disclaimer here is in order: this journalist has worked for close to three years in Tamil television channels – Puthiya Thalaimurai, News18 Tamil Nadu and the now defunct Cauvery News. This has provided an up close and personal view of the inside workings of the channels.
But back to the truth.
Journalism, we are taught, is to be non-partisan, unbiased, apolitical and without fear or favour. Journalism is about courage, asking uncomfortable questions to the powers that be. While it is rare to find a person who has no ideological leanings or beliefs whatsoever, journalists are taught that their beliefs and faith and leanings must be left behind at home before they come to work.
In Tamil Nadu though, that has not happened.
While the Tamil media has effectively provided a platform for questioning and opposing the establishment at the Centre, this does not happen at the state level, no matter which party is in power.
There are various reasons for this – the Damocles’ sword of a news channel being thrown out of the government owned Arasu cable, of dailies not getting crucial advertisement revenues from the government and of police being misused to foist false cases against editors or individual journalists.
There is, however, another important reason for truth being a casualty. The fact that politics and the media have been so enmeshed historically, that the powerful editors of news channels and larger newspapers do not shy away from propagating the ideology of the party that they are aligned with.
“The editors of almost all Tamil media are ideologically aligned,” said retired Justice K Chandru, in an interview with The Lede. “Tamil journalism has always been historically political, right from the pre-independence days and there was no secret about it.”
And with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now attempting to wade into the already politicised world of Tamil journalism and change the narrative, the battle is well and truly on.
“This is an ideological war,” insisted Narayanan Thirupathy, BJP spokesperson in Tamil Nadu. “90% of journalists in the Tamil television news media are ideologically inclined to the DK (Dravidar Kazhagam) or DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam). It is our responsibility to oppose this,” he said.
The Hashtag Battle
There is little reportage on the raging battle on Twitter that is being waged between journalists, the assumed proxies of the BJP as well as the IT wings of the two large Dravidian parties – the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). In this have also waded in some Left parties, Dalit parties and other smaller caste related outfits.
Two issues have surfaced and have been sought to be intermingled – one is the allegation of biased pro-DMK, pro-DK (Dravidar Kazhagam, ideological fount for the DMK) journalists and editors. The other is the furore over a little known YouTube channel called Karuppar Koottam (group of black people), purportedly an atheist, Periyarist channel that has caused “hurt to Hindu sentiments” by making obscene remarks about a popular shloka to Lord Murugan – the Kanda Sashti Kavasam.
Both of these issues appear de-linked at first sight. But with journalists being dragged into the Karuppar Koottam issue, allegations made of them having links with the YouTube channel and of the DMK being the prop for the channel – issues are muddled and once again, truth becomes the victim.
Hashtags in Tamil such as #Veeravel_Vetrivel (#வெற்றிவேல்_வீரவேல்) trend at all India number one positions, at least briefly. This is the handiwork of the AIADMK’s IT wing, as told to The Lede.
#JaiPeriyar_Tamilnadu was the DMK IT wing’s rebuttal.
Journalists began a hashtag in support of an editor who is reportedly sidelined for his pro-DMK, pro-DK proclivities within his organisation. #ShameOnYouNews18, #ShameOnNews18, #UnfollowNews18TN and #StandWithGunasekaran are also seemingly the handiwork of the DMK’s IT wing which is backed by political strategist Prashant Kishor.
#WelldoneNews18, #WetrustMaridhas along with #Vetrivel_Veeravel are hashtags purportedly being promoted by the BJP’s IT wing.
Tens of thousands of tweets with all of these hashtags are flooding Twitter. Journalists, politicians, bots and supporters of political parties are all in the fray, filling the social media platform with abuse, false information and hate.
What Led To The Battle
The backstory is this – a controversial vlogger called Maridhas, a former television journalist called Madhan Ravichandran and a self-proclaimed political analyst called Kishore K Swamy have, after taking potshots at the “Tamil nationalist” journalists in the past, now joined hands and are systematically taking on well-known faces in Tamil news television in an attempt to destroy their credibility.
The journalists being attacked have been on the BJP’s “list” submitted by the Tamil Nadu wing of the party to the high command last year. It appears that a plan is now coming to fruition – similar to the strategy of discrediting journalists that took place in north India since 2014.
But what of the allegations laid out by Maridhas on social media? He makes the following points – that editor of News18 Tamil Nadu, part of the Ambani-owned News18 group, M Gunasekaran is the son in law of Kali Poongundran, number two in the Dravidar Kazhagam.
Maridhas’ claim about Gunasekaran is not wrong. It is a well-known fact. But this alone, of course, need not point to journalistic bias. An editor’s acts of journalistic commissions and omissions are what will determine bias. We will come to this later.
His next claim is that 70% of News18 Tamil Nadu employees are supporters of DK or DMK. While it is unclear how Maridhas arrived at this figure, it is again, a fact that many key journalists in News18 have openly proclaimed allegiances to the DK ideology. Many are also staunch Leftists and are open about their affiliations to the CPM or CPI.
In fact, “thozhar” is commonly used in newsrooms to address each other. “Thozhar” is comrade in Tamil.
To prove his point, Maridhas refers to an incident that took place in April 2018 when a group of journalists from various news organisations went to protest outside BJP member S.Ve.Shekher’s residence. Most of those in the group were from News18 Tamil Nadu led by a chief reporter whom they all admired and wished to emulate. They pelted stones. A few stood watching as the others pelted stones at the house of the BJP member. The police arrived, loaded them into a van and took them away. Senior journalists stepped in to cajole the police and ensure that the stone pelters were released.
The trigger for the attack on S.Ve.Shekher, a member of the BJP, largely irrelevant to the party, with no say in politics, without power or recognition was that he had shared a Facebook post that said women journalists get into the media by having sexual relations with their editors. S.Ve.Shekher has since, continued to use obscene and provocative language in many of his tweets and Facebook posts.
Maridhas points out that the same group that pelted stones at S.Ve.Shekher’s residence did not react when DMK Rajya Sabha MP RS Bharathi made similar statements against journalists. Journalists counter this by saying Bharathi quickly apologised for his statements the very next day, while S.Ve.Shekher did not.
Maridhas has also sought to discredit Haseef Mohammed, senior journalist with News18 Tamil Nadu. Haseef is one of the founding members of CMPC – Committee of Mediapersons for Change, a young and active group that is quick to protest for journalists’ rights and eager to wade into controversial subjects.
The third object of Maridhas’ disaffection is Karthikaichelvan, editor of Puthiya Thalaimurai, a once leading Tamil news channel that has now faded into being a shadow of its competition.
Maridhas, Kishore K Swamy and Madhan may be the mudslinging faces of the BJP – its leaders remain a lot more dignified and even condemn the allegations.
But when Maridhas’ call for action evokes hundreds of emails to be sent to the News18 top brass demanding a purge of “pro-DK, pro-DMK elements” from their Tamil channel, the message is loud and clear. The BJP’s work has begun.
Maridhas and company though shared an email purportedly sent to him by Vinay Sarawagi, an editor with news18.com. Sarawagi however clarified that the email claiming that the channel was "investigating" the allegations raised by Maridhas, was fake. It was a protonmail ID and the channel has filed a complaint with the police about the fraud.
“I do not support personal attacks on anyone,” said BJP’s Narayanan Thirupathy. “The BJP is not behind Maridhas, Madhan or Kishore K Swamy. They may agree with the BJP’s ideology, that is all. But they are only three. The other side (DK/DMK) is 3000. What are they afraid of? Why are they afraid?” he asked.
“It is an ideological war and we have to fight it. But I am telling you again, all journalists are my friends. But they should be neutral. They must not disseminate fake news or show their ideology,” he said.
Ideology In Tamil Newsrooms
The News18 group, after the deluge of emails from Maridhas and his supporters, are said to have conducted an internal enquiry into the allegations. Some changes in hierarchy have taken place as a result and a couple of journalists have been asked to resign.
But the alleged change in status of editorial powers of M Gunasekaran has caused a furore. It is being portrayed by Gunasekaran’s supporters as a deliberate attack on a liberal by Hindutva forces. Cries of “fascist” News18 giving in to pressure from “RSS goons” is vocal on social media platforms.
But what is lost in this narrative is the fact that News18 has conducted its own enquiry and taken its decisions subsequently for reasons of its own.
The Lede contacted the organisation for its response which was provided via email by the News18 Tamil channel spokesperson:
"In recent times, given the political undercurrents in the state, there are some factions that are trying to project News18 Tamil Nadu in a bad light. There are yet others who are projecting the channel in a favourable light to further their interests. The recent trends on social media both for and against us give us reason to believe that our journalism is transparent, balanced, objective and fair. We will continue to invest in our journalism and accept feedback from everyone to strengthen our core values. We will also not hesitate to correct our mistakes. The team at News18 Tamil Nadu headed by professionals does not sway one way or the other based on political narratives, often bordering on slander. We remain committed to objective and unbiased reportage and covering all shades of opinion--left, right or those in the middle."
But when the DMK’s IT wing and MPs like Thol Thirumavalavan jump in to “save” Gunasekaran from “fascist forces”, it is no longer about journalism. The issue is clearly political.
Tamil journalists who are now crying hoarse over the attack on them, allegedly by the BJP, in the form of Maridhas, Kishore K Swamy and Madhan, choose to ignore that their backyard is not particularly clean.
Little real journalism exists in the state. Most media houses – whether print or television - their managements and editors have blatant political leanings and this is evident in their reportage.
And this is largely due to the historic politics of the state, the Dravidian movement and its consequences that have resulted in a blatantly politicised media.
Let us look at News18 Tamil Nadu, which is currently in the hot seat, so to speak.
Ask anyone who has worked in the channel and these tales would be a common thread.
Reporters and live units are often diverted from a chief minister’s press meet or event to cover an announcement made by K Veeramani, the head of the Dravida Kazhagam. Any tiny event of the rationalist DK – whether it is a group of three members eating during a solar eclipse (to break the superstition that one should not eat during that time) or a beef fest, or even an aged, largely irrelevant Veeramani’s opinion being sought on every single development, clearly outlines channel policy.
“If the unit arrived even five minutes late to any event by K Veeramani, the editor Gunasekaran would come down heavily on the entire team,” said K Krishna, former chief cameraperson in News18 Tamil Nadu. “The purpose of following DK and Veeramani around and giving them so much importance was simply for propaganda purposes.”
Acts of commission are fewer than the acts of omission, as far as pushing ideology goes. For instance, there has been no mention of singer Chinmayi’s allegations of sexual harassment against celebrated poet and lyricist Vairamuthu during the MeToo movement. Vairamuthu is a staunch DMK man. A journalist from the channel who dared to ask a (now) DMK MP a question about Vairamuthu’s misadventures, was shouted at by the MP and also by the editor for asking the question.
Nightly debates provide a platform ostensibly for the BJP spokesperson but the rest of the panelists end up shouting down and mocking his/her views. The anchor, Gunasekaran, is usually an amused spectator.
“It is not just about what went on air. The atmosphere in the office was such that Gunasekaran issued diktats that had to be followed without question. For instance, I was forced to take into my team one Harikrishnan, who was employed as an office boy or some such position in the DK office. He had no experience in using a camera. Despite my protests, I was forced to take him into the team. Harikrishnan would not turn up to work for days together, and when he did, he was usually drunk. When I brought this repeatedly to Guna’s notice, no action was taken. Finally, I had to insist that this man be moved to some other department because the morale in the camera department was low and discipline was reducing,” said Krishna. “How can I allow one guy in the team to do what he pleases while there are experienced and dedicated staff who are working many hours for the channel?”
While many professional journalists were hired, they were forced to submit to the whims and fancies of the editor, according to them. Question and perish, seemed to be the motto. On the other hand, youngsters who landed up at Periyar Thidal (headquarters of the DK), were quickly provided jobs as trainees in the channel.
By all accounts, there was a stark ideological leaning towards the DK and the DMK within News18 Tamil Nadu with Gunasekaran at the helm of affairs.
This may sound strange for media watchers who know that the News18 group is owned by Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani. Its English and Hindi channels are more than careful about being critical of the ruling BJP.
So how did the Tamil channel of the Ambani group get away with supporting the DMK and the DK, key political rivals of the BJP?
Language is perhaps key to the fact that the bosses in Delhi did not realise what was going on under their noses. Most of the News18 top brass does not understand Tamil and the channel has managed to duck the little oversight it has.
Another reason is that television channels like News18 Tamil Nadu, Puthiya Thalaimurai, Polimer TV and others serve as small feudal regimes where the editor is the lord and all others are serfs. No one dares question the editor for fear of losing his/her job and worse, getting blacklisted. No one complains to the editor’s superiors about being treated poorly.
Public humiliation and nasty abuse are par for the course in today’s newsrooms.
The Lede contacted Gunasekaran with a series of questions about the allegations made against him. He did not respond to the queries.
To Gunasekaran’s credit, he was instrumental in hiring many members from impoverished backgrounds and from the Dalit castes in the channel. He himself comes from a humble background and has worked his way hard to becoming editor of a Tamil news channel.
A History Of Politicisation
Tamil journalism has been linked historically with politics and political parties.
The first Tamil journals in what was then Madras province were largely published by Christian missionaries.
The first journalistic newspaper to be published was The Hindu in 1879, in English. The first Tamil newspaper was published in 1881 by G Subramania Aiyer, one of The Hindu’s founders. This paper was called Swadesamitran (Friend of Self Rule).
Nationalistic in tone and leaning towards the Congress party (which was equated to patriotism at the time), Swadesamitran saw many brilliant journalists as editors. Subramania Bharati or Bharatiyar too worked at the paper as a sub-editor before going on to found his own journal India in 1906.
In 1917, V Kalyanasundara Mudaliar started a daily called Desabhaktan and later, a weekly magazine Navasakthi which became a big success. He too was influenced by the Congress party and propagated the Congress’ narratives.
P Varadarajulu Naidu published a daily called Tamil Nadu in 1926. He too was a Congressman.
As the Congress began to witness opposition in the form of the Justice Party, JS Kannappar started Dravida.
From 1925 onwards, Periyar’s social justice and Self Respect movement held sway.
Communication of the ideology was via magazines and pamphlets, many times copied by hand and distributed. Former DMK leader M Karunanidhi’s school magazine Manava Nesan (Friend of Students) is an example of how Dravidian ideology took deep root and became part of the journalistic process.
Karunanidhi later started a weekly called Murasoli (drum beat). Karunanidhi is often referred to fondly as a journalist by members of the media – this parallel is misplaced, since Karunanidhi’s writing was entirely propaganda for the Dravidian ideology and politics that he was part of.
Alai Osai was a prominent evening newspaper of the time, owned by the DMK’s Neela Narayanan which began publication around 1969. In 1996 it was bought over by AJ Anand.
As the DMK was born from the DK and came to power in 1967, the Left parties too jostled for power and ideological space.
To oppose the DMK’s crackdown on Leftist trade unions, M Shanmugavel and TR Ramasamy, well-connected journalists, both staunch supporters of the Left parties, decided to start another publication. With the help of the CPI’s Soviet contacts, a printing press was imported and in 1972, Makkal Kural (voice of the people) was founded – it was tagged as the working journalist’s paper. Makkal Kural quickly became popular as it took on the Karunanidhi government and was the go-to paper for the working class.
Journalists and politics have been enmeshed in Tamil Nadu since before Independence. Politicians owned media outlets and journalists went on to become politicians.
“While the DMK concentrated on their appeal to most of the middle class and educated group of people and were attempting to corner their support, the AIADMK had no such compulsions. They were sure of their vote bank and contended themselves with commercial patronage and helping individual journalists. Most of the editors today have grown up in this ideological mould,” recounted Justice Chandru.
Similarly, TR Ramasamy went on to become a trouble shooter for AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) founder and former chief minister MG Ramachandran. He helped bring MGR closer to the Congress and this suited the CPI at the time, since the party supported MGR against the DMK.
Subsequently the Left parties came up with other mouthpieces – CPI’s Janasakthi and CPM’s Theekkathir – the parties and their publications dwindled in political power and distribution.
The Express group’s Dinamani, founded by Ramnath Goenka, started off on firm journalistic footing. It underwent internal familial troubles and around 1999 the group split and The New Indian Express was born. Over a course of time, the paper ceased to be an opinion maker as it fell behind on circulation and it took on a strong RSS tone.
A famous episode highlights the patronage of The Hindu by successive DMK governments. In 1967, when the DMK first came to power with CN Annadurai as chief minister, the first strike took place by the Left-led union. This led to the newspaper being shut down for 63 days.
“In 1967, The Hindu was closed for 63 days as there was a labour union problem for the first time. However, since DMK came to power only around that time, the then Chief Minister CN Annadurai himself appealed to The Hindu to lift the lockout. He persuaded the then editors Narasimhan & Kasturi that they should oblige the new government and if, after the lifting of lockout, if the management was harsh with the workers, they will not extend their courtesies. But after the lockout was lifted, some of the worker leaders owing allegiance to Left groups were sacked,” said Justice Chandru.
Another large daily, Dinathanthi was started in 1942 to serve the Nadar caste lobby’s interests by SP Adithanar, a minister in the Karunanidhi regime who then went over to MGR’s team, as a minister. This group initially was a staunch supporter of Kamaraj’s faction of the Congress, due to the caste factor. Subsequently it leans towards the BJP.
Newspaper Dinamalar was begun by TV Ramasubba Iyer in 1951 in southern Tamil Nadu in the districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. The owners initially supported Congress but subsequently moved allegiance to the BJP. This newspaper’s circulation has dropped drastically.
Dinakaran, now owned by the DMK’s Maran brothers, was originally started by Kandasamy, a minister in the DMK. Kandasamy had broken away from the Dinathanthi Adithanar family. He belonged to the Nadar caste and was actor-politician Sarath Kumar’s uncle.
Ananda Vikatan was bought over from Gudalur Vaidyanathaiyar by SS Vasan in 1928, relaunched as a weekly cinema magazine and later switched over to various subjects – literature, health, economy, women-specific subjects and others. Today, the third generation of the family runs the group and leans heavily towards Tamil nationalism, DK ideology and some Dalit politics.
“The Times of India was sought to be encouraged as a counter point to the Hindu by Jayalalitha,” said Justice Chandru. “It was told that she was ready to extend all infrastructural facilities as well as patronage by the government, as she thought that The Hindu should be cut to size since it was exhibiting animus against her party.”
The AIADMK’s mouthpiece was Namadhu MGR and upon Jayalalithaa’s death, when the party split into pro and anti Sasikala factions, Namadhu Amma was started by the anti-Sasikala faction which is now in power in the state.
It is clear that in all of the most popular dailies, the DMK and the Congress have had major roles to play. Managements and editors are invariably tied to the ideologies of the DMK, many of them moving between politics and media roles without bothering about conflict of interest.
As far as the news channels space goes, Sun TV owned by the DMK's Marans was the forerunner. A few attempts to launch independent media outlets by the Zee group and the Star group were quickly routed when the DMK was in power in the early 2000s.
Jaya TV was begun as a party mouthpiece for the AIADMK.
The first independent Tamil news channel was Puthiya Thalaimurai, launched in 2011. However, its owner TR Pachamuthu launched his own political party called Indiya Jananayaga Katchi and entered into electoral alliances with the BJP in 2014 and 2016. In 2019, the alliance with the DMK did the trick and Pachamuthu became an MP from Perambalur.
Other channels such as Thanthi TV (Dinathanthi group), Polimer TV, News7 were launched subsequently.
While ideology is in itself not a bad word, it is to be avoided in journalism.
Over time, narrative and debate amongst journalists has turned restrictive. A culture of “you are either with me or against me” has crept in, leading to those with opposing viewpoints being sidelined or ostracised.
Labels are easily pinned on journalists who have differing views from the predominant crowd.
Journalists who are batting for or against the News18 editor must decide what exactly it is they are opposing.
Are they opposing the BJP-RSS’ perceived bullying and attempted imposition of ideology on Tamil journalism?
Are they also then opposing the imposition of any other ideology on journalism and journalists in the state – including the DMK-DK, Left and AIADMK ideologies?
These nuanced questions are critical because keeping journalism free of ideology is the only way to save it.
This current battle between the BJP and the DK ideologues within Tamil journalism could go either way.
It could go from newsrooms filled with DMK-DK ideology to the BJP ideology. That would not bode well at all for Tamil journalism.
But if this battle brings in professional journalists at the helm of affairs across the Tamil media, it can only help Tamil society.
“I may not agree with the suggestion of the Ex-Press Council of India Chairman Katju, that there should be minimum professional qualification prescribed for working journalists. But however, going by the present standard of Tamil Journalism, certainly I will say the journalists must be professionally trained and must have strong ethical standards,” said Justice Chandru.