Patra was way out of line but does Razdan own the show?

BY ANUP KUMAR| IN Media Practice | 03/06/2017
A professional journalist does not own air time. She has borrowed the time from the public as a trustee of public interest,
Says ANUP KUMAR

 

In what may likely become a case study on handling disruptive difficult guests on TV panel debates, Nidhi Razdan, the anchor for NDTV’s Left, Right, and Centre news panel discussion, told Sambit Patra, the BJP’s national spokesperson, to “apologize or leave my show” after he accused the channel explicitly, and Ms. Razdan implicitly, of having an “agenda” against his party.

Prior to alleging that the channel had an “agenda”, Mr. Patra had repeatedly interrupted other speakers on the panel, and was clearly being disruptive. Although, this is not the first time that a party spokesperson or an activist has been disruptive on a TV panel discussion, including on NDTV. Nor is it the first time that a panelist has alleged bias and an agenda on the part of a channel or a moderator, especially when the moderator has taken to an aggressive line of questioning on alleged transgressions by a ruling party.

Yet the Razdan-Patra incident is somewhat different and rare. We often come across incidents where an invited guest walks out huffing and puffing when faced with either a tough line of questioning or because of a perception that he/she was not being treated fairly. Additionally, we have many instances, including on NDTV, where moderators have asked producers to turn down the mike of a highly disruptive panelist. However, it is rare that a guest is asked to apologize or leave for alleging that the channel has an agenda or is biased.

Patra and other spokespersons, and activists who argue passionately for their cause, have not for the first time interrupted other speakers on a panel. It is incumbent on the producers and the moderators to warn panelists, before and after a show, that such a disruptive behavior will not be accepted.

"The Razdan-Patra incident raises issues of journalistic ethics relating to handling of a longstanding problem of conversational violence on television news panel debates."

 

As a commentator on media practice, it is never comfortable when one must criticize a journalist’s action rather than a politician’s. May be because we do not expect politicians to uphold any professional norm.

The Razdan-Patra incident raises issues of journalistic ethics relating to handling of a longstanding problem of conversational violence on television news panel debates. Until recently, the worst perpetrator of conversational violence was the Newshour on Times Now, and the trend has continued, although to a lesser degree, on the recently launched Republic TV. However, the shows anchored by Arnab Goswami are not the only ones perpetrating conversational violence. We see violence on many other shows, which may be not high on a decibel scale, but are equally guilty of engaging in passive aggression through either routine disruption or use of a hyperbolic tone by panelists and moderators.

It may surprise us but many flagship panel debate shows on Hindi television channels, including that of NDTV, and a few other languages that I am aware of, seem to be, relatively speaking, lower on disruption and talking over each other. There are many good examples of deft handling of disruptive panelists on Indian television.

It is a delicate balance, as shows would not like to be denied access to newsmakers because of throwing people out. We want lively and feisty debates as well. Some shows have mastered the art and craft of feisty debating. For example, BBC’s Newsnight, Al Jazeera’s Head To Head, Headlines Today’s To The Point moderated by Karan Thapar. Some moderators even invite their panelists to jump in the middle of the debate, but at the same time they take the responsibility to see to it that that the debate does not spiral out of control. We see this often on RT’s flagship panel debate show Crosstalk. They are good for teasing out the issues. They may be good on the entertainment value as well. And last, but not the least, they are good for the ratings and television revenues.

The ethical issue that makes Razdan-Patra incident a special case is not that fact that one of the panelists was disruptive and interrupting everyone else on the panel. The fact that Patra was pivoting to deflect from the central issue of sectarian dividends of “beef politics”, on which the BJP has much to answer, is not even what makes this case unique. We know that party spokespersons are spin doctors when it comes defending regressive government policies. Patra is perhaps the best the BJP has got.  

"Right to free speech and tolerance is protected when we allow our critics to have their say."

 

What makes this incident special is Razdan’s decision to throw Patra out of  “her” show because he alleged that the channel had an agenda. Razdan could have rebutted him after Patra had his say, which professionalism would have required. However, Razdan chose to silence him as he was speaking. Right to free speech and tolerance is protected when we allow our critics to have their say. The burden is heavier on people work for media organizations.

A major professional concern with her action is that she claimed that she had the right to throw him out as it was her show. In a naïve sense, the Left, Right, and Center show is hers. She is the moderator, the executive editor, and maybe even a shareholder of the NDTV company.

Yet, unlike an entertainment show—for example, Coffee with Karan and Comedy With Kapil Sharma—the Left, Right, and Center is a news show. In the domain of news, a professional journalist does not own a show, its air-time or the paper on which a news story is printed. Professional journalists are there to represent, witness, and ask questions on the behalf of the people. They are there to safeguard the public interest, not their own individual interest. It is a heavy burden. A professional journalist does not own air time or reading time. She/he has just borrowed the time from the public as a trustee of public interest.  

Razdan would have been within the ethical boundaries if she had defended her professional standing as an unbiased interlocutor in political debates by refuting the allegation, but to claim that she could throw Patra out because she was the owner of the show or media is questionable.  

The burden of ensuring that an aggressive line of questioning in a debate on a divisive and partisan issue does not spiral into conversational violence rests largely on the moderator who sets the example and the ground rules. Moreover, there are many cases that will come to mind, both from India and around the world, where moderators have handled a situation without compromising on the professional standard.

"Razdan would have been within the ethical boundaries if she had defended her professional standing as an unbiased interlocutor."

 

Barkha Dutt, who was until recently the prime time of anchor of NDTV, was often wrongly accused of bias on her shows, but she often handled it professionally. For example, take the way Dutt handled Smriti Irani’s allegation of bias. And just recently on PBS Newshour, perhaps one of the places known for the most civil discourse in TV-land, Republican Senator Mike Lee accused Judy Woodruff of being biased in her aggressive questioning. This was a debate on President Donald Trump’s announcement, earlier in the day, to pull-out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Lee compared her aggressive questioning of him with the seemingly soft take with the spokesperson for the Democratic side. Senator Lee was clearly disparaging her professional reputation, however, Woodruff backed-off from stifling the senator from expressing his point of view, and instead later when she got the opportunity, after he had finished, she set the record straight by disputing and rubbishing the allegation.

To conclude, Nidhi Razdan should have rebutted Sambit Patra’s allegation on the show, and later the producer of the show could have let him know that he would not be welcome on the show if he continued to not let other panelists speak uninterrupted.

 

Anup Kumar teaches in the School of Communication, Cleveland State University, Ohio

 

 

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