Mamata, Gogoi fight without media support

BY SUBIR BHAUMIK| IN Regional Media | 09/04/2016
Without the TV channels their parties could count on in the last elections, both CMs have aggressive media to reckon with.
SUBIR BHAUMIK explains what is going on

 West Bengal CM Mamata Baneerjee (left),  Tarun Gogoi (right)

 

Trinamul Congress (TMC) leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is without media support in the current election. As all TV channels in the state played up the Narad sting tapes (of which more later) and the TMC-syndicate links in supplying the poor raw material that led to the Vivekananda flyover collapse on March 31, Banerjee started telling election rallies she does not care for ‘media support’.

“I need your support, because I am here to work for you. Will you vote for me or not?” she asked a rally at Narayangarh in Midnapur district on Friday, urging voters to ensure the defeat of Surjya Kanta Mishra, the projected chief ministerial candidate of the Left-Congress alliance who is contesting from Narayangarh. “The media is either sold out to the BJP or Congress and some are political instruments of the CPI-M,” she said in frustration.

The only media organizations she could have counted on belong to the now largely defunct Saradha group. Its owner, Sudipta Sen, and Saradha media chief, Kunal Ghosh, are in jail with no chance of early release, let alone revival of the group.

Channel 10 (the Bengali channel), Sakalbela (the Bengali daily) and the Bengal Post (the English daily) have closed down despite Banerjee’s personal efforts to find financiers. Tara News, a Bengal TV channel which the Saradha group had bought from former Doordarshan chief and later media baron Ratikanta Basu, is clearly fund-starved and is not a force to reckon with during the polls.

Tara News is no longer under TMC or Saradha management control and is instead run by a loose employee cooperative. The channel has tried to position itself as independent and has therefore run stories on the Narad Tapes and the flyover collapse, much to Banerjee’s anguish.

"So the ‘Joan of Arc of Bengal’ (as some of her media stooges once described her) goes into this crucial election largely deserted by her erstwhile media friends, owners and journalists alike. "

 

Even the popular ABP Ananda presenter Suman Dey, who used to boast shamelessly of his helicopter rides with ‘Didi’ during the 2011 polls, is now running panel discussions relentlessly attacking Trinamul leaders over the Narad scandal. This centres on videos which have purportedly caught West Bengal Urban Development Minister, Firhad Hakim, and former Transport Minister, Madan Mitra (who is in jail over the Saradha scam), inviting undercover journalists posing as associates of industrialists, to cut a “deal”. Another video allegedly shows Hakim accepting a Rs 5 lakh bribe. The videos have not yet been authenticated.

Apart from this story, Dey has been covering the deaths caused by the flyover collapse and much else that is unfavourable to Banerjee.

The powerful Ananda Bazar Patrika, said to be one of the largest circulated vernacular papers in India and its English cousin The Telegraph are running expose after expose, the latest being the abnormally high voting that took place post-4 pm (when the polls were supposed to close in 13 sensitive seats) during the first round of the Bengal polls on April 4.  

ABP Ananda, Ananda Bazar Patrika and The Telegraph are the strongest media brands in West Bengal and their anti-Mamata stance (in sharp contrast to 2011) is adversely impacting TMC fortunes. “One can never wish away the ABP factor in Bengal,” says Mrityunjoy Chatterjee, who heads Media Studies at Amity University’s Calcutta campus. “Their reach is phenomenal.”

Banerjee has a party paper called Jago Bangla (Rise Bengal) like the CPI(M)’s daily organ  Ganashakti (People’s Power) but, unlike the latter, it is not professionally put together and its marketing suffers because the TMC still cannot match the CPI(M)’s organizational network in reach and discipline, despite five years in power.

Other TV channels have all cashed in on the Narad tapes and the flyover collapse because none of them could afford to miss these huge stories and expect to stay relevant in TRP terms or otherwise. 24 Ghanta is seen as the best in political coverage and is a much more independent channel now than when it was seen as a CPI(M) channel a few years ago. But they have been unrelenting in their anti-Mamata offensive.

So the ‘Joan of Arc of Bengal’ (as some of her media stooges once described her) goes into this crucial election largely deserted by her erstwhile media friends, owners and journalists alike.

Meanwhile, in Assam, the ruling Congress lost out on a leading TV channel, Newslive, when its real owner, Himanta Biswa Sarma, deserted Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi and walked over to the BJP. The channel is officially owned by his wife but everyone in Assam knows where its resources come from. Sarma has also been questioned in the Saradha scam. 

But Sarma’s one time friend-turned-foe, Forest Minister Rockybul Hussain, has put together a reasonably professional channel called Assam Talks. It is owned by Rockland Media and Communication (the ‘Rock’ suggesting the Rockybul link).

By and large, most of the channels and newspapers in Assam are with the BJP which has whipped up anti-migrant sentiments that have always gone down well with the Assamese media. The leading daily, Asomiya Protidin, the first Assamese daily to cross the one lakh mark, is full-throated in its support to Modi and the BJP’s candidate for chief minister, Sarbananda Sonowal (currently Union Sports and Youth Affairs Minister).

However, the paper is scathing in its attacks on Sarma. Many see this as media rivalry because Sarma (or his wife), who owns News Live and some entertainmnent channels, has bought over and runs Niyomia Barta, an Assamese daily, with the intention of challenging Asomiya Protidin.

Only the traditionally balanced Assam Tribune has maintained its credibility but English papers have limited impact.

As Banerjee seeks to beat a huge anti-incumbency wave to return to power a second time and as Tarun Gogoi strives for a hat trick plus one (four successive wins), they both have to reckon with much less media support than they initially enjoyed. If they still emerge victorious, the result will be a comment on how much the media can really influence an Indian election.
 

Subir Bhaumik, a veteran BBC journalist and commentator on media issues, is author of Counter-Gaze: Media, Migrants, Minorities. 

 

 

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