Why political parties are running away from Tamil TV debates

Parties accuse show anchors of being biased and disrespectful; a look at how Tamil television evolved since Doordarshan days throws some light on the issue

AIADMK leaders Edappadi K Palaniswami and O Panneerselvam have issued a joint statement saying henceforth their party representatives will not participate in TV debate shows.

On the evening of Monday, July 12, AIADMK coordinator O Panneerselvam and co-coordinator Edappadi K Palaniswami, Tamil Nadu’s former Deputy Chief Minister and Chief Minister, respectively, issued a joint statement. They said henceforth, their party representatives would not participate in TV debate shows since most of the media belittles them and their leaders.

It is unclear which particular channel’s programme triggered the party’s decision, but it’s a fact that the AIADMK has come under media attack time and again, particularly over the past two months.

However, this is not the first time a political party has come out with such a statement. Some months ago, the state BJP unit took a similar stand.

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But what makes parties take such decisions? To know that, one needs to understand how debate shows evolved in Tamil Nadu over the years.

Days of Doordarshan and Sun TV


Till the early 2000s, Doordarshan more or less ruled the state. News reading on the government-owned channel was largely viewed as staid and boring — most newsreaders had been around for decades, and the telecast tempo was rather slow.

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But the arrival of 24-hour news channels — with their chasing of breaking news blended with loud music and newsreaders speeding through the headlines — has left people wondering if the Doordarshan days were indeed not better.

In the mid-1990s, Sun TV began to challenge Doordarshan’s dominance but only in the urban areas. Though it offered a bouquet of programmes, when it came to news, it followed the Doordarshan style.

Sun TV was probably the first channel to introduce talk shows — its Arattai Arangam (‘chat arena’) was quite popular. But it did not do one-on-one interviews with politicians or hold debate shows.

Arrival of Vijay TV and its aftermath

In the early 2000s, the channel formerly called Vijay TV re-entered Tamil Nadu as Star Vijay with a completely new set of programmes. It was here that one-on-one political interviews took off. Gopinath, even now a popular TV anchor, conducted these interviews under the title Makkal Yaar Pakkam (‘on whose side are people’).

In 2009, NDTV Hindu made an entry in the TV segment, and the channel telecast some one-on-one shows.

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In 2011, the arrival of Puthiya Thalaimurai changed the scenario of Tamil visual media entirely. Before that, the state had not seen a round-the-clock news channel. The channel brought in youngsters and the language it used was closer to the colloquial, sans literary embellishments.

Thereafter many media houses followed the footsteps of Puthiya Thalaimurai and consuming news came on par with consuming films in Tamil Nadu.

The ‘North’ pivot

In 2014, there was a sudden change in the approach of television anchors. There was no more beating around the bush; the questions were straightforward. This did put political party representatives off many a time.

Also, the anchors started raising their voices and biases could be detected. There have been instances of debates veering off the topic and participants leaving the programme midway in a huff.

Industry observers say the changes can be credited to the admiration of some anchors from the state for Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami. Their attire became more northern, often including half-sleeved overcoats. The hand gestures became more pronounced.

Contrary to earlier times, the anchors daringly pointed out the mistakes in the arguments put forth by the participants, on live TV. Over a period, the debate shows became filled with shouting and name-calling.

Media and criticism

After a point the Dravidian majors became rather wary of the news channels and their debate shows. So, they came out with an unwritten order that no party functionary should speak to the media, particularly on television, without the permission of the party head.

This was strictly followed in the AIADMK until party leader and former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s death, in December 2016. After her demise, party functionaries started to participate in debate shows once again.

A frequent complaint against the media by the political parties is that anchors sometimes favour particular parties, giving their representatives more time and space to express their views. Thus, some of the parties decided that if a particular person from a particular party took part in a debate, they would either refuse to participate or demand that the channel replace the rival participant with someone from the same party.

Who’s right, who’s wrong?

“Resorting to such measures is not good for a political party. Among other things, they should try to use the television medium to voice their views and not get into whataboutery or shouting at the anchor or other participants, when their views are not accepted,” said political commentator Kumaresan.

According to him, though the media is not beyond criticism, it is completely within its rights to air its views.

“There is no neutrality in the media today. More importantly, neutrality is not needed for the media. If the anchor is not satisfied with the opinions put forth by the participants, if they have the skill, they may express their own views about a particular issue while summing up the programme. An anchor can get such a skill out of experience,” he said.

Senior TV journalist Nijanthan, however, said neutrality is a basic skill that a journalist should have. “The political parties always have pressure from the media. When a party starts to feel that its reputation gets damaged among the public, it stops taking part in television programmes. When an anchor conducts the debate, they should express the voices of the public, instead of expressing their own likes and dislikes,” he added.

Short-term measure

Peer Mohammed, TV journalist-turned-founder of digital media start-up Ippodhu, said the latest move by the AIADMK is a short-term measure.

“Every party has a list of 10 functionaries who can represent it on television as an official spokesperson. There is usually heavy competition within the party for that post since they can always be in the limelight,” said Mohammed.

“If a party sends out such a statement (like the AIADMK’s), it shows the behaviour of their representatives and not of the anchors or media. However, the move by AIADMK is for a short period. Once any reshuffle happens, it will start participating in debates again,” he added.

Narayanan Tirupathy, a spokesperson of the state BJP unit, said the party will take part in TV debates once it is sure the media is ‘operating in neutral’.

“When a participant starts attacking the other participants by ‘speaking in singular’ (a grammatical form that is considered rude in Tamil) and without respect, the anchors should interfere and condemn that participant. But that is not happening,” he observed.

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