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Pegasus, porn, Punjab, parliament. Indian news channels didn’t pause this week

Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint
Illustration by Ramandeep Kaur | ThePrint


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The week began as a spy story straight out of John Le Carré’s novels of sinister international espionage, governments and covert private players; it then descended into a street brawl, with a ‘ruckus’ (CNN News18) in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha; it went on to the latest round of shadow boxing between a retired cricket player and a retired Army officer – ‘Sidhu v/s Capt’ (India TV) and ended up as ‘dirty picture’ (Zee News).

Welcome to the week of the four Ps—Pegasus, Parliament, Punjab and pornography; ‘PegasusSpygateSting’ (Times Now), ‘Parliament Hungama’ (Aaj Tak), ‘Battle of Punjab’ (CNN News18, ‘Kundra in porn scandal’ (India Today).

And if that isn’t enough, how about the delightful sight of members of the press perspiring profusely as they pursued Trinamool Congress Party MPs’ cycle yatra to Parliament in protest against the high price of fuel?

More than enough ‘p’s in that sentence!


 Also read: Pegasus: Global media calls out NSO, seeks robust oversight of ‘unrestrained’ spyware industry


Pegasus flop or Bharatiya Jasoos Party?

You would have thought that since several journalists in India were among those allegedly spied on in ‘Pegasus snoopgate row’ (Republic TV), which saw a global investigation led by Amnesty International into possible infection of phones of certain high-profile individuals with Pegasus, to spy on them, the news channels, collectively, would have been outraged. But the response was ambivalent.

Monday evening debates on channels such as Times Now, CNN News18 and Republic TV were either suspicious of the findings or downright dismissive, with headlines like ‘#Pegasus Spygate Flops’ (Times Now).

Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami sneered at Lutyens’ Delhi’s expression of dismay. He couldn’t understand the ‘fuss’ or the ‘ever willing’ publications (that published the findings of The Pegasus Project) taking Amnesty’s word at face value when the claims were, basically, ‘unverified’.

At Times Now, Navika Kumar said the allegations were not ‘entirely conclusive’, and what ‘doesn’t add up’ was the ‘loosely strung together’ evidence with no ‘proof’.

On CNN News18, Zakka Jacob also appeared unruffled by the revelations: We have come to expect ‘State surveillance’ he said, as calmly as he would have said that we have come to expect delays in monsoon.

India Today’s Rajdeep Sardesai, NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar, were more sceptical, asking questions like, ‘Did govt hack phones?’ (India Today) and interviewing some of the journalists who were allegedly targeted by Pegasus (NDTV India).

Other channels such as Zee News went for the government’s jugular, albeit gently. Anchor Aman Sharma, Tuesday, repeatedly asked BJP’s Gaurav Bhatia whether India was an NSO client and used Pegasus. Each time Bhatia wriggled out of answering, Sharma would softly but firmly insist he reply. The BJP spokesperson ducked again and again, which suggests that it wasn’t something he could deny.

Several channels explained how Pegasus infects phones. Most broadcast sound bytes on the issue from the government/BJP and of Opposition parties, or cybersecurity experts. This doesn’t always happen, so it was good to hear BJP slam the Opposition for bringing shame to the country’s name (India TV) and Congress call the BJP, ‘Bharatiya Jasoos Party’ (News 24).


 Also read: Mobile app ‘Hotshots’ is at the centre of porn case against Shilpa Shetty’s husband Raj Kundra


Parliament protests to Manoj Jha

A less pleasing sight and sound was the ‘hungama’ in Parliament by the Opposition on Monday when Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to introduce his new ministers, and again on Tuesday. The constant ‘slogans, heckling, chaos’ (Republic TV) reduced the protesting Opposition MPs to a group of sulky schoolchildren, repeatedly scolded and told to return to their seats by the principal of proceedings, Speaker Om Birla.

Evening discussions also wrapped them on the knuckles: ‘How will any work get done?’ (Aaj Tak), ‘One minute in the Rajya Sabha costs Rs 1,83,000…’ (ABP News), ‘Has Opposition forgotten its responsibility?’ (India TV).

The Opposition parties do seem to have forgotten the power of television to convey and spread a message—something they ought to have been reminded of during the discussion on the coronavirus, Tuesday in the Rajya Sabha. When Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Manoj Jha spoke, with such passion and empathy about the devastating second wave of Covid, his speech did more damage to the government’s image than the sum of all the protests.

We also made the acquaintance of newly-appointed Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya during the debate—he gave a good account of himself, speaking fluently and to the point, as he presented the government’s case.


 Also read: Punjab Congress battle isn’t about Navjot Sidhu or Amarinder Singh. It’s about Gandhis


Punjab to porn

What is it about the tussle for power in Punjab’s Congress party between Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu (appointed Monday as state party chief) that the news channels find so absorbing for the last month?

We know Punjab goes to the polls next year, but the constant updates, flashing headlines, breaking news on which one is doing what— ‘PCC Chief Sidhu at Golden Temple’ (Wednesday, CNN News18)—or whom they visit, especially one of the Gandhis, Sonia, Rahul or Priyanka, indicate the channels think that this appeals to viewers more, than say, the floods in Mumbai, Monday. Hmmm.

It’s easier to understand why businessman Raj Kundra became a person of interest to news channels. First, as the channels never failed to point out, he is ‘Shilpa Shetty’s husband’. And second, he has been arrested by the Mumbai Police after ‘Porn scam unearthed’ (Mirror Now)  with ‘dirty pictures’ being shared on a ‘dirty app’ (Zee News). 

Zee News was the first to reach the bungalow where, apparently, young women were ‘shot’ nude, behind tightly drawn blinds—the channel also featured a woman’s half-naked back with its headlines. ‘Who was the director and how many characters?’ asked India TV, rather pleased with the rhyme in the sentence.

Hindi and English channels tracked Kundra’s alleged pornography business, flashed footage of him with Shetty regularly, and went into all the lurid little details so that by Wednesday, Kundra and porn were synonymous on the news.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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