Why Sun TV did what it did

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By Gaurav  Sharma

In a rare move, Sun TV, a popular Tamil  news channel, has apologised and corrected an earlier report on the riot in  Little India which said the Tamils in Singapore were hiding in their homes  because of  a hit-back from the Chinese.

But such reporting is no surprise to  those familiar with Tamil Nadu politics and the nexus of media and  politicians there. It all comes down to politics. The media is owned by  different political parties and TV, radio and newspapers are used to push their  own agenda and derail that of others.
When the opportunity arises,  countries with significant Tamil populations get dragged in.

Their coverage of  Sri Lanka has  always been about the atrocities committed against the Tamils there. Just last  month, the Tamil media in India went hammer and tongs on the issue of  Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s scheduled visit to Sri Lanka for the  Commonwealth summit. Media somehow connected the visit to “Tamil pride” and how  the PM’s visit will mean India’s tactical approval of  Sri Lankan  government’s alleged war crimes against Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. The Indian  PM had to ultimately bow down to the pressure and cancelled his visit citing  “internal political reasons”.

This was irrespective  of what the Sri Lankan Tamils were thinking. There were numerous reports indicating the exact opposite of what the Tamil media in India was  saying. Observers, at that time, had pointed out how the Tamil media in India is  not concerned about reporting the facts [that Sri Lankan Tamils actually want  Indian PM to visit Sri Lanka]. Rather, it is playing to the domestic gallery at  the behest of its political masters.

The riot in Little India got the same  treatment.

A long-standing joke in Tamil Nadu is  that it probably has the most balanced media in the entire country. But, to  achieve that balance, you have to watch two different news channels. Watch Jaya  TV to know how bad the opposition is, and watch Sun TV to know what ails the  ruling party.

To add to the spice, Jaya TV is owned  by Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, a former film star, and Sun TV by M  Karunanidhi, the leader of the Opposition. And they  are bitter rivals.

Things were not so bad  in the 1970s and 80s. But as  television became commonplace in India in the  90s, politicians were quick to realise and exploit its  reach and power of influencing public opinion. More  so in South India, where  almost every major political party owns a news channel  whose sole aim is to advance the owner’s interests.

About Sun TV in particular, it is owned  by a conglomerate which also owns other TV channels, publishes newspapers and a  magazine, owns a film company and operates several radio channels.

Political biases and the TRP  business

While the role of media – that of an  unbiased informer – is vital to any healthy democracy; in India this has come  into intense scrutiny in recent times. This is the case in Tamil Nadu too,  where, as indicated above, media is owned and manipulated by political bigwigs  for their vested interests.

The problem becomes all the more  precarious when elections are round the corner and correct reporting based on  facts is pushed into the background. Sensationalism and rumour-mongering take  centre-stage instead. Notably, India is going to vote for its central government  in a few months, with this election being touted as the most polarising one in  decades.

Apart from political biases, another  consideration is the television rating points (TRP) system, which is a tool to  measure the popularity of a channel and its various programmes.

For calculation purposes, a device  called People’s Metre is attached to TV sets in few thousand homes, which  records the time and the programme a viewer watches. This data is then complied  for a period of one-month to determine the viewership status and popularity of  particular channels.

Simply put, more TRP means more  eye-balls, and thus more advertisement revenues. And the “best” way to attract  viewers [and thus the advertisers] is to sensationalise every news story. At  least, this is what some news organisations seem to think, with Sun TV proving  to be the leader of the pack in this recent  case.