The ongoing row over entry of women of all ages to the Sabarimala temple in central Kerala has produced striking impact across social, cultural and political spheres of influence in the state. The media has not been spared either. On the back of a sustained campaign in support of ‘temple rituals and traditions’, Janam TV, a 24×7 Malayalam television news channel, has steadily climbed up ratings as per the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India, which gauges television viewership in India across segments.
The latest BARC ratings for the week of November 17-23, 2018 shows Janam TV, a channel that does not in any way hide it’s ideological affinity for the right-wing, climbing up to second spot with 44,817 weekly impressions behind Asianet News which recorded 64,314 weekly impressions. In doing so, it has pushed down two premier news channels, Manorama and Mathrubhumi, the parent companies of which also run the top two Malayalam newspapers by the same name. News18 Kerala, the regional avatar of the Network18 group owned by Reliance Industries, is in fifth spot.
The Sabarimala standoff has proved to be a major talking point for Janam TV which took an explicit, hard-line stand on the issue. With the BJP and the Congress taking up ideological positions opposing the Supreme Court verdict allowing entry of women of all ages at the temple and caste-organisations like the Nair Service Society (NSS) also stepping up protests on the same, the channel sought to strike a tone against the ruling Left government. With the tagline ‘Bhaktarkoppam’ (with devotees) alongside a photograph of Lord Ayyappa, the channel proceeded to give wall-to-wall blanket coverage to the row, deploying reporters across the temple premises from the base camp of Nilakkal all the way to the hilltop shrine. In many ways, the channel’s reporters and anchors continuously made the claim that Janam alone showed the ‘truth’ of Sabarimala and rightly portrayed the sentiments of Hindu devotees. The move has seemingly paid off, with the channel, which was nowhere in the ratings a couple of months ago, climbing up steadily and getting favourable reviews in conservative drawing rooms and right-wing social groups. In fact, during the course of The Indian Express’ reporting in Sabarimala, it found pilgrims and right-wing protesters frequently citing Janam TV as a channel that reported the “truth of events” at the shrine.
“We are not against the entry of women. But rituals existing over decades have barred the entry of women of a certain age group,” said GK Suresh Babu, chief editor of Janam TV, defending the channel’s position. “So when the Thazhamon priest family, Pandalam royal family, SNDP, NSS, KPMS all came together, we took the stand in support of devotees. But having said that, we have not been reluctant in covering any press conference of the government. Every press conference of Pinarayi Vijayan has been covered. Kadakampally Surendran verbally abused us, but we carried those remarks as well; that showed the impartiality of our journalism.”
For Janam TV, such strident ideological positions on religion are not new. The channel, launched in 2015 seemingly to occupy a right-wing space in a state where the media landscape was largely seen as liberal and Left-oriented, had vigorously followed the ‘love-jihad’ agenda in the religious conversion case of Hadiya. On it’s website, the channel said it focuses on ‘upkeeping (sic) the core of Indian values, is ‘noted for it’s nationalistic conviction’ and is ‘committed to promoting national values and our culture’. Janam Multimedia Limited, which owns the channel, has a board of directors chaired by popular film director Priyadarshan.
The company’s website, describing the ‘social relevance’ of Janam TV, reads, “Powerful tools like Janam will definitely give impetus to nationalist forces in efforts to resist such grand designs, especially at a time when the eternal values that has defined our social fabric are under threat. Janam, through its programs, will be the voice of the ‘Silent Majority’ and bring about enormous and collective changes in the modern society.”
Meanwhile, the channel’s position on Sabarimala unsurprisingly drew praise from the RSS. An article in ‘Organiser’, mouthpiece of the Sangh Parivar, lauding the reporting of Janam TV said, “The soaring popularity of the nationalist channel also signals the increasing public acceptance of Hindutva across the state, especially among unorganised Hindu community, that can bring surprising electoral gains for the BJP in the coming elections.”
Dr Sebastian Paul, a prominent media critic and a former Left-backed MP and MLA, termed the popularity of Janam TV a ‘temporary phenomenon’. “When the Sabarimala protests end, the channel’s popularity will end too. Such a temporary spurt in popularity will not affect the media landscape in Kerala,” said Paul, who’s a familiar face on television debates on political issues.
Paul said the BARC ratings are questionable too as their methodology is not objective. At the same time, he admitted that there are problems within the press in Kerala with respect to biased reporting which need to be looked into and rectified for the sake of upholding credibility of the fourth pillar.
BRP Bhaskar, another well-known critic based in Chennai, opined that the local press in Kerala had a tendency to handle news in a ‘highly sensationalist way’. “It’s an unfortunate and dangerous trend. They are finding it difficult to tone down. Because, frankly speaking, you can’t dismount the tiger. They may be attracting more readers or viewers, but how much does the audience trust them. If you can’t retain credibility, what’s the use?” he said.