Ravish Kumar and the Dismally Homogenous Newsroom
There is a paralysing lack of caste diversity in the media at large
Even as NDTV’s Ravish Kumar was receiving heaps of praise for winning the coveted Raman Magsaysay award, a study released next day of the Indian media’s lack of diversity, including in Kumar’s own NDTV, revealed a grim and unchanging picture of the Indian media.
The report by Oxfam India and NewsLaundry titled “Who Tells Our Stories Matters: Representation of Marginalised Caste Groups in Indian Newsrooms” exposes the abysmal dominant-caste homogeneity of India’s newsrooms, particularly in senior editorial positions.
During the 2014 election campaign in Mainpuri, UP - ‘Shakya, Kushwaha, Saini and Maurya’
Let’s talk about the award first. Kumar received the award for his “unfaltering commitment to a professional, ethical journalism of the highest standards; his moral courage in standing up for truth, integrity, and independence; and his principled belief that it is in giving full and respectful voice to the voiceless, in speaking truth bravely yet soberly to power, that journalism fulfills its noblest aims to advance democracy,” as the citation by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation reads.
To his credit, Kumar stood up against the government’s anti-people policies even in the face of death threats from pro-party bots. His unwavering and incessant questioning of government policies made him an exception in the gloomy world of propaganda-driven media.
As the death threats increased, he stopped using Twitter. The BJP stopped sending their spokespersons to his channels. But Ravish continued his work by running dozens of series on key issues such as employment, mob lynching and communalism, and also against the propaganda of other channels.
And yes Ravish Kumar gave voice to the voiceless as well. For instance, he was perhaps the only one who ventured out on Constitution Road to cover the Ambedkar Jayanti program. He was perhaps the only mainstream anchor, apart from Urmilesh, to speak at the inauguration of Dalit Dastak, a web portal started by Ashok Das.
When organised communal violence broke out, such as in Trilokpuri, Delhi, in 2015, he exposed the conspiracy of the ruling party. When Payal Tadvi committed suicide last May after prolonged harassment by upper caste faculty, Kumar brought up the issue of casteism in Indian society – and invited Dalits and Adivasis to the panel. When Sakshi-Ajitesh exposed the caste system of Sakshi’s upper caste parents, Ravish held an insightful Prime Time to discuss historical cases.
But how has Ravish Kumar performed when it comes to making his own channel NDTV Hindi diverse and less dominated by a powerful minority?
The Oxfam study says, “Of the 121 newsroom leadership positions —editor-in-chief, managing editor, executive editor, bureau chief, input/output editor— across the newspapers, TV news channels [including NDTV India], news websites, and magazines under study, 106 are occupied by journalists from the upper castes, and none by those belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.”
Leave alone the newsroom leadership positions, NDTV Hindi fared extremely poorly when inviting panelists for various debates as well. “72% of NDTV’s debate panelists were from the upper castes.” The study adds that “during discussions on caste issues, 62% of the panelists across news channels were from the general category.”
I believe that, as a managing editor-in-chief of NDTV India, Ravish Kumar must take some blame for this highly skewed ratio.
A glaring example is when Kumar discussed the diversity of the Modi cabinet ahead of the UP polls in 2017. Showing how Brahmins have dominated the Modi government, he invited an all-upper-caste panel to discuss it!
So, Akhilesh Sharma, Abhay Dubey, Sunita Airan, Vidya Subramaniyam along with the upper-caste anchor Ravish Kumar discussed the lack of diversity in the Modi cabinet.
Ravish Kumar discusses the Modi cabinet’s diversity with an all-upper-caste panel, July 5 2016
After watching this debate rather despairingly, I wrote an open letter to Ravish Kumar on The Hoot. The letter was picked up by Rajya Sabha TV’s Urmilesh in his Media Manthan program. While appreciating Ravish for his work, I asked him to bring diversity in his newsroom and channel.
Back in 2006, a study by the Media Study Group led by Yogendra Yadav tracked the social profiles of 315 senior journalists across 37 English and Hindi dailies and TV channels, to find that “Hindu upper caste men dominate the media. They are about 8% of India's population but among the key decision-makers of the national media, their share is as high as 71%.”
Things haven’t changed much since. The recent study only confirms it.
Even if one assumes that Ravish is not empowered to increase diversity within NDTV, it remains true that he never invites Dalits, Adivasis or OBCs on his show unless the issue is related specifically to these castes.
Once he rightly asked various governments why Dalits are made only social welfare ministers. So why are Dalits invited to talk only about Dalit-specific issues on his show? Are there no Dalit Adivasi OBCs to talk about economics, foreign affairs, unemployment, communalism or Jammu and Kashmir?
The issue here is not quite that Ravish Kumar is from an upper caste himself, or that he gave more importance to Kanhaiya Kumar in the wake of Rohith Vemula’s death – barring a few minutes to Vemula’s friend and colleague Dontha Prashanth, and not even one interview with his mother Radhika Vemula.
The issue is the lack of caste diversity in the media at large.
It is important that Ravish Kumar, who exemplifies journalism, is asked about diversity – an extremely important aspect of the media. One would not bother to pose these questions to anyone from what he himself has termed the godi or lapdog media.
I really hope Ravish takes diversity in NDTV India seriously hereafter. Oftentimes he speaks of being powerless. Even if he is unable to bring diversity into NDTV, in the form of SC/ST/OBC/Adivasi/religious minority newsreaders, anchors, editors etc., surely he can stop using exclusively Hindu-upper-caste panels on his program on a day-to-day basis?
After all we are talking about representation to the 70% who are Dalits, Adivasis and OBCs – not a minority in any way.
Recognition brings more responsibilities. Ravish Kumar deserved the award for his courage and integrity but at least in light of the diversity findings, he must address the elephant in the room.
Can he break the upper caste fortress at least in NDTV, and pass the microphone to the voiceless, rather than being their voice forever?