"What will happen if peace-loving Kannadigas take revenge?''
"Is it okay if we retaliate in Bengaluru. How will Jayalalithaa react?''
"In Karnataka, we also have Tamils and Tamil Nadu registered vehicles. Amma, be warned.''
The lines got blurred in Karnataka. Who am I? A pro-Kannada activist indulging in arson on the streets of Bengaluru? Or a Kannada news channel reporter, on the Bengaluru-Mysuru road, with arson taking place in the backdrop? Or a news anchor?
Over the past one week, Kannada news channels have delivered news on the Cauvery crisis in default sub-national jingoistic mode. Almost as if the activist and the journalist signed an MoU to set Karnataka on fire together. One physically, the other verbally and visually. The vernacular television journalist chose to wear his Kannada identity on his sleeve and his microphone.
During a press conference on Monday, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had pointed out that he was aware of the role played by the electronic media. "Please cooperate in the interest of the state,'' he had said, without going into specifics.
"As a journalist, I am embarrassed,'' said Sugata Raju, editorial director of the Asianet group, that publishes the daily Kannada Prabha and broadcasts Suvarna News, a Kannada news channel. "Instead of disseminating information, TV channels became agent provocateurs.''
This over-the-top approach was similar to how national channels deal with news related to Pakistan. With political shelling across the Cauvery, the Pakistan-like treatment fitted into the narrative of "our" Karnataka taking on "enemy" Tamil Nadu across the 'River of Control.'
Kannada channels said they are not entirely to be blamed as Tamil Nadu media started it first. On Saturday evening, an engineering student from Tamil Nadu was assaulted by a group of activists of a fringe group called Yuva Karnataka. The student had posted memes on Facebook ridiculing Kannada film stars for taking part in Karnataka bandh on Friday. The footage went viral on social media.
A few Tamil channels played up the incident all day on Sunday. The footage of the assault was provocative, only adding to the Tamil-Kannadiga divide. And as feared, it ignited a reaction. Late on Sunday night, petrol bombs were thrown at New Woodlands hotel in Chennai and a Kannadiga driver assaulted in Rameshwaram on Monday.
Kannada channel editors said on Monday morning when the Chennai and Rameshwaram incidents were being reported, came the order of the Supreme court, extending the period of disbursal of Cauvery water till 20 September. Some of those manning the newsrooms in the 11 Kannada channels in business said, it was akin to "sprinkling salt on Karnataka's wounds''.
"What is happening is a natural corollary of regionalism,'' said HR Ranganath, chairman and managing director of Public TV. "The constituency of the channels is Karnataka, not pan-India, the perspective obviously is different from say, a national English news channel.''
The hoodlums who ruled the streets in north and south-west Bengaluru on Monday too were indulging in competitive arson. At times like these, getting two minutes of airtime is like new-found reputation and helps in the business of extortion. The TV clips on their smartphones became digital proof of thuggery that were encashed later. And some TV cameras in the quest for footage of "exclusive" vandalism were unfortunately more than willing to play accomplice.
"It is a competition between channels on who is showing more violence. Every such clip of human misery and economic loss is labelled exclusive,'' said Hemantha Kumar, senior journalist.
"Karnataka was being incited by rabble-rousers sitting in TV studios to defy the Supreme Court order. Our fraternity has bungled. I am very angry about it,'' he added.
The problem was also with wrong information being put out deliberately. A little after noon on Monday, many Kannada channels had started flashing that Section 144 was being imposed in Bengaluru. The police clarification that it was not the case came much later, but by that time the damage had been done. Bengaluru was in panic. What was worse was the manner in which the flash was justified.
A Kannada news anchor is reported to have explained it thus: "We voluntarily reported that prohibitory orders have been invoked with the intention of preventing riots in Bengaluru. But the police went and clarified that they had not done so. What does one make of their sense?''
The language used by journalists during the reportage also came in for criticism. As opposed to calling them "hoodlums" and "vandals", those indulging in destruction of private property were called "activists" on vernacular media, as if they were being complimented for fighting for a social cause.
As the day progressed, more and more people tuned into news on the television but soon revulsion began to set in. Pawan Kumar, a filmmaker put out this status message on his Facebook page: "Turn off your televisions, talk to your family, sleep, write a poem or count the ants. STOP WATCHING NEWS.''
Bengaluru resident and brand communication expert Smitha Sarma Ranganathan called the media headlines on regional channels "caustic and furthering regional divides''. "I tune in to a channel to get the latest update, not to hear coloured perspective of news anchors,'' she said.
But even as there is condemnation for the falling standards and for restraint not being a virtue in the newsroom, the fact remains that in a TRP-driven market, the 'rival channel is showing the violence footage' becomes the yardstick to jump the traffic signal as well.
Faced with criticism of having fanned the violence, editors pointed to the anti-Tamil riots over the same Cauvery issue in Bengaluru in 1991 in which 28 people died. Where was TV then, they asked.
The fact is that while TV channels did cross the line, the damage was caused much more by WhatsApp messaging. "Only a fool will think people are influenced by TV news,'' said Ranganath.
"TV is inside the home, not for people on the streets. At best, a person watching the news may feel outraged and shout at home. The hooligans on the street consume content on WhatsApp and Facebook.''
It is this unregulated, unedited content that is delivered to your smartphone in a personalised manner that is far more dangerous. Television news at least has some gatekeeping, even if it has proved to be largely irresponsible in this case, but WhatsApp journalism has none.
However, in many cases, it is the provocative content on TV news that comes alive in its avatar as WhatsApp forwards.
"On the wall, TV may be a dead machine but phone gives it life. The virtual privacy that is created in the manner a WhatsApp video message is delivered to an individual on his handset gives it credibility,'' said Raju.
While senior editors responsible for newsroom operations in real time either took the call to deliver news in hyperventilating mode or were too close to the events unfolding to be able to do otherwise, the government also bungled in not reining them in soon enough. The Karnataka police did not crack the whip and the advisory from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry only came the next day.
Next Thursday, the ratings for TV channels would be out for this week. If the most screechy and shrill channels win the TRP race in the Kannada news market, balanced and unbiased journalism would have lost the battle. It would also expose the hypocrisy of the viewers that while they criticise the nature of coverage, a majority of them in fact, choose to consume the same combative content.
PS: While the Kannada channels have come in for flak, Hindi news channel ABP News became the butt of jokes, thanks to this ticker, which announced that the Cauvery crisis is a fight over water between Karnataka and Bengaluru.