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Battle for Modi reaches BBC

Cameron MP fights for Indian PM
Priti Patel with Prime Minister David Cameron in Howrah in 2013
Mishal Husain Yalda Hakim

London, June 22: When it comes to covering the rise and rise of Narendra Modi, Indian viewers in the UK have noticed a trend: the BBC tends to deploy women reporters who are young, beautiful and Muslim.

In April, for example, the BBC announced: “The BBC’s Mishal Husain reports from India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, on how India’s Muslim vote could affect the election.”

Mishal is currently the darling of the corporation and is one of the main presenters on Radio 4’s Today several mornings a week.

In May, one Yalda Hakim reported for Newsnight, a BBC2 TV programme, on Modi’s triumph.

The general tone of the report has angered Priti Patel, Tory MP for Witham and David Cameron’s doughty “diaspora champion”, who appears determined to escort Yalda off the premises.

She sent a letter of protest to Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, and received a long reply from Newsnight’s editor and former Guardian journalist Ian Katz, rejecting her complaint.

Unhappy with the response, Patel is now “calling on the wider Indian community to continue registering complaints to BBC director Lord Tony Hall after receiving the BBC’s dismissive and complacent response to their concerns about the recent Newsnight coverage of the recent Indian general election”.

“The BBC should be ashamed of not only its shoddy journalism, but the way it responds to criticism,” said Patel. “This response along with the programme’s coverage of the elections adds to the insulting way in which India and the largest democratic elections in the world have been portrayed.”

Modi has been called “controversial” in Yalda’s report — known to be a weasel word in British journalism.

But Modi’s supporters in Britain — and they are found mainly in the large Gujarati community — are also asking for the impossible. They want a change in terminology. They don’t like the government to be called “right-wing Hindu nationalist” or to be reminded that Modi was once a “pariah” banned from visiting the UK and the US because to some he had “blood on his hands”.

Patel said: “I have written to the secretary of state for culture to ask that he raises the BBC’s smug response directly with Lord Hall, and I urge all those concerned to continue writing directly to Lord Hall to demand better from the BBC.”

Newsnight, which has a relatively small but niche audience of 500,000 viewers, is going through troubled times. Its best known face, Jeremy Paxman, has just quit, disenchanted, it is said, by the way Newsnight investigated but did not run its findings on Jimmy Savile, the late BBC disc jockey who got away with abusing hundreds of children under the eyes of his employers at the corporation. Having failed on Savile, Newsnight is now trying to recover both its reputation and its ratings.

Yalda, who is 31, is an Afghan whose family fled Afghanistan when she was a baby. After a brief period in Pakistan, her family settled in Australia where Yalda trained as a journalist. She is now based in London where she works for BBC World News.

In the course of her programme, Yalda interviewed sculptor Anish Kapoor, who signed an anti-Modi letter, along with many other celebrities, before the election.

The decision to portray him as an expert on Indian politics was “bizarre”, observed Priti Patel.

She argued: “When explaining what he meant by the phrase ‘mass murderer’, Kapoor stated that India is ‘on the edge of a sectarian, partisan, violent approach to all kinds of issues’.... the presenter did not challenge him over this statement either.”

In response, Katz rejected the charge that India’s reputation had been “tarnished”. He said: “We immediately offered (the journalist) Swapan Dasgupta the chance to respond to the Kapoor comments which he did in the strongest terms.”

Perhaps Dasgupta will be able to discuss the BBC’s coverage with Katz over an agreeable lunch — there are rumours, totally unreliable but intriguing nevertheless, that the journalist’s friends are lobbying Modi to send him to London as high commissioner. It has happened before with Kuldip Nayar — 1990 (March-November).