He went — on a three-day trip to Italy. He saw — the Sistine chapel and the Uffizi gallery and the Gucci factory. He conquered — the Calcutta press.
Not quite the epitaph the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, would choose for his Latin expedition. But nor is he likely to complain about the excitement generated in the local media over his whirlwind tour, down to the stir over his sartorial choices.
The coverage accorded to the press conference on his return to the city where he recounted his triumphs was remarkable enough. But it pales next to the fulsome acclaim showered on him by accompanying journalists.
Just a few weeks ago, Suman Chattopadhyay of Anandabazar Patrika, Bengal’s leading newspaper, had remonstrated the chief minister for his intemperate remarks against the “coalition of the willing” in the presence of the representatives of the US and Britain in Calcutta. That is not how you get investment, the Anandabazar executive editor had scolded Bhattacharjee.
It was a radically different story in Italy. Chattopadhyay was spellbound by the “utter professionalism” of Jyoti Basu’s successor, his “diligent homework”, his determination to stick to “just business and nothing else”.
Soumya Bandopadhyay of Pratidin, the third largest Bengali daily, was even more overwhelmed. “It is clear,” he concluded at the end of the trip, “selling refrigerators to Eskimos would be child’s play to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee”.
No spin doctor could have asked for more. For a chief minister in a tearing hurry to build his image as a man you can do business with, it must be sheer poetry. For someone who was known to have an attitude problem about the media, it is a personal victory. How long the honeymoon lasts will be interesting to see.
A bout of repression can work wonders for a free press — when it is over of course. It happened in India in the wake of the Emergency; some still see the Eighties as the golden age of Indian journalism. It is happening with gale force strength in Iraq now. A media boom has engulfed the war-ravaged country, a flood of free speech the Americans are finding difficult to control.
There were five newspapers and one television channel in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, all strictly controlled by son, Uday. Today, there are dozens of daily and weekly newspapers in Baghdad alone, and more are springing up every day. “A raucous rush of unfettered expression that is utterly new to the country,” says a Washington Post reporter. Some Iraqi journalists estimate there are now as many as 70 publications in the capital alone. Television being far more expensive is also less plentiful. The occupation authority runs one TV station, another couple are struggling to survive.
But the real excitement is in print. Nearly two-thirds of Iraqis above 15 can read and write. And the collapse of the earlier state-run media has left a huge void. As it is, “Cairo writes, Beirut prints and Baghdad reads,” was always a popular Arab saying. Iraqis are reading voraciously these days. Some of the publications are mere rags, many little more than mouthpieces for religious and political factions. A few are being manned by professional journalists returning from exile.
But all advocate an independent Iraq, all condemn the American presence in the country. Many express that rather strongly. So much so that the American authorities are imposing censorship laws to ban inflammatory reports. Iraq can be a democracy, but the First Amendment is not for all.
As journalists go, Mihir Bose is among the successful ones. A Bombay boy, he has worked in such leading British newspapers as The Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph. He has also written well-known books on cricket. Yet, Bose is not happy. He has not got due recognition in India, he feels. That’s the trouble with bylines familiar in London but unknown here. You can’t judge whether they deserve any — recognition, that is.