A STUDY IN CONTRASTS - There is much that is wrong with India's media

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By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray sunandadr@yahoo.co.in
  • Published 22.01.11

Unlike Wen Jiabao in India, Hu Jintao has not castigated his host country’s media. He wouldn’t dare. His responses to abrasive American reporters at Wednesday’s press conference in Washington mixed defensiveness, evasion and conciliation. In fact, he struck a conciliatory note even before the visit, telling The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal in written answers to their questions, “There is no denying that there are some differences and sensitive issues between us. We both stand to gain from a sound China-US relationship, and lose from confrontation.”

India and China also stand to gain from a sound relationship, and lose from confrontation. Here, too, there are differences and sensitive issues. But Wen did not bother with the diplomatic niceties that his president employed in the United States of America. Why? One reason is that no Indian publication is any longer taken seriously as an interlocutor like the Post and Journal in the US. It was different in Jawaharlal Nehru’s time when the government paid heed to what newspapers like The Statesman published. His daughter’s attitude was described by her media adviser by quoting a 19th-century English poet, “Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive/ Officiously to keep alive.” The distance has widened since then and not only because of official indifference.

National papers of record have become vehicles of private interest. Some are trivial, some project a borrowed ideology, others are obsessed with what are called ‘Page Three people’. Even the nomenclature is imitative, for Page Three is the registered trademark of Britain’s Sun tabloid for its topless models. Here, the driving force is usually profit, not prurience. And it’s not only the owners. Wen is dismissive about media freedom and contemptuous about its “sensationalizing” because he knows his diplomats can buy favourable coverage by extending hospitality to leading commentators and doling out what passes for exclusive titbits of information. The Delhi missions of other countries with problematic relations with India may practise the same tactics but there is no hint of this in the current debate over “paid news” which the press council defines as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print and electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”.

Embassies are a minor culprit when it comes to payment in “kind”. The government’s stick-and-carrot strategy is far more decisive (though not absolute as in China) in influencing news. The stick may have virtually disappeared under benign prime ministers like Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh but attractive carrots that only governments can offer remain as persuasive as ever. Yet, media discussions focus only on private business and political parties as sources of corruption.

The Chief Election Commission has issued guidelines to prevent advertisements masquerading as news. The Securities and Exchange Board of India condemns “private treaties” whereby business houses transfer shares to media companies in lieu of advertising space and favourable coverage. The press council wants its directions to become binding. There is also a demand to extend the definition of an “electoral malpractice” to include taking money to publish material that is not advertising. Such abuses are blamed on the managerial — never the editorial — staff of newspapers. But the demand for “a clear distinction” between managers and editors (as if the latter are of lily-white purity) ignores the episode before the term “paid news” had even been coined when a renowned editor was found to hold a chunk of shares in a company that was then — as it is now — mired in controversy. His employers condoned the contradiction and readers lost none of their awed respect for his discursive analyses.

Others may not accept shares and debentures but official grace and favour has elevated many of the worthies leading the crusade against paid news to ambassadors and parliamentarians and entrusted them with high-sounding missions. The irony would have amused the late Nikhil Chakravartty, founder of Mainstream, who declined a Padma Shri because accepting a government decoration and still claiming to be an independent journalist was like wearing a chastity belt in a brothel.

This ambivalence surfaced at a colloquium on the media’s role in India-China relations when a speaker brandished printouts of photographs and calligraphy distributed by the Chinese embassy (without mentioning the source) as proof of Delhi’s duplicity. Most nations would have found the homage embarrassing but it can only have confirmed for China that a core in the Indian media — as in the political establishment, witness the servile coinage “Chindia” — is up for sale to the highest bidder.

Another anomaly bears mentioning. India has only four correspondents in China against China’s 15 in Delhi. Yet, the four Indians, some of whom may speak a bit of basic Chinese, file many more stories than their 15 Chinese counterparts, many of whom have studied Hindi. Moreover, the Indians don’t enjoy the access that Chinese correspondents do in India, and certainly not the access allowed to Western reporters in China. Yet a reader in Beijing says he doesn’t get the sense that any of the Chinese correspondents have any feel for India. In contrast, the Indians make an effort to localize in China. A Western diplomat dismisses the Chinese reporters in Delhi as spooks.

This discussion is confined to India’s English-language papers. It also excludes the substance of Sino-Indian relations because, there, C.P. Scott’s famous dictum — “Comment is free, but facts are sacred” — must always apply. The territorial boundary, where “not a single shot had been fired”, as Wen said, is possibly sometimes “sensationalized” by junior reporters who are fed information by the police, military or local politicians who find it rewarding to exaggerate the peril they face. An excess of zeal is inevitable when underpaid, poorly trained and professionally neglected reporters enjoy the freedom we are proud of. But Delhi is always quick to step in to quash alarmist reports from the border. Comment is another matter. When Chinese papers and think tanks hailed Wen’s visit (as they are doing Hu’s) as an unqualified success, they were indulging in comment and not reporting facts. Indeed, totalitarian societies see no distinction between the two. Scott’s dictum would astound Wen and Hu.

As noted above, there is much that is wrong with India’s media and its interaction with centres of power, whether official, political or mercantile. But since Wen conceded its freedom, he cannot blame Delhi for the “damage” newspaper reports have supposedly done to bilateral ties. Both governments have the true measure of the media’s capability, and it isn’t plausible either to claim that national leaders have to strive to “repair the damage and harm” done by irresponsible Indian coverage. Wen’s real fear is probably the impact of Indian reports on the Chinese people (domestic and overseas) in this internet age of Facebook, Twitter and mass-distribution text messages on mobile phones. Never forget that pagers and the fax machine spurred the Tiananmen Square protests. More recently, the tiny Barbados Free Press website reported “a tsunami of visits to (its) articles about China” within hours of Google shutting down its Chinese language portal in response to hacking and espionage, almost certainly by Beijing.

The American media naturally has a much greater impact than India’s, but even a deficient media is nowadays a globalized one. However ecstatic Xinhua might wax over Hu’s visit, tweets among the Chinese and blank screens in Beijing when BBC and CNN highlight protests, human rights or Liu Xiaobo’s plight betray how sensitive China is to such issues. But whereas Hu cannot expect to silence US papers through strictures, our accommodating newspapers and ingratiating politicians have given Wen reason to hope he can achieve that result in India. We have only ourselves to blame if the prospects are not very encouraging for the “honest and candid” exchanges that are supposed to mark 2011 as the “Year of China-India Exchange.”