[Reader-list] Why our media can’t explain India

anupam chakravartty c.anupam at gmail.com
Wed Jun 30 10:42:55 IST 2010


Why our media can’t explain India

Aakar Patel

Manmohan Singh is rarely interviewed by Indian media. RSS journal Organiser
scolded him for this in an editorial recently. But Singh is actually a
talented interviewee and foreign journalists love him. It is almost
embarrassing to read his interviews with Europeans because they are so
fawning with him.
And yet the press conference he held in Delhi last month was his first in
four years. Why does Singh not speak to Indian journalists? Let us look at
his press conference. Here’s the first question:

“*Sir, mera naam Umakant Lakhera hai. Main Hindustan, jo Hindi akhbar hai,
uska Dilli mein chief of bureau hoon. Pradhan mantriji, mera aap se yah
sawal hai ki aap se pehle Bharat mein jitne bhi pradhan mantri hue hain,
economy ke baare mein vey log bahut zyada nahin jaante the. Yah desh ki
khushkismati hai ki aap economist hain aur aap ne azadi ke baad ka, Bharat
ki economy ke utar-chadhav ka, bahut lamba samay dekha hai. Mera aap se yah
sawal hai ki aaj price rise par control kyon nahin hai? Aisa kyon hota hai
ki inflation kam hota hai aur mehngai badhti hai? Pehle ke zamaney mein
mantri jab bayan dete they, to agley din mehngai ghat jati thi, aaj aisa
kyon hota hai ki aap ke jo ministers hain, aapke mantri jo bayan dete hain,
uske agle din mehngai badh jaati hai? Aisa kyon hota hai ke economy sarkar
ke control mein nahin hai aur aam aadmi ka zinda rehna mushkil ho gaya hai?
Common man ko lagta hai ke sarkar ke niyantran mein cheezein nahin hai.
Economy ka jo slowdown hai aur jo mehngai hai, aap us par apne vichar prakat
The press conference continues in this manner. There’s little reason for
Singh to engage Indian media, especially Hindi media, because it is all like
this. The opening question asked by Washington Post’s owner Lally Weymouth,
who interviewed Singh last year, was: “You are (US) President Obama’s first
official state visitor. What would you like to accomplish in Washington?”

We find this sort of objective questioning difficult to do, as our
television channels testify every night. This is because Indian journalists
look not for information, but for agreement with the convictions they hold.
European journalists do not make pleas on behalf of the common man (who in
India is represented by the Hindi journalist rather than the prime

There are good journalists in India, but they tend to be business
journalists. Let us quickly understand why. Unlike regular journalism,
business journalism is removed from emotion because it reports numbers.
There is little subjectivity and business channel anchors are calm and
rarely agitated because their world is more transparent.
Competent business reporting here, like CNBC, can be as good as business
reporting in the West. This isn’t true of regular journalism in India, which
is uniformly second rate.
V.S. Naipaul spotted this in our headlines. Citing ones such as “Masses must
be educated to make democracy a success” he concluded, rightly, that India
was “a nation ceaselessly exchanging banalities with itself”.

India is the only major newspaper market in the world where newspapers are
open to selling their stories. The problem isn’t that Indian proprietors are
evil or that they’re looking for short-term benefit while eroding the paper
over time. In my experience of six newspapers, the proprietor has always
been more knowledgeable than the editor.
The problem is the reader. It is unthinkable that its readers would continue
to patronize The New York Times if it were revealed that the newspaper’s
reporting was available for sale. But in India it’s fine, and the space is
available for the proprietor to profit.
About 10 years ago, Indian editors came under pressure to take their
newspapers “upmarket”. In Europe, going upmarket means adding pages that
carry reports on opera and literature, but that’s not what the word means

In India, upmarket means carrying photographs of well-dressed, wealthy
people: What is referred to as Page 3. Coverage of celebrities is actually
downmarket, but in India it’s inverted. There’s no demand from readers for
real upmarket content in India, and even if there was, there are few
journalists qualified to provide it.

This is because you cannot make a living as a writer in India, which is
surprising because we have 100 million speakers of English and think of
ourselves as being a giant market. But this isn’t true and there is little
consumption of writing. The reason Indian writers are paid little is that it
does not really matter what you write here. One writer is as good or bad as
another, and the good writer is actually the familiar face (which explains
why the same people—Pritish Nandy, Shobhaa De—write everywhere). There is
also the problem of quality, it must be admitted, and you can count the
number of Indians asked to write for publications abroad on the fingers of
one hand.

A century ago, 5% of India was literate. Formal schooling came to India only
after Macaulay’s Minute, which we are taught to hate. Indians were educated
in English in numbers quite recently, after we could produce no alternative
to Macaulay’s vision. In the 1970s, this urban literacy in English produced
publications that were new and different. India Today and Sunday sent
reporters to write about India’s villages. What they came back with
surprised readers, who hadn’t known what a truly frightening place India

Bihar’s police blinded a dozen undertrials with cycle spokes and acid in
Bhagalpur (the story of this casual act of punishment took weeks to emerge).
Government engineers on deputation regularly abused tribal women, and there
was no end to stories about the barbarism in the Indian village (there still
is no end).

But there was always something missing from this journalism, and it is this:
You could read Indian newspapers every day for 30 years and still not know
why India is this way. The job of newspapers is, or is supposed to be, to
tell its readers five things: who, when, where, what and why. Most
newspapers make do with only three of these and are unlikely to really tell
you “what”. This is because urban Indians are tired now of reading the
horror stories that come out of our villages. Only a couple of newspapers,
such as TheIndian Express, persist in reporting news that isn’t pleasant,
and they haven’t much circulation.

No newspaper at all can tell you “why”, because they do not know themselves.
The same stories from 30, 50, 100 or 500 years ago keep repeating here, and
the peasant will still murder his daughter for falling in love. The
happenings in the city are also difficult to understand. The news from May
was that Delhi University sold radioactive Cobalt-60 as scrap. This killed
the merchant who bought it and crippled another. The university, which is
supposed to be a research body, had unthinkingly buried some of the other
Cobalt-60 earlier and this will poison the ground. Why are we so casual?
Nobody can say, and there will be an explanation along the lines that it was
an accident. But this will happen again, of course. Union Carbide’s plant in
Bhopal was owned by Americans. But it was managed, staffed and run by
Indians. Its foreman was Indian and its workers were Indian. Why were they
so casual about their own safety? The media doesn’t know, but it is
convinced the solution lies with getting Warren Anderson.

*Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.*

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