I am, in a sense, a child of the Indian newspaper. My late father, Chandran Tharoor, started in the newspaper business when barely out of college, representing a pair of Indian papers in post-war London, and spent his working life as a senior advertising executive for some of our country’s better-known mastheads. His world fascinated me. My childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s was replete with stories of editorial meetings and battles between the editorial and the advertisement departments, for my father injected newspaper ink into my veins at a young age. I grew up literally with newspapers; from about six or seven years of age, I can remember sitting with my father at 6.30 am every morning with chai and multiple newspapers. In addition to the news, he always read the ads, counting the column inches of advertising in his own and the rival newspapers—usually (since he was very good at his job) with a grunt of satisfaction.
My father used to work for the Statesman, then a superb newspaper. I remember going to the press as a young boy and seeing the linotype machine men at work with their little fonts that had been carved out of very hot metal, putting together words whose idiosyncratic spellings often revealed that they had not had an English-language education. (That’s why copyeditors were indispensable)! I recall handling flongs, the exotic papier-mache stereotype moulds used in the days before offset printing. Those were the days when you could turn up in some small town and find yesterday’s news with today’s date on it, in what the newspaper called a “dak edition”.
All A Twitter Tharoor had to apologise for tweeting he’d travel ‘cattle class...in solidarity with all our holy cows’
Those were more innocent times, when no one expected to find sex scandals in the daily news, and editors always knew far more than they shared with their readers. But those were also days when the papers were filled with dull accounts of worthy events, and the front pages regurgitated ministers’ speeches with little context, explanation or analysis. There was no real engagement with the substance of what politics means to the Indian people. Investigative journalism was unknown and revelations about errant conduct on the part of our elected officials would only appear if they had first been unearthed by the government.
Obviously, newspapers have come a very long way since the days in which I grew up with them. Technology is the most obvious change; today, almost everything is done on computers. No one knows what compositors are any more. Journalists do their own proof-reading. Presentation and layout have also dramatically improved. With colour, with newspapers so attractively designed and presented, with lifestyle supplements and multiple sections, anyone who remembers those days knows we are looking at a different product being sold in a different environment.
The economics have also changed: newsprint is more affordable. A 12-page paper would be considered a joke; multiple sections are now de rigueur. Circulations have shot up along with literacy and disposable incomes, so that the Times of India (TOI) today can call itself the world’s most widely-read English-language broadsheet, and Hindi newspapers boast readership numbers that would exceed the wildest fantasies of any editor in the world outside Japan. This is happening when newspapers in the developed West are falling by the wayside, unable to resist the challenge of the internet. TOI is read by some 13.3 million people daily, while the bestselling American paper, USA Today, has 2.5 million readers. Dainik Jagran, in Hindi, had 55.7 million readers in last year’s Indian Readership Survey.
But along with this have come other, more substantive, changes, both good and bad. On the positive side, our newspapers are more readable, better edited and usually better written than they were. Every newspaper looks at the news more critically, with a clearly visible slant on the events it is reporting. Investigative stories are frequent and occasionally expose wrongdoing before any official institution does so. The role of newspapers in rousing the social conscience of the Indian public about apparent miscarriages of justice, most notably in the Jessica Lall and Ruchika Girhotra cases, has been remarkable.
On the negative side, newspapers seem more conscious than ever that it is not they, but TV, that sets the pace. Television news in India, with far too many channels competing 24/7 for the same sets of eyeballs, has long since given up any pretence of providing a public service, with the “breaking news” story privileging sensation over substance. So newspapers find themselves led by the nose by TV’s perennial ratings war. They too feel the need to “break” news in order to be read, to outdo their TV competitors. They seem to perceive a need to reach readers each day with a banner headline that stimulates outrage rather than increases awareness.
The result has been, to put it mildly, disturbing. The distinction between fact, opinion and speculation that is drummed into journalism students’ heads the world over has blurred into irrelevance. There is a cavalier attitude to facts and a reluctance to issue corrections; my own attempts at correcting blatant falsehoods relating to me in print were ignored to the point that I stopped trying.
Trivia-Turned-Banner ‘We paid for our stay at the five-stars, something Indian Express blew out of proportion’
Sue Cide Note ‘Outlook indulged in wilful character assassination.
Part of the problem is a genuine disinclination to take the trouble to research a story, and a disregard for the need to verify it. Outlook ran an appalling piece on my wife Sunanda, in which every second statement was provably false or inaccurate, without consulting either her or her friends about their veracity. (To the magazine’s credit, it also ran a flood of letters pillorying it for the piece.) The Times of India got taken in by one of the many fake Facebook sites purporting to be Sunanda’s (she is not on any social networking site) and ran an entire article quoting her supposed views, without ever checking as to whether the site was genuine. Mid-Day placed words and sentiments in the mouth of one of my sons at my wedding that he would never have thought and did not utter. Perhaps it is our country’s weak libel protections that lead publications to feel they can print anything with complete disregard to the fact that it could amount to character assassination. But it is a sad commentary on how low our print standards have fallen that the very notion of what is “fit to print” has ceased to have any meaning in India today (and in India Today as well, but that’s another matter).
This should be a matter of serious concern to all right-thinking Indians, because newspapers and free media are the lifeblood of our democracy. They provide the information that enables a free citizenry to make the choices of who governs them and how, and ensures that those who govern will remain accountable to those who put them there. It is the media’s job to look critically at elected officials’ actions (or inaction), rather than at marginalia that have no impact whatsoever on the public welfare.
The free press is both the mortar that binds together the bricks of our country’s freedom, and the open window embedded in those bricks. No Indian leader would go as far as Thomas Jefferson, who said that given a choice between government without newspapers and newspapers without government, he would choose the latter. But government needs newspapers to keep it honest and efficient, to serve as both mirror and scalpel. If instead all we have is a blunt axe, society is not well served.
That begs the question as to why the recycling of the triviality of others should account for such a large portion of what passes for international coverage even in our more serious newspapers. Many of our broadsheets have reduced the amount of space and the amount of seriousness with which they cover world affairs. This is particularly troubling in the era of globalisation in which we are living.
We are today more connected through trade and travel than ever before with the international system; trade and foreign investment accounts for a steadily increasing share of our gdp. Our links with the world are one reason for the highest-ever growth rates that our country has enjoyed in the last two decades. Our jobs in this country, the future of our economy, the livelihoods of India’s newspaper readers, depend on the goods and services they produce for markets far away; on licences and access from foreign governments; on civil wars in countries that our readers have never heard of; and on competition from other foreign countries in areas that matter to us. All of these things are happening in the world, and Indian newspaper readers are not getting enough news about it.
Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” That applies to India too. We seek to redefine our place in a world that has changed from the geopolitical realities of 1945, including seeking permanent membership of the Security Council. But is our foreign policy awareness commensurate with the challenge? Can we be taken seriously as a potential world leader in the 21st century if we do not develop the institutions, the practices, the personnel and the mindset required to lead in the global arena? Can we afford not to be aware?
We know from a range of current challenges—to cite just one, our need for oil and gas from the Middle East, for mineral resources in Africa and Latin America, and for secure sea lanes of communication to bring these home to us—that we are extremely dependent on the rest of the world and at the same time vulnerable to it, but most of all that the rest of the world represents an opportunity for us. The globe represents for us a field of action, a platform of opportunity and a source of support for our country to rise from all the sufferings and difficulties of the past into the new India of the 21st century—a country that is engaged with the rest of the planet; that is not afraid of the prowess or the products of the outside world; that trades with and invests in the outside world on equal terms; that seeks to thrive amidst and together with others. That world requires an informed citizenry, who in turn require an engaged newspaper industry, with Indian media professionals whose minds are open to the broader horizons beyond. That is the only way we can keep our society competitive, aware and triumphant in the 21st-century world.
The world, I am convinced, is going our way. We have a new, globalised, impatient generation of young Indians who rightly refuse to be confined to the limited world-views of older generations. The horizons of their world are ever widening. The prospects for international engagement, for more widespread prosperity, for more borderless success, have never been brighter. But they need a press that caters to their globalised future, too. The professional purveyors of international news must do better than the token page of very short items that today passes for world news coverage in our country.
If India wishes to be taken seriously by the rest of the world as a responsible international player, we will have to take ourselves seriously and responsibly as well. Our newspapers would be a good place to start.
Dear Mr Tharoor, your help in trying to get Kochi its ipl cricket team is perfectly justifiable (What the Hack!). There is nothing wrong in a minister or politician doing so for his/her constituents. Similar efforts could have happened with the rival contender for the same prize: the ipl franchise. However it is wrong if you personally benefit from it. You, sir, were caught with your hand in the cookie jar when it was revealed that Sunanda was to get a truckload of money as sweat equity. She may be a savvy marketing/business development professional, in which case you should have stayed out to avoid a conflict of interest. You did not and nobody can justify the huge amount earmarked for her, whatever her qualifications may have been. So rather than blaming the media, you need to prove your innocence. The evidence is clearly against you. The sad thing is that you had so much promise! You were not like the other illiterate criminal netas. That is the biggest disappointment for most of us. Chitral Cheetah, Sunnyvale
Hey man, welcome back...! There is not one person in Indian politics who could match your style and glamour. Media—electronic and print—seemed colourless while you were away. Really. Now please do a favour to the public at large, get this guy called Lalit Modi out of the investigative circus, babus are baying for his blood since he last caused you trouble. With him around, we can once again enjoy an international entertainment show called the IPL. CWG turned out to be boring in spite of the medals and corruption. Rajeev Dubey, Vadodara
You’re right, Mr Tharoor. In the race to present breaking news, the veracity of news is compromised which I believe poisons the reader’s mind and their interpretation of views on the subject/circumstance/person about whom the news is. Aditya, Bangalore
Tharoor loves talking only about himself, be it in his tweets or in his pieces. Ram, Kerala
Since when did self-love and ambition become a crime in our country? Tharoor is spot-on on most issues. Prasanth, Melbourne
You were a terrible minister, Mr Tharoor, but you are a first-class writer. I see shades of Rushdie in you. I am quite liking The Great Indian Novel, of which I am reading about 30 pages every night before my sleep overtakes your storyline! Sudhir Kumar Bisht, Delhi
Yes, yes, we are prepared to be responsible. But does it mean that we’ll have to put up with Tharoor for the rest of our lives? Kannan Srinivasan, Melbourne
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