When you open a newspaper, or switch on the television, and there’s nothing but good news, it’s time to start worrying about what they’re not telling you. Nobody likes bad news, but the world is full of it. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise: they want your vote or your money, or for you to look the other way.
Whenever this question comes up, I am reminded of an incident in Tamil Nadu when I was covering the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami for The Independent. I had just emerged from a press conference given by the chief secretary of the state when I saw a small group of demonstrators outside, and sent my translator over to find out what they were protesting about. Just then the chief secretary herself came out, saw my translator and started berating him angrily in Tamil.
In those days I was still fairly new to India, and more used to reporting in places like the Middle East and Pakistan—places where a translator who attracts the ire of a senior government official is in peril of his life. So I did what foreign correspondents are taught to do: I put myself physically between him and the chief secretary, and demanded that she address her complaints to me. She was staring at me in astonishment, at what must have seemed rather uncouth behaviour on my part, when I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to hear the translator say: “Don’t worry sir. India is a democracy. I can say whatever I like.” He was looking the chief secretary right in the eye. He was an ordinary man. There was a severe shortage of translators with the world’s media camped in Tamil Nadu, and in desperation I had hunted down a driver who spoke good English. He drove an old white Ambassador for a living and wore an uncomfortable uniform that made him sweat in the sun. But in that moment, he encapsulated everything that is great about India. The Chief Secretary towered over him, but he had silenced her.
The protesters, it turned out, were Dalit tsunami survivors claiming they had been denied access to relief supplies by survivors from other castes. To the chief secretary, it was a bad news story that detracted from the state’s otherwise excellent response to the disaster. Naturally, she wanted to project Tamil Nadu in the best possible light. As far as I was concerned, if relief wasn’t getting through to some survivors, for whatever reason, that was a story that needed to be told. But for me the real good news story that day was that in India, a driver could stand up to a chief secretary and insist on his right to know the truth.
You could say it’s a bad time for a British journalist to be defending the role of the press, in the light of the News of the World phone hacking scandal in my own county. Well, true. But a lot of people forget it was another newspaper, The Guardian, which uncovered that story through years of relentless investigative journalism, without which it would never have come to light.
Usually, bad news stories are often not so spectacular. Another memory: the region of Mewat, just south of Delhi. Its villages lie just off the gleaming new towers and malls of Gurgaon, but I encountered another world there. In rural Haryana, the practice of selectively aborting female foetuses has become so widespread that the men buy in “wives” from poorer parts of India, like Orissa or Jharkhand. They buy the women like a commodity from their parents, then bring them to another state where they don’t speak the language or know anyone. They call them “wives” but there is no formal marriage, they are property. Sometimes several brothers share a woman. One “wife” tried to run away when her “husband” ordered her to sleep with his brother. He cut her head off with a scythe.
Illustration by Sorit
It’s not front page news, but it is a quiet tragedy taking place a stone’s throw from Delhi. Which story to report then? The shining new India of the Gurgaon malls on the horizon, or the desperate story inside the old walls of Mewat behind me? It was a dilemma that came up constantly during my time as a correspondent based in Delhi. Which India to report? The India of Tata and Reliance, the economic powerhouses that were buying up companies in my native Britain by the day—or the India of potholed, crumbling roads where the infrastructure was in such disrepair that the major cities flooded every monsoon season and the roads were in perennial gridlock?
The only answer to it, of course, was—both. Both sides were true, both were India. If I were to tell my readers only the good news of India shining news of India shining, I would have misled them. Of course, some of this makes uncomfortable reading, especially stories like Mewat. Naturally, Indians have a patriotic desire to show the best of their country, especially to an outsider like me, and I can see how they might be uncomfortable with a foreigner digging away at some of these stories.
But we’re not talking about foreign correspondents, we’re talking about the Indian press, and I think what a patriotic Indian should be rightly proud of is that this country has a free press and free speech—and to have a truly free press you have to report the bad as well as the good. Ah, you might say, but we’re not proposing censorship, we’re talking about journalists being more selective in what they report. But the most pernicious form of censorship is self-censorship. If you want to see newspapers and TV that only report good news, you have to go somewhere like the Middle East. Syria, say, or Libya. And yet, all too often, you find the regimes in these countries don’t need to practise that much censorship, because the journalists already censor themselves: they know the red lines that are not to be crossed.
There are safeguards against that sort of thing in a democracy. But quis custodiet ipsos custodes—who will guard the guards? The safest society is one in which the citizen is armed with knowledge. A lot of people are under the impression that journalists prefer bad news. In fact, good news is much easier. A journalist is constantly bombarded with good news stories: press releases arrive in their hundreds, there are phone calls from government officials, the PR departments of big firms, ngos and charities, all eager to tell you about the good things they are doing. There are people whose entire job is to sell you good news.
Bad news is much harder. No one wants to help you. Generally there is someone who actively wants to stop you, often someone powerful. You have to hunt it down, work it out of people in hours of painstaking interviews, or track it down through reams of documents. It makes you enemies. In a lot of countries, it can get you killed. So why do it? Because it matters. Good news makes us feel satisfied with things as they are; bad news makes us demand change. So the next time you read a bad news story, don’t feel downhearted, be proud you are part of a country that has a free press and is prepared to be honest about itself, failings and all. Bad news makes the world a better place.
(Justin Huggler was a former correspondent for The Independent. He’s working on a novel set in Delhi.)
Apropos Justin Huggler’s column (A Harvester of the Objectionable), news, good or bad, is good as long as it is unbiased and cares for the truth.
"That is what “bad news” is all about: your right to know."
That is true from the journalist's point of view. But what effect does a relentless outpouring of lying, deceit, misrepresentation, cruelty and false promises have on the readers? They might lose all faith in the basic goodness of human beings! Do editors even think of providing a balanced picture?
A News, good or bad, is good so long as it is unbiased and cares for truth.
Just how corrupt a country is India?
Here is a conversation between Barkha Dutt of NDTV and Nira Radia from a 'Barkhagate' tape:
Barkha Dutt: Nira?
Nira Radia: Hi
Barkha Dutt: Now, they're saying, "We’ll take whoever!"
Nira Radia: Whoever matlab? It doesn’t matter Maran or whoever? Baalu or Raja or anything na?
Barkha Dutt: Ha, now they're saying that
Barkha Dutt as this conversation shows bring piping hot news which is not known to the media as there has been no press release to the effect, which is not known to Radia, which is not known to most members of the Congress party. But Barkha knows. It is news of a kind which could only have come to her from the Congress high command.
What Barkha says proves that she is lying when she says that she never ran errands for Radia and had no connection with the Congress party. Barkha Dutt has not been removed by NDTV, not been removed by any self-monitoring organisation of the Indian media. Interestingly, after Barkha's clarification, OUTLOOK did not run a follow-up story featuring this tape.
And Swapan Das Gupta ( who is known to be close to RSS-BJP! ) has stated that he wants to see the story buried and forgotten.
Can an Indian politician declare a (relatively) small amount of money like 5-10 million dollars, offer no explanation about where he has got the money from, and be completely sure that no one will ask questions? Is India really this corrupt?
Pranab Mukherjee has declared millions of dollars and 2 houses in posh South Delhi as his assets. What is undeclared is where he got the money from.
The Indian media has many journalists and editors who are not just educated but even highly educated having degrees from Oxford and Cambridge where they have gone for further studies. It should not be difficult at all for them to understand that when an Indian politician or govt servant declares his assets the important thing of course is not whether he has 2 million dollars or 50 million dollars but where he got the money from.
This highly educated media is yet to make the very basic demand that Indian politicians should declare not just how much money they have but where they got it from.
It remains unknown where Pranab Mukherjee's millions of dollars and 2 houses in posh Greater Kailash colony of South Delhi have come from.
The Indian media (to say nothing about the Indian police and judiciary) are yet to ask him.
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