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Pre-Fab Reporting

Globalisation and its belief systems have streamed into reporting in, and from, Asia

Pre-Fab Reporting
Illustration by Jayachandran
Pre-Fab Reporting

"The East,” Benjamin Disraeli famously wrote, “is a career.” This is as true of the foreign journalist writing on India or China today as it was of the traders, soldiers, diplomats and missionaries who arrived on Asian shores cresting on the waves of Western power. And in the 15 years that Outlook has been around, many attractive opportunities have opened up in this particular career.

What was true of soldiers, traders, missionaries and freebooters of colonial times is true of journalists in Asia now.

Long perceived as stagnant by Western commentators, victims of misguided experiments in socialism, the world’s most populous countries suddenly appear to be ‘rising’ to the consumer capitalism that is apparently the summit of human achievement. Having discarded such founding ideals as social justice, India and China now possess “turbocharged” (Thomas Friedman’s favourite adjective in The World is Flat) economies. There is hardly any report or article about these countries that does not proclaim that the economic globalisation originating in the West has lifted hundreds of millions of Indians and Chinese above the poverty line—the preferred verbs and adjectives are “blasting”, “rocketing” and “roaring” out of poverty.

In the West itself, however, a series of unexpected events have almost completely dispelled the post-cold-war optimism that Western liberal democracy, based on private property, free markets and regular elections, was the terminus of human history, a place where it was believed even Russia and China, the most intransigent of the West’s recent adversaries, would soon arrive. In the wake of a recession and two disastrous wars, the mood in the West is now of sour disillusion, further exacerbated not only by the rise of Islamic extremism but also a new assertiveness from China, Russia, Iran, Brazil and Turkey.

China has unexpectedly emerged on the world stage, its intentions and motivations still largely unknown, its distance from Western-style democracy still considerable, and its nationalism frequently verging on xenophobia. Failed experiments with unfettered capitalism have helped instal right-wing authoritarian and populist left-wing regimes in Russia and Latin America respectively. The recent irruptions of radical Islam, the calamitous war in Iraq and the Taliban’s resurgence have muddied further the image of a world rushing to embrace victorious Western values.

Under The Boot: Crackdowns in Tibet gets bigger headlines in the West than the Indian State’s depredations. (Photograph by AP)

Nevertheless, the triumphalist assumptions of the end of the cold war continue to inform not only the average issue of the Wall Street Journal or The Economist but indeed most of the foreign coverage in the American and British media. A worldview decisively shaped by events of the previous two decades—the Reagan and Thatcher revolutions that renewed a belief in the ‘magic of the marketplace’—is still far from being overhauled by the recent shocks to the Western economies. Most Western writers and journalists are still conditioned to see their consumer societies as the inevitable and desirable terminus of history.

Free-market capitalists in much of the West happily managed without representative democracy for centuries, and still circumvent its checks and balances. Indeed, notwithstanding the moral rhetoric of freedom and democracy, multinational companies prefer China to India because  they find it easier to work in a politically monolithic country than in a pluralistic one. Still, China’s failure to blossom into a liberal democracy while embracing free-market capitalism provokes some discomfort among liberal-minded journalists.

Not surprisingly, more than China, it is India, with its cacophonous democracy, that has become a source of existential and ideological self-affirmation for Western elites. India fits a Western discourse much more neatly by possessing both the impeccably Western virtues of secular democracy and free-market capitalism. For decades on end, Western commentators loudly prophesied the demise of Indian democracy. They cannot now stop singing paeans to its vitality and longevity even as the most serious challenges to India’s political stability emerge.

The misty idealism that surrounds the word ‘democracy’ can make it as much an ideological smokescreen as ‘free trade’ was in the 19th century, covering up a host of cruel but institutionalised imbalances of power and opportunities. Unlike authoritarianism, its grand formal structures—parliaments, a ‘free’ press and the judiciary—help prevent any thorough examination of systemic corruption and violence. Special interpretative tools are needed to go beyond the obvious, and cut through cliches. But they seem beyond the reach of the average foreign correspondent in India.

Here, for instance, is The Economist in a long exuberant article on business in India, describing a scenario in which private schools in rural areas help India translate its demographic advantage over China into an army of productive and efficient workers: “Where public schools are no good, cheap private ones have sprung up. Remarkably, in rural areas more than 20 per cent of Indian students, most of them poor, attend private schools.” Dazzled by statistics favouring his preconceptions, The Economist’s writer has felt no need for first-hand experience of private schools in rural areas, or even sought an easily available knowledge: that the small-scale scam in mofussil areas known as ‘English-medium schools’ is far from producing employable or even teachable Indians.

Coming Undone: A footbridge collapsed just before the CWG 2010, drawing the wrong sort of media attention. (Photograph by Sanjay Rawat)

No irony is intended in The Economist’s perfunctory acknowledgment of the majority of India’s population: “The biggest risk for banks in Mumbai and software firms in Bangalore is not that rebels will burst through their front doors but that a government sensitive to the anger of the poor will take populist steps to assuage it.”

God forbid that the government should be responsive to the unproductive people that elect it and alienate the really crucial creators of wealth! This special pleading on behalf of the super-rich may sound typical of the financial press. However, elsewhere, too, most foreign correspondents find it enough to massage the expectations of elites in their home countries, who tend to see India as little more than a source of corporate profits. Not surprisingly, the books the foreign correspondents end up writing after a few tours of duty in the East reveal very little about how most Indians live, or see themselves and the world, but very much about how certain ideological assumptions and prejudices of the West, strengthened by its supposed victory in the cold war, have overwhelmed many of the best and brightest journalists in Britain and America.

Foreign reporters find themselves hampered in India by the complexity of their subject and also by their assumptions.

Admittedly, foreign journalists in India are often limited not just by their inherited assumptions but also by the size and complexity of their subject. Passively internalised ideological beliefs—free markets create wealth and remove poverty, consumer capitalism and urbanisation is the only way forward for even overwhelmingly rural and agrarian societies etc—will always come up short against the great internal diversity and contradictions of countries like India and China. But most foreign journalists set out for India with usually little of the training or heightened receptivity that an anthropologist takes to his fieldwork. The long and complex pasts, for instance, of countries like India and China are a blank to most of them.

Their exalted position as well-off expatriates in India has its own dangers. Much of their limited time is spent in close proximity to the tiny English-speaking elite of Delhi and Mumbai, whose opinions happen to be more accessible than the struggles of most ordinary Indians, not to mention private schools in rural areas. Continuous proximity to and dependence on senior bureaucrats and other elite policy- and opinion-makers make journalists less inclined to take risks with their own interpretation of events. Soon, the fear that this proximity might be curtailed or withdrawn altogether quietly begins to take its inevitable toll.

For obvious reasons, the foreign correspondent in China avoids the perils of ‘access journalism’. Almost continuously and often menacingly monitored, he finds himself inevitably on the murky margins of a vast country; a sure grasp of the local language doesn’t make his subject any less opaque. There are no local elites convivially passing on their prejudices at Beijing’s versions of the India International Centre (IIC) and Habitat Centre of Delhi. His position as the perennial outsider tends to stimulate his curiosity and impel him into bolder assessments of his subject. It helps, too, that his newspaper’s foreign editors back home can’t get enough of stories about China, the vaguely minatory and inscrutable ‘rival’ of the West. Thus most foreign journalists in China seem more perceptive and resourceful with every month they spend there.

Riot Act: A protest in Srinagar last month. Coverage of Kashmir is marked by absence of candour, understanding. (Photograph by AP)

Something opposite seems to occur in India: the newly arrived journalist, who spends his early weeks outraged and appalled by the chasm between grim actuality and the self-flattering rhetoric of political, business and media elites, soon grows quiescent. Cautious ellipses, if not downright suppressions, come to mark his reporting of the most urgent issues in India today. Complacency sets in; the same native savants come to inform his reports with their invisible assumptions. Demanding neither much moral passion nor political intelligence from their correspondents in the field, the editors at the foreign desk back home are no help.

So the intellectual languor of foreign correspondents often matches perfectly the general self-absorption of the societies they report back to. Beside, the main themes of the narrative—democratic India as ally, authoritarian China as rival—have been fixed, and have grown familiar to the Western readership. The reporter cannot depart too much from the script.

According to it, China, which has many internal problems but none of such severity as the Maoist uprising, remains the politically ‘unstable’ country while India seems to be cruising smoothly to its tryst with destiny. So while Han Chinese paramilitaries murdering or maiming scores of teenaged Uighur or Tibetan demonstrators would provoke days of thick black headlines, followed by an orgy of international condemnation, India’s brutality in Kashmir and the Northeast—arguably greater than China’s in Tibet and Xinjiang—generates hardly any consistent reporting, leave aside outraged editorials or statements of concern from international ‘statesmen’.

As always, India’s elites seek in Western coverage an image of themselves; and they are gratified by what they see, until a disaster like the Commonwealth Games explodes in full view of the world. I should add that the Indian English-language press is hardly holding up a clear mirror to them. Here is one of its early observers: “A reader of the newspapers would hardly imagine that a vast peasantry and millions of workers existed in India or had any importance.... (They) were full of doings of high officials. Social life in the big cities...was described at great length with its parties.... Occasionally, there was a brief reference to a strike, and the rural areas only came into prominence when there was a riot.”

The writer lamenting the ‘Page 3’ press culture of early 20th century British India is Jawaharlal Nehru; it is a damning measure of the neo-colonialist mindset today that the blindness to Indian realities and elite self-cherishing that Nehru described are again the most prominent features of the English-language press.

In Outlook’s 10th anniversary issue five years ago, I lamented the slow death of morally engaged or even reasonably accurate journalism in the English-language media. Since then, periodicals like The Hindu, Outlook and Tehelka have managed to retain a relatively high degree of public spirit; specialist journals like the Economic and Political Weekly remain indispensable guides. On the whole, however, the forces of corruption and mediocrity have made great progress.

Christopher Hitchens once said that he became a journalist because he couldn’t trust the newspapers anymore. However, to become a journalist in India is to know something more disturbing about your profession: that some of the most prominent, even respectable, people in the media are deeply compromised by their proximity to powerful politicians and businessmen.

Not surprisingly, a neutered press has turned the obsession with celebrities into a mania; and often appears to claim indifference to the India of extreme poverty and destitution as a fundamental right. But then silence can seem preferable to the media’s occasional engagement with Kashmir or the Maoists, when much of the English-language press and television in particular does little more than amplify the lies and deceptions of intelligence and security officials.

Working almost synergistically with reflexively ideological, complacent or ill-equipped foreign correspondents, the local English media creates a formidable store of defective knowledge about India. This is why the crisis in mainstream journalism is deeper and more acute than what the usual explanations—the internet and the declining circulations of print newspapers—would have us believe; and it is not confined to the West or India.

The Wrong Perch: From the circles they move in, journalists are not able to truly engage with Indian reality. (Photograph by Dinodia)

Writers and journalists in most ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ countries increasingly constitute a new elite, their distance from the defenceless or the underdog, traditionally the ally and subject of the watchdog of democracy, ever greater. Their membership of the privileged classes is the biggest and most serious change in journalism in recent years, accounting for a range of intellectual and moral truancies—from the American media’s cheerleading of the war in Iraq to the Indian media’s disingenuousness on the Kashmir situation.

Journalists who may have been impartial once found their side chosen during the globalisation assault. Alas.

But the general decline of journalistic standards can’t always be blamed on personal greed and vanity. One can simply drift, as one does with most things in life, into a cosy relationship with the power to which truth must be frankly spoken. Reflecting on his years as a reporter in China, the distinguished historian John K. Fairbank pointed out that “every journalist is walking on a fault line—of unresolved and ambivalent historic situations—trying to represent it some way in words. It is probably the essence of the journalistic profession...that reporters deal with ambivalent situations where the outcome is uncertain, the values are mixed, and the sides are in conflict”.

It is fair to say that many journalists, who may have been impartial once, found their side chosen for them in the previous decade of globalisation, when the richness of the world not only seemed to grow but also become available to all, to ordinary investors as well as extravagantly salaried and bonused CEOs. In this time of seemingly general prosperity, many writers and journalists broke free of old allegiances to region, class, nation, and democratic institutions. Exalted to a glamorous new transnational class, they were more likely to be found sharing their expertise with corporate supremos at Davos and Aspen than reporting on non-unionised labor in Guangzhou and Tiruppur.

A global pundit like Thomas Friedman is of course an egregious example of a journalist-turned-ventriloquist for the wealthy and the powerful. There are, however, many less visible clones of him around, claiming the prestige of intellectual enquiry for their predetermined, even overdetermined, opinions. Indeed, many journalists remain faithful to the old ideals. Still, it may be time to retire the pious cant about the media as the watchdog of democracy. Certainly, we’ll avoid many illusions and disappointments in the future if we regard journalists as yet another special-interest group, turning the many infirmities of democracy to its advantage.

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