July 04, 2020
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What The Hack!

The media would do well to heed political and world events than affaires d’amour

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What The Hack!
Illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
What The Hack!

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”.

I grew up reading 6-7 papers a day. It wasn’t tough; big papers then were just 12-page long; today, that would be a joke.

Growing up in Bombay and Calcutta, I enjoyed three or four newspapers in the morning; then during the day, the papers from the rest of the country would be flown in, and my father brought them home after work, when I would have a second round of newsprint to digest. So I grew up reading a minimum of seven or eight newspapers a day. (This was not as onerous a task as it might seem, since in those days the big newspapers were just 12 pages long, and some, in bad times of newsprint shortages, carried only eight.) When, at the age of 10, I first published a short story, it was not in a fiction magazine, but in a newspaper, the Bharat Jyoti—the Sunday edition of Bombay’s venerable Free Press Journal. That daily ritual of tea and newspapers gave me an early and abiding passion for the Indian press, one which I have sustained during three decades abroad, when I would have Indian newspapers sent to me in places like Geneva, Singapore and New York.

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’

Back then editors knew far more than they shared; now, recycling of trivia far exceeds space for serious issues.

So the Indian Express, for instance, reported a wholly fictitious “protocol problem” involving my supposedly having attended the Padma awards at Rashtrapati Bhavan with a woman who was not (yet) my wife—when the plain, verifiable, fact is that I have never attended a Padma award ceremony in my life, accompanied or alone! My attempts to point this out, both privately and publicly, got nowhere with the Express, which combines excellence in some kinds of investigative journalism (the Dubey murder over national highway funds is a fine example) with a talent for creating blazing stories out of trivia (as with their banner headlines “revealing” that external affairs minister S.M. Krishna and I were staying, at our own expense, in five-star hotels, a fact neither of us had hidden and which could have been ascertained from our officially-listed temporary addresses on various government websites).

Sue Cide NoteOutlook 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.

Governments need newspapers to serve as both mirror and scalpel. What we surely don’t need is a blunt axe.

One area of particular neglect by Indian newspapers today is one that would seem a natural for the print media, with its ability to provide context, depth and analysis that television cannot—and that is the issue of India’s engagement with the outside world. The old critique used to be that our newspapers and magazines only covered the world from a colonial mindset. I remember, from my student days, how in 1974 our papers devoted more column inches to Princess Anne’s fall from a horse than to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s visit to India at the same time. Of course, the Indian media today would not report quite as much about British princesses falling off horses; possibly British princesses having affairs with the men looking after the horses would interest them more. But the fact is that our newspapers are imprisoned by the inescapable appeal of the trivial. A cursory glance at the lifestyle sections, and even the pages devoted nominally to international coverage, reveals that an awful lot of Indian journalism about the world appears to consist of announcing that X and Y, minor celebrities in the West, have broken up, to readers who never knew that X and Y were together in the first place.

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.

International news purveyors must do better than the token page of short notes passing off as world news.

Our foreign policy debates in Parliament and the media seem obsessed with Pakistan or with ephemera (or worse, with ephemera about Pakistan). There is little appetite for in-depth discussion about, say, the merits of participating in the Non-Aligned Movement or the Conference of Democracies, or the importance we should give to such bodies as saarc or the Indian Ocean Rim Conference. Africa and Latin America are hardly ever mentioned by our press; acres of space were devoted to a misunderstanding of the word “interlocutor”, none at all to the first-ever visit of an Indian minister to earthquake-shaken Haiti. As a former minister of state for external affairs, I used to argue that foreign policy is too important an issue to be left to the mea alone. The sustainability and success of our international role depends on an informed public conscious of its global citizenship. This is not possible without a responsible press.

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.

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