Posted on 1-May-2015
"I hate journalists. There is nothing in them but tittering jeering emptiness. They have all made what Dante calls the Great Refusal. The shallowest people on the ridge of the earth." --William Butler Yeats
Early last month, while supervising the evacuation of Indian nationals, as well as a small number of nationals of other countries, from Yemen, General V.K.Singh, India's Minister of State for External Affairs, at one stage used the epithet presstitutes for journalists as a group while reacting to some remark by a pressman. This raised Cain in the media and he was vociferously denounced by all sections of print and electronic news organisations in India. While still the serving Chief of Staff of the Indian army, he showed a singular lack of judgment in not knowing where to stop in his struggle to get one date of birth instead of another accepted in the official records. Since retirement, particularly since becoming a member the Council of Ministers in Government of India, he has every once in a while posted infelicitous comments on his Twitter or Facebook Page, including one about the present Chief of the Indian army. Because of this past record he has made himself an easy target of ridicule. In spite of all this, the aptness of the epithet presstitute to describe journalists as a group will bear examination. This neologism, obviously a hybrid between press and prostitute, clearly means those presspersons who make their services available to anyone in return for mostly material gain. A few examples from recent behaviour of Indian media will show that neither General Singh nor anyone else qualifying Indian journalists with that epithet is all that mistaken.
First of all there is a phenomenon called paid news in India, meaning that certain newspapers would publish news stories favourable to individuals--politicians, business magnates or others--in return for payment. At one stage there was a certain amount of mutual name calling when one newspaper accused another of publishing news stories in return for payment. When paid news becomes widespread during election time, it causes worries for India's Election Commission which has been wrestling with the problem of killing this new beast. But there are other less obvious cases of Indian newspapers, and a fortiori, television channels debasing themselves.
My first example comes from a recent talk show hosted by a gentleman who not very long ago ran another talk show at which he tried so hard to ape a broadcaster on the BBC that he habitually became obnoxious to his guests, so much so that he was roundly scolded on camera by one of the most prominent and the least flamboyant of India's politicians while another, only slightly less prominent, terminated the interview mid-way. Now this talk show run by this gentleman for another channel had some recent amendments of Indian taxation law as the subject of discussion on a day when in a moment of idleness I tuned into his programme. There was on this programme, India's Revenue Secretary, the highest ranking bureaucrat who deals with the Indian government's taxation policy, a correspondent of the Financial Times and a member of the BJP among others. The Revenue Secretary tried patiently to show how the new amendments were in the direction of liberalisation and how they were business friendly, the BJP man after arguing that the new amendments were quite liberal and how western business circles were unfair when they even now cried foul and added for good measure that these same groups easily accepted the authority of tax administrators in their own country while the Financial Times basically kept on repeating the line that unless India liberalised further, India would not be able attract substantial amounts of foreign investment--nothing more than the old scare story perpetrated by those in the west who, if they had the capacity, would dismantle every bit of regulation in every developing or newly emerging economy of the world. The anchor gave respectful yet minimum amount of time to the Revenue Secretary, kept on shutting out the BJP man and gave all the time to the Financial Times man that he needed. This was as a crass an attempt as possible at promoting the Financial Times line. For what personal benefit or for what benefit for his channel the anchor was plugging a line can only be matter of speculation; he certainly was not being fair or objective.
In December 2013, India's Deputy Consul General in New York was arrested there on charges of not paying her India based maid servant the legal minimum wages fixed by American law, body searched and lodged in police custody along with common criminals. Indian protests drew responses based on quibbling about the extent of consular and diplomatic immunity or a response to say that the administration could not interfere with the criminal justice system--strange argument from a government which would go to great lengths to protect say a Saudi diplomat from the reach of American law. Ultimately Government of India decided to use the most effective tool available in diplomacy--reciprocity in small matters and big. All privileges granted to American diplomatic personnel in India beyond that required by standard diplomatic practice or beyond the requirements of reciprocity were withdrawn--the only explanation for having granted these additional privileges in the first instance is the general servility of Indian officialdom when dealing particularly with the USA and to a smaller degree, the UK. It was interesting how with near unanimity Indian media criticised the action of the Indian government as petty and vengeful or small minded--the New York Times and the Washington Post took similar lines. The editor of one English daily made this an occasion to run down the Indian Foreign Service--for his refusal to understand the principles and need for diplomatic immunity and of the importance of reciprocity he deserved to be sent back to school. The man wrote and talked like a spokesman for the US embassy in Delhi. The most curious was the reaction of the Indian media to the open the street behind the US embassy in Delhi to the general public. The access to this street had for years been controlled by Indian security guards employed by the US embassy in Delhi while Indian policemen were nowhere to be seen. Indian media almost unanimously echoed the US embassy's argument that this action endangered the security of the embassy. If only Indian scribes cared to see what happens in western capitals--Rue du Faubourg St. Honore where the US embassy in Paris is located has always been a public thoroughfare and in Dublin, on the sidewalk next to the main entrance to the US embassy there is a bus stop--these are but two examples that readily come to mind. Practically every western ambassador and his press officer in Delhi would know what favour can be gained from which Indian journalist in return for a seat at the ambassador's dinner table, what in return for a trip to a western capital to attend a seminar and what in return for a year long fellowship at a western university.
My third example comes from a purely domestic context. In the years 1986 and part of 1987 one of the best known Indian journalists, the editor of a prestigious English language daily, an icon almost to be worshipped by the green horns of the profession, was consistently and persistently critical of Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister. The language used by him was strong and often acerbic. Then one day he published an article based on his interview with Rajiv Gandhi. Thereafter he turned an unabashed, almost gushing admirer of Rajiv Gandhi. People who knew these things said that the venom in him bad been caused by his inability to get that much coveted interview which once granted turned everything around--no personal judgment, no personal principles could come in the way of paeans to Rajiv Gandhi. Lesser figures in Indian journalism would climb over each other's shoulder to get a seat on a Rajiv Gandhi's, an I. K. Gujral's or a Manmohan Singh's flight taking him to a western capital. People in government know this and they know exactly which journalist to use for what purpose. Then there was the case of two well known journalists joining the army of political fixers that surrounds various centres of power in Delhi--they were into appointment of ministers in Government of India. Even after the exposure of their activities, they continue to strut the stage, pouring out their mixture of inanities, platitudes and half-truths, often as the final word on whatever subject they speak or write on.
Some of the discourse in Indian media can be annoyingly vacuous, with opinions often formed on the basis of parti pris. One recent example is that of Giriraj Kishore Singh, a minister in Government of India who recently spoke at a private gathering asking if India's Congress party would have so easily accepted Rajiv Gandhi's widow as its leader if he had married a Nigerian rather than a fair complexioned Italian. His remarks were promptly denounced by the media as racist, insulting to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, or crude and insensitive or all of them together. Now there were three problems with Giriraj Kishore Singh: one that he was not speaking in English, two that he spoke in Hindi in the rustic manner of a provincial Bihari politician and the third was that he should have talked of India's acceptance of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi rather than only of the Congress party accepting her. With these three handicaps he was an easy target far India's English knowing urban middle class to shoot at and shot he did get. But a close look at Giriraj Singh's remark makes it clear that it was neither racist nor a personal insult to Mrs. Sonia Gandhi; his remark was really about the ingrained racism of large sections of Indian society--to my knowledge only one columnist made such an observation. Any doubters about this ingrained racism in Indian society would do well to talk to some sub-Saharan Africans who come in contact with India and Indians; those doubters may also ask why so many white (pinko-gray?) people who come in contact with India and Indians describe Indians as obsequious. The sad truth is that many Indians would as soon insult or snub a sub-Saharan African as would fawn and grovel when dealing with white complexioned Europeans and North Americans. Coming to the general attitude of Indians towards Africans, in a recent newspaper column, a California based academic of Indian origin described Nelson Mandela as Mohandas Gandhi's under study--such an observation, apart from being factually egregiously wrong also bespeaks racial arrogance towards black Africans. But who in the Indian media wants to confront such uncomfortable questions? Better beat poor Giriraj Kishore Singh.
Reporting in Indian media on recent developments in Ukraine and Syria has been equally shallow. On Ukraine nearly the entire Indian media has swallowed the western propaganda line and regurgitated it: Putin's Russia is expansionist and it must be stopped. Very few if any have tried to understand the root cause of the problem which was the decision of the Clinton administration, in spite of the oral assurance given by George H.W.Bush to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not be expanded eastwards, to expand NATO up to the borders of Russia. Russia did nothing when Poland, Hungary, Rumania and the Baltic republics joined NATO. But it had made it clear from the beginning that Ukraine or Georgia as members of NATO was not acceptable to it. When an attempt was made to take Georgia into NATO, Russia reacted. Likewise when an attempt was made to take Ukraine into NATO via the EU, Russia reacted. Hardly anyone in Indian media has tried to comprehend the truth of a simple statement: if it is legitimate for the West to expand NATO up to Russia's heartland, it is equally legitimate for Russia to do what it can to thwart such attempts. But why make the effort to to reach a deeper understanding of events? Reporting on the rise of ISIS in the Indian media has been equally lackadaisical. There has hardly been any effort to trace the origin of the crisis to the effort by the USA in conjunction with Qatar and Saudi Arabia and the states of the Gulf, starting in the spring of 2011, to unseat Bashar El Assad.
Not all journalists deserve W.B.Yeats's condemnation. Many end up writing very valuable books. A few published in the last decade and a half come to mind. First of all there are two books by Robert Wright, who straddles the world of journalism and academia: Non Zero and The Evolution of God, both very important contributions to the world of ideas. Then there is the very extensive, The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk. In Lawrence in Arabia, Scott Anderson has followed in detail the careers and activities of four individuals who, at times working for some power or interest and at times working as individuals ended up making huge contributions to the shaping of the modern Middle East. In The First Muslim, Lesley Hazleton has after years of reporting on the Middle East, produced an extremely well researched book about Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam. Wiliam J. Broad's The Science of Yoga is an objective book, free of all religious or chauvinistic mumbo jumbo, about yoga in modern times. Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times has published a book, The Girl from the Human Street, in which at one level he tells the poignant story of his mother, at another he talks of the experiences of two Lithuanian Jewish families that towards the end of the nineteenth century migrated to South Africa and on a third level he deals with the difficulty Jews have faced in assimilating in South African white community or in Europe everywhere. Then there is a much older but no less valuable two volume History of the Cold War by Andre Fontaine who for many years was redacteur en chef of Le Monde. All these writers are Europeans or Americans. It is sad to say that no Indian journalist has produced a book that even remotely approaches the quality and substance of any of the books in this random sample. Most Indian journalists richly deserve the description given of them by Justice Markandeya Katju soon after he became President of the Press Council of India. But the meretricious tribe of self-important Indian journalists would not take any criticism of their profession or of themselves with calm and equanimity.