“Report the news. It is not news that there are poor people in India.”
In the morning today The Independent‘s Asia correspondent, Andrew Buncombe, blogged his disagreement with Arundhati Roy’s statement that foreign journalists in India have been asked not to report bad news. As a foreign journalist in Delhi he had faced no such censorship from his editors or the government here.
Buncombe made his case strongly:
At the same time, does this stop “bad news” about India being broadcast or published? In the time I’ve been here, I’ve written about insurgencies, caste, poverty, farmer suicides, religious violence, killings in Kashmir, Hindu terror cells, corruption (a number of times), honour killings, slums, land battles and homelessness. In the last 18 months, The Independent has published three substantial pieces on the Maoists. My colleagues have done the same, travelling to Nyamgiri to write about the tribal people’s fight against mining company Vedanta, to the Maoist “infested” areas of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, to Srinagar and Bihar, or working in Delhi where they highlighted the corruption and mis-management surrounding the Commonweath Games or else illegal child labour involved in the textile industry.
I emailed Ms Roy, who I respect and admire even if I believe her analysis on some key issues is in need of some nuance, to ask if she had been misquoted and, if not, whether she could reveal the individuals labouring under the “no bad news” directive. She replied to say she had indeed been quoted correctly in the Guardian but that the correspondents she referred to had spoken to her “confidentially”. She said there had been two people who had told her this, which is a little different to “several” as she initially remarked. [Read the full post]
All the predictable critics of Arundhati Roy Tweeted and Facebooked that post promptly, and with commentary that did not hide their glee. Then, in the evening, Buncombe wrote an update on the same page that I haven’t yet seen Tweeted and Facebooked that enthusiastically. The update reads:
Since writing this, I’ve been contacted by a colleague who said they cannot interest their “editors in anything but stories of shiny new India”. When this person “pitches stories on issues of poverty, development, or those being left out of the Great Indian Miracle”, they are told it’s “old news”. The appetite of their desk is entirely for stories of growth and positive change.
This journalist says they did not speak to Ms Roy. Furthermore, this journalist said they had been told by a colleague who works for another international publication of an “identical problem”. The correspondent said their colleague was told by their desk: “Report the news. It is not news that there are poor people in India.”
Rick Westhead of the Toronto Star tweets: “It’s not only desks. Also an issue of self-censoring b/c of worries over visa renewals.” This fear is not unfounded: in July last year, India refused to renew the visa of Shogo Takahashi of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). A report in the Kolkata Telegraph reads:
A foreign correspondent said NHK’s coverage of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections had greatly displeased Indian officials. “They were upset that the documentary focused overtly on the role of caste system in the Indian electoral system,” the correspondent said. [Link]
Dean Nelson of the London Telegraph blogged last year, “The world wants to think the best about India. So we turn our back on Kashmir.”
On more than one occassion, Pankaj Mishra has pointed out what’s wrong with the picture of India that the foreign media paints:
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. [November 2010]
May I add that I have also heard from foreign journalists in Delhi, and from Indians working in their bureaus, that negative news is discouraged by the editors in London, New York and Washington. An example of this was the toned down coverage of the killings in Kashmir last summer. Kashmir and caste are two subjects considered particularly ‘sensitive’.