Politics | 6-minute read | 17-03-2015
American and European media are far too insular to give India more than cursory coverage, some of it of uneven quality.
The relationship between Modi and the media has long been vitiated by old biases. Social media has enabled the prime minister to largely bypass the Indian and foreign media. This though has made the relationship with traditional media even more fraught. Journalists have large egos. Being ignored does not endear to them a prime minister seen as remote and aloof.
Foreign journalists meanwhile are puzzled. Most are middle-level careerists who head their newspapers' South Asian bureaus. An Indian posting is a stepping stone to a top editorial job back home or in a larger bureau in Europe, China or the United States.
For these mid-career journalists, India is a challenge. Most know they'll be transferred out of New Delhi in a few years even as they are finding their feet in the country. For example, Simon Denyer, the Washington Post's former New Delhi bureau chief with who I appeared in 2012 on a Times Now debate on the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's famed silences, was sent off to Beijing before he had a chance to do extended reportage out of India. Besides, as we agreed in that particular debate, foreign journalists cater to an audience that knows little about India and is easily swayed by undercooked foreign reportage.
Should Indians though bother about how foreign media projects India? Not unduly. American and European media are far too insular to give India more than cursory coverage, some of it of uneven quality. However, when bias morphs into deception, it's time to set the record straight. Let's take specific examples.
In a recent story in Quartz (the Indian arm of a popular, edgy American website), the headline said breathlessly: "Indian millionaires are fleeing the country".
The article begins thus: "India's millionaires do not want to live in India. In the last ten years, some 27 per cent of India's 160,600 high net worth individuals (HNWIs) have left the country, according to a report by property consultant Knight Frank. A high net worth individual is a person having investable wealth of more than $1 million (Rs 6.28 crore).That's second only to China, where 76,200 HNWIs packed up and moved out between 2003 and 2013. India's 'wealthy migrants' tend to favour the UK, the US and Australia."
And then out comes the truth in the rest of the article: "India's wealthy are moving to other countries to make even more money. "HNWIs are not exactly leaving India, but these are the people who are leaving the country for employment opportunities. These days salary levels are pushing a lot of individuals in the HNWI bucket," Kartik Jhaveri, director of Transcend Consulting, a wealth management service, told Quartz. Much of this exodus, Jhaveri explained, is temporary, with investments (particularly in real estate) remaining parked in India as these millionaires head out for new jobs or business expansion."
Indian millionaires "fleeing" India? When the headline and the opening paragraphs misrepresent so brazenly the main thrust of the article that follows, it's not just the sub-editor who should be fired. The responsibility travels all the way up to the top.
Turn now to The New York Times, older than Quartz and with gravitas bordering on the pretentious. In an error-speckled piece by its "editorial board" titled "Narendra Modi's Rise in India", the newspaper wrote: "Modi's economic record in Gujarat is not entirely admirable, either. Muslims in Gujarat, for instance, were much more likely to be poor than Muslims in India as a whole."
When the error was pointed out on social media and elsewhere (Muslims in Gujarat are actually among the least poor in India), the Times was forced to recant: "An earlier version of this editorial relied on a 2012 Indian government report on poverty rates, which included the rate for Muslims in Gujarat in 2009 and 2010. Newer data shows that poverty among that group has declined substantially in the last two years."
Factual errors can be put down to journalistic incompetence. But misstatements? Bias? Any newspaper that values its editorial integrity and professional reputation would not have published a piece overflowing with invective as The Economist did shortly after the prime minister's speech at Madison Square Garden in New York last September.
The piece, titled "I give you Narendra Modi", began with droll prose: 'YEAH, go that way,' yells a frazzled cop guarding a security cordon outside Penn Station. Which pain-in-the-ass sports star or musician is snarling traffic around Madison Square Garden, an arena normally graced by Wrestle Mania, the Knicks and the Rolling Stones?
Actually, today's performer is a politician: Narendra Modi, India's prime minister."
The magazine was forced to issue this "apology" a few days later:
"Editor's note: The second sentence of this blog post was changed on September 29 to make clear that The Economist does not consider Mr Modi to be a 'pain in the ass'; that epithet is merely how we imagined an uninformed New Yorker might feel about someone who causes a traffic jam."
The Economist prides itself on its journalism. Neither its original piece nor its mocking apology justify that pride.
Francois Gautier, the French editor-in-chief of La Revue de I'Inde, puts all of this in historical perspective: "The British set upon establishing an intermediary race of Indians whom they could entrust with their work at middle-level echelons and who could one day be convenient instruments to rule by proxy, or semi-proxy. The tool to shape these British clones was education. In the words of Macaulay: 'We must at present do our best to form a class, who may be interpreters between us and the millions we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.' The unfortunate element of course is that Western journalists now quote Indian intellectuals: 'See we are not saying anything, Indians themselves are saying it.'"
How should the Modi government respond to such bias? It shouldn't. The government must instead communicate its policies daily through a structured media briefing. Each key ministry must have a designated spokesperson (like the excellent Syed Akbaruddin of the ministry of external affairs) who briefs the media by rotation. The only thing worse than misinformation is no information.
Dissent is the soul of democracy. Openness, like sunlight, is a disinfectant. In the absence of a structured daily information protocol by the government, which accommodates both dissent and openness, genuine achievement risks being ignored while errors of judgment are magnified by Indian and foreign media who deeply resent that they no longer have access to the top.