India Insight

Do Indian voters really choose?

Rahul Gandhi spoke at a news conference in Amritsar last month. Somewhat predictably newspapers and TV channels covering the event focused on his comments on the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and his defense against being called a rookie by a seasoned political rival.

They ignored the context of his visit — to review preparations for the local youth Congress elections, being conducted with greater involvement of party workers at the grass-roots level. It’s a practice he apparently wants to replicate across other states.

If Gandhi is serious about it and succeeds in doing so, it will further the cause of internal party democracy, which is a major blind spot in the working of our democracy.

The expression ‘political party’ did not even enter the Indian Constitution for the first thirty-five years of its life and even afterwards it did so cursorily in a Schedule.

The Constitution ensures that we elect our representatives but does not specify how political parties should choose the candidates — it’s a decision that does not involve citizens.

from Global News Journal:

Breaking the news in Mumbai – literally

The concept of a televised war was born in January 1991, when news networks reported live on the missiles slamming into Baghdad and millions watched from the comfort of their living rooms as tracer fire lit the sky above Iraq's capital. A decade later,  the world watched in minute-by-minute horror as the twin towers came crashing down in New York. 

Now, with the ferocious militant attacks in Mumbai, we have arrived in "the age of celebrity terrorism". Paul Cornish of Chatham House argues that apart from killing scores of people, what the Mumbai gunmen wanted was "an exaggerated and preferably extreme reaction on the part of governments, the media and public opinion". 

It's too early to tell if governments will respond with extreme reaction, but the saturation coverage of the drama in the world's media would suggest that, at least on this level, the killers were successful.  

Does Indian media go overboard with breaking news?

Just when I thought news trivialisation by a section of Indian media could not get worse, it did. And how.

bang.jpgIn a control room somewhere on the French-Swiss border, scientists of CERN, the European Center for Nuclear Research, waited for the first signals to come in from a $9 billion particle collider as they embarked on an experiment to unlock secrets of the universe.
In a town somewhere in Madhya Pradesh, farmer Biharilal’s daughter Chayya sat glued to the TV screen, taking in the graphics and amateur video game imagery put together by vernacular news channels who said the experiment would bring about the end of the world.
The fact that I’m sitting here writing this is proof enough the world did not end. But Chayya, who killed herself fearing what doomsday prophets said would be the experiment’s cataclysmic effects, is not around to see that.
Sensationalism in 24×7 news coverage is relatively new to India — a concept borrowed from the larger and more prolific western media. In India, every road accident, murder and rape makes delightful copy for news channels vying for the attention of elusive viewers with serious commitment issues.
In a country where a sudden media boom led by rapid economic growth and freeing of entertainment and media markets has resulted in a plethora of channels all “bringing news first”, viewers switch loyalties before you can utter the word ‘TRP’.
The viewers have seen it all, they control the remote control and unless you hold them down with the right concoction of sensation, sleaze and news, they just won’t stay.
Which meant that the fear psychosis created by vernacular channels on the biggest scientific experiment of our time spread like wildfire across the country. The rationalists logged on to the internet to know more about the Big Bang project while the religious held prayer sessions.
What shocked me was how ill-informed and factually incorrect some of these channels were on scientific trivia. A channel repeatedly referred to this “big dark hole” in the universe in the same hushed tone little Red Riding Hood’s mother would use to caution her against the big bad wolf.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting issued an advisory under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 to two Indian TV channels asking them to show restraint in the coverage of the Big Bang  experiment.

Guilty until proven innocent? It doesn’t end there for some

Derided by the media and under pressure to show results following the series of terror attacks in the country, the security establishment recently announced a number of arrests relating to the explosions in Ahmedabad and Bangalore and the earlier ones in Jaipur.

While it is praiseworthy that the police acted comparatively quickly this time in tracing the culprits, it later turned out that some of those arrested, whose names the media had readily released, had no involvement in the dastardly acts.

blastBut the damage had already been done, as a ‘suspect’ told a newspaper after his release: “I will have to live with a ‘terrorist’ tag for the rest of my life.” Anwar Hussein, a doctor, said his family now faces abuses from neighbours and customers are avoiding his family’s business of iron work in his native village.

Baroque Nazi war criminal hoax — an update

I’m sad to learn that not everyone at the DNA newspaper reads this blog. Yesterday, they ran the story of the arrest of Johann Bach — the fictional, music-loving, piano-stealing, octagenarian Nazi war criminal with a fondness for Goan trance parties — a full day after it was exposed as a hoax

Baga beach in Goa — Bach was not hereThe Pen Pricks, the Goan bloggers behind the hoax, have e-mailed me back, and have also updated their blog with a gleeful recounting of the prank. They won’t say who they are, other than to say they are journalists based in Goa. They said they got the idea for the hoax after being disappointed in the media’s coverage of recent high-profile murder cases, where, they say, “Almost every kind of rumour, tidbit was reported as the gospel truth”. Here’s another passage from their e-mail:

All we wanted to do, was expose the depths of depravity in the media by leaking this absolutely fake story to the media in Goa. As expected, once the story was picked up by a couple of papers, the national media just sucked in on it, without verification.  

Indian newspapers fall for baroque Nazi war criminal hoax

You would think a press release about a German Nazi war criminal named Johann Bach being caught in the jungles of Goa after trying to sell a stolen 18th-century piano would be worth double-checking.

A reconstruction of the head of 18th-century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who is not known to have visited Goa.Nonetheless, the press release has been regurgitated on the front pages of the Deccan Herald and the Indian Express and inside the Telegraph, citing Perus Narkp, “the intelligence wing of the Berlin-based German Chancellor’s Core (sic)”, as the source.

Perus Narkp, a not especially Germanic name, is an anagram of “Super Prank”.

Searching for a brighter future for India

Sometimes journalists are accused of only writing about bad news, so I wanted to share with you a wonderful day I had last Friday travelling to Hyderabad.

For a change, even the journey was smooth. I went on a brand-new plane with one of India’s new airlines — not only was the service good, but it actually left exactly on time, and arrived early. A bit of a rarity in my recent experience of India’s congested airports and airspace.

And when I arrived, what an airport. The Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, which was opened in March, is truly state-of-the-art, incredibly clean, very spacious and stylish. A public-private partnership, it would grace any country in the world, and clearly had been built with room for Hyderabad to expand. Again, a pleasant change from Delhi’s chaos, where the airport is several steps behind demand.The private sector won’t solve all of India’s problems, but here were a couple of examples of liberalisation at its best, of reforms which have unleashed the country’s vast economic potential.

Does India care about the tragedy in Myanmar?

I was a little shocked this morning to realise how little coverage the terrible tragedy in Myanmar has received from India’s major newspapers.

People stand next to an advertisement tower that had fallen on a street in Yangon May 6, 2008, after Cyclone Nargis slammed into Myanmar's main city on Saturday. REUTERS/StringerLatest official estimates suggest 22,500 people have died and another 41,000 are missing in India’s eastern neighbour — a death toll comparable to Sri Lanka’s experience in the 2004 tsunami, and one that could easily rise further.

Yet the story does not even merit a mention on the front page of the Delhi editions of Wednesday’s Hindu, Indian Express or Mail Today, with the Hindustan Times granting it a tiny paragraph pointing to a page 18 story.