Making English Language Indian Media Truly “Indian”

Making English Language Indian Media Truly “Indian”The Delhi-centred English language media
  • Indian media is hardly Indian in the true sense. To ensure it is, national bureaus of New Delhi media must create space for diversity.

I would like to begin with a few caveats so that nobody ends up losing his cool in this heat just by reading the headline. I am no authority on issuing certificates of patriotism nor do I consider myself the great arbiter of what is “Indian”.

Despite their questionable stance on many issues, which in my opinion are detrimental to the republic, many mainstream journalists are as Indian as I am. Though they stress-test the cherished principles of free speech and tolerance, they mostly act under the ambit of laws prescribed by the Constitution.

That aside, the issue at hand for this piece is whether Indian media truly represents our country. The media has been at the forefront in raising issues that concern social justice and affirmative action. It has highlighted issues relating to caste or religion-based discrimination along with matters ranging from feminism to rural empowerment. Whether media organisations, however, imbibe these truly liberal and lofty values in their own set-ups, is questionable.

For the sake of focus and brevity, let us just focus on the representation of people from different parts of India in the English print media. Whether there are enough Dalit editors, women editors, and whether there is pay parity, are issues for a different day.

A job in the national bureau of any of the big publications – The Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian Express, Hindustan Times – is much sought after by young journalists. The folks in the national bureau consider themselves to be the vanguards of “truth” and take great pride in deciding what India reads the next day. As a journalist in your 30s, if you are a part of the national bureau, you have truly arrived. In the journalistic community, you are talked about, your work is keenly followed and you become part of the tradition of the newspaper. Many a silly bickering on Twitter about who broke the news is because of the personal prestige and loyalty to the brand.

If you are a part of the national bureau, you get membership to the liberal clique. Apart from journalistic work, you have exhibited clear “secular” and “liberal” leanings, which is the main reason you climbed the first rung of the ladder. The more “liberal” you are, the more opportunities for professional growth come your way — lateral job changes, conferences, access to sources, liaising with the global clique of foreign correspondents and so on.

The career progression to the national bureau is usually from the city beat. Which city? New Delhi. Why? They are already there; the editors know them; their English is good. Lazy reasons given to perpetuate an old system entrenched in a culture of cronyism. There will be some folks from Kolkata due to the pervasive Bengali domination in the media. A smattering from Mumbai and Chennai and that’s it. You would hardly hear about a senior journalist in the national print media, who has earned his stripes from Thiruvananthapuram, Bhubaneswar or Shimla.

Pernicious effects of this incestuous arrangement is two-fold. First, this self-selecting coterie prefers “people like them”, mostly from Delhi. This stifles opportunities for meritorious journalists from other parts of India, who come with value systems and outlooks that are different from the “connected” Delhi journalists.

Second, it has an effect on content served to the readers. The Lutyens’ Delhi journalists operate on tight deadlines, often armed only with superficial information about areas far off from Delhi. The consequent poor coverage shows up quite often during elections, when the mainstream media gets its facts wrong. Confused about their inadequacy, they end up giving reasons such as “there was a silent wave”, “society is becoming right-wing” etc. This also gives rise to a missionary-like “save the heathen” syndrome.

Let’s take the new health policy unveiled by the government recently. Don’t you think the understanding and coverage will be different coming from a journalist that covered issues from a tier-II city, say from Bhopal? A journalist, who has covered lower courts in small cities (which Arun Shourie laments as inadequate), will have a better perspective when it comes to covering the Supreme Court.

News coverage from other parts of India suffers as well. The exciting economic growth story of say, Jharkhand, hardly comes out. Indirectly, this results in thwarting of grass-root, bottom-up wisdom and goes on to reward theoretical top-down knowledge that may not be reflective of what actually happens on the ground.

How to fix the imbalance? First, it calls for leadership among owners and editors. The media sorely needs someone who is an equivalent of what Narendra Modi (or Barack Obama) is to politics or M S Dhoni is to cricket. Someone that rises beyond the ordinary and provides direction to the industry. Someone that recognises the gap and tries to address with a spirit of entrepreneurship and for personal glory.

Once the problem is clearly recognised there are two ways to go about it — the American affirmative action way or the Indian quota way. Which ever way is chosen, it should work towards ensuring at least 50 per cent of journalists from non-metro backgrounds be included in the national bureau. Once the upstream is cleared, you will get a flow of aspirants from other parts of India. Think of the richness of coverage, when a senior journalist from Nagaland reports on the Ministry of Development of North Eastern Region in Delhi.

In reputable foreign publications, the people who move to the top spend decades outside their hometown and at times even their country. If you take The New York Times, for instance, senior journalists working with the organisation would have spent enormous number of years covering a province of the US, or in Africa or Asia. The executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, has spent decades reporting from New Orleans, Chicago and Los Angeles. Compare that with chief editors of major newspapers who have spent most of their careers in Delhi (according to sources and media reports).

There is an earnest attempt in reputed foreign newspapers to provide exposure to reporters, and it becomes a non-negotiable criterion when it comes to their career growth. In India too, there should be a practice that a journalist will be accepted into the national bureau and appointed to other senior positions only if she spends at least five years outside Delhi. The sham followed right now is that a journalist is sent to cover a particular news story for a week (most sought after is Kashmir) and she becomes an expert in the area.

A truly Indian media should be plural both in terms of its content and constitution of the newsroom. Imagine politicians only from Delhi sitting in Lok Sabha to make laws for the country. An equivalent of that is happening in the media. There is no churning of ideas and, more importantly, values that truly reflect the heart of the country.

This Indian century should also belong to the Indian media. It should project to the world a true picture of India — not a distorted view based on ideological blinkers driven by narrow career interests. The English language Indian media should take cue from criticisms of becoming irrelevant seriously (like Elon Musk and Steve Pinker’s criticism of American media). Journalists from small towns bring the much needed diversity and methods that cover processes (like what P Sainath refers to often). The fourth pillar needs regeneration from within, and providing space for diversity is a step in that direction.

Banuchandar Nagarajan is a public policy adviser. An alumnus of Harvard University, he has worked in the World Bank, PwC and the UN. Follow him @Banuall.


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