Global India, Insular Media

Anand Vardhan

By Anand Vardhan

Posted on: Apr 17, 2017

This piece was first published on Newslaundry.

The jury is still out on what television journalist Arnab Goswami actually means when he claims that his upcoming venture Republic TV will be “India’s dot on world map of global media”. Is that a promise of building a global media brand in India or making the scale of news coverage global in its reporting and international in its editorial reach?

What, however, isn’t disputed is the fact that India’s news consumer remains insulated - uninterested or forced to be so - in the world beyond the borders. That’s what India’s media scene seems to suggest.

One may assume that the toughest test this insularity can be put to is the English media space. That’s because this space is expected to cater to people with more global exposure, and by extension, with the need to catch up with international news content. The result is no different though. Even Indian English media’s interest in the world outside is limited to occasional encounters with some landmark events or necessitated by some Indian dimension to international news events.

This is ironic when you consider that for a decade now, the buzz, or even India’s self-perception, has been about the country being one of the rising global powers. Indian media doesn’t reflect that global aspiration in its news lists since it can hardly claim to be your window to the world beyond India.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by even casual observers of the media space. In the introduction to his book Does the Elephant Dance?, one of the most significant works on India’s foreign policy published in recent years, Canadian diplomat and scholar David Malone writes: “Indian media suffers from limitations: it engages only fitfully with the rest of the world and tends towards analysis on issues international strictly in terms of India’s perspectives and interests.”

Malone, obviously, isn’t wrong in his diagnosis of Indian media’s news-myopia when it comes to covering the world. Even a cursory look at the coverage of international stories, or rather the lack of it, for a week, would show the validity of such diagnosis.

No space for Israel or Congo

Sample the developments in the last week when the national English news media was brimming with impish glee as entertaining conspiracy theories around EVMs kept surfacing. Add to that its naïve indifference to identity consolidation issues ensured that it was engaged with playing the alarmist over beef politics. Box news items occupied page one but the world somehow didn’t fit in. That didn’t stop the flux of developments unfolding around the world.

Indian media bypassed or had fleeting encounters with North Korea testing a ballistic missile on the eve of a summit between Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. This was also the week that was marked by developing news on Israel authorising the construction of the first new settlement in West Bank in 20 years. There was also the news of king of Thailand promulgating the country’s 20th constitution. More mass graves were discovered in Congo, while Venezuela’s Supreme Court took over the powers of the legislature before restoring them. The week also saw Moreno’s narrow win in Ecuador’s presidential election and Hungarian government passing a legislation which threatens to shut down Central European University. Chances are, you missed these developments if you were following Indian dailies, or even if you spotted them – they were sketchy, devoid of relevant details.

None of these stories made to the first page of The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Hindu. Even on the international page, they had little luck. Two of them – on Israel and Ecuador elections – which actually figured were tucked into insignificant slots escaping easy visibility. The only ‘international’ stories they could offer were chosen by India-angle precondition, so they were more of bilateral interest rather than global. You had front-page reports and even edits on the visit of Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The other piece of international news item sneaking into the front page did so only at the cost of 44 lives in a terror attack in Egypt.

India media’s tryst with the world

The international news content in Indian media is mostly dependent on global news agency feeds or syndicated articles. Its commentary on foreign affairs have also moved from in-house expertise to academic analysts like Harsh V Pant , C Raja Mohan or Kanti Bajpai to name a few, if not serving or retired diplomats. Contrary to expectations of a better staffed foreign desk and better strength of correspondents in different parts of the world in times of a more globalising media scene, Indian newspapers have restricted their correspondents to major world capitals like Washington, London and Beijing or neighbouring capitals like Islamabad and Colombo. Even that has undergone trimming, as evident in The Hindu and The Hindustan Times. Dispatches from African region in The Hindu have disappeared after its Africa correspondent Aman Sethi moved on.

The signs of surrender are obvious too, if not resignation to the fate that foreign beats would never get the attention and investment of funds required. For almost a decade now The Indian Express is in arrangement with the London-based The Economist to carry a page of articles and reports selected from the weekly’s latest issue. The Hindustan Times had entered into a similar arrangement with the daily The Washington Post for reprinting some of its news reports.

The English television news in India has always been cold shouldering international news, though in early 1990s Prannoy Roy had made a name for himself beyond election analysis with an hour package of international stories for Doordarshan simply titled ‘The World This Week’. His attempts at reviving it for his own channel NDTV24x7 in 2009-2010 didn’t go well and had to be abandoned shortly. The channel’s foreign affairs coverage has mostly been anchored by Maya Mirchandani but has largely been limited to bilateral or multilateral issues concerning India. Now only in role of a consulting editor for the channel, she has moved to Observer Research Foundation

India dimension also remains the restricted frame of reference for IBN News18’s international news content since the days when Suhasini Haidar spearheaded its foreign beat. After her departure for The Hindu, the channel has seen further curtailing of international stories air time. News X abandoned the world in 2011 after it pulled out from its brief experiment with what The Indian Express has been doing in print - having a 30-minute audio-visual package based on lead stories and commentary in The Economist. As for Times Now, it has refused to look at the world beyond India’s neighbours.

The newsmagazine space is witness to the same trend with India Today, Outlook and The Week rarely stepping out of India’s international ties in the name of foreign affairs reporting. The only exception seems to be the Left-inclined fortnightly Frontline from The Hindu group. However, its take on foreign affairs is severely undermined by an editorial outlook rooted in anti- Americanism and leftist polemics. There is a disproportionate coverage of socialist politics and alarmist amplification of neo-imperialist ‘dangers’ in the name of international reporting in the fortnightly. The obvious beneficiary is China, and the publication seems inclined to buying China’s perspectives on key international issues.

That’s a danger that Indian media’s abandoning of international news space poses. It has made the uncontested space available for leftist narratives on international developments. Left-inclined academics and commentators give global developments the spin in pursuit of their one-dimensional worldview of fighting imaginary ‘demons’ and promoting romantic solidarity of international causes. It’s not a coincidence that a generation of students in India, fed on this staple diet of mono-narratives, have imbibed anti-Americanism and bought several conspiracy theories about how international politics and economy function.

From a strategic point of view, India has been no match for how China has spawned, though state-controlled, its international news coverage and narratives through news agencies like Xinhua and publications like The Global Times. India’s news outreach to the world has lacked such ambition both in public and private space.

India has been at the receiving end of bad international reporting as far back as 1857 when none other than Karl Marx, as a London-based Europe correspondent for The New York Tribune, reported on Sepoy mutiny with fanciful theories including Asiatic mode of production. It can’t afford to leave the control of the narratives on the world beyond its borders be shaped without the intervention of its own media. This becomes more relevant when it’s finding its feet more assuredly on the international stage. It’s time Indian media grew its global wings and gave us a window to the world.  One may wait to see if Arnab’s Republic could ignite that ambition -- not in influence, but in the scale of its operations. This piece was first publised in Newslaundry.

Anand Vardhan, an M.A. in Political Science, got his formal education in Bihar and Delhi. He is an explorer of the ‘absurd’ in vacuous space and time. He writes only by accident as you will find out if you accidentally happen to read his piece. He might accidently be paid someday.


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