How many of you know who Mark Tully is?” I always ask the audience of senior officers at both our civil and military institutions, when invited to speak on the role of the media in our democracy. Almost all hands go up if the audience consists of officers with upwards of 20 years in service. They speak of Tully, for long the BBC’s legendary bureau chief in New Delhi, in admiration, even reverence.
Then I ask the follow-up question: Who is the BBC’s chief of bureau in New Delhi now?
I have never, in the past 10 years, had anybody answer that, even make a guess. In fact, nobody can name any of the senior, competent and successful professionals who stepped into Tully’s oversized floaters.
But this is not merely meant to be a compliment to Tully, a brilliant colleague and fellow traveller in India’s newsiest decades. When my mother wouldn’t believe Dhaka had fallen in 1971 and Rajiv Gandhi wouldn’t believe his mother had been assassinated until each had heard it on the BBC. Nor is this meant to be an unflattering comment on Tully’s successors. It is just to make the point that the growth of India’s own journalism, particularly in the electronic media, has liberated us from our dependence on foreign media. We never needed any “foreign” journalist to tell us, for example, what was going on in Kargil, even in the first few weeks when the news looked all bad and baffling.
This is the real story. As democracies grow, evolve, deepen and mature, their reliance on the international media for news about themselves declines. It follows that the clout of the foreign press corps in their capitals also declines accordingly. That is exactly what has happened in New Delhi through two decades of reform. The political class, the bureaucracy and even Indian journalists no longer hold in awe the bureau chiefs of the BBC, CNN, The New York Times, Time, The Guardian, even The Washington Post. They are fellow journalists covering our country, rather than super-powerful and super-connected foreign journalists who set the agenda for us. Of course, this was was also helped along by better salaries, easier foreign travel and availability of legal Scotch and wine, which narrowed the gap between the native and the expat. This change was further hardened by the fact that over these two decades, the focus of the world media shifted to what is now called Af-Pak. In the glory days of the Western media in New Delhi, all South Asia bureau chiefs lived in the city and travelled to the region, including Pakistan, when something really major, like a coup or an assassination, happened, leaving the rest to stringers. That balance of power has now shifted, as the bigger story has moved there.
That is why the recent commotion, over the Western media’s criticism of the government, particularly the prime minister, is surprising. Even more intriguing is “the coverage” given to these stories and views by us, in the Indian media, particularly on TV. It is anachronistic to see Time and The Washington Post hitting the national headlines for calling the prime minister an underachiever, or a silent and tragic figure. Why have we — the government as well as the media — become so thin-skinned? Has the foreign press corps in New Delhi somehow regained its old powers? Or, have we, as a nation, or rather our national political and intellectual elites, lost some of the confidence two decades of reform and growth have brought us?
It is a truism that the weaker and more crisis-ridden a nation, the more seriously it takes the foreign press. Pakistan is a very good example. Foreign correspondents, particularly those who do their business in English, are rock stars there. Their stories are prolifically reproduced, followed up and discussed in the Pakistani media. Many enjoy enormous access within the Pakistani establishment besides, indeed, their own powerful embassies. A critical story, or a significant exposé, is analysed also in terms of mysterious motives and conspiracy theories. Places like Kabul, Baghdad and Cairo, of course, are in a different category altogether, given how much more important the Western capitals’ perceptions are to them. But India of 2012? At least I am astounded to see the 1970s’ conspiracy theories resurface, particularly one on a Hindi channel that suggested the recent attacks by the “American media” were just a payback for our warming up to Iran, particularly the Manmohan Singh-Ahmadinejad meeting. And, of course, that the “attacks” were at the behest of the American government.
But why should we journalists self-flagellate when the prickliness of our political establishment is what sets the trend anyway? For more than a decade now, this establishment has glowed under constant, unquestioning and even breathless praise from the Western media. With the odd exception of an Arundhati Roy or a Pankaj Mishra and indeed the entire Guardian, the Western media has been nothing but flattering about the post-reform India story. The New York Times’s Tom Friedman has done more to build the India story globally than many scores of Indian diplomats over these years. Until the other day, when asked why they couldn’t see any fault with Manmohan Singh and India, many prominent foreign journalists used to say, because everybody wants India to succeed, nobody wants India to fail. Are we responsible for leaving the same people so disappointed? The honest answer is, yes. The prime minister himself is an honest, self-effacing man and an intellectual. If he reflects on the two adjectives used in the latest Washington Post report, “silent” and “tragic”, he would probably admit to one and worry about the other. He has been silent, even more so in his second term than in the first, and following the leader, others have gone into the trenches as well. Nothing has hurt the India story more substantively than the silence of the reformer. So he has to change, rather than complain. And tragic? How would he himself describe his own legacy if the Indian reform story, which he launched, is now dismantled under his own watch? That is why he should be worried more than complaining.
Postscript: Intrigued by a picture of Rajiv Gandhi on the cover of Penthouse as I browsed in a Washington bookshop in mid-1987, I picked up a copy. It had a full-length interview with Rajiv Gandhi, conducted by the famous Russell Warren Howe, a formidable foreign correspondent and former World War II Spitfire pilot who made his fame with a biography of Mata Hari and some infamy as someone who routinely talked statesmen and heads of state into giving him interviews that he promptly sold to Penthouse. I was then on a sabbatical of sorts, but it looked too juicy a story to pass up. So I promptly filed for India Today, where I worked. As expected, it unleashed a storm, with much name-calling within the PMO as to who was responsible for getting Rajiv caught in such an embarrassing mess. Protests were lodged with Penthouse and Howe, and both dismissed them gleefully, as you would expect.
Within days, I got my comeuppance, though. Rajiv had come visiting Washington and I was introduced to him at the embassy’s reception. I was too junior for prime ministers to know me, but as my name and affiliation were mentioned, there was a flicker of amused recognition in his eyes. “What are you doing here?” he asked me. I said I had taken a year off and was researching some strategic issues. “You have started well, with Penthouse,” he said, and turned to the next guest.
The Indian Express