Indian Media: Just Another Wall

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In baiting and pillorying China and thwarting
cooperation with India, the media seems to be more a player than a fair, objective and dispassionate observer and recorder of events and developments

By Shastri Ramachandaran


The deficiencies of the Indian media, including indifference to informed and in-depth coverage—combined with ignorance—of foreign affairs, especially the neighbourhood is a matter of concern. This needs to be addressed for Indian media to prevail in the region as a free, fair, credible and responsible entity that people, states and civil society can look up to for a resolution of the issues of poverty, backwardness and various internal and cross-border conflicts.

Media here means journalism or public service journalism (although journalism is shrinking as media expands) because any scrutiny of the media from the viewpoint of public service, democratic values and the interests of the majority—as opposed to corporates, market drivers, advertisers and business/commercial operators—assumes that media is journalism and vice versa. When people say that “Media has failed” or “Media is exaggerating”, they are not referring to the content of entertainment, sports or religious channels; they mean media as journalism and journalists, not the IPL icons, the new-age gurus or film stars. In short, when media is blamed, the accusing fingers are pointed not at Ramdev or Rakhi Sawant, but at those in publications and channels in the business of news and views. Similarly, when the government or terrorists seek to bend the media to serve their respective interests, they, too, mean the “news media”.

Flawed coverage and failure to be fair

The media may be a mirror, but in mirroring realities and transmitting news, views, images, emotions, perceptions, interpretations, opinions and comments, it is more than witness and purveyor. People depend on the media for information about the world, and this makes the media a dominant source for shared attitudes, ideologies, strategies, lifestyles, prejudices and beliefs. It is an intermediary. Its role and relationship with its “consumers” should be seen in the context of what media does to us, our world, our lives and our rights as much as that of our neighbours.

Indian media’s coverage of the neighbourhood is seriously flawed. Media’s failure to aid, enable and advance peace and promote cross-national understanding between peoples—all too evident in the everyday content of newspapers, television channels and websites—is worrying.
More than any other neighbour, China brings out the worst in the Indian media. The reporting and coverage of China raises disturbing questions such as: Does our reporting of events in these countries promote peace or tensions? Why is there this distance between India and its neighbours? Why is the Indian media indifferent to reporting in depth?

I take the case of China to make my point because India is obsessed with it, and not in a good way. China, the world’s most populous nation and fastest-growing economy, is a rising power. Only the US economy is larger than China’s. India’s
relationship with China is marked by irritants, as are relationships with many other countries. Yet, the Indian media is openly hostile to China to a point where it has lost all objectivity.

Player on China and India-China relations

Media’s coverage of the India-China stand-off in Ladakh in April-May 2013, the visit of (then) Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid in early May 2013 and Premier Li Keqiang choosing India for his first foreign visit after taking office in the decadal power shift illustrate how the media acquitted itself.

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Interpretation gone wrong: The way the Indian media reported on then external affairs minister Salman Khurshid’s meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing showed its inherent bias

The External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs had scheduled Khurshid’s press conference on a Saturday afternoon. The choice of Saturday (being a weekend) was unusual but not rare. It may well be that the Foreign Minister wanted to meet the press soon after his return given the “crisis” manufactured by the media based on the standoff.

The coverage of Khurshid’s Beijing visit as much as his press conference was extraordinary for reporting what was not said and what did not happen: That Khurshid did not ask them why they had violated the Line of Actual Control; that the Chinese did not regret (not even “express regret”) or apologise; and, so on. At least one media house and its print and television representatives were not interested in what the Minister did or talked while in China and what responses he elicited from the Chinese. Khurshid showed this section that two can play at the game by adding for good measure that he liked China, liked a lot of what he saw there and would like to live in Beijing, though not as External Affairs Minister. The prejudiced media rose to the bait and the paper’s report next day portrayed him as a person (least actuated by “national interest” as defined by this newspaper’s reporters) who was talking of how he would like to live in Beijing when China had just pulled back from a “dangerous game of brinkmanship”. 

What such a section of the media led by the “leader” was seeking to drive home was that China is an enemy; it ought to have been shown its place; beaten back if necessary; or, at least subjected to a flexing of our military muscle; that neither the minister nor the ministry was up to the job of defending “national interest”; that the MEA cannot be trusted to do its job because it was covering up for the Chinese, glossing over their military transgressions and actually being obstructive of the Indian defence forces and standing in the way of what the Ministry of Defense would like to do.

Much of the media was convinced that: China was in “offensive” mode; deliberately “aggressive”; bent on provoking a conflict given the military moves just weeks before Premier Li Keqiang’s visit; the Government of India should “show them”, give a befitting response; call off the foreign minister’s visit and force Premier Li to cancel his trip. The media was screaming for conflict and repeatedly described the standoff as the “worst such confrontation since 1962”.
Understandably, this media was disappointed that far from a confrontation or increased signs of hostility, what was visible was a smiling Khurshid “gloating” over how well his visit had gone and that the Government of India had not scaled down expectations from the visit of Premier Li as expected by the media. All this was grist to the anti-China industry that thrives in India, especially as manifest in the media.

Obsession with boundary issue

Five years earlier, during the momentous summit meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Premier Wen Jiabao, most mediapersons accompanying Singh lost interest in the mission the moment they learned that the boundary issue was not “on the agenda”.
Far from looking at what was important about the visit, why it was important for the two leaders and their delegations to meet, what were the issues they dealt with and how it would affect bilateral relations and reporting on these, most of those assigned to cover the summit kept repeating that the border issue did not figure in the talks.

The prime minister’s centerpiece on this visit was his address at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences where he spoke of Asia’s two rising powers and the promise of growth premised on peace and cooperation. One media outfit had sent two representatives, yet neither were present when the PM delivered this address. During the Ladakh stand-off, there was no dearth of online comments dripping with visceral hatred of China, the Chinese and anyone in India who did not hate the China as much as these “nationalist” netizens.
What triggered the stand-off is no longer a secret. More pertinent here is: Why did the media, now, as on past occasions, ratchet up tensions with China? Why is the media pushing for conflict, if not a military confrontation? What interests motivate, if not dictate, such media involvement?
Is the media’s aggressiveness a cover for its ignorance, indifference and
inability to provide fair, accurate, informed and credible coverage?

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INDO-CHINA WAR 1962 (3) ssppppppppppppppp
(Top) Did Nehru’s rebuff to Chou En-lai during his India visit lead to the 1962 war (above)?

Media shuts out book on Nehru’s stubbornness leading to 1962 War?
One other instance, which would still make news, happened in December 2010 when AG Noorani’s book India-China Boundary Problem: 1846-1947 History and Diplomacy was released by Vice-President Hamid Ansari. There appeared only brief, innocuous reports of the function. The conspicuous omission of any reference to the contents of the book has given rise to suspicions, which persist to this day.

The book was being released during the week of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to India. Barring one report in The Sunday Times of India, the book—which asserts on the basis of research and archival evidence that Nehru’s stubbornness led to India’s 1962 war with China—has been denied due coverage and has hardly been debated.

Noorani, an expert on legal and constitutional issues, known for his study of the boundary issue, records that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru “shut the door to negotiations on the (India-China) boundary on July 1, 1954”.
Nehru’s refusal to negotiate and the 1960 rebuff to Chou En-lai when he was visiting and appeared ready to settle the issue—may well have sowed the seeds of the 1962 India-China war.

The important and explicit directive, from Nehru, in a 17-para memorandum, cited by Noorani in his book, says: “Both as flowing from our policy and as a consequence of our Agreement with China, this frontier should be considered a firm and definite one which is not open to discussion with anybody. There may be very minor points of discussion. Even these should not be raised by us.”

There’s a sense of déjà vu when one reads about “…an irresponsible opposition, an uninformed press and a restive Parliament, all fed on bad history …,” especially in the context of China, India-China relations and the boundary issue.
India and China joining hands to pursue a conflict-free path to mutually beneficial economic development would mean growth with equity for over 2.5 billion people on the planet. The two Asian powers could be the game-changers for recasting the world’s politico-economic order and reforming international and financial institutions. What stands in the way of India and China realising their full potential and forging ahead is poverty. In baiting and pillorying China and thwarting India-China cooperation, Indian media seems to be more a player than a fair, objective and dispassionate observer and recorder of events and
developments.

Neighbors as walls, not friends or allies

Clearly, China, unless it is bad news, is unfashionable for Indian media. It is hardly surprising then that there is not a single country in the region, which India can count upon as friend or ally, or where it enjoys the people’s goodwill; not even in Bangladesh, which owes its birth to India and Indira Gandhi.
Such a thought only brings to mind yet another glaring omission by Indian media: that it has never enlightened its audience on why India arouses such negative feelings among every one of its neighbours. It does not inform and educate the Indian public about our neighbours and India’s relations with them. It has little or no influence on public policy in India or its neighbourhood. It is not interested in enabling and strengthening cross-border understanding for pursuit of common interests.

Indian media, like the visa and other restrictive regimes of India and its neighbours, is just another wall that keeps people of the region distanced from other. Thereby, Indian media serves the objective of these states to deter people-to-people relations and understanding.

Adapted from Shastri Ramachandran’s essay in the book Journalism: Ethics & Responsibilities, edited by Seema Mustafa and published by
Har-Anand Books for the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust. The author is a senior journalist and a foreign affairs writer