India's sane get anarchic

India's Newspaper Revolution - "Mr Editor, How Close are You to the PM?"
June 2, 2000

India blows hot and cold on the question of allowing foreigners a foot in the door of media ownership. Though every government since 1991 has wanted equity and entrepreneurs from abroad, the Financial Times 's memorandum of understanding with India's Business Standard and Time magazine's application to publish in India are hostage to the paranoia of local media magnates who warn that the East India Company is lurking outside to overwhelm India again, this time through the moral depravity and political intrigues of the western press. Robin Jeffrey demolishes their fears with the casual comment that because "vultures don't eat ants", Conrad Black and Rupert Murdoch are not likely to storm the ramparts.

Otherwise, his exhaustive and meticulously researched survey errs on the side of generosity. If being the world's largest democracy is modern India's oldest tradition, being Asia's most vigorously free press comes a close second. But just as caste factions, vote banks and money and muscle power take some of the gilt off the democratic gingerbread, media boasts must allow for newsprint scams, fudged circulation figures, wage irregularities, clandestine cash transactions, the power of local big-wigs and hidden agendas. Even Jeffrey, who knows his subject intimately, might miss some of the wheels within wheels. For instance, he cites the claim by a relatively young Bengali daily, Bartaman , to be growing faster than Calcutta's hoary Ananda Bazar Patrika . But the claim was made in The Statesman , which is in direct competition with the ABP group's English daily, The Telegraph .

Jeffrey was a sports writer in Canada and now teaches politics at Melbourne's La Trobe University. He has pored over books and reports, visited out-of-the-way newspaper offices, carried out more than 250 interviews and acquired a working knowledge of several Indian languages to produce an important work. His main subject is India's provincial press in the local languages since the great media flowering at the end of Indira Gandhi's 1975-77 emergency. He examines it in terms of both all-India and global norms.

But it is the totality of India that he really addresses through papers that serve the majority and are more typical of Indian responses than the urban English dailies that do not cater for more than 3 per cent of the people. In contrast, 18 official languages, ten formal scripts and an expanding public sphere have borne out predictions of "an era of readership explosion" with circulation wars, multiple editions and new technology making their way into the countryside.

Traditionally, India did not have a parish pump press. Even small-town publications tended to pontificate on affairs of state. Jeffrey shows how that is changing with literacy, political awareness, the search for remedies for local grievances and heightened consumerism. Even Marxist papers such as Ganashakti (Bengali) and Deshabhimani (Malayalam) now cover stock markets and religious festivals and woo advertisers with English-language promotions. Fast-growing language publications that hold a mirror to local life facilitate the extension of capitalism and strengthen the roots of democratic nationalism. "They also make the multitude aware - and this is the constructive side of the consumerism that newspapers bear - that the police are not supposed to beat them and that there are ways of making it hot for them if they do."

Though proprietors and managers are becoming less idiosyncratic, the provincial media is still not organised. In the transition between mission and profession, it can be described as a "functioning anarchy", J. K. Galbraith's famous description of India itself. Anyone who is "an adult and not declared insane" can call himself a journalist, as an editor told Jeffrey. But within these limitations, and in spite of shady operators and a shortage of funds, rags-to-riches stories like the success of the Rajasthan Patrika (Hindi) and Kerala's weekly Mangalam (Malayalam) suggest that the future belongs to this branch of the media rather than the elite group whose venerable titles are known the world over.

Already, the newer and still not fully established language press has acquired a respectability that was formerly reserved for publications in English. The editor of the no longer neglected Punjab Kesari (Hindi) boasted to Jeffrey that the prime minister telephones him about stories his paper carries. Such connections are probably more important in India than in Europe. Politics being India's substitute for sex, the catchy title of Vinod Mehta's collection of articles, diaries and book reviews must rank with Edward Behr's Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? The contents are less arresting. Mehta, editor of the weekly magazine Outlook , can write with passion and perception. Some of the pieces that appeared in the various papers that he has edited during the past 25 years make enjoyable reading, but journalism being ephemeral, the names and events that excited or angered yesterday's audiences stir only a faint memory now. They seem like a non sequitur after a title that clearly refers only to a 20-page introduction that is the testament of his professional faith.

Mehta is one of India's most confrontational editors and a columnist of the Bernard Levin genre. Unlike Jeffrey's "gatekeepers", the reporters and subeditors whom proprietors hire to carry out their editorial will, he says he enjoys full freedom in editing Outlook. This is believable because he has a record of giving short shrift to interfering bosses. But his Sunday Observer was not India's first Sunday paper, nor did he launch the country's first media column; Bombay's Sunday Standard and Calcutta's Sunday magazine beat him on both counts. Nevertheless, the introduction makes sound points and ends on a note of wisdom: "The only thing I have learned after a quarter century of editing is quite simply this: take your work seriously but not yourself." Amen to that.

Sunanda K. Datta-Ray has worked for newspapers in Britain and Singapore and was formerly editor, The Statesman , Calcutta.

India's Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language Press 1977-1999

Author - Robin Jeffrey
ISBN - 1 85065 383 6 and 434 4
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £35.00 and £14.95
Pages - 234

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