Indian papers need to change
As you may know, Britain is currently in the grips of a political crisis. On 5th June, six ministers resigned, the ruling Labour party was routed in the European Parliament elections, and Prime Minister Gordon Brown clung on to power by a thread.
The whole drama was played out on television and then reported extensively in the next day’s newspapers. I am going to reproduce a few things that the newspapers said on 6th June.
“Peter Mandelson was the man accused of betraying Gordon Brown, now he is the one who is saving his political life. The Prince of Darkness has been Gordon’s only ray of light in the past few months. The sinister minister has become the acceptable face of the government…”
Or how about this one: “Our Prime Minister emerged at 4.45 pm yesterday with that strange smile plastered on his face.
‘I am here to be totally candid, to accept my responsibility, and to set out what I intend to do,’ he announced. Well, if this is candid, then I’d hate to see shifty. There were even a few blatant porkies in there, such as when he claimed he never ever wanted to move Alistair Darling as Chancellor. To that, many would say just one word: ‘Balls.’
So he’s taking responsibility. But then, as he explained, it’s not his fault.”
Strong stuff? And where do you suppose it appeared?
No, not in any fringe publication but in that pillar of the establishment, The Times.
The commentary in more irreverent newspapers such as The Guardian was even more devastating. Nobody bothered to pull his punches or to treat the Prime Minister with massive doses of respect. Instead, all the papers told it as they saw it.
Imagine now that this crisis had occurred in India. How would our papers have covered it? Most would have written straight reports recounting news that everybody knew anyway because the whole country had watched TV.
There would have been virtually no analysis. And even those people that carried behind-the-news stories would have stuck to a boring, super-respectful style. Ditto for the columnists. How could any editor possibly allow a columnist to make fun of the Prime Minister?
That’s one reason why Indian papers seem to me to be in terminal editorial decline. In England, they have worked out that people get their news from TV or the Internet. They read newspapers for colour, for insight, for quality writing and for the kind of stuff television cannot provide.
The way the British press covered the June crisis is a good example. The papers ran relatively brief and straightforward news stories summarizing the action for the two or three people who had missed the details on TV. And then, they provided pages and pages of commentary, background, profiles, analysis and opinion.
You judged each newspaper not on how it reported the news but on what it made of the story.
In India, alas, we are caught in several traps. One, most newspaper editors still pretend that television does not exist and are caught in a time warp. Two, nobody bothers with analysis. Three, we believe that good writing belongs in magazines and not in newspapers, so most newspaper copy is written in the most boring fashion. And four, we suffer from an overdose of cringe-making respect for politicians even when most of our readers have already written off the political class.
Think about it. Each time there is a political crisis, we are glued to our TV sets. But do we ever learn anything new when we look at the papers the next morning?
I am prepared to accept that there are exceptions. During the last election campaign, the HT under Sanjoy Narayan, tried to be innovative in its coverage and encouraged analysis and opinion pieces.
But the rest of the press played it straight. And was largely irrelevant as a consequence.