I have always gained some new insights in my interactions with the renowned media scholar, Prof. Robin Jeffrey. His work on the Indian media is immense. He has authored three important books on the media: India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian-Language Press, 1977-99 ; Mission, Money and Machinery: Indian Newspapers in the Twentieth Century ; and The Great Indian Phone Book (co-authored with Assa Doran). He believes that India is in the midst of a dramatic and fundamental media revolution.
A couple of months ago, he delivered the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture in Chennai, where he said younger journalists would play a major role in determining whether this revolution turns into a golden age of journalism. He is convinced that news organisations that have a global focus are surviving and will survive. He offers two reasons: “The first is the need for reliable information. Regular newspapers originated in the 17th century to provide merchants, who were willing to pay for them, with precisely this commodity — timely, trustworthy information. That is what India’s oldest still-publishing newspaper, Mumbai Samachar , was set up to do in 1823. There is a global audience for globally significant news that organisations like The New York Times , Agence France-Presse (AFP), Bloomberg , the BBC, and others provide. This reliability and global reach are the related reasons why big media organisations will survive. Thousands of institutions and millions of people will pay for the services they offer — even if the most effective methods of extracting payment are still being discovered.”The world is waiting
And this is where he sees a weakness in the Indian media. He argues that the world is ready and ripe for an Indian media presence in this era of digital revolution. His forceful argument: “Britain, the U.S., Canada and Australia all have significant voices that report the world. The Arab world produced Al Jazeera . The French have AFP. EFE, the Spanish news agency, is the world’s fourth largest (after Associated Press, Reuters and AFP). Germany has Deutsche Welle as well as huge privately owned media organisations. China pours money into its global newsgathering and dissemination. Even Russia has a lively and imaginative English-language news service. Where is India? India, which has unrivalled international connections throughout Asia and Europe, in Africa and North America and even in South America? India, which has more speakers of English than England itself? India, which has a vast film industry and a leading place in information technology? Yet, India’s media presence in the world is tiny. Its public broadcaster barely speaks internationally and when its vibrant domestic media venture abroad it is only to connect with the NRIs. The world is waiting for a digital-age voice from India — a BBC, a New York Times or even a China Central Television. A voice with global interests, global sources, yet an Indian point of view.”
To be honest, I was a bit sceptical about Prof. Jeffrey’s grand vision for the Indian media. His idea of an outstanding global platform that offers a superb range of possibilities seemed like an attempt to overreach. I was not fully convinced of his argument that these possibilities do not depend on size alone. But I was forced to change my mind when this newspaper carried a lead article by Susan Abulhawa, “The searing hypocrisy of the West” and the type of responses that poured in from all corners of the world.
Ms. Abulhawa’s argument was that Palestine is quite literally being wiped off the map by a state that openly upholds Jewish supremacy and Jewish privilege, and that Israel’s excuse for the latest rampage in Palestine was that it was searching for three settlers who went missing on June 12. She was indignant about the fact that although hundreds of Palestinian children are kidnapped, brutalised or killed by Israel, there is rarely, if ever, a condemnatory reaction from the world.
Predictably, like any other entrenched and polarising issue, this article had a number of critics, just as it had a huge set of approving readers. As the Readers’ Editor, I have received angry mails on various contentious issues within South Asia. One example is the newspaper’s coverage of Sri Lanka, where extreme Tamil Nationalists were upset over the newspaper’s stand against the ‘sole representative’ claim and the violent campaigns of the LTTE. Sinhala supremacists became very shrill whenever the paper talked about fair devolution of powers and a settlement of some of Tamil’s legitimate aspirations. The point here is not whether there is a total agreement on any issue, but the fact that a newspaper flags the issues from an ethical point of view, leading to a debate.A major opportunity
In this context, I see a major opportunity for The Hindu to move forward to become an Indian global voice. It has a legacy. It is credible. It has talent. It has a worldview that is liberal, inclusive and democratic. According to Prof. Jeffrey, the best journalists and news gatherers need all the reliability, persistence, storytelling talent and rat-like cunningness that have long been a part of the profession, and the ability to conceptualise and present their stories by using all the means that digital technology allows. Professionals in The Hindu have all these qualities, and the newspaper has a reputation for trustworthiness. All it needs now is to make a quantitative jump to leverage its qualitative advantage.