Journalism in India: the assassination test result

I’ve been lecturing in India and was yesterday at the Goenka Institute (partners with Lancaster University in Britain) just outside Delhi. As I usually am in India, I was asked by a member of the audience how Indian and British journalism compare.

My answer was truthful but also tactful: flaws in both…but at least open and competitive media systems…best journalism in both countries pretty good. I was conscious – over-conscious as it turned out – that the last thing anyone in India had heard about British journalism was phone-hacking and that Brits in India can so easily give offence and raise hackles by sounding “colonial”.

My tact was a miscalculation. At a later meeting with three members of the faculty and around ten students, my questioner was trenchantly contemptuous about the Indian media and had hoped that I would confirm his opinion. News media in any vigorous and open society are never popular, but all the same I was surprised by the depth and breadth of feeling. This wasn’t the frequently heard complaint that the Times of India has dumbed down; it wasn’t the usual moan about the silliness of the hyperfast 24/7 satellite news channels. No Indian media escaped censure.

On the spur of the moment, I invented the “assassination test”: you hear a rumour that the Prime Minister has been assassinated. To which media do you first turn? I thought that this would reveal that my Indian friends would actually rely on the state broadcaster or national news agency to tell them what had happened. Not a bit of it. “The BBC,” someone replied and most people round the table nodded. No one was prepared to say they would turn to an Indian source.

Even given that students might be reluctant to contradict their teachers and the fact that this was a completely unscientific survey, I was struck by the depth of mistrust revealed. Asked to explain why no one could rely on Indian media, explanations differed: corruption of journalists (particularly political correspondents), activist political agendas and the influence of advertisers and companies on the selection of news.

One of the people at the table later tweeted that she’d tried the assassination test on her young nephew. “Google News Search”, he replied.

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