Oct 12

Indian media: expanding alright, but sometimes in the wrong directions

By what seems only to be coincidence, there has been a bundle of rich, informative writing about the India news media in the last month. It seemed a good idea to collect the links in one place – and they turn out to have a common theme.

Exhibit One is the James Cameron lecture by N. Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu. As befits his biography, Ram writes as a newspaperman but his magisterial survey does not neglect the astonishing growth of 24-hour news television in India. I have already posted about this lecture, so I’ll summarise brutally and say that Ram’s underlying message was: because Indian news media is a “growth story”, don’t assume that everything is fine.

Second item is a piece in the New Yorker (£) by long-time media analyst Ken Auletta on the Jain brothers who run Bennett & Coleman, the owners of the immensely successful Times of India. Auletta isn’t the first person to write about the changes which have occurred at the Times of India but he is the first writer to lay out with such clarity and force the truly revolutionary ideas which have altered the group’s papers.

I do not mean “revolutionary” in any romantic sense. The insight on which the Jain brothers based their changes at the Times of India and the Economic Times was simple but turned the world of those newspapers upside down. The idea is shocking to journalists like me, brought up on the assumption that newspapers have a democratic function beyond their existence as businesses. Not so, thought the Jains: we’re not in journalism, we’re selling advertising. And so the journalism was gradually but firmly subordinated to adjusting the newspapers to be platforms collecting readers whose attention could be sold to advertisers. This has been so successful and influential, that the group’s executive no longer feel and need to fudge or obscure what they have been doing.

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Dec 11

Places, people and laws to remember from 2011

This blog’s author is of a buoyant, optimistic cast of mind. I mention this only in case it isn’t already obvious. My general view of the “crisis” in journalism in Europe and the US (not, please note, the rest of the world) is that while the business model for printed daily papers may be in deep doo-doo, journalism and news will find ways not merely to survive but to flourish and improve.

But there are journalists and writers in places for whom 2011 was a year of threats, jail terms, violence and misery. They should not be forgotten This is just a quick selection of those people who deserve to be remembered at the passing of the year – and the governments who deserve to be shamed for what they have done.

  • The Ethiopian government jailed two Swedish television journalists the other day for eleven years apiece on “terrorism” charges.
  • Wondering why you haven’t heard much from Bahrain recently? This despatch from Reporters Without Borders, written in restrained and careful language, will tell you why. They lock up bloggers and journalists, intimidate others and exclude foreign reporters they don’t approve of. Do not forget that in April the founder of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat, Karim Fakhrawi, was taken into custody when his paper had been shut and he died in custody a week later. His death remains unexplained and no one has been held to account.
  • There are many things to worry the Chinese government nowadays, but they remain terrified of the stubborn handful of men and women who simply refuse to stop speaking their mind. The moment that the strength of the Arab Spring became clear, many of these people began being questioned and detained. Two of those who vanished into jail in the spring, Chen Xi and Chen Wei were given sentences of 10 and 9 years respectively just before Christmas.  They thought and wrote the wrong things.
  • On a quite different level – because no actual curtailment of freedom of expression seems yet to have taken place – is the developing disaster for the news media in Hungary (background here, latest developments here). I’m not enough of an expert on central Europe to know why Hungarian confidence in the the ordinary, boring-but-valuable institutions of democracy is so much more fragile than in neighbouring countries which also endured long decades of suffocation under communism and the Soviet Union. But it is.
  • And let’s never forget Russia, where the manipulation and threats have been normal for a long time. As ever, it’s always worst outside the big cities where the tourists go and the foreign correspondents live. One small, grim example here.

But I did read one cheerful scrap from Russia this holiday. In Dagestan, east of Chechnya there is a newspaper called Chernovik. This name translates into English as “rough draft” and is, I think, the best and most honest name for a newspaper I have heard for some time. I came across it in David Remnick’s superb New Yorker essay on Vladimir Putin and what has happened to news, information and journalism in Russia during his rule.

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Jul 11

Phone-hacking, politics and Pharisees

I’ll return to the debate about press regulation after phone-hacking later this week. In the meantime three nuggets worth passing on.

In a media feeding frenzy such as the phone-hacking affair, instant reaction overrules reflection. Just when you think you can read no more, along comes a piece so detached and so sharp that it feels like a cool drink.

This is such a piece, written by a writer who mostly works as a film critic: Anthony Lane of the New Yorker. He skillfully shows that the roots of the corruption in tabloid newsrooms are long and deep; competition and economic pressure have made things worse, but are not the only cause. Lane also places phone-hacking in the wider frame of British media and culture, deftly suggesting that some current media analysis smells faintly of hypocrisy. Of all the descriptions of this affair and the attempts to understand its significance, this one deserves to last.

Among both journalists and politicians, self-criticism is in short supply in these days. Which is what makes this article by Jonathan Powell so notable. Powell worked at Tony Blair’s side for more than a decade and was in an excellent position to see the ex-Prime Minister’s dealings with the media tycoons in general and with Rupert Murdoch in particular. Powell could easily have written a piece without directing any fire at himself or his boss. But he passed up that easy option. And whether or not one might agree with his prescriptions, his diagnosis is accurate: “The root cause of the problem is press unaccountability.”

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Jan 11

History’s rough first draft – and the story of a “pseudo-event”

John Naughton’s column in The Observer yesterday mentioned something I’d missed in by Peter Maas in the New Yorker: a superb dissection of the now-notorious “statue-toppling” image captured as American troops rolled into Baghdad in 2003. This meticulous reconstruction should be read by anyone tempted to opine about media literacy, news, pseudo-events, spin and related topics.

By paying close attention to cause and effect, Maas underlines and confirms a complaint which started circulating on the day that pictures of Saddam’s statue being hauled down by American marines: that the event did not symbolise any kind of popular feeling by Iraqis. There were very few of them there.

But Maas also shows something which will disappoint those for whom this episode confirms every worst fear about the manipulation of international public opinion by the US government. No one organised or orchestrated the statue’s destruction. It just happened in the heady buzz of the unexpectedly – and as it turned out, misleadingly – easy victory won by the Americans.

But it made a neat, easy-to-grasp image which captured a lot of unrealistic hopes in one image. It zipped round the world and began creating myths on its own. The picture acquired a power no one had tried to give it.


Oct 10

Wikileaks and the Iraq warlogs

Three days after the release of almost 400,000 pieces of US Army data about Iraq between 2004 and 2009 it is already clear that what Wikileaks has done is a game-changer.

The leak will permanently alter how the Iraq war is seen: take this striking example from the Daily Telegraph. It may not shift the opinion figures on whether or not the war was worth starting in the first place. The detailed revelations are, I’d guess, less important than the massive accumulation of hard detail. Despite being reported in machine-prose, the logs paint an appallingly vivid picture of the careless brutality which flourishes not only in any war but particularly when an army is trying to work out counter-insurgency as it goes along.

Fiction could not compete with the surreal dialogue in which a helicopter pilot asks what he should do about suspects on the ground who are trying to surrender. The lawyer says they can’t surrender to a chopper, comes the reply. The helicopter with the callsign “Crazyhorse” blows the men to pieces.

As the experienced military commentator Robert Fox says, the axis of the information war has shifted. The public can now see the war with a sharpness and depth not possible before. (For the wider context of cyberwar read Seymour Hersh here and on military classification culture a Stratfor analyst here.)

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