03
Jun 13

The ever-changing styles of protest and the fashions of 2013

I’m in Thailand (at the World Editors Forum) and the news is full of protest all over the world: Bangkok itself, Turkey and in the unpredictable places where the ladies of Femen pop up and take off their clothes.

Protest needs innovation as much as any department of life and perhaps it needs it more than most because protest goes nowhere if it isn’t noticed and doesn’t spread. Innovation is deviation and new protesters must find new and original ways to imprint a message instantly in as many minds as possible, preferably without words. It must be an image delivered instantaneously because protest can be snuffed out fast and because there is anyway so much else competing for peoples’ attention. Compelling visual wit is harder than it appears.

The examples above represent a remarkable cluster of originality in this specialised global competition. In Turkey, they wave beercans to protest against new restrictions on alcolhol. Much better, a hundred or so people held a kiss protest at a subway station in Ankara to make fun of the increase in rules on public behaviour.

guyfawkesHere in Thailand, demonstrators have reached back into an example distant in both geography and time. Political movements in Thailand have long been signalled by colour (yellow vs red mostly) but yesterday, the anti-goverment crowd wore Guy Fawkes masks and the (equally peaceful) counter-demo wore red masks. Needless to say, young Thai activists have not been reading books about 17th century British history. They picked up the cue from the 2005 film V for Vendetta in which people march on the parliament in London wearing the masks. (The use of these masks isn’t confined to Thailand and didn’t start here – examples here – but looks especially odd so far from its origins).

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29
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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09
Oct 12

Wisdom from India (and from children in Ethiopia)

The traffic figures for this blog make clear that what people like is strong opinions from the author. But occasionally this author grows tired of the sound his own thinking and just wants to pass on wisdom from others. I have two items to offer.

Last week’s James Cameron Memorial lecture at City University London was by N Ram, until recently editor of The Hindu, which has a claim to be India’s best daily paper. Ram delivered a magisterial overview of the Indian media which I can recommend as one of the best analysies of the subject you can find (video/audio, text).

My personal selection of edited highlights (page numbers for text in full):

  • Ram, who knew James Cameron, observed that the great foreign correspondent would not have had much truck with the idea, floated occasionally at the Leveson Inquiry and elsewhere, that journalism should be regulated as profession in the manner of doctors or lawyers. Cameron, writing in 1967, was clear that journalism was “not and never has been a profession…since its practice has neither standards nor sanctions” for the reason that “it can be practised in many ways.” (p2)
  • Ram stressed a discussion that far too many journalists complaining about failing business models forget: the fortunes of the news media are not the same as the state of the news media (p7).
  • Ram gives an up-to-date list of India’s juiciest corruption scandals (p11), remarking that the Indian media has been much better at reporting scandals in government and politics and much less good at chasing corporate corruption.
  • Reminding us that India was the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses”, he lists the recent threats to free speech (p17).
  • He quotes often from a long piece on Indian media in the New Yorker by Ken Auletta: “Citizens Jain” (£).
  • If you want to see one o the most important differences between India and China, look at internet penetration rates: China: 40%, India 10%.

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06
Feb 12

India and Hong Kong: two new editors to watch

I normally rely on Twitter to keep me up to date on developments in journalism round the world but, reliable as this normally is as a quick check on what’s happening, I missed two watershed moments in the east. One retirement and one appointment.

N.Ram

The retirement was of the editor of The Hindu who had always styled himself N. Ram. Narasimhan Ram is 67, so his retirement was hardly a surprise. But he has been so closely identified with The Hindu’s stubborn qualities for so long that it would be natural if readers worried about the future direction of the paper. Dubious as I am about much of its political philosophy (Ram, like many of his generation, flirted with communism when young), The Hindu stands out as a newspaper which cares about quality. I was in India last year when the newspaper began publishing the American diplomatic cables passed to Wikileaks. I can’t share Ram’s reverential attitude to Julian Assange, but his paper’s handling of the Wikileaks material was exemplary both for its journalistic care and political impact. Those disclosures still reverberate in Delhi today.

But The Hindu’s business is under pressure: while India is one of the largest countries in the world where newspaper circulations are still rising, those are not the circulations of the English-language titles but of the Indian-language papers. Business pressures have been part of the complex intrigue which has been played out at the group’s headquarters in Chennai (for a flavour of the passions aroused see here and here). I can’t pretend to explain the ins and outs of this internecine family/corporate struggle. So I hope that Ram has handed over to successors who will preserve his legacy. The Hindu is an important benchmark of what Indian journalists can achieve in print.

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18
Nov 11

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.

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01
Apr 10

India: news you can use

Upbeat stories for the eve of the holiday. It’s still little understood how much difference the marriage of mobile telephones and the internet will make to the poorest societies on earth. Information currently not available because of cost, distance, illiteracy or whatever reason will become more available as the web – gradually – becomes more reachable with more and more phones. Eric Schmidt of Google told the recent Abu Dhabi media summit that mobile phone ownership is increasing eight times as fast as broadband adoption and that Google’s engineers now design first for phones and second for PCs.

We tend to think of the expanding access to information as reading the stuff on smartphones within reach of suitable networks. But there are also plenty of creative ways of marrying the web with phones that can’t actually handle web pages. Two examples.

I came across the gathering and “re-broadcasting” of village news to phones in Uttar Pradesh when I was last in India and mentioned it briefly in a recent lecture. Here is the full story.

Second example is the better known Ushahidi.com, which played an important role in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.

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01
Dec 09

You think you have problems

Unreflective editors in Europe and the US sometimes speak as if the newspaper crisis gave them the worst problems in the world. As a corrective, two snatches from two South Asian editors this morning to the World Editors Forum and WAN-IFRA congress.

I met Najaam Sethi, the editor of the Daily Times in Pakistan, briefly on the evening before he accepted the conference’s annual press freedom award. He seemed an avuncular, smiling and modest man. This has been his life as an editor. He has been imprisoned by three different Pakistani prime ministers: Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (father of the late Benazir), General Zia and Nawaz Sharif. Sethi regularly gets letters from Islamist organisations threatening him with dire consequences if he does not stop promoting secular, democratic values and return to the guidance of the true faith. These letters are often accompanied by photos of beheaded American “spies”. He is one of four editors listed as special enemies by a Taleban-inspired magazine; the other three have left Pakistan. Sethi lives guarded by eight policemen.

At an editor’s breakfast, the editor-in-chief of India Today Aroon Purie was analysing the decline in the standards of journalism in India. “You can buy editorial,” he said baldly. There is almost a published rate card for buying political coverage. One (presumably satisfied) politician declared what he had spent on “editorial” coverage in his election expenses return.