Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Hubris, Ignorance or Just Plain Don't Care?

I have been a news addict since I was a child.

My father's job required him to monitor all media very closely, so we all grew up with obscene amounts of newspapers, reports, clippings, and then finally television news around us. Dinner conversations in my parents house often feel like policy debates - and there have been instances when a dinner debate has formed the nucleus of the country's major policy document.

A not so pleasant aspect of this news addiction is of course the constant awareness of bias and ignorance regarding India (and a lot of other countries) in "western" press. Some how media based in USA, UK and Europe has greater credibility, partly due to history and partly due to the economic, military and political clout of these countries. It also helps that the same countries come up with increasingly unbelievable rankings and reports on "freedom of speech" and "freedom of the press."

Just think back to the WMDs in Iraq hysteria before that nation was attacked and you get the picture. Think back to the self-censorship of the western press regarding Iraqi and Afghan casualties. Or just think back to the level of attention paid to Mumbai simply because some of the victims were Western.

Yet its not just the "big" stories that get reported with glaring errors and free editorialising. The western media spends a lot of time and energy embedding value judgements into what appear to be "news stories." The result - and perhaps the motivation - is to subtly perpetuate a narrative, a stereotype, an idea that is more pleasing and acceptable to western powers, press and bulk of the readers/viewers. And in doing so, they choose to jettison the most basic qualities of reporting and the simplest of journalistic standards!

This morning brought home that realisation rather starkly. In the Times was a story about film-makers attempting to cash in on the Mumbai attacks and the public revulsion that such actions have unleashed. So far so good.

Except the story had serious factual bloopers: Filmmaker Ram Gopal Verma did tour the Taj, but not with his actor son, but rather with the now thankfully resigned Maharashtra CM Vilasrao Deshmukh's son.

And we won't even go into the overly generalised, condescending bit of editorialising that declares: "There are, however, indications that Indian audiences who are more used to lavish musicals will watch films that examine terrorism from fresh perspectives." Really? Like we did back in 1996? Or should we go further back to Roja and Bombay?

As the cherry on top, the story also cites unnamed critics who say: "Indian cinema has a history of films that address current affairs but most dealing with terrorism have used real-life events as springboards for crudely nationalistic action movies, critics say."

Ahem: I guess the critics missed films like the Mani Rathnam trilogy? Or Gulzar's Maachis? Or Mission Kashmir, which not only linked terrorism in Kashmir to bin Laden well before 9/11, but included the acclaimed novelist Vikram Chandra as one of its scriptwriters? We won't even go into the range of politically complex, ideologically sophisticated and well researched films, including Sarfarosh, 16 December: All Forces Alert, Fiza, Fanaa, Rang de Basanti that have taken on terrorism in the past decade.

Sure the western press trots out the handful of Indian writers/novelists on its op-ed pages to provide the illusion of objectivity. But beyond all that, a little painful truth I learned as a child remains: the western press will print what it likes about India, especially if it feeds their own illusions about the country. Anything actually based in facts is a little too politically, ideologically, possibly even morally, inconvenient!