Werner Adam, the late foreign Editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine, used to tell me a story about his meeting in Moscow with India’s ambassador, T.N. Kaul.
Kaul had barely started his conversation with Adam when his secretary tip toed in and handed Kaul a slip of paper. “Dobrynin on the line,” Kaul whispered to Adam. Kaul then proceeded to have a conversation with Anatoly Dobrynin, Moscow’s ambassador to Washington since 1962 and now Gorbachev’s principal adviser on foreign affairs, with almost undiplomatic informality.
Adam was surprised that there were no Indian correspondents in a capital where the embassy had extraordinary access to the highest echelons in the Kremlin.
There were countless newspots where Indian journalists could have had extraordinary access but newspaper proprietors had no interest.
An idea was floated that a public service multimedia be established. The independence of this outfit would be insured by, say, a nine-member Board of Trustees to be chaired by someone of impeccable credentials. The Board would insulate the editorial from both the government and the market.
Prime Ministers like Rajiv Gandhi, Inder Kumar Gujral, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh moved some distance on this project but were not encouraged by their bureaucracies. Manmohan Singh actually set up a committee in the information and broadcasting ministry to consider the proposal. How could a government department conceive setting up an independent media?
By the same token, how can a prime minister be involved in such an enterprise? There is only one explanation: because India Inc is not high minded enough quite yet to singly or collectively sink a billion dollars in what will, without any shadow of a doubt, be a great national institution.
In the year he has been Prime Minister, Narendra Modi must have acquainted himself with importance of the media in the conduct of foreign affairs.
In a sense, the World Information Order has continued to be divided between countries which control the sources of information, the old metropolitan centres of control, and countries which are passive recipients of images and imperial punditry. It could not be helped when these nations were coming out of colonialism. But for lively democracies like India to acquiesce in information systems that obtained at the time of independence is deplorable and demeaning.
The irony is that even as we remain pulverized for reasons unknown, China, Iran and Russia, among others, have mounted international affairs programmes, with reporters spread across the world.
One would have thought stories emanating from these societies would have no traction in a world accustomed to “Western style democracies”. But this clearly is no longer the case. Either Iran’s Press TV, China’s CCTV and Russian TV are being directly watched in countries where they are not blocked or the material they telecast is available on web sites, multiplying rapidly.
When global TV was launched during Operation Desert Storm in January 1991, virtually as a follow up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West had marched way ahead, armed with new satellite technology. But within two decades, it had frittered away its credibility. There was a simple reason for declining reliability. When wars break out, the first casualty always is the truth. Propaganda takes over. Since the US has been more or less in a continuous state of war, big or small, since the Soviet collapse, the media has had to be in something of a propaganda mode. Hence the declining credibility.
In 2011, the help of Al Jazeera TV was enlisted for the attack on Libya because Arab audiences were no longer believing CNN and BBC.
And now, the Western media has thrown up its hands in despair over “Russia winning the publicity war in Ukraine”. First, Western journalists embarked on a relentless one-sided coverage. Later, they began to blame Ukrainian journalists, “who are choosing patriotism over professional standards”. This quote, from Olexander Martynenko, Director of Ukraine’s leading news agency, appears in The Economist. The magazine proceeds to ask the pithy question: “how much Ukraine’s journalists are aiding its cause by forgoing impartiality is debatable”.
News is that all the citadels of Liberty in the US and the European Union are contemplating projects to meet the Russian propaganda challenge.
Recently, the Indian Navy performed a remarkable rescue of 4,640 Indians and 960 foreigners from Yemen. It is a shame no Indian channel made any effort to cover the story. Much after the event, a sheepish looking reporter paced the deck of a ship docked in Bombay as an apologia for not having been where the action was. Of course, it would be dangerous to be in Yemen in the midst of air strikes. But how did that CNN reporter reach Aden?
Wars are going on, not just in Yemen, but all over West Asia. Ukraine is a classic example where Indian coverage could have struck a balance between two hotly debated versions.
How long will our political class be content with BBC, CNN and Fox News providing us news from Afghanistan, Iran, Bangladesh, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Nepal? Soon elections in Hong Kong will be in focus. Will the fact that there will be a heavy China angle to the story stir the Indian media?
(A senior commentator on diplomatic and political affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on email@example.com. The views expressed are personal.)