“Report the news. It is not news that there are poor people in India.”

In the morning today The Independent‘s Asia correspondent, Andrew Buncombe, blogged his disagreement with Arundhati Roy’s statement that foreign journalists in India have been asked not to report bad news. As a foreign journalist in Delhi he had faced no such censorship from his editors or the government here.

Buncombe made his case strongly:

At the same time, does this stop “bad news” about India being broadcast or published? In the time I’ve been here, I’ve written about insurgencies, caste, poverty, farmer suicides, religious violence, killings in Kashmir, Hindu terror cells, corruption (a number of times), honour killings, slums, land battles and homelessness. In the last 18 months, The Independent has published three substantial pieces on the Maoists. My colleagues have done the same, travelling to Nyamgiri to write about the tribal people’s fight against mining company Vedanta, to the Maoist “infested” areas of Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, to Srinagar and Bihar, or working in Delhi where they highlighted the corruption and mis-management surrounding the Commonweath Games or else illegal child labour involved in the textile industry.


I emailed Ms Roy, who I respect and admire even if I believe her analysis on some key issues is in need of some nuance, to ask if she had been misquoted and, if not, whether she could reveal the individuals labouring under the “no bad news” directive. She replied to say she had indeed been quoted correctly in the Guardian but that the correspondents she referred to had spoken to her “confidentially”. She said there had been two people who had told her this, which is a little different to “several” as she initially remarked. [Read the full post]

All the predictable critics of Arundhati Roy Tweeted and Facebooked that post promptly, and with commentary that did not hide their glee. Then, in the evening, Buncombe wrote an update on the same page that I haven’t yet seen Tweeted and Facebooked that enthusiastically. The update reads:

Since writing this, I’ve been contacted by a colleague who said they cannot interest their “editors in anything but stories of shiny new India”. When this person “pitches stories on issues of poverty, development, or those being left out of the Great Indian Miracle”, they are told it’s “old news”. The appetite of their desk is entirely for stories of growth and positive change.

This journalist says they did not speak to Ms Roy. Furthermore, this journalist said they had been told by a colleague who works for another international publication of an “identical problem”. The correspondent said their colleague was told by their desk: “Report the news. It is not news that there are poor people in India.”

Rick Westhead of the Toronto Star tweets: “It’s not only desks. Also an issue of self-censoring b/c of worries over visa renewals.” This fear is not unfounded: in July last year, India refused to renew the visa of Shogo Takahashi of the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). A report in the Kolkata Telegraph reads:

A foreign correspondent said NHK’s coverage of the 2009 Lok Sabha elections had greatly displeased Indian officials. “They were upset that the documentary focused overtly on the role of caste system in the Indian electoral system,” the correspondent said. [Link]

Dean Nelson of the London Telegraph blogged last year, “The world wants to think the best about India. So we turn our back on Kashmir.”

On more than one occassion, Pankaj Mishra has pointed out what’s wrong with the picture of India that the foreign media paints:

No irony is intended in The Economist’s perfunctory acknowledgment of the majority of India’s population: “The biggest risk for banks in Mumbai and software firms in Bangalore is not that rebels will burst through their front doors but that a government sensitive to the anger of the poor will take populist steps to assuage it.”

God forbid that the government should be responsive to the unproductive people that elect it and alienate the really crucial creators of wealth! This special pleading on behalf of the super-rich may sound typical of the financial press. However, elsewhere, too, most foreign correspondents find it enough to massage the expectations of elites in their home countries, who tend to see India as little more than a source of corporate profits. Not surprisingly, the books the foreign correspondents end up writing after a few tours of duty in the East reveal very little about how most Indians live, or see themselves and the world, but very much about how certain ideological assumptions and prejudices of the West, strengthened by its supposed victory in the cold war, have overwhelmed many of the best and brightest journalists in Britain and America. [November 2010]

May I add that I have also heard from foreign journalists in Delhi, and from Indians working in their bureaus, that negative news is discouraged by the editors in London, New York and Washington. An example of this was the toned down coverage of the killings in Kashmir last summer. Kashmir and caste are two subjects considered particularly ‘sensitive’.

34 thoughts on ““Report the news. It is not news that there are poor people in India.””

  1. Why do we find it difficult to comprehend that almost everyone has got hold of one facet of the truth. Arundhati Roy may have heard from one or two journos that they were asked not to write on poverty, but that has not stopped foreign journalists from doing so. If they are still writing positive stuff, why does it bug Roy? Is it because she can see only what is wrong? Why does it have to be a conspiracy theory where some dark, unknown hand stops you from writing about poverty.
    What Roy is saying is only half-true. After all, isn’t it equally pertinent to point out that Roy can’t find anything right with India? What stops her from acknowledging the change that is happening in India? Is she wedded to breast-beating and self-flagellation? It is as bad as censorship when one can find only things that are wrong. It speaks of a closed mind, which is as dangerous as censorship in a democracy.
    Democracy needs open minds. Roy has closed hers.

    1. These conspiracy theorists disallow the society or the movement groups to reach the real cause or that “unknown hand which stops you from writing about poverty”. These theorists will never clearly tell as to what exactly they are looking for or about their ways to eliminate poverty, inequality and misery but they will continue to see conspiracies everywhere. Who can deny the existence of poverty in India with almost everyday reports even in foreign papers about malnutrition, very poor state of girl child, corruption – everything being measured on Human Development Index or the farmers’ suicides for that matter – but these conspiracy theorists can’t understand the basic fact that these newspapers (foreign or Indian) are not being run by people like them. And still if you find stories on such subjects, it is because still there are people who though working for these big corporate houses, will continue to write these stories and they will continue to find people like them on ‘desks’ who will not always spike such news-stories. So one really appreciates Shivam Vij’s concerns but simultaneously will advise him not to get worked up without reason. Isn’t it gratifying to some exten that he still has friends who write about poverty whenever they get a chance and that too in the Newspapers which are being run by corporates (whose cousins are mostly responsible for all the misery in the world)? And please do not set the agenda for others – that too so curtly (“The debate here is not Roy”) – let the debate acquire its own shape. It is your Kaafila Shivam – let there be co-travellers who do not agree with you! And please forgive me for my bad English – I am not even ‘people like us’!

  2. Rule Number One: if you have to quote Pankaj Mishra to make the point, you shouldn’t make it.

  3. The obsession with attacking Roy (even among leftists) is truly astonishing. What is it with this strange obsession some have? Genuine question.

  4. There was a time — not that far back, surely — when the complaint was that the only news that could be reported out of India concerned poverty. What we are witnessing is probably an overreaction in the other direction. I am not sure one can label it “censorship.” But even so, I don’t think anyone can make the case that only positive news about India gets reported. If nothing else, Pankaj Mishra and Arundhati Roy do a fine job puncturing the “India shining” rhetoric in the Western press. (We don’t really care how Africans (say) view us, now, do we?) My cursory reading of The Guardian suggests that it focuses quite a bit on the poverty, gender discrimination, Kashmir etc. The very influential New York Times also has stories on the unpleasant realities of contemporary India

    I don’t think we, as Indians, need to worry about how India is perceived in the Western Press. Some Indians may feel happy about all the nice things being said the country. But we ought to remember that as with all things, the “India shining” type stories will also run its course. Sooner or later, people in the West will also tire of “India shining” stories. The attention will then shift back to all those things we don’t want highlighted. Since, to our shame, we have failed to address the unpleasant aspects (caste and gender inequality, dismal human development indicators, increasing intolerance and so on) this is just a matter of time.

    For me as an Indian, the more serious issue is the intolerance shown to foreign correspondents. It seems to parallel the intolerance to dissent in general: witness the Gautam Navlakha episode or the brouhaha over maps in The Economist. It is amazing that our country can deny accreditation to a foreign correspondent because he/she files reports that we find embarrassing. The morons who behave this way — and they are morons because they don’t seem to realize that our country can only end up looking bad through such acts of intolerance — should be reminded of Helen Suzman’s classic reply to a South African minister who accused her in the apartheid era Parliament of asking questions that embarrassed South Africa: It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it’s your answers.

  5. It is true. That there is poverty in India is a news feature. Not News.
    I get what you’re saying. but the headline is pointless. If you’re a journalist you know that poverty does not make news, unless a new figure of poverty is announced. That’s the nature of hard news.
    Also, your rant is not even justified, neither is Arundhati’s garbage. Because I have seen some very very good and nuanced reports on both caste and poverty in foreign publications. Ditto about Kashmir.
    But there are many many more issues other than these that these foreign correspondents have written on. Your rant is so rooted in your brand of identity politics that there is no pleasing you at all.

  6. R Jagannathan is absolutely right
    everyone has gotten hold of only one facet of the truth
    Th big media and the gung ho class ( that, i think also includes the likes of RJ and all those who think that india is shining) has got the truth that they want
    the rest of us have got the left overs.
    The rest of us includes the rest of the country
    including more than 70% of our population (according to estimates of planning commission economists) and another 10 or 15 % living at mere subsistence levels or a little higher .

    The question, Dear RJ is which is the real India
    the 7-15 % that you identify with
    or the more than 85% that does not occupy even a small corner of your Mind space.
    Every one chooses the truth they like
    Your truth is only 15% correct and I am being very liberal
    our truth is at least 85 % pure and I am being very conservative in my estimate.

  7. I am going to get roasted but this explains why I don’t like Pankaj Mishra:

    No irony is intended in The Economist’s perfunctory acknowledgment of the majority of India’s population: “The biggest risk for banks in Mumbai and software firms in Bangalore is not that rebels will burst through their front doors but that a government sensitive to the anger of the poor will take populist steps to assuage it.”

    God forbid that the government should be responsive to the unproductive people that elect it and alienate the really crucial creators of wealth!

    As the article makes clear, the issue concerns populist measures. The point is that what looks like the “obviously correct” policy may turn out not to be so on closer examination. To take but one, consider the case of our food surplus, a part of which gets destroyed due to insufficient and inadequate storage facilities. On the face of it, the right thing to do is to give it to the poor at a very low price or even for free. Many people have suggested we do this. The problem, as Kaushik Basu notes in an Economic and Political Weekly article, is that if we do this in a careless way, the results can be different from what we intend. Among other things, since the procurement price is still high there will be an incentive to buy from the government at the low selling price and sell it back to the government at the higher procurement price. Can this happen? Well, if you release the surplus grain in a manner that the big grain traders can get hold of it, then yes. Apparently, it does happen to some extent.

    The point is not that the poor should not be helped but that appropriate policies are more complex than we might imagine. Good intentions are not enough.

    I would have thought that it quite clear that The Economist is warning of the dangers of pursuing such policies, policies which sound “reasonable” and yet, paradoxically, may be counterproductive. But Mishra twists it to mean that the government should not care about the poor at all!

    The problems that Mishra and Roy point to are genuine; the analysis is what I find weak. And sometimes, as above, they let their enthusiasm get the better of them. As for Mishra’s crack about how the books the foreign correspondents end up writing after a few tours of duty in the East reveal very little about how most Indians live, or see themselves and the world, but very much about how certain ideological assumptions and prejudices of the West, I would note two things. First, he is being disrespectful of the many fine correspondents when he accuses almost all of them of being incompetent. Second, he doesn’t seem to realize that he is ironically replicating the arguments of the idiot type of Indian nationalist whose perpetual grouse is that the western journalists by focusing on India’s poor give a “distorted” picture of India and that this is done for ideological and racist reasons.

  8. This is universal; every newspaper worldwide has its own slant and contrary views don’t get published. We should take every written word with a grain of salt. The fault is in thinking that journalists (esp foreign) are somehow better human beings and not embellishers, liars and cheats like the rest of us.
    And Err…Doesn’t Kafila also whet and censor comments by readers? I have commented twice previously but only one comment was made public because it echoed Kafila’s stance. The other one was critical of the article and never made it.

  9. And one more thing. Kafila also retweets only those tweets that coincide with its outlook. Did it tweet the original un-updated article? No. It tweeted only the update. So is it not fair to say that Kafila too is biased? You guys too shouldn’t occupy the high horse.

    1. Kafila did not tweet anything. Such lies. And there are around 10.5 thousand comments in Kafila archives. More comments ‘disagree’ than ‘agree’. And please have the courage to write your own name when you’re attacking peope who write under their names.

          1. It quotes the updated part only. That is what I meant. Even in your personal tweets you come to life after the update only. Now no doubt you have been proved right and Arundhati-haters wrong, but it also shows your slant.
            That is all that I am saying. There is no one without an axe to grind, including kafila.

            1. It’s an AUTOMATIC feed that quotes from this post. Are you a moron that you don’t understand that?

              It’s one thing not to blog / tweet / Facebook something that doesn’t meet your politics. It’s another thing to blog / Facebook / tweet soemthing that makes you score points but ignore an update on that which proves it wrong. The first is at best a case of ideological bias as you would call it. The second is a case of intellectual dishonesty.

      1. “And please have the courage to write your own name when you’re attacking peope [sic] who write under their names.”

        And I see that Kafila, just like big media, does not shy away from launching ad hominem attacks. Very Unfortunate. Henceforth, I’ll continue to read your blog, but will refrain from commenting.

          1. Wow. Cliched repartees. Hope this site too (which is a refreshing change) doesn’t become “rediffised”.

  10. Today the western media is interested in positive stories about India.Are we going to deny that there are positive aspects in Indian society and economy. The best thing is to take a count of what type of stories appear where and what issues are discussed. Internal censorship within media may be there but is there a pressure in all the publications from abroad that only positive news is welcome. This 85% theory is bogus because all of us have our priorities and issues to attend to. Roy will focus only on some aspects while the cheer leaders will focus only on some other aspects. As a reader I know whom to trust and what for. Roy and Mishra get space in the western media and their books sell well. There are any number of critics and fellow travelers of the left who speak in campuses in US,Canada and Europe. Is India shining or is it sinking. It may be doing well in some sectors but needs to do more in some sectors. If you teach a course on India’s socio-economic development in a college you don’t teach your students all the time, only of poverty and human deprivation in India. Finally in a country of billion+ population there are any number of issues to address to and work on. Writing and speaking and using media are not the only modes for intervention.

    1. @on the other hand: What a wonderful exercise in dissembling and obfuscating! I must say you live up to your online name.

  11. In an age where ’embedded journalism’ and ‘paid news’ have become accepted norms, the difference between democracies and dictatorships are getting blurred. So, from ‘India shining’ to ‘shiny new India’ the message remains the same: that the space for the common man, though in majority, is shrinking; and that the ruling elites in India are fully in tune with their counterparts in the West.

  12. Wonder if the injunction also includes against reporting the brutal ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits at the hands of Kashmiri pan Islamists who Arundhati Roy has no qualms in embracing .

    1. Last year when the Government of India was killing Kashmiri Muslims the New York Times did a story on Kashmiri Pandits. What happened with the Kashmiri Pandits 22 years ago must be frontage news for Lalit Ambardar every day, and what happens with the Kashmiri Muslims every day must be ignored.

      I agree that there should be more reporting about new developments in the KP community – how much land and property they’ve been selling in Kashmir; how many have moved out of camps; how many still live in camps in Delhi; how many have benefitted from reservations; how many were meeting a certain Swami in Faridabad; how many have gotten away after attacking a Union minister’s house in Delhi.

      There must also be stories on how KPs who were killed in Kashmir (399, says KPSS) have not got justice, and we must ask why that justice is not possible. We must be told why the Supreme Court let off Bitta Karate (weren’t there KP witnesses to identify him). We must ask why Kashmir must have a truth and reconciliation commission and so on.

      But news is what is current, and if news about atrocities against Kashmiri Muslims is being ignored or downplayed, all Lalit Ambardar has to say is – look at Arundhati Roy. Grow up dude.

  13. And Lalit your second comment has not been approved because we’re not debating Arundhati Roy on this thread. Take your rants to your usual Hindutva haunts

  14. Lalit Ambardar: Another comment by you was received here but not approved. It was in general about the suffering of the Kashmiri Pandits, and was off-topic from the post above. This post is about foreign media representation of India. I’m sure there are people who feel strongly, for instance, about the suffering of the Jarawa tribe in the Andamans, but this is not a space for people to hijack into bringing attention to the issues they are concerned about. This comments space is meant to discuss the post above. Please also read Kafila’s comment moderation policy: http://kafila.org/policy/

  15. Sunalini, let someone do a survey of news reports on India in the foreign media and check how many of them are actually only feel good reports. I read an article (in WSJ) on education in India and that explicitly mentioned the rich-poor divide in access to education and the RTE Act. It did not say that all was well with schools in India and India was the knowledge super power of the world. Critical views are presented in many articles as matters of fact. Every year after the Human Development Report is released there are stories on India’s poor record in social indicators. The readers in the west have access to other sources also ranging from books by Roy to radical blogs from India.

  16. Dear Shivam Vij

    Firstly i am against all forms of censorship of the press. Therefore i am against ALL kinds of restrictions that foreign press may encounter in India.

    The thing that needs to be pointed out is that NO nation provides total freedom of press and India is NO exception. For example , in USA any journalists reporting about the “Israeli lobby” will have his/her career finished or his/her career scope highly limited.

    The fact remains within Asia , India will rank VERY HIGHLY in terms of press freedom.
    Just look at Tehelka , Kafila,The Hindu and people like P.Sainath etc….

      1. Dear Shivam Vij

        Not gratefulness but acknowledgement is needed.
        Credit must be given where it is due.
        Just like criticism must be dished out where it is due like you did in this post.


  17. Its rather shameful that a dissenting opinion is met with scorn. I see multiple such instances perpetrated by authors of this website in the comments on this post. Makes one question Kafila’s moral right to decry similar acts by agencies they claim to be a voice against (the mainstream media, the government, the right-wing et al). Or is walking the talk a bit too much to expect from the authors here?

    I guess it would be wise of me as well to mirror ss’ commenting behaviour henceforth. Just read, don’t bother to comment. And I know pretty well that I won’t be missed. What I feel the authors here need to know is that my views concur with more than 90% of the posts that come up on this website. But all my respect for you folks arising out of that huge agreement is negated by this unwanted hostility, sarcasm & dismissive attitude shown towards dissenting opinions. Such an attitude defeats the purpose of a healthy debate that’s paramount to Kafila being a worthy alternative to “big media”.

    On a light parting note, since ice-cream happens to be the in-thing in this stuttering monsoon, Shivam, you made yourself look like just another flavour of Barkha or Arnab ice-cream here. :-P

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