by B.R.P. Bhaskar
“The world is waiting for a digital-age voice from India – a BBC, a New York Times, or even a Chinese Central Television (CCTV). A voice with global interests, global sources, yet an Indian point of view,” said Robin Jeffrey, who has been studying India and the Indian media for decades, in his convocation address at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, in May.
He listed certain advantages India has in this regard: unrivalled international connections – throughout Asia and Europe, in Africa and North America and even in South America; more English speakers than England itself; a vast film industry and a leading place in information technology.
Several of these advantages were there even in the pre-digital age. Yet no global voice with an Indian point of view emerged.
The reason why no Indian BBC emerged is obvious. Radio and television were under the control of the government which valued compliance more than professionalism. All India Radio and Doordarshan personnel possessed professional expertise but they looked upon themselves as officers of the government, not as media professionals. Let us, therefore, leave them out and find out why India could not produce an international news agency or newspaper.
When the British government decided to hand over the colonial state apparatus to Indian (and Pakistani) hands, Britain’s international news agency, Reuters, persuaded Indian newspaper owners to form the Press Trust of India and take over its subsidiary, the Associated Press of India. It handed over operations in other Commonwealth countries like Australia and New Zealand also to local outfits. Lacking the resources to maintain global presence at previous levels, Reuters outsourced coverage of virtually all of Asia to PTI. Kasturi Srinivasan of The Hindu, who was Chairman of PTI, was inducted into the board of directors of Reuters. PTI set up a desk in London to select and if necessary re-edit Reuters copy for distribution in India.
The arrangement provided PTI correspondents with the opportunity to gain international experience. It gave the agency the opportunity to develop the confidence to go out into the world on its own. However, it did not last long. PTI scrapped the agreement with Reuters following a virulent campaign by a group of newspaper owners, led by Ramnath Goenka of The Indian Express, who denounced it as collaboration with the former colonial masters. Srinivasan quit as Chairman of PTI and director of Reuters and recalled The Hindu’s G. Parthasarathy who had been deputed to PTI to head its London desk. The flag-waving nationalists did nothing to help PTI become an independent source of world news. It remained a carrier of Reuters and France’s AFP.
The danger inherent in total reliance on these Western sources for foreign news became evident when Britain, France and Israel jointly attacked Egypt and blocked the Suez Canal in 1956. Identical communiqués issued in London, Paris and Tel Aviv, and circulated worldwide by Reuters and AFP, reached Indian newspapers through PTI. Egypt’s side of the story did not reach them. Relying on the Western version, many newspapers editorially justified the attack on Egypt, which Jawaharlal Nehru called a throwback to barbarism.
A government subsidy enabled PTI to maintain a few correspondents abroad to supplement the Western agencies’ coverage with reports with an Indian perspective. There was no effort to expand the activity to a point where the agency could cater to the needs of a wider Non-aligned or Asian-African readership.
In 1970, I had occasion to spend a pleasant evening with PTI correspondent A. Balu at his fabulous house on the banks of the Nile. The setting appeared to be conducive to productivity. “Why do we get so little material from you?” I asked Balu. He said the agency had instructed him to avoid cables, as they were expensive, and send reports by air mail, which entailed heavy delays.
A few years later PTI announced the setting up of a subsidiary named Press Trust International for global operations and named Balu as its head. The project did not take off.
As satellite technology revolutionized communications, Shashi Kumar, head of PTI’s TV unit, backed by the agency’s General Manager, P. Unnikrishnan, drew up a plan to establish a satellite channel named Asianet. PTI’s board of directors threw it out. Shashi Kumar quit the agency and floated Asianet as the first Malayalam satellite channel. If the Unnikrishnan-Shashi Kumar plan had gone through India might have had a small international presence in the field of satellite television before the birth of Al Jazeera.
When English language newspapers came up in the Gulf States in the wake of large-scale influx of foreign nationals, the Editor of The Khaleej Times of Dubai, an Englishman, sensed that his Indian readers would want more home news than the international agencies could provide. He asked PTI and the United News of India to supply news by telex on a trial basis for two weeks. After assessing their performance during this period, he signed an agreement with UNI for supply of a 1,500-word package of Indian news daily for $2,000 a month. At that time the paper was getting the full Reuters service for just $450. UNI had asked for $2,000 as the monthly telex charges were estimated at $1,500.
On visiting the Gulf States to explore the possibility of attracting more subscribers for UNI, I found that $2,000 was enough to hire a Delhi-Dubai teleprinter line, which would make it possible to push the daily wordage beyond 1,500. Also, an additional subscriber in any Gulf country could be serviced at a small extra cost. The Bahrain-based Gulf News Agency and the Kuwait Radio signed up for the UNI service.
On a subsequent trip, I spoke to Editors of several Arabic newspapers and found that they were ready to buy a South Asian regional news package if it was in their language. As an experimental measure, UNI produced an Arabic package with the help of someone who had worked in AIR’s Arabic language division. The feedback from the editors was that it was in an archaic language which Arabic newspapers no longer used.
Most of the Arab editors I met in the Gulf States were Egyptians or Syrians, and several of them inquired about PTI’s Wilfred Lazarus. They were familiar with Willie Lazarus’s remarkable coverage of the West Asian and Congolese crises. In 1960 Time magazine had written: “Of the two dozen newsmen regularly covering the Congo, none has given his competitors more trouble than affable Wilfred Lazarus, 35, correspondent for the Press Trust of India. In a land where rumours flock like jungle fowl, communications are primitive and authorities both unreliable and distressingly perishable, Willie Lazarus regularly managed to uncover stories so breathtaking as to bring reporters for British and American wire services reproachful ‘callbacks’ from their home offices.”
Sadly, in the late 1970s Lazarus was in the doghouse, having served as head of Samachar, created by the Emergency regime through the forced merger of all national agencies. If PTI had sent him to West Asia and Africa a few years earlier and offered a special package it might have been able to establish a firm base on which to build an international agency.
The post-Emergency regime, on deciding to break up Samachar, asked a committee headed by Kuldip Nayar to make recommendations in this regard. The committee proposed the revival of the old agencies. It did not seriously consider the possibility of splitting Samachar into a domestic agency and an international agency.
Following the 1970s debate on international information flow, news agencies of the Non-aligned nations established a pool. It was doomed to fail as most of the agencies were professionally weak and under total governmental control. PTI, which was the Indian member of the pool, was one of the few agencies equipped to draw material from the network and produce a professionally acceptable package which could help reduce reliance on Western sources for information. It did not make use of the opportunity.
The newspapers, who own the news agencies, are unwilling to make the investment needed to develop full-fledged international operations. They want the agencies to remain cheap sources of information and are not interested in their healthy growth. It is not unusual for a newspaper to be a shareholder of an agency and yet not subscribe to its service.
The newspapers’ own interest in the global market is also extremely limited. In the 1950s The Hindu launched a weekly international edition in the tabloid form. It was meant for Indians abroad, not for a global readership. Some other newspapers also started similar editions. The Times of India group drew up a plan to publish an international newsmagazine. The plan envisaged posting 25 correspondents abroad to cover world developments. Nothing came of it.
India’s abstention from the global and regional market enabled the British colony of Hong Kong to pose as an outpost of freedom and host a few Asian publications. UN agencies eager to assist in the development of Third World media supported a Rome-based agency set up by an Italian journalist who also held Argentine nationality.
One reason why Indian media owners have not ventured into the global market is that they are blessed with a huge domestic market, which is still growing. Another is that international operations are costly and few of them can raise the necessary resources. There is a third reason too: they have no serious problem with the Western voices that dominate the global space and do not feel the need for an Indian voice out there.
The apathetic attitude of the Indian government and media leadership to the development of a global news market is in sharp contrast with the proactive role the US administration and media moghuls played at the end of World War II to break into the markets from which imperial Britain and France had kept Americans out to protect the interests of their own media. Declassified documents show that after the war in Europe ended, while fighting was still raging in the east, the War Department, at the request of the State Department, made available an aircraft for representatives of US news agencies, newspapers, magazines and the film industry to go round the world and plant the flag. The AP board of directors committed $1 million that year to expand its foreign operations. (Media, July 2014)