Monthly Archives: August 2007

‘Take big steps, urgent steps, fast-paced steps’

SUDHEENDRA KULKARNI writes: Whenever I see P. Sainath walk, I am reminded of the opening line in the novel Bharatipura by the Jnanapeeth award-winning Kannada novelist U.R. Anantha Murthy.

Jagannath, the protagonist of the novel, is a young man in a hurry to implement his revolutionary thoughts, which he has picked up as much from his Marxist influence while studying abroad as from a sensitive observation of the ills afflicting the society around him.

The novel is set in that scenic part of Karnataka, which is lush green, receives plentiful rains and is criss-crossed by rivulets and streams. (Quite unlike many of the places that Sainath has written his stories of droughts and farmers’ suicides from.) Anantha Murthy, who has a vivid style of animating his characters, writes: “While walking, Jagannath does not negotiate the ponds; he hops across them.”

Anyone who has walked with Sainath knows that he does so with long and fast-paced strides, giving a clue to any gait-reader that he too is a man in a hurry, a man with a mission. When he types—and I have seen him do so with manic speed on his portable typewriter in the pre-computer era—it is the same thing.

It’s as if his thoughts, expressed in a distinctively combative method, cannot wait to appear on paper and impact the hearts and minds of the readers.

To tell them about widespread inequities in society, about rampant corruption in the system, about why ‘everybody loves a good drought’ (which is the title of his award-winning book, based on reports from India’s poorest districts) and why farmers are committing suicide in shockingly large numbers in Vidarbha, Telangana and other parts of India.

To tell them about how India’s agrarian economy, on which a bulk of our population still depends for its livelihood, is currently facing the worst ever crisis since Independence; and how successive governments aren’t doing much to face this crisis with sound policies and effective implementation.

Sainath does not write for the sake of writing, but to provoke the readers to think and to do something. Indeed, even to start thinking about the society around you is an important step in itself in the direction of ‘doing something’. And anyone who has read Sainath’s book or his subsequent newspaper reports from rural India would agree that there is an unstated message to the readers in all his writings: “Take big steps, take urgent and fast-paced steps, in doing something to change this unacceptable state of affairs.”

Sometimes Sainath exaggerates, overstates his point and all too often sees a complex reality purely in black and white terms. But this, too, I suspect, he does deliberately. Because the ‘black’ side of the reality hardly ever finds place in our print and electronic media.

For most newspapers and magazines, farmers’ suicides are no more than a statistic. They rarely ever tell the well-examined and closely observed story of the life of the poor and the dispossessed, of debt-ridden farmers whose despair reaches a point where life becomes unbearable, of the callous government machinery and the apathetic economic and political elite that smugly believes that it is not responsible for this tragedy.

The media are more interested in tracking BSE’s sensex than what Sainath has called the rising ‘Farmers’ Distress Index’. He argues, and rightly so, that this is happening because of the growing control over the media by the money power of corporate houses, both Indian and foreign.

It was Sainath who introduced me, in the mid-1980s, to the writings of radical critics of the American media. I was deeply influenced, in particular, by the power of a quotation that he frequently used to refer to—“Mass media without the masses”. It appears in the writings of Herbert Schiller, the acclaimed American media scholar, whose books (Mind Managers, Mass Communications and American Empire, Who Knows : Information in the Age of the Fortune 500, et al) are a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the deeply undemocratic hold of big business houses on the media and public discourse. It is this shared concern which prompted a small group of journalists and social activists in Bombay to come together, at Sainath’s initiative, to publish a journal called Countermedia. Brought out on a shoe-string budget, it sought to critique the writings in, and the internal functioning of, the big newspaper groups in India.

Sainath was then the deputy editor of Blitz, which was once the most widely read political journal in India. His room in the weekly’s office near Flora Fountain always presented a picture of chaotic order—full of books and paper everywhere, but suggestive of a person who used the facts, figures and ideas hidden in them to telling effect. Despite the pressure of deadlines, he always found time to interact with younger journalists from different publications in the city, guiding and encouraging them, something editors rarely do.

Some of the members of our group, all working closely with the CPI(M), were: Anoop Babani, who later joined Business India and was excellent in documenting, sifting and analysing information; Sudhir Yardi, a pure-hearted, music-loving professor at Wilson College, who, sadly, passed away a few years ago; and Dr Vivek Monteiro, a former scientist from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and a leader of CITU, the trade union wing of the CPI(M). Vivek, who certainly must rank among the most dedicated and committed political activists on this planet, provided the inspiration and guidance for so many other activities of our group. From nuclear disamament to mobilising people’s support on working class issues, we were all the time busy with some progressive issue or the other.

In course of time, I moved away from members of this group due to ideological differences. The distance got wider after I joined the BJP in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, I have always had the greatest respect for the social concerns and commitment of my former comrades.

Countermedia didn’t last long. However, on looking back and comparing the state of affairs in the Indian media then and now, the conclusion is inescapable that the control of big money—through ownership and advertising—has grown immeasurably in the past two decades. As a result, the worst effects of American-style corporate-controlled “mind management” can now be seen in India, too.

Just look at how much space in newspapers and magazines, and how much airtime on our TV channels, is devoted to the issues, concerns, problems, life experiences and aspirations of the poor and middle classes, especially those living in villages and smaller towns. Clearly, they constitute the majority—the ‘masses’, if you will—in Indian society. But how much are these masses represented in the metro-centred ‘national’ mass media? How many newspapers, barring The Hindu, have rural editors and regular reportage on rural realities? The answer to these questions points to the validity of Schiller’s critique, and also to the unique importance of what Sainath has been writing.

Therefore, when Sainath won this year’s Magsaysay award, it was not only a well-deserved honour for him personally, but also a much-needed recognition for the kind of people-oriented journalism that he has been valiantly torch-bearing. At a time when our newspapers and TV channels have decided that their raison d’etre is chiefly to advertise and eulogise the wasteful lifestyles of the super-rich, the award for Sainath is a reminder that there also exists another India, a vast geographical and social section of our country, which remains deprived and neglected, battered and betrayed.

In writing this tribute to Sainath, I must confess that I do not always agree with everything that he writes. Like most people in the Indian Left, he is prejudiced about Hinduism in general and the RSS-BJP in particular. Indeed, a rupture took place in my professional and personal relationship with him in the early 1990s when he left Blitz and I was invited by its legendary owner-editor R.K. Karanjia to take his place. By this time, I had got disillusioned with communism and developed strong doubts about the Marxist antipathy for anything Hindu.

By a strange coincidence, Karanjia, the grand old man of pro-left journalism in India, had begun to appreciate my strong nationalist and pro-Hindu affirmations on several issues, including the most important issue then dominating the national scene—the Ayodhya movement. I supported the demand for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya—and I do so even today. (Similarly, I have condemned the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and continue to do so even now.)

Sainath’s views on Ayodhya, Ram and the Ramayana were radically different and, in one of our discussions on the issue, he expressed his views rather sharply. Since then, we have hardly had any interaction. But that has not in the least diminished my admiration for him as a great writer and, more importantly, as a writer whose heart beats for the poor and the deprived.

Russy Karanjia, one of the most kind-hearted and genial persons persons I have come across in my life, would have been elated at knowing about his former deputy’s dazzling accomplishment. He would have greeted Sainath with his moustachioed smile, hugged him warmly, and called all his former colleagues for a cake-cutting ceremony. And I can imagine how much this would have meant for Sainath. Alas, in his current state of health, Karanjia, a nanogenerian, can barely recognise anybody. I pray for him, with gratitude.

I convey my hearty congratulations to Sainath on the prestigious recognition that he has won for himself and for his genre of journalism. As he receives the Magsaysay award in Manila today, 31 August 2007, we must, however, recognize that the space and scope for transformative journalism continues to shrink in India.

The power and influence of big money is growing not only on the media but also on the political establishment. This must be resisted and reversed. Mass media must belong to the masses. For this, the media’s ownership, internal structure and functioning must be democratized. It is a difficult task. The Left often behaves as if it alone can succeed in this task. It is a baseless, fruitless and arrogant belief. We will begin to succeed in transforming the media—and society in general—only if this becomes a broader national endeavour, one in which democratic and pro-change forces from different schools of thought come together, talk together, and work together.

(Belgaum-born Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1998 and 2004. Apart from writing a weekly column in the Sunday Indian Express, he works closely with the BJP. Comments are welcome at

Also read: Magsaysay Award for P. Sainath of The Hindu

‘Conventional journalism serves the powerful’


In picture, Sainath receives the 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature and creative communication arts from the Philippines Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban in Manila.

Photo courtesy: The Associated Press/ The Hindu


Should papers, TV publish terror suspects’ pix?

The police in Hyderabad, have released the “sketch” of  the suspect (above) who they say was behind the bomb blastswhich killed several dozen people at an auditorium. The computer-aided sketch was then carried by all newspapers and television stations to help solve the crime.

It will be a happy ending, of course, when the guy bearing a likeness to the guy in the picture is caught and found to be the guy who planted the bomb. But what if he isn’t?

What if the wrong guy has been sketched, and what if there is somebody, alive and breathing, with a similar face? How right is it for the media to give full flight to the imagination of a “police artist” without breaching the privacy and civil liberties of that innocent individual?

In Hyderabad, as indeed in several Indian cases, an “artist’s impression” (with the words computer aided design thrown in for good measure) provides a convenient escape route should the wrong person feel the heat, “any resemblance with any person living or dead being unintentional and coincidental”.

In July this year, Mohammed Asha, a doctor of Britain’s National Health Service became the “human face” of the (failed) attacks on Glasgow Airport and London nightclubs when newspapers printed his picture on their front pages.

Ironically, though, Scotland Yard emailed editors of media organizations not to publish photos or artists’ impressions of people involved in the case, saying that identification of the suspects could be an issue in any trials. But at least two tabloids, The Sun and the Daily Mirror (above),  ignored the request. The Daily Telegraph printed the picture as-is on its front page, but the Times pixellated the face, just as the BBC did.

In the world before 9/11, the fear of contempt of court prompted news organizations to only publish basic information like an accused person’s name and age, as well as the charge against him or her. But in the age of terror, those parameters  seem to have collapsed.

Earlier this week, in Seattle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer refused to print a photograph of two suspects provided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation who were spotted by employees of a local ferry service for “acting suspiciously”.

This is what the editor of the paper David McCumber said in defence:

“We have no confirmation that these men’s behaviour was anything but innocuous, and to forever taint them by associating them with terrorism under these circumstances is not consistent with our policy.”

It can be argued that publishing pictures is a duty of newspapers and TV stations in the “War on Terror”. After all, journalists are citizens first, journalists next, and have a bounden duty to protect a country. But what is the hit rate with such pictures? How many sketches do really end up catching the culprits? How many are just face-saving tactics, intended to deflect the heat from the police to show as if they are on the right track?

The case of Mohammed Haneef should be a signal lesson on how the media might like to go easy.

A 3-year-old kid answers publishers’ prayers

When newspaper publishers, editors and analysts are constantly wondering where their next reader is going to come from, Press Trust of India is reporting what must be the answer to their combined prayers.


ROURKELA, Orissa: A three-year-old child prodigy in the Steel City has taken everybody by surprise as he is able to read newspapers and text books even though he is yet to start schooling.

Arjya Niskam took everybody by surprise when he read the newspapers and books with clear pronunciation on Wednesday in the presence of Additional District Magistrate, Niteen Bhanudas Jawale.

Born on 14 May 2004, Arjya started reading newspaper headlines and Oriya signboards written in bold letters at the age of two years and seven months, said his father Amarendra Behera, an employee of Rourkela Steel Plant.

The child prodigy surprised everybody by reading panchayat election posters mostly printed in Oriya and slogans of mass education movement (Sarva Siksha Abhiyan) written in village school building when the proud parents along with him had visited their village in Kendrapara district in coastal Orissa during last panchayat elections in February.

’21st century media is an amoral being’

Sagarika Ghose in the Hindustan Times

“The blame immediately shifts to the media—both print and electronic. It’s the media that’s responsible. The media do not show floods. The media do not show poverty. The media sensationalise blasts. The media are luring politicians to become trapped into a hall of mirrors where reality doesn’t matter.

“Is this true? Twenty-first century media, like all technology, is an amoral being. Its avalanche of images is anarchic. Floods, parties, police brutality, fashion, riots, food, starvation, murder, justice, cocktails, nuclear debates—media provide the democratic noise of everything Indian, the media cater to all tastes.”

MUST READ: Jeremy Paxman on television

What is television for?

Is television inherently dishonest?

Does television treat people fairly, is it healthy for society?

Jeremy Paxman addressed all those questions, pertinent as they are in India as everywhere else in the world, as he delivered the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture on the challenges before the television industry and the road ahead. It was a pragmatic, no-holds-barred analysis typical of BBC Newsnight’s bulldog interviewer.

“The media are—is—an entity in its own right, a collective being with its own distinct nervous system. It eats, it breathes, it excretes. It has distinct pleasure centres in its brain and it has an awful lot of problems with its eyesight….

There is a problem. Potentially, it is a very big problem. It has the capacity to change utterly what we do, and in the process to betray the people we ought to be serving. Once people start believing we’re playing fast and loose with them routinely, we’ve had it….”The audience have to be able to have confidence in us to show them something which, while being manufactured, is a fair representation of the true state of affairs….

“There comes a point where the frenzy has to be put to one side, the rolling story halted, so that we can make sense of things. Television journalism’s justification should be the justification of journalism through the ages: to inquire, to explain and to hold to account… Right now we could do with less hyperventilating and more deep breathing.

“There is a fight going on for the survival of quality television right across this industry. The recent skirmishes and scandals have not gone our way. As an industry we need to lay out much more clearly what we’re doing and why. Let’s spend less time measuring audiences and more time enlightening them.”

Read the full text: The James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture

Jeremy Paxman roasts Tony Blair

Don’t shoot me, I’m just the piano player

Blaming the media—shooting the messenger—has become a blood sport, even with those with blood on their hands. Jhoomur Bose of CNN-IBN sends a poetic note to those who blame it on the media when what they see or hear doesn’t conform with their own closely held views and beliefs.


Hello, can one talk to you,
Could you spare your minutes few?
This is about the Media,
And sincerely one had no idea…
That you could hate it so much,
And refuse even to touch;
Or consider the simple concept,
That even the media could take some wrong steps.
(While you are such a human strong,
You have never done a single wrong?)
Come let’s blame it on the Media,
It’s always a bloody good idea…
To say Hey Cameraman!
You should also have been Superman;
To stop that blast and prevent that flood,
And fight the villains, and curb the blood.
(While you vote for the villains,
To launder your clandestine millions?)
Come let’s blame it on the Media,
It’s always a bloody good idea…
To ask hey how come you Reporter,
You don’t have that noose a little tighter?
Around a corrupt politicians’ head,
Who steal our very daily bread.
(While you walk with pride,
And give them a hefty bribe?)
Come let’s blame it on the Media,
It’s always a bloody good idea…
To say they did nothing but write,
Too many words, some banal, some trite;
And yet those words don’t fill with dread,
For on our land the killers still tread.
(While you will never do your bit,
For it’s far easier to throw a fit??)
Come let’s blame it on the Media,
It’s always a bloody good idea…
Secure in your homes to sit and complain,
Call the media names; give them some pain.
But let me tell you, You are also the SAME;
You do NOTHING else but play the blame game.
But then let’s blame it on the Media now,
After all the Public is always holier than thou.

Read the full article here: Blame it on the media

Matt Drudge: I’ve a right not to be watched

In 2003, Esquire termed Gay Talese‘s profile of Frank Sinatra as the best story it had ever published on its pages.

“The legendary singer was approaching fifty, under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed. So Talese remained in Los Angeles, hoping Sinatra might recover and reconsider, and he began talking to many of the people around Sinatra—his friends, his associates, his family, his countless hangers-on—and observing the man himself wherever he could. The result, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” ran in April 1966 and became one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever published…”

In this week’s New York magazine, Philip Weiss sets out to profile Matt Drudge, the author of the Drudge Report, the seventh most visited website on the planet, ahead of—yes—even the New York Times and Washington Post. And unlike Talese, Weiss doesn’t even get to see Drudge, a full time manager of a gift shop in his previous avatar, let alone speak to him. Drudge craves attention but hides.

Weiss emails Drudge, writes letters to him at the two places he owns in Miami, calls his radio show number 1-866-4-drudge, visits the two addresses, calls his friends to put in a word… but “America’s most influential journalist” is elusive. All he gets to hear is Drudge’s defence of his privacy on air.

“I just don’t want to be watched when I’m visiting the Lincoln Memorial, going through Penn Station, or walking down Hollywood Boulevard. So many cameras everywhere. And now you start feeding that into some kind of database and start linking it up with a Fascist company like Google? This is a serious issue. And it’s not given serious consideration—when it is a total transformation of our society and our liberties.

“What gives you a right? Why are you watching me? People say, well, what do you have to hide, Drudge? What do you have to hide? You know what? The burden should be on them. I think I have a right not to be watched.”

Read the riveting profile: Watching Matt Drudge