Remarks made by Professor James Manor, former Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, as part of this panel, prompted the following discussion:

  1. On Wednesday, February 20, 2019, James Elliott wrote

Subject: BBC and other media coverage of India Dear James,

Though I got little support two nights ago, at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and CJA event on India and the Media, when I said you had seriously under-stated the BBC’s coverage of sensitive issues, I’m returning to the subject here to totally rebut your assertions – on newspapers as well as the BBC.

I’ve talked to a few BBC colleagues including Justin Rowlatt, till recently the South Asia bureau chief, who I’ve included in the cc’s above. None of them recognises the picture you painted of BBC radio, or any of its other operations, cowering under the Modi yoke (my words) and only producing soft stories (I think you said from Calcutta).

Justin will I expect answer this email to deal with tv and radio, but I’ve have looked into the BBC’s performance on line and word-searched the subjects you mentioned – India cow killing, India journalist killed, India rape and India beef eating – on the BBC news website – and got the following links with extensive coverage of the subjects:

Along with many other senior journalists, there is an experienced Delhi-based BBC reporter, Geeta Pandey, whose role is Editor, Women and Social Affairs, India, BBC Newsonline – so it is her job to cover some of the areas (easily googled).

You also claimed that only the New York Times and The Economist covered India’s sensitive stories, and then agreed with me that my old paper the FT should be included. I should have also suggested the Guardian and the other papers represented in Delhi. A quick search on the net produces these stories from the Guardian and Independent (I can’t search the Times and Telegraph because of their paywalls)…….

best wishes John

Book: IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality – new Modi Edition this month South Asia Correspondent, Asia Sentinel, Hong Kong

  1. On Wednesday 20 February 2019 Justin Rowlatt wrote

Thanks John. For the record there are no restrictions on what issues the BBC can cover in India or anywhere else. The BBC has a long record of reporting all sorts of contentious subjects in India. Indeed, I was threatened with expulsion from the country last year for doing so. If any of you want to discuss our coverage of the country do get in touch. Justin Rowlatt

  1. On Friday 22 February 2019, James Manor wrote

Dear John,

Thanks for sending this. We still disagree, as I will explain, but it is encouraging to see the references to the BBC reports that you list.

There remain some serious problems with BBC coverage. One is the tendency of reports such as those that you cite not to be aired on mainstream UK television — BBC1 or BBC2. Another is the severe shortage of such reports on World Service Radio which I listen to each day, at length, and on which many Indians still rely. (A fair number have complained to me about this, as have some of the excellent Indian journalists who submit stories to the BBC.)

As I said, a listener to World Service radio will have heard more reports from
Kolkata than reports on India’s politics from Delhi. Kolkata is a provincial capital in a state where the BJP does not govern — so that it experiences few of the outrages that occur in the majority of Indian states where the BJP rules are rarities. The coverage from Kolkata is no doubt partly explained by the deft crafting of reports by Sanjoy Majumdar, but as I said, he tends to focus on amusing accounts of kite flying and the like.

A listener is thus left with a scarcity of reports, from him or from others on World Service radio not just about the epidemic of beatings and murders of Muslims, but also about the creation of shrines to ‘honour’ the memory of Gandhi’s assassin; the assault on the Indian media, civil society organisations, and universities; lethal collective violence against Dalits in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and the Gwalior region of Madhya Pradesh; the BJP’s crass misuse of investigative agencies against rival parties, their leaders, and dissenters; and the utter contempt for opposition parties which the BJP president has described as “snakes, rats, cats and dogs”.

Even the BJP might feel unhappy about the coverage of Indian politics from New Delhi. Those who oppose it certainly have a grouse.

I have no particular gripe with The Guardian which I read every day — although they could have done more to match the Washington Post and especially the New York Times. [A strong condemnatory editorial in the latter in June 2017 threatened Modi’s international image and finally persuaded him to offer a grudging criticism of the beatings and murders of Muslims by cow vigilantes — after three years of silence on the subject.]

My dismay, particularly with the World Service, comes from a big fan of that immensely important outlet. I am complaining more in sorrow than in anger. But there is substance in my gripe.

Very best wishes, James Manor

  1. On Friday 22 February 2019 John Elliott wrote

Dear James,

Thank you for your considered reply, and yes we still disagree! Nothing in your email changes my view that your analysis is, as I said, way off target, and that your presentation at the event gave a very unbalanced impression of media reporting.

I find your repeated reference to Kolkatta strange, and the faint praise for Sanjoy Majumda sounds professionally disparaging.

I will leave it to Justin Rowlatt, cc’d above, to reply if he wishes, along with others who are receiving these emails – it’s a debate that should continue!

best wishes

  1. On Friday 22 February 2019, Humphrey Hawksley wrote

Unfortunately, I missed the original debate but now, seeing the e-mail chain, it seems James is focusing on a crucial element of the India story which he outlines as a compelling pitch for a documentary series. I’m not sure if such a documentary has been done, but BBC did air India’s Daughter and Justin, Geeta, Soutik and other BBC correspondents have done excellent work on this issue.

James appears to be arguing for news coverage each time an atrocity occurs. The nub, therefore, is the old newsroom battle as to what extent a repeated human rights outrage continues to justify a news story. The current spate of atrocities are made more newsworthy because of their link to political and religious trends. But rape, killings, beatings etc. are part and parcel of Indian life. India has always been a brutal place as witnessed with Partition and with continuing atrocities with bonded labour, ongoing insurgencies and similar issues.

It might be worth James taking a comparative look at how our media is now reporting routine stabbings in Britain. The story is chilling in its bloodiness. There is a tenuous link to politics, police cuts, austerity, society breakdown etc. But each stabbing now only commands a paragraph or two because it is no longer news.

The Kolkata emphasis, he mentions, ensures the BBC gives coverage outside of the Delhi political bubble and the Mumbai Bollywood financial one. The correspondent there is good and gets regularly aired on BBC domestic radio, particularly on the PM Programme, which likes his off-beat features showing slices of Indian life. It may well be that the richer domestic side of the BBC stumps up the money for these stories which are automatically repeated on the less well-funded World Service.

Rather than any high-minded conspiracy, the upshot may fall to that timehonored conundrum, the need for a man bites dog story and money to pay for it.


Humphrey Hawksley

  1. On Saturday 23 February 2019, John Elliott wrote:

Subject: Re: HH BBC and other media coverage of India

Glad you joined in on this, Humphrey, wrapping it up with your long BBC experience.

  1. On Sunday 24 February 2019 William Crawley wrote

Dear James/ John / Humphrey

This has been a very useful correspondence, despite the apparent contradictions. The variety of BBC output on and in India is very large between TV, (largely in English) and radio output in English and different regional languages, and output that is only online. The digital record reassuringly demonstrates that major stories have been covered, and Justin Rowlatt has affirmed – as one would certainly hope and expect.- that no subject is off limits. Reports in the Indian press have also endorsed the reliability and accuracy of reporting in major western print media, not only the NYT and the Washington Post but the Guardian and Ft as well.. I have certainly heard anecdotal evidence that the BBC carries many ‘ soft’ stories. I don’t have recent experience of regularly listening from India itself t0 make my own judgment, as both James and John have had. Beyond the enterprise of BBC local correspondents in Kolkata and elsewhere which Humphrey rightly praises, I suggest two other possible factors which could contribute to an impression of imbalance. One is the focus of newsgathering which has been concentrated in New Delhi and to a lesser extent in Mumbai Chennai and Kolkata since the closure in 2013 of the network of the other BBC regional news bureaux , which at the time was a blow to BBC news morale. The other factor may be that FM radio stations which are the natural home for BBC news stories, as they are in Africa, are not allowed by Indian government regulation to carry ‘hard’ or political news.

I agree with John Elliott that it would be useful to include the exchange of correspondence initiated by him with James Manor and others as a postscript to the record of last week’s seminar.

Others may have further ideas to contribute to the discussion which would be welcome. Meanwhile a glance at recent BBC World Service TV stories reveal a strongly critical perspective on Indian policy and actions in areas that James Manor has highlighted.

1) Tribals facing eviction 2) India’s cow vigilantes 3) BBC World Service English has launched a new app to help people access news and radio programmes in areas where mobile data is expensive or internet coverage is limited.

Thanks to all.

William Crawley

  1. On Wednesday 27 February 2019, James Manor wrote: Dear Humphrey, John, William and friends,

Many thanks for all your comments. Sue Onslow would like a final word from me, so that this correspondence can be posted online. So here it is, and I apologise for its length.

I hope that I have not given the impression that I would like every outrage committed in India (of which there is no shortage under the current government) to be reported by the BBC. Instead, I want to see a broad overview now and then of the overall patterm of abusive actions by the BJP government — and their implications.

What we largely miss from BBC output is a sense of the most important trend to emerge in India under this government. A great political and moral drama has been unfolding — which is as momentous as India’s struggle for independence. This great democracy is in peril. If Modi retains immense power after the May election, the assaults on the media, civil society, the universities and the rule of law will gain in intensity — and key government institutions in the democratic framework, which are already under pressure, will be in grave danger.

This has happened once before, under Indira Gandhi — the prime minister whom Modi most resembles. Power has been radically centralised in Modi’s hands. Ministers have next to no power. They learn what their policies are from their civil servants who receive instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office. At times, they are even told how to dress. When Modi meets groups of MPs, he sits in a throne-like chair on a raised platform, scarcely listens and lays down the law. His powerful right hand man, Amit Shah — who is openly contemptuous towards rival parties and even towards other BJP leaders — “goes into meetings with his mind made up”, as one senior BJP figure told me.

Under Indira Gandhi, the pattern of abuse was largely the work of her harebrained son Sanjay. That made her regime vulnerable. And Mr Gandhi was sensitive enough to embarrassing comments from Western leaders to call for a general election in 1977. She and Sanjay had stupidly damaged their party’s information gathering apparatus so that they could not see that an overwhelming rejection from the voter awaited them. The autocracy that they built was unsystematic and rickety.

Modi’s drive for utter dominance is made of sterner, more systematic stuff. He is not susceptible to appeals for more liberal behaviour. He has made several serious mistakes: demonetisation; the introduction of a universal ID system (Aadhaar) that has deprived huge numbers of vulnerable people of badly needed benefits and services; and budget cuts for the rural employment guarantee programme (MGNREGA) which have alienated both poor villagers and locally influential village council members who implement the scheme. Modi has also failed to fulfill stirring promises from his 2014 election campaign — most crucially massive job creation, and the pledge to retrieve vast amounts of dirty money that has been stashed in foreign banks — which would provide every Indian’s bank account with 1.5 million rupees. But
he has constructed formidable instruments for fund raising and the imposition of control, plus a mighty propaganda machine (partly through his assault on the media) that minimizes the damage from these errors.

Modi is at risk of a negative election verdict. India’s sophisticated, demanding voters — the great corrective in this drama — have thrown out governments in New Delhi at six if the last eight national elections. Reliable polls show the BJP’s popularity sagging. But unlike Indira and Sanjay Gandhji, Modi and his right hand man Amit Shah are acutely aware of this danger. Several formerly allied parties have left the ruling coalition out of frustration at being starved of power by this one-man government. There is also widespread discontent among other BJP leaders at their disempowerment by Modi. If as is very likely, the BJP fails to gain a majority at the parliamentary election in May, parties that are in or that might join the ruling alliance are likely to press for a change of prime minister. They will be backed by many in the BJP and quite possibly by the potent Hindu nationalist organisation, the RSS, which prefers the exercise of power through (their) institutions rather than one man. Their preferred alternative has already been identified. But Modi and Shah are apprised of the dangers and are acting even more aggressively than usual to counter them.

This is the great political and moral drama before us. In Indira Gandhi’s day, the BC contributed mightily to an understanding of what was happening and what was at stake. I worry that it may fail to make that kind of contribution this time round.

Regards, James Manor

  1. On Thursday 28 February 2019 John Elliot wrote:

James and everyone – I note that your words below are intended to be the “final word” that Sue Onslow has requested. I’m afraid however that I can’t, as an independent journalist (and having reported India for over 25 years), let what you have written go with comment – especially since I started this series of emails by writing to you,

You say you want the BBC to produce “a broad overview now and then of the overall pattern of abusive actions by the BJP government — and their implications”. I don’t disagree with you on many of the facts you list and, indeed, have been reporting them on my Riding the Elephant blog regularly since 2014 (and in an update of my “Implosion” book that is now being published).

But don’t you want the BBC and the rest of us to report on anything else – and, if you do, why does your comment only deal passionately with Modi and the BJP?

It is our job to report all the important trends – for example the impact of Hindu nationalism on India-Pakistan relations and Modi’s egocentric to foreign policy generally, the good that Modi is trying to do with programmes like the Swachh Bharat campaign (despite grossly exaggerated reports of its performance),
and the impact of the Congress dynasty on politics and including the current corruption cases against a member (by marriage) of the Gandhi family,

You should be calling, if I may say so, for intensive balanced reporting of all major trends, not just exposure of Modi’s and the BJP’s faults.

best wishes