Two whole weeks after he landed on his feet in unfamiliar territory, Patrick Ward records what it is to be a parachute journalist in the chaos called India. Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
It started when I got off the plane and was taken aside and investigated by airport security. That took a while. Why did I have a tripod but no camera? (It was for an iPhone, because that's how we roll these days). Why did I have a book about journalism? Where was my gold? And diamonds? And gold diamond encrusted watch? (Actual questions, slightly paraphrased). But my journalistic parachute was yet to be snagged on the tree of unfamiliar bureaucracy and I was let through, phone accessories and all, albeit a little later than anticipated.
Everything was new to me – the climate, the process of hiring a taxi, the language. But I had to get my feet on the ground quickly if I was going to start filing stories the next day.
This was my experience after landing in the unfamiliar territory of Mumbai to cover the elections as a parachute journalist. Who better to cover The Biggest Election In History than someone who has never seen the place before? As part of Project India, a project involving journalists across India and the UK, I am here to give a certain perspective on the month-long general election that is currently underway.
As a first timer, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from Mumbai - a city I imagine the un-imaginative but largely correct travel writer would describe as "throbbing". But sure enough, the damp, smoky night air, the organised chaos of the traffic, and the swarms of people at every turn were a sharp change from the passive-aggression that prevails on the British road networks, and the sleepy evening pavements of Bournemouth that are punctuated only by the occasional pub-goer desperately trying to remember their home address.
Parachute journalism is the practise of a journalist with little to no experience of a region being dropped right in there - trying to bring "foreign" stories to a "national" audience. They lack the understanding of the long-term foreign correspondent, and generally don’t stay long enough to develop it fully.
Why parachute? There are heaps of talented (and English speaking) journalists based in India who could tell my stories with far greater depth and understanding than I can. Do we need another European coming from the former colonial power to explaining things?
The trouble with parachute journalism is that's just what happens an awful lot of the time. Think about the coverage of looting mobs after the 2010 Haiti earthquake, or the forever violent Africans (specific country unnecessary to mention) or the homogenous mass of religious zealots in the Middle East. "One thing's for certain, no one can see a way out of this bloodshed and if they could, would they want it? Patrick Ward for Sky News in the Global South."
There’s also the danger of parachutists developing a pack mentality whereby stories become regurgitated across media. Stories shared by reporters from different agencies and networks over a beer or two in the local journo hangout need to be followed up by all of them, partly through the ever-present fear that their editor’s number will show up on their mobile phone and they will be yelled at for missing the story.
In Haiti, for example, where starving people were scavenging for food, news reached head offices in London, New York and elsewhere that violent Haitians were coming to blows as their somehow innate savagery came out. If other networks were saying it, it must be real – went the feeling – so journalists had to go out and find that story lest they were left behind with the news. In truth, there was very little violence in this case. And many of the sources used were not ordinary earthquake victims, but US Army spokespeople – leading to all sorts of nonsense about Haitians begging the West to intervene to keep the peace.
Parachute journalists increasingly relied upon as the number declines of long-stay foreign journalists who become true experts on their patch – but cost money to maintain in the long term. This is largely due to cost cutting and a cynical view spun out by advertising executives and TV network managers that people aren’t interested in foreign news reporting any more. (I would tend to argue that it has more to do with the quality of foreign reporting, and its abstract format of stories of flood, famine and flash grenades which appear and vanish from TV screens and news publications without temporal, geographical or political context.)
Ted Koppel, a former anchor on the US network ABC, put it well in 2006 when he said, "The approach now is, 'Well, don't worry about it. When something happens, we can take a jet and we can access satellites and we'll have it for you in 24 hours.' Have what? … You'll have the after-effects. You'll have the result of what you should have been telling America about for the last six months. You'll have the crisis after it breaks."
But. There can be a merit to parachuting. When my plane landed, seemingly scraping the roofs of one of the largest slums in the world, I perhaps noticed something that would be missed by my fellow nationals at home and maybe taken for granted by the excellent commentators here in Mumbai. It's the feeling of flying into a country that boasts of its blossoming (if stalling) economy and seeing people without clean water, decent sanitation or functioning electricity. The Indian economic miracle that we read about in the FT or see on BBC News has another side.
But it's more than this too. This isn't the story of helpless Indians who can't manage their own affairs. Nearly everyone I've spoken to here has an opinion on the election - and an informed opinion at that. Turnout could be as high as 70%. Even speaking to street beggars, they know what they want from the government. Most people want change in India, but everyone has their own view on how that change can come about.
Some people are voting for the right-wing BJP’s Narendra Modi because he boosted the economy in Gujarat and would break from years of Congress corruption. Others have a different take, and say Modi's policies would punish the poor and be a huge blow against secularism. They might want to stick with Congress who, in states such as Maharashtra, have increased economic growth far more than Gujarat, although many would say they haven’t seen the fruits of this. Others disagree still, and want to give the new kids on the block a chance in the anti-corruption Aam Admi (Common Man) Party... but they quit government in Delhi after just 49 days, so can they be trusted?
There are around 1,000 regional parties too, and complex deals struck between them lead to fluctuating coalitions. In Maharashtra, for example, the BJP is working with Shiv Sena, a far-right Hindu nationalist group that wants preferential treatment for Marathis over North Indians, Muslims and others. Election posters around Mumbai for the group essentially proclaim, “Vote Shiv Sena, get Modi”. (Imagine the Lib Dems doing that for David Cameron in the UK.)
Sometimes parachuting in gives you a comparative take on events that you can relate to people in the country from which you came. But it has to be in that context. Read the Indian media. Watch Indian TV news. Follow reports by Western journalists who do obsessively follow the Indian political scene.
I didn't grow up in a slum and I don't breathe in the ever-present smoke that marks both industrialisation and lung disease, but I can notice it's different to what I'm used to. Similarly, I have never felt the fear that a new government might herald the return of inter-ethnic rioting, but through talking to ordinary people I can relay the fears that people have about these things to an audience back home who might never have realised it.
The most important thing a parachutist can do is tell the story of ordinary people in their own words. Rather than rely on coverage by competing Western news sources coupled with government statements and party press releases, the task is to speak to the men and women in the street who want the world to know their concerns, opinions and daily reality.
Parachutists should augment the amazing reportage readily available from people in those countries, not give a 360 degree view of how their society operates that they can then pass off as the only information you will ever need to know. Better still, they should relate it in a way that connects to power “back home” – where is Western investment going? What role do World Bank loans play in this? Whose hand has David Cameron been shaking?
Journalism is facing huge difficulties, thanks to cost-cutting and huge pressures from government to report The Right Line. Parachutists are filling in the gaps vacated by foreign bureaux, and in today’s 24/7 news environment, the quantity of reports demanded of them are ever increasing, and the time to the next big story, wherever else in the world that might be, is decreasing. But we should recognise what we are doing and understand how it influences public understanding. And, most importantly, we should understand our limits.