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Foreign Media: Enemy Of India?

March 06, 2023 10:24 IST

Much of the the-foreign-media-is-biased hysteria that we see on social media these days is provoked by the bad press the regime is getting in the West, points out Vir Sanghvi.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, left, being felicitated by Bharatiya Janata Party President Jagat Prakash Nadda at a celebration function after the party's victory in the Tripura assembly election, March 2, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

In 1981, shortly after I had finished university, I spent a year travelling through the US and the UK to work on a special project.

My intention was to investigate the proposition -- taken for granted by nearly every Indian I knew -- that the foreign press was biased against us.

This was a view that my parents had held, even when they lived in England, and though it had been a decade since my father had died, his contemporaries still stuck to it.

I knew what they meant. Brought up to believe that the West did not want India to succeed, I had been confused when the Emergency was declared while I was at boarding school in England.

Indira Gandhi said the Emergency was needed to protect India and that the West did not see the merit in her actions only because of its ill-will towards our country.

Many Indians in the UK bought this line because they were so convinced that the West -- and especially its press -- was biased against India.

(Non-Resident Indians have always been more patriotic/jingoistic from a safe distance than the people who have actually chosen to live in India.)


It was only when I went back to India in 1976 that I came to terms with the full horror of the Emergency and realised that perhaps the Western press was not so biased in its reporting of the suspension of democratic rights after all.

This led me to conceive of my foreign media project some years later.

I travelled through the US and spoke to journalists in London. And I spoke to foreign correspondents in Delhi.

My broad conclusion was that there was no conspiracy against India. The real problem was a lack of interest.

Except for The New York Times, whose then executive editor, A M Rosenthal, was an old India hand; and Forbes, where the editor, James Michaels, had reported on Mahatma Gandhi's assassination, and cared about India, nobody gave a damn.

I asked Phillip Knightley, then the most distinguished foreign correspondent in the UK (who was married to an Indian), what he thought the problem was.

He said India did not feature very much in the world view of most UK foreign editors.

If there was an earthquake or some other disaster, it would be covered.

But otherwise India was not very interesting to the editors.

Correspondents based in Delhi had a similar view.

They had to fight for space in the paper when it came to articles about India.

I had intended to write a book, based on my travels. But by the time I was finished, I realised that I did not have a theme for the book.

"Ah, they don't really care very much" was not much of a thesis.

In the decades that have followed, India has changed. We do matter very much in the global scheme of things.

But I am not sure that the average reader in America or Britain cares much more about events in India than he or she did in the early 1980s.

And while at least some of the people I spoke to when I did my project had some memories of Empire and could, at a stretch, be accused of harbouring a colonial mentality, the current generation of journalists have no memories of the Raj, loathe colonialism and bend over backwards to be politically correct.

When I finished my project in 1982, I began to wonder if perhaps we ourselves were the problem.

We cared too much what the Western press said.

A headline on an inside page of The Guardian worried our leaders (and much of our intelligentsia) more than the page one banner headline in The Indian Express or The Times of India.

We were so worried about how independent India was portrayed that not only did we attach far too much importance to the foreign press's coverage of our country but we actively searched for hints of bias.

Did some of us, unconsciously perhaps, seek validation in the pages of foreign newspapers?

Whatever it was, it worked to the advantage of our politicians.

Mrs Gandhi went on about the devious stratagems of the evil West, its secret services and its media lapdogs.

People seemed to believe her. But by the end of the 1980s, the obsession with the West had finally run out of steam.

When Rajiv Gandhi's aides tried to pin his problems on the desire of foreign powers to destabilise India, nobody believed them.

By the 1990s, in the post-liberalisation phase, the mood had been transformed: The West was no longer the enemy.

We were a nation on the rise. We were plugged into the global economy. Every global media outlet was doing stories about India's boom.

I thought that this was how it would remain. But over the last few years, we seem to have gone back to the pre-1990s mindset.

In fact, were Mrs Gandhi to be around today, there is much about the current Indian attitudes that she would find familiar.

Obviously, much of the the-foreign-media-is-biased hysteria that we see on social media these days is provoked by the bad press the regime is getting in the West.

Most of the social media campaigns to this effect appear to be sparked off by some pro-government political group.

The anger is then fed by various ministers who try and translate what the trolls are saying into parliamentary language.

But is this campaign finding a resonance in the real world?

Do Indians really believe that the BBC is anti-Indian?

That The New York Times is jealous of India's success?

That Time magazine is an anti-India operation?

Or is there a recognition that the foreign press is only saying what many Indian newspapers would say if they were not so eager to please the regime?

It is hard to be sure. So much of what happens on social media is engineered or rigged, so Facebook and Twitter are not necessarily accurate gauges of public opinion.

But if we are really back to the anti-Western media climate of the pre-1990s then it might be worth stopping to think.

Is it Western media that has changed in the last few years?

Or is it India?

Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV presenter.

Vir Sanghvi
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