Zubair Ahmed is currently the BBC’s Mumbai correspondent. He has been with the BBC World Service for 16 years, having worked at the headquarters in London for eight, and its Washington bureau for one. He’s doing a PhD on the flow of news from the West to the East. Blame him for any rumour you hear coming from abroad.
A Firangi Peep into the India Story
By the turn of the new millennium news of ‘India Shining’ had reached the western capitals. Newsrooms in the ‘First World’ capitals had begun to develop a healthy appetite for sunshine stories from India.
It was quite a mindset shift.
Not long ago, grim poverty, malnutrition and even hunger dominated news output from India. Occasional stories on snake charmers still drew the attention of the news desk. And oh yes, any quirky, wacky stories were very welcome, as these stories fit in their perception of India.
But all that began to change after India’s economic growth engine picked up pace, rapid pace. The Western media organizations were no longer content with having a single-man bureau or office in Delhi. They wanted their men stationed in Mumbai to report on the great Indian story.
So, the new international media brigade in Mumbai, which included me, began filing special reports, trend stories and the story of India’s magical economic growth. We highlighted individual successes, huge developmental activity and the new Indian entrepreneurship. I recall doing a trend story of how Indian companies were confident enough to hire white and western senior executives on competitive salaries. As a young boy growing up in India, we never heard of Indian companies hiring white westerners on salary packages at par with the west.
The more stories we filed of India’s success, the more the appetite for such stories grew in the newsroom. But we were never going to ignore the unpleasant stories, such as the debt-trapped Vidarbha farmers committing suicide. It was sad to see farmers’ stories often being underplayed by local media until it was taken up in a big way by the Western media.
When we do stories which are unpleasant we are often accused of deliberately highlighting India’s underbelly. Often my friends in the Indian media and even my family in my native place suspect we deliberately focus on slums, shanties and garbage in Indian cities, as if we get a sadistic pleasure in highlighting India’s poverty. One Indian journalist friend once told me, international media in India only sells India’s poverty.
The controversy around the movie Slumdog Millionaire is a case in point. The Indian media was unhappy with Danny Boyle for portraying Mumbai’s underbelly in this multiple-Oscar awards movie. The general tone was “why do you have to show only one side of India? Why don’t you show our progress?” I went to the slums where the film’s two child artists, Azhar and Rubina lived in abject poverty and reported how they lived in more miserable conditions than depicted in the film. But not all in the Indian media jumped on to the patriotic bandwagon. A few local reporters called me to ask for the addresses of Azhar and Rubina and came up with incredibly touching stories.
Covering India has not been so easy but extremely rewarding. I have realized we cannot keep everybody happy. We are praised and criticized in equal measure. But hardly anyone questions our integrity, our neutrality and the quality of our journalism.
Image Source : [ http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckaysavage/2555721038]