No Tricolour Here, Please
The Indian media needs to take its nationalist heart out of its journalistic engagement with the world of sports.
There is a chronic parenting crisis for Indian media. But, for all myopic purposes, media houses might not be considering it a crisis at all. On the contrary, they might be encouraging and reaping the benefits of this problem child. The crisis (assuming a distinction is still made between media responsibility and market opportunity) is as simple as this: sports journalism has long been a baby which refuses to grow up. It’s somehow stuck in the narrative of jingoistic fervour and insular frenzy. Even well-meaning efforts for providing analytical sports journalism in India have found it difficult to go beyond this one-dimensional template. The dangers that such a restrictive template poses also vary with the changing contexts of different sporting disciplines.
Today (November 15, 2012), the India-England cricket test series starts with the first test being played at Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad. If you go by what you have been reading in newspapers and watching on news channels as a build-up to the series, you could be forgiven for thinking that only one team matters and the Indian team has a divine right to win. That’s how Rahul Kanwal was trying to conduct a panel discussion for Headlines Today on the eve of the match (November 14, 2012) with his panelists – Sourav Ganguly, Geoffrey Boycott and Nikhil Chopra. Did everyone forget that England was also a team in the series and it was also playing to win the series? Did the chances, strengths and weaknesses of the English team not merit any analysis? At the the end of the discussion, did anyone have any doubt about which team was the default opposition side for this channel in the series? So much for “sporting” fairness in analysing the game.
But this channel isn’t an isolated case. It has more fierce competitors in putting on “ultra-patriotic” blinkers while looking at cricketing events. There are more aggressive versions of cricketing jingoism in the Indian media. With the Indian team suffering a 4-0 series whitewash in their England tour last year, newspapers and channels are wearing their vengeful instincts on their captions for this series which ranged from “revenge series” to “grudge series”, while Hindi channels have gone imaginative with “pratishodh” (revenge) and “jawab hum denge” (we will reply)-type nomenclature. Interestingly, last year during the India-England series, a Hindi news channel had to shed its Bollywoodsque analogy of “lagaan” (revenue) collection midway for an imagined colonial encounter when the Indian team started suffering heavy defeats.
In this context, an interesting contrast could be seen today (November 15, 2012) in how two newspapers have carried quite different headlines in their preview of the series. The Times of India has sought dramatic effects with its headlines – the one on the front page says: “Grudge Games”, while the other on the sports page says “India Turn to Payback Mode”. Adopting a sedate approach (some may also dub it as a “conservative” approach), The Hindu carries the headline on its sports page saying “India plays down talk of a ‘revenge series’”. It’s relevant here to remember what former Deputy Editor of The Telegraph, Sumir Lal had said in his piece for the 15th Anniversary issue of Outlook. He writes:
“The Telegraph now went in for the kill. Pandering to the new dictum that news must only entertain, I colluded in trivialising the front page. My greatest day of regret was one of the Telegraph’s best days of sale: a front-page banner headline I wrote during the 1996 cricket World Cup that screamed, ‘India Forces Pak to Surrender’. The headline could not have been any different or any bigger had it been a story on an actual war.”
On the eve of the start of the current series, Arnab Goswami chose a murky side of the game to exihibit his cricketing patriotism. Initiating a panel discussion with the agenda of demanding an apology from British journalist Ed Hawkins for alleging that the India-Pak World Cup semi-final was fixed (Ed Hawkins has made this allegation in his new book, Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy: Journey to the corrupt heart of cricket’s underworld, which is to be published today, November 15, 2012). Why is such burden of proving allegations with legally admissible evidence not sought when such charges made for matches not involving India? Does the glory of the World Cup victory restrain Indian media from exercising journalistic scepticism and taking such charges seriously – at least consider them worth investigating?
However, the jingoistic tone isn’t limited to journalistic reporting and analysis of sports events. Most of the Indian commentators on the live commentary team of sports channels as well as running commentary on radio are equally vulnerable to nationalist zeal. Instead of contributing their insights and analysis to sports discourse, they have somehow succumbed to the task of playing spokesperson of brand Indian cricket and moulding cricketing arguments to suit the interests of this brand. Pradeep Magazine, Advisor – Sports, Hindustan Times has incisively observed:
“Our past cricketing greats-turned-TV commentators seem to believe their job is not to add their nuanced understanding to the images of games we watch, but to voice their prejudices, jingoism and ultra-nationalism. Much as we all admire Sunil Gavaskar for his batting exploits, I hate to say, I find his comments on the game exasperating at times. Had a lesser known name mouthed similar, generic lines, his remarks would have been branded inane, even puerile. What is galling is that instead of objectively reporting and passing on his immense knowledge on technique and strategy, he routinely indulges in ‘gora-bashing’. Ravi Shastri, whose smug voice gives the impression that he and he alone knows what the game is all about, has his strong points, but most of the time he is guilty of flag-waving and projecting the Indian cricket team as a consumer brand without any blemish.”
Such jingoism in sports journalism as well as in commentators also sometimes takes the form of hagiography of some players. It’s pertinent to remember that you are often fed with news of how praise has been showered on Indian greats by legends of the game like Sir Don Bradman, Sir Gary Sobers, Sir Viv Richards, Holding, Lillee, Shane Warne, etc., but you should ask something else too. These people also say very nice things about other players who are not from India. How often do you find that in your newspapers and on news channels?
It’s ironic that in other sporting disciplines, this India-centric approach to sports journalism takes the form of self-flagellation and often in ill-informed ways. The jingoistic element is pervasive here too, but the difference is that the denial of nationalist glory spurs a backlash against players and athletes. And such “anger” in journalistic narratives of non-cricket disciplines is not substantiated with basic understanding of games – reconciling mediocrity with the urge to have a “glory story” to report becomes a tough task for media imagination of competitive sports. The result is a shallow self-flagellation (and sometimes biting cynicism too) which borders on “sports illiteracy”. Eminent sports journalist Sharda Ugra critically dissected this aspect of sports reporting in Indian media, in a piece she wrote for the media watch website The Hoot, about the coverage of recent London Olympics. She observed:
“It is the general notion that at the Olympic level, the Indian athlete is largely way below-par, third-grade, and worthy of nothing but sweeping journalistic contempt. Yes, India’s performances in the Olympics are far from glorious, the country went from 1952 to 1996 without any individual medal. But when it comes to marking out the nuance between glorious and ‘finished last’, it is swept aside particularly in sports where the athlete is neither celebrated nor well known.
….Richard Ford described my profession as one that ‘recognises courage and improvement’ and takes the ‘battle with cynicism head-on and wins.’ And not like a particular segment of media coverage of the London Olympics, for sure. Without a medal, an athlete’s performance can easily be treated as meaningless. On television, for example, an Indian hockey player in London found himself being called a ‘joker’. It is a response expected from the spectator on a sofa, but not a journalist expected to have balance and insight. Would Sachin Tendulkar be referred to as a ‘joker’? How about Yuki Bhambri or Umesh Yadav? No matter how bad a day they may have had?”
Apart from such obvious dangers of mixing jiongoism and personality cult with a subtle understanding of sports, a more fundamental problem surfaces whenever we seek to view any human endeavour through a nationalist prism. Blinkers only end up giving a tunnel view. As Manu Joseph put it:
“True lovers of sports, as is the case with true lovers of every other human pursuit, are often impoverished by the imbecilities of nationalism. But the fact is that nationalism in sports is the least dangerous quality of nationalism. Normally, it kills. As Voltaire said, ‘It is lamentable that to be a good patriot one must become the enemy of the rest of mankind.’”
In sporting moments of introspection, the Indian media needs to take its nationalist heart out of its journalistic engagement with the world of sports. It may help sports journalism to grow on its own, without the jingoistic vitriol. That could lead to the discovery of one of the original purposes of sports – the free spirit of human effort.
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