#Budget2017: When Men Do All The Talking On TV

This year’s post-budget analysis made it seem as though women have no perspective to provide on the annual budget. Why is it so hard for TV news to find women panellists?

ByBiraj Swain
#Budget2017: When Men Do All The Talking On TV
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Does economics have a sexism problem? The privileging of “theory” over real world practice and evidence, dominance of conservative politics in narrative building, seem to suggest so. The under-representation of women in senior academic positions reinforces it. So much so that the United States of America, the country with most Nobel Prizes in economics has its American Association of Economics looking into the matter. When The Economist put out its 2015 list of most influential economists with media presence, all of them were men. Some great perspective pieces on sexism in economics by practicing economists are here, here and here.

However, this article is not about sexism in economics, but sexism perpetuated in Indian television studios in their popular economics programmes, like the post-budget analyses. It was definitely not raining sops in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s fourth annual budget speech, but it was truly raining men in Indian television studios!

Rooting for women panellists is not just pro forma. If more women are part of the conversation, progressive agenda are set and on the discussion plate are topics such as maternity entitlements, creche-care, universal social protection, universal basic income or working conditions in informal sector – which is still doing the heavy lifting in terms of jobs – access to loans, market access for women entrepreneurs and most importantly, the under-recognised and under-counted care economy (which includes household chores, caring for children and elderly). Of course these conversations could be had with progressive male economists too. But the nuance brought in by women with their lived experiences in some of these matters enriches the conversation and the explainers. The over-presence of experts and talking heads and near absence of the mango wo(man) is also worrisome.

The menace of all male panels, ie manels, is a real thing. Many progressive economists and international development experts are pledging against being part of manels. From William Easterly of New York University, Owen Barder of Centre for Global Development to Sanjay Hegde of New School of Social Research, leading economists are boycotting them. Here’s a brilliant blog by the irrepressible Duncan Green on why men need to pledge against being part of manels. Elle’s UK edition sent a power packed message by photo-shopping men out of meeting rooms, leaving figures like Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton looking solitary rather than surrounded by men as the original photos showed. Of course, we can point the irony when a fashion magazine like Elle calls for photoshopping men out. But the images are powerful.

I am not counting the women bankers. The go-to person amongst bankers seemed to be Naina Lal Kidwai of HSBC. Chanda Kochchar was much less ubiquitous. Missing from action was Shikha Sharma and it could have something to do with the enormous amount of Axis bank fraud cases that have come to light during demonetisation. But the CMD of the biggest bank, SBI’s Arundhati Bhattacharya was missing and so was Punjab National Bank’s Usha Anantasubramanian. Do public sector bankers need more clearances before talking to media or India’s 24X7 television media was too impatient to wait for the public sector bank chiefs? Or did the over-eager corporates, more interested in public relations’ exercise while pretending to give budget reactions, crowd them out?

In a country with leading global feminist economists (yes, men could be feminist economists too, but I am counting those inspiring women in this article), it is surprising how few of them were populating TV studios in the post-budget analysis programmes. Some of the economists who would have not just made great panellists for their erudition, perspective, but also would have done justice to the word ‘explainer’ and were sorely missed, were (in no particular order):

  1. Jayati Ghosh, a foremost development economist and public intellectual, not just in India but globally
  2. Utsa Patnaik, the last word on land holding size, small and marginal farmers’, rural wages
  3. Yamini Mishra, the gender budgeting expert leading the work not just in India and South Asia but also Asia Pacific
  4. Bina Agarwal, another heavyweight who has led and shaped the global thinking on feminisation of agriculture
  5. Ila Patnaik, now with National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, hosted a policy show of her own not so long ago, and was delightful in her analyses of demonetisation, not so long ago
  6. Renu Kohli, ex Reserve Bank of India, ex-International Monetary Fund
  7. Amita Shah, a leading name in agrarian and environmental economics

Also missing were leading female financial journalists, who are good with analyses, paper trails and have unearthed some of the biggest scams:

  1. Sucheta Dalal, who exposed the hawala Scam
  2. Ritu Sarin, the lead of Indian Express’s team investigating the Panama Papers, HSBC Money laundering and tax evasion

These are all women conversant in English and Hindi, but were missing from both English and Hindi channels.

So now that you know who were missing, for all the wrong reasons, sample the men who invaded our living rooms via our TV screens, because of whom we missed the feminist economists, financial journalists listed above even more acutely. This article discusses four English news channels because the author lost stamina after that.

NDTV 24X7 did a one up on Times Now’s Newshour as far as packing talking heads into a frame was concerned. But other than the ubiquitous banker, Naina Lal Kidwai, they did not seem to find any woman to add analyses and perspective to their programme. Vikram Chandra hosted a two-hour prime time show that featured Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and politicians Praful Patel, Babul Supriyo, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Anand Sharma, PN Vijay, Piyush Goyal, Amit Mitra and Yogendra Yadav. It featured the usual suspects from corporate spokies –Naushad Forbes, T Mohandas Pai, Amit Mishra, Vinayak Chatterjee (Confederate of Indian Industries Task Force on Railways). Breathless already? I lost count. There was one additional industry representative, who barely spoke whose name never featured on screen. Here’s the programme link with all its men (and Naina Lal Kidwai) and its male anchor.

Times Now had both Navika Kumar and Rahul Shivsankar holding fort. To give them company, were politicians Prithviraj Chouhan, Praful Patel, Nalin Kohli, Gaurav Bhatia; corporate bigwigs Naushad Forbes; economists Lord Meghnad Desai, Omkar Goswami and Dr Rajeev Kumar. Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad made the mandatory special appearance with his pre-drafted statement while pretending to be in conversation and taking questions. Watch the whole show if you have the energy here.

India Today had Rajdeep Sardesai running the show, with…? You guessed it! Ravi Shankar Prasad and his pre-drafted statement were there. This was followed by Amit Mitra and a panel of men and boys from corporate world and conservative economics. Sucheta Dalal tweeted the stunning lack of women panelists on Sardesai’s show when so many Indian banks were headed by women and on cue, Sardesai got, predictably enough, Kidwai! Here is first half of the show, which also shows the all-male studio panelists.

CNN News 18 was the saving grace. At 8.45pm, it had a phone-in programme on taxation implications in the Budget 2017 that had a two-member panel along with Karma Paljor, answering questions from members of the audience and decoding the budget too. It had Arvind Srivats of Price Waterhouse Coopers and Tapti Ghosh of Deloitte. It was relief not to see the same old same old talking heads and Ravi Shankar Prasad. To see the full show, click  here.

Now, back to the Elle Feminism Campaign film, if we photoshop all the male talking heads, who would the anchors be left with? So why exactly is it so? Is it because the subject being discussed is the dismal and sexist science called economics? This author has hosted an entire series on global development summits without a single all male panel. In fact, not having an all male panel was one of the programming principles. The opening episode, of “Global Summits: Where are we going?” was on Financing for Development Summit in Addis Ababa (on global taxation regulation and development budgets) had equal representation of male and female experts and the programme was richer for the same. The entire series was done on a shoestring budget. But the principle of no-manels was important enough to read up/research for female experts and get them on the show.

If we could do it, then why do leading TV channels, with the kind of resources they have, why do we have to suffer the same old, same old male talking heads?

 The author can be reached at biraj_swain@hotmail.com

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