Tough on Modi, soft on Mamata: How Telegraph covered Covid responses by two governments

There's a glaring contrast in the newspaper’s approaches to covering the central government and the Bengal government.

WrittenBy:Ayan Sharma
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The Telegraph has come to be a bit of a Twitter sensation — among those of the liberal persuasion at least — for its grandiose and punny frontpage headlines. And since it came to power at the Centre in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its leaders have been the prime receivers of the Kolkata-based newspaper’s frontpage derision. Recent headlines like “Howdy Cloudy”, “Kovind, not Covid” and “Rs 20000000000000” are just a few examples.

On the non-utilisation of funds collected under PM Cares to help migrants, the newspaper had a mocking cover story headline on May 4: “PM, rename it WHO Cares”. Calling it “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” the daily asked, “What happened to the celebrated PM Cares Fund?”

The enormous hardships of the poor migrant workers owing to the lockdown has been a constant source of outrage, and rightly so. It has been a theme of several editorial columns. (See here, here, here.)

Given the sharp digs at the Modi government in general and its handling of the Covid crisis in particular, one would expect the same piercing attitude everywhere. But cut to the Bengal government and the pitch goes down.

Parallel to the crisis of stranded migrants, India’s low testing rates was another pressing issue through much of April. Bengal, in particular, fared very poorly on this front, being among the bottom five of the states for long. Yet, the Telegraph’s coverage of the important lapses in the state was muted — shorn of high-voltage frontpage outcry and the characteristic sharp opinion. It continued to be vocal against the Centre, while probing the problem of low testing rates. In case of Mamata Banerjee’s government, however, the derision decreased and caution increased.

Here’s a look at the newspaper’s coverage from April 1 to May 10.

Not good enough for the front page

On April 2, the editorial column titled “Slip is Showing” called out the BJP government over low testing rates among other issues. It noted a “lax” attitude of the Centre in screening and home quarantining travellers from only 12 countries until March 17, by when “the disease had spread to 159 nations”. “The price of such slippages can be steep especially in a country where a rickety healthcare system has been unable to undertake extensive testing; according some estimates, India is testing only a handful of people per million citizens.”

Highlighting the issue again, the editorial column on April 15 accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of living in denial and for that, it argued, the country was paying a “steep price” as local transmission had already spread in at least 36 districts.

But in contrast, the newspaper’s concern and cynicism were missing when it came to Bengal, a state which recorded the third lowest testing rate in the country till the end of April. At 148.2 people per million population, the figure stood slightly above those recorded by the tiny states of Mizoram and Manipur. While the two Northeastern states have populations of around 13 lakh each, Bengal is one of the most densely populated states in India with nearly 10 crore people.

Even about a week ago, the state lagged far behind other large states such as Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. For example, till May 7, when Bengal crossed a total of 30,000 tests, Andhra Pradesh had completed around 1.5 lakh tests.

Such a dismal state of affairs made it a fit case to draw ire from the Telegraph. If the idea is to speak truth to power, it would be fair to expect the daily to serve a critical reminder to the Bengal government, if not launch a scathing attack. Yet, over the last month and a half, not a single editorial column broached the alarming development. When the daily touched the subject in a report or two, the approach was subdued, unlike its usual pitch on critical issues.

For example, let’s look at a report on April 15 titled “Covid-19 kits plenty, tests few in state”. The report highlighted that out of 7,500 testing kits available in five state-run laboratories in Bengal, just over 3,000 had been utilised till then. This evidently showed the need for a much better utilisation of kits and ramping up of testing. But, careful with words, these points were conveyed through quotes of “experts". The reporter did not make the observations.

A similar report appeared on April 20, headlined “Tests yet to reach optimum level”. Citing government officials and statistics from some testing centres, the report noted the following: some doctors were not following the ICMR testing protocols at times and many patients were not reporting symptoms in fear of being quarantined. Continuing the pattern, there was barely any comment or observation from the reporters themselves.

Such instances surely bear standards of objective reporting but the Telegraph’s love for punchy, sarcastic nudges at Modi’s government makes it an oddity.

More importantly, these reports did not receive any frontpage coverage. The reports on Bengal appeared on the eighth page, Metro, and the headlines lacked the trademark scoff. There was one frontpage report on April 19 that talked about the low testing rate. But the attention was not on Bengal alone as the figures for neighbouring Bihar and Odisha were also pointed to.

Used to chewing out Modi every now and then, the newspaper, however, not once took a direct swipe at Banerjee, also the health minister of Bengal, over the questionable numbers.

Response to Bengal's bungling

The low testing rate was not the only allegation against Banerjee’s government in the past one month. Around mid-April, a major controversy erupted when documents showed the testing date of a patient one day after his death. A man named Nepal Barman, suspected of having Covid-19, died on April 12 at the Malda Medical College and Hospital and was cremated the same day. However, as former Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP Mohammad Salim pointed out on Twitter, Barman’s test result mentioned that the sample was collected on April 13. The result — Covid negative — naturally raised suspicion because of the inconsistency of dates and Salim accused the “deplorable” Bengal government” of “hiding the Covid-19 cases in the state”.

This incident was reflective of a larger development unfolding in the state. Throughout April, the opposition — BJP, Left parties, and the Congress — accused the government of suppressing data related to Covid-19.

For example, on April 25, several state leaders of the BJP held a video press conference and accused the government, among other things, of “hiding” the seriousness of the crisis by “fudging” figures.

Politics aside, the state government’s handling of Covid-19 data did provide fodder to such allegations. On the day of the BJP’s presser, a duty roster for medical officers of the Murshidabad Medical College created another storm. The roster, dated April 25 and signed by the medical superintendent cum vice principal Dr Debdas Saha, stated, “In case of Covid-positive – no mention of Covid in D/C”, where D/C stands for death certificate. The roster also mentioned that “death certificate cause will be usual cause”.

Trinamool Congress Rajya Sabha MP Santanu Sen, who is also the national president of the Indian Medical Association, told the local media that the April 25 roster of the Murshidabad Medical College had a typographical error that was rectified the following day.

However, when on April 29, the state health department issued an order transferring Saha to North Bengal Medical College and Hospital, suspicions arose.

There is also the state government’s controversial death audit committee. The committee, formed on April 3, was empowered to certify whether a patient died owing to coronavirus or comorbidities. This smacks of a tool to suppress Covid-19 related data, especially the number of deaths, as a good number of fatalities were presented separately as due to comorbidities, despite testing positive for coronavirus.

Following a month-long criticism, the state government finally did away with the practice in the first week of May. The government altered the committee’s brief asking it not to certify whether a patient had died due to coronavirus or an existing ailment. A senior member of the committee told NDTV that the doctors treating Covid patients would now certify whether they had died of the viral disease or any other concurrent illness.

Telegraph to the rescue

A range of allegations over Covid data cover-up rocked Bengal for a whole month. Yet, the Telegraph, one of the most-read newspapers in the state, had a rather cold response to it. While the newspaper reported on the testing issue judiciously, it almost chose to stay away from critically writing on data mismanagement. No editorial column questioned the government about the serious allegations. Once in a while when it touched the issue in a report, it appeared to be echoing the government’s explanation rather than probing it.

To give an example, the April 25 issue carried a report on the front page: “Bengal addresses criticism”. The report began with chief secretary Rajiva Sinha’s explanation about how the audit committee decided on deaths from Covid-19. It then mentioned some of the directives he had given to private hospitals. Coming to the controversy, it simply wrote: “This is the first time the Bengal government is citing comprehensive numbers to the audit committee and furnishing an explanation on the formation of such a panel, a decision that has been criticised by the Opposition.” Citing Sinha, it again went on to explain the committee’s necessity, how it worked and who all comprised it.

Again, when the government skipped the daily press briefings for three consecutive days — May 1, 2 and 3 — the newspaper’s response seemed not one of disappointment, but of understanding. Following the presser on May 4, the next day’s Telegraph covered the development elaborating on the government’s version. “Sinha clears air on figures”. The report on the 6th page stated: “The Mamata Banerjee government on Monday cleared the air over Covid-19 figures, explaining problems which had caused confusion and assuring that they had been solved.” The remaining part was dedicated to Sinha, his description of the “problems” and that they were not “deliberate”.

Now, compare these with a report by the newspaper on alleged data suppression by the Centre. On April 3, the newspaper carried a frontpage story with the headline: “Health ministry miserly with key information”.

The report pointed out that data was not available on certain crucial aspects such as the numbers and locations of Covid hotspots in the country and numbers of critical care beds, ventilators, masks and PPEs at state and district levels. The lack of such information would hamper the country’s response to the outbreak, the report said, further highlighting the gaps in the Centre’s information strategy. The probing nature of the report could be gauged from the lead paragraph: “The union health ministry has often claimed credit for the country’s early countermeasures against the coronavirus but has held back key quantitative data that health experts say could provide insights into the nation’s state of preparedness and outbreak patterns.”

The passion and keenness of the inquiry is appreciable as it concerns important information about India’s Covid preparedness. But one can only wonder how it vanished when similar concerns surrounded West Bengal. As if to make up for the silence, the newspaper got Swapan Dasgupta, a BJP Rajya Sabha member and Trinamool detractor, to write an opinion piece on April 30 criticising Banerjee’s handling of the Covid situation. It would have been better for the newspaper to come up with a critique of their own, just as they do of the Modi government every now and then.

As the focus shifts from Delhi to Kolkata, the Telegraph’s familiar razor-sharp editorial line also shifts gears. Cynical headlines give way to dispassionate one-liners, personal potshots at leaders go out of the window and the hard-hitting texture of the reports swiftly softens. For the reader, the contrast shows a duality of principle and insincerity to question the powerful anywhere and everywhere. More so when you contrast this to newspapers like the Ahmedabad Mirror that has aggressively called out the state government on the dismal state of affairs in Gujarat.


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