Why did newspapers black out coverage on crowd behaviour, pitch controversies, and politics?
In the good old days, when print was king, people got all their news from newspapers. Depending on your preoccupations or interests, you could start with page one, or turn to the back of the newspaper. Page one, as now, consisted of headline news – mostly politics, some business, disasters, wars, and sometimes sports, if an Indian team or sportsperson won a tournament.
The back page, then as now, was exclusively sports. No place for politics here. Or so you would think.
But there is politics in sports. That has always been the case. Especially, in the most popular of Indian sports, that is cricket. The difference today is that in the newspaper age, sports journalists also wrote about the politics in sports, about the politics behind team selection, the politics that resulted in certain people dominating certain sports. They also reported on tournaments and wrote about individual sportspersons. The sports pages had space for all of this.
Not any more, it appears. Although, I am one of those who still reads page one first when I pick up a newspaper, I am conscious of the changes in the way the world of sports is reported on today.
At no time has this been more evident than in the reporting on the recently concluded ICC Cricket World Cup, leading up to India’s loss to Australia in the finals on November 19 at the Narendra Modi Stadium in Ahmedabad.
Reporting on any sport in print has been compelled to change because people can now watch the sports events live as they happen. Readers look for nuance, for the back story, for something that was not obvious as you sat before your television screen and watched. And many of the excellent sports reporters in major Indian newspapers do provide the kind of copy that makes for good reading, even if you’re not passionate about that particular sport.
But during the recently concluded Cricket World Cup, it is intriguing that practically none of these sports reporters in mainstream newspapers, as far as I can tell, reported on crowd behaviour. We learned about this only from the international media covering the matches, from social media and from independent digital platforms that carried some critical articles.
The usual controversies about the choice of the pitch chosen for a particular fixture were also barely reported. Once again, it was the international press that picked this up, such as this report in Britain’s Daily Mail. And as for the politics around the Board of Control for Cricket in India, the richest and most powerful sporting body in the world, we have yet to read a more perceptive piece than this one by one of India’s best sports journalists, Sharda Ugra in Caravan magazine.
It was also Sharda Ugra who informed us on the curious matter of the politics behind the colours the Indian team would wear for fixtures. Apparently, there was talk of changing the colour to saffron or orange from blue as she writes in this article in The India Forum.
My short point about the coverage of sports in India’s mainstream newspapers is to ask whether it too has been infected by the self-censorship bug that has become the norm in other coverage? Why else would the unsporting behaviour of crowds at the Modi stadium, for instance, not be reported where ultra-nationalism seemed to overwhelm love for the sport to the point spectators would not applaud a batsman from the other side scoring a century, and senselessly booed the umpires when they were felicitated? Several reports in the international press referred to this such as The Guardian and this from an Australian website.
Since that Sunday, when most of India seemed to have been pushed into gloom barring those who don’t follow cricket, a minuscule minority I admit, the rescue of the 41 workers trapped in the Silkyara tunnel in Uttarakhand has provided some solace.
In fact, the country has been introduced to a new phrase: “rat-hole mining.” Most people who heard or read this term on the day of the rescue would not have known what it means. Since then, most newspapers have run explanatory articles that inform us about what this entails, including the dangers and the skill required.
There is little so far about what these men, who come from the most marginalised communities, in this case all Muslim or Dalit, are paid for this hazardous work. Rat-hole mining was banned by the National Green Tribunal in 2014 and then partially permitted in 2019. The abject poverty of the workers is evident from some of the reports such this in The Hindu, where one of them asks for a “pucca” house, and is then reprimanded by his mate for asking a favour of the government.
We must wait and see if the media follows up on this important story of rat-hole mining, of the lives of those who are engaged in it, and whether there are any regulations that apply to the kind of work they do and the hazards they face. The Telegraph, in its editorial on the lessons to be learned from the tunnel collapse, brings this out.
An equally relevant issue that the media must pursue is the environmental angle. The Silkyara tunnel, which is part of the Char Dham project of building wider roads in Uttarakhand to facilitate pilgrimage to Hindu holy sites, apparently did not get an environmental clearance as this editorial in Times of India points out. The region where such projects are taking place is ecologically extremely fragile. This has been pointed out repeatedly by several expert committees. Yet these warnings are not heeded.
It is incumbent on the media, that has been reporting continuously for 17 days as the 41 workers remained stuck in the collapsed tunnel, to now follow up on these infrastructure projects. Are they safe for the workers, and for the terrain in which they are being built? Have they received environmental clearance? If not, why not? Who is responsible for cutting corners?
One report suggested that even the plan to construct a rescue tunnel alongside the main one was not implemented in this case. Surely, there must be accountability. And if the government prefers to sit back and soak in the glory of the successful rescue, without holding an inquiry, it is the job of the media to build up the pressure so that this is done, and we don’t have to report on more such tunnel collapses.
This year has been marked by the terrible consequences of unchecked building of roads and other structures in fragile mountain environments in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Too many lives have been lost due to this push to build without pausing to consider environmental sustainability. While several independent digital platforms, despite limited resources, have been writing about this, it is time mainstream media woke up and assigned reporters to investigate, rather than waiting until tragedy strikes again.