British newspaper report low-quality journalism on India is a case study: All India Press and Media Council
British newspaper report low-quality journalism on India is a case study: All India Press and Media Council

British newspaper’s report on India is a case study in low-quality journalism where objectivity, editorial consistency, and adherence to facts have given way to ignorance, prejudice and a palimpsest of lies

A recent article in the London-based Guardian newspaper on Narendra Modi’s electoral chances in the upcoming general elections has caught quite a few eyeballs in India. Truth to tell, neither the topic nor the content is surprising. Western media’s interest in India is on an upswing. The large, English-speaking, digitally savvy readership in India presents a desperate growth opportunity for struggling global media outlets. They badly need the Indian market to remain in business.

Not many studies have been done in this space but a significant one appeared in The Communicator, a peer-reviewed quarterly of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications (IIMC). In its October-December 2021 issue, the journal presented a bird’s eye view of how global media reports on India — their business model, motivations and preferred narratives.

Written by analyst Amol Parth who scrutinized over 3000 India-related articles in a clutch of western outlets including The New York Times, Washington Post, BBC and Guardian, the report titled ‘An Analysis of Global Media Coverage of Events in India’ points out how profitable it is for foreign media to run negative narratives on India based on sensationalism, prejudice, rank disinformation and reinforcing of cultural stereotypes.

All they need to do is provoke Indians through outrageous headlines, mock their democratic choices, indulge in lurid insensitivity such as publishing graphic images of burning pyres — a grotesque violation of privacy and denial of dignity to the dead, hammer at perceived fault lines, or run fake stories of minority persecution by ‘Hindu nationalist government’, and the money will come chiming in.

The report points out that “between March 2019 and March 2021, The New York Times witnessed a growth of 22% in the Indian market, while its readership declined globally by 8%.” During the same period, Time magazine witnessed an almost 50 per cent growth in India while its global market went down by 31 per cent, Wall Street Journal’s India revenue doubled that of its global tally, the BBC grew by a staggering 173 per cent, five times of its global growth, while only Guardian’s India revenue posted a marginal decline.

Clearly, Guardian is out to correct this anomaly.

The British newspaper is focusing all its attention on India and running the time-tested template with full gusto. In its article published on 31 December, titled “BJP win in India’s 2024 general election ‘almost an inevitability’”, author Hannah Ellis-Petersen doesn’t hold back on doomsday prophecies, specious narratives, or fake news, pulling the already declining bar several notches down on low-quality journalism where objectivity, editorial consistency, and adherence to facts have given way to ignorance, prejudice and a palimpsest of lies.

While prophesizing a victory for the Modi-led BJP, a possibility that seems to have caused the newspaper deep anxiety, the article ticks all the boxes — contempt for Indians and their electoral choices, hateful rhetoric, shocking unfamiliarity with even the basic tenets of India’s domestic politics and economic progress and an unbridled attempt to exploit the perceived Hindu-Muslim divide.

The article is a case study of fulsome gaslighting driven by a need to establish a political agenda. The sense of resignation and despondency in the article, starting with the title, suggests that Guardian (as a representative of foreign press in general) has almost given up all hopes of the Opposition putting up a fight and has decided to insert itself as a political actor into the mix, running a discourse based on blatant disinformation and an existential need to give its intended readership a slant that it expects to read and readily believe, no matter how far removed it is from reality. The slant is also tailored to provoke controversy among the vast majority of readers who may take umbrage at the disbalance and partiality on display, and the purpose of creating revenue would be served. It is a fail-safe strategy.

Before I go into the text of the Guardian’s article, it may be worth pointing out the results of a recent survey among the British Indian and Hindu community which have pointed out that the community is regularly misrepresented by British media which still looks at Indians from a classist, racist and colonial lens.

Times of India quotes results of the nationwide survey in the UK, carried out among 2,061 respondents, to report that “91% of British Indians and Hindus said that reporting on India in the British media is not balanced, 89% said they feel the UK media lacks impartiality when it comes to reporting on matters pertaining to Hindus.”

The survey found that the BBC is particularly distrusted, with 91 per cent participants singling it out as “the most unreliable source of information concerning India” and “91% found it the most biased against Hindus, followed by the Guardian. Both these media outlets have the highest number of complaints raised against them by the Hindu and Indian communities.”

The results do not leave much room for explanation. The colonial mindset through which the British media perceives Indians, Hindus, and as it turns out even British Indians who follow the Hindu faith, is reflected in their persistent focus on “cows, curry and caste”, as pointed out in the survey.

This same derogatory framework explains the Guardian’s coverage of India, where the prejudice is additionally accompanied by a poor understanding of the formidable complexities of Indian polity and not even a passing interest in understanding the nuances.

The report is based wholly on hearsay, falsehoods, and hand-me-down wisdom typical of western journalists who rely on a curated cabal who share their ideological persuasion and inhabit the same circle. The resultant reports are incestuous exercises that reveal the Islamist fantasies of certain ‘analysts’ and the intellectual dishonesty of comprador elites and brown sahibs but predictably fall short in explaining the events happening in India.

Take, for instance, one sweeping generalization in the article which says Modi’s win in the upcoming elections is the most plausible outcome because “the prime minister’s popularity as a political strongman, alongside the BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda, continues to appeal to the large Hindu majority of the country, particularly in the populous Hindi belt of the north, resulting in the widespread persecution of Muslims.”

The report is chock full of such laughably phony narratives, yet for arguments’ sake let’s put to test the central claim that Modi’s popularity owes itself to “widespread persecution of Muslims”, which also paints the majority of Hindus in India as bigots.

It may interest the author to know that a June 2021 survey published by the US-based Pew Research Center found that “Indians generally see high levels of religious freedom in their country. Overwhelming majorities of people in each major religious group, as well as in the overall public, say they are “very free” to practice their religion.”

The Pew report on ‘Religious Freedom, Discrimination and Communal Relations in India’ goes on to find that “the vast majority of Indians say they are very free today to practice their religion (91%), and all of India’s major religious groups share this sentiment: Roughly nine-in-ten Buddhists (93%), Hindus (91%), Muslims (89%) and Christians (89%) say they are very free to practice their religion, as do 85% of Jains and 82% of Sikhs.”

Further, the survey observes that “most people in India do not see a lot of religious discrimination against any of the country’s six major religious groups”, and “no more than about one-quarter of the followers of any of the country’s major faiths say they face widespread discrimination.”

This doesn’t quite support the claim that “there is widespread persecution of Muslims”. In fact, the western media’s use of the term ‘Muslim’ as a homogenous monolithic block is itself problematic.

This doesn’t take into account that a vast majority of the community (around 85%) are ‘Pasmanda’ Muslims who are among the most deprived sections of the society They are more interested in socio-economic upliftment than the ‘Ashrafs’ (the upper castes) who claim to speak on behalf of the entire community, set aside issues that concern the former and are more likely to be at the forefront of identitarian politics.

The prime minister, however, has not only repeatedly highlighted the plight of the Pasmanda Muslim community but has also made it a policy decision to take the last mile benefits to this section of the population through a ‘whole-of-nation’ approach.

As Tariq Mansoor, former vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University writes in Indian Express, “Pasmanda Muslims are large-scale beneficiaries of welfare schemes of the Modi government such as Ujjwala Yojana, Mudra Yojana, etc.” He posits that the BJP’s engagement with the economically backward section “offers an opportunity for Pasmandas to renegotiate the terms of their engagement viz-a-viz Ashrafs. Firstly, it spotlights issues of welfare and socio-economic justice over identity issues. Secondly, it bolsters the Pasmanda demand for greater democratisation and inclusivity in Muslim representation. Thirdly, it provides a political alternative for Pasmandas to rejuvenate and organise themselves.”

The result of the BJP’s concerted efforts to address the neglected subgroup of Muslims is evident. In the urban local body elections in Uttar Pradesh held in May last year, 50 candidates emerged victorious among the 395 Muslim leaders fielded by the BJP, among which 80% were from the Pasmanda community. In 2017, only one of BJP’s roughly 180 candidates had won.

This clear shift in Muslim support in favour of the BJP is a result of the fact that Muslims are large-scale beneficiaries of Modi’s welfare schemes that are non-discriminatory, and more and more Muslims are figuring out that BJP’s ‘anti-Muslim’ is a fake construct.

A report in The Hindu quotes Gufran, a medical practitioner in Madanpura who supports the BJP, as saying, that more Muslims are gravitating towards the BJP because the threat of communal violence has decreased under the party’s rule in Uttar Pradesh.

In terms of statistics, as former Union minister for minority affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi had stated in 2022, while only 3 crore minority community students had been provided scholarships before 2014, the so-called ‘Hindu majoritarian’ BJP-led government has provided scholarships to 5.2 crore minority community students in the last 8 years, that has had a significant positive effect on school dropout rate among Muslim girls, reducing it from earlier rate of 70 per cent to less than 30 per cent.

The focus on uplifting the backward section of the Muslim community is evident as the former minister had pointed out in a press statement that the BJP government had constructed projects worth more than Rs 18,000 crore in backward areas, that include “schools, colleges, smart classrooms, ITIs, polytechnics, hostels, common service centres, skill development centres, hospitals, drinking water and sanitation facilities, sports facilities, Sadbhav Mandaps, Hunar Hubs, etc.”

Guardian’s misreporting and deliberate disinformation are also evident in another passage where it says, “whether the BJP will win the same sort of sweeping parliamentary majority it secured in 2019 is unclear. Its position in certain crucial states, such as Bihar and Maharashtra, is uncertain and the party’s weakness on economic problems, particularly jobs and inflation, could also affect voting.”

This beggars belief!

Even the most cursory familiarity with data would have told the Guardian journalist that the Modi government has been successful in bringing down inflation and unemployment rate and registering strong economic growth.

Let’s look at joblessness first. According to data released by the National Statistical Office (NSO) in October, “India’s unemployment rate fell to a six-year low of 3.2 per cent in the July-June 2022-23 period, down from 4.1 per cent in the same period the previous year”, while the unemployment rate declined in both rural and urban areas during the 2022-23 period to 2.4 per cent and 5.4 per cent, respectively, from 3.2 per cent and 6.3 per cent in the 2021-22 period.

India’s economy is expected to be the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2024 despite global headwinds. The macro-economic outlook will remain stable boosted by growing demand and ample forex reserves, according to analysts.

Morgan Stanley predicted in November last year that “India is set to surpass Japan and Germany to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2027 and will have the third-largest stock market by the end of this decade,” calling it a “a once-in-a-generation shift and an opportunity for investors and companies.”

India’s retail inflation fell to a five-month low in October, loans under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana’ has reached an all-time high of Rs 3 lakh crore in December 2023, registering 16 per cent year-on-year growth led by primarily female applicants, according to a report in BusinessLine, while a survey by the PHD Research Bureau, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and published in Financial Express, finds that under the Modi government “India has emerged as the most resilient economy among the top ten leading economies in the post-pandemic years of 2022, 2023.”

It is not clear how the Guardian report concluded that the BJP may suffer due to the “party’s weakness on economic problems”.

Be that as it may, Guardian’s, or for that matter western media’s reflexive use of cultural and racial tropes while reporting on India, the relentless vilification of India’s democratically elected government as ‘anti-minority’ and indirect casting of ‘bigotry’ slur against majority Hindus could well be a reflection of Europe’s collective guilt over the treatment they meted out to the Jewish people.

While the Holocaust is considered the darkest chapter in European history, in truth, as columnist Haviv Rettig Gur has written in The Times of Israel, far from being a standalone event under the Nazis, the Holocaust was “the successful culmination of six decades of fervent European efforts to rid the continent of its Jews”.

To quote from his piece, “The 20th century was already among the bloodiest periods in Jewish history before the start of the genocide, that includes the flight of millions of Jews out of Europe and the way those who remained were delivered into the Nazi embrace by Western immigration quotas. It is a version of the story that begins not in 1939 or 1941, but in 1880.”

Europe has washed stains of Jewish blood off its hands by blaming the genocide on Adolf Hitler as an aberration. In contrast, India, this ancient land that has sheltered the smallest of minorities for centuries, is routinely accused of “widespread persecution of minorities” by condescending western media who dwell in ignorant orthodoxies and mask their hatred of India in headline-grabbing catechisms.

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