A common media adage is that bad news is good news and good news is no news. And the worse bad news get reported, the bigger the headlines. And the higher the standing of the reporter who gets respected for telling it like it is. This is generally true of all correspondents, local or foreign. But it is especially true of foreign correspondents. They have to show that they have not been bought over by the country to which they have been assigned and are brave and truthful to the extent of standing up to the local authorities. Some foreign correspondents have short tenures of perhaps three years at a stretch.
Some, especially those in Delhi, are beguiled by the cheap services they get and manage to get longer assignments. Very few, especially those dispatched to South Asia, show at least some understanding of the culture and ethos of the countries they cover, but they are rare birds. In the fifties?and even since then?in Delhi a foreign correspondent was largely associated with news agencies or dailies from Britain, Europe and the United States. One seldom heard of a correspondent, if there was any, from Japan, China. Egypt, Turkey, Nigeria or even South Africa. These countries probably couldn'tcare less about what was happening in South Asia, unless a whole ruling was massacred, or a linguistic minority sought to set up its own state, as in Sri Lanka. In 1984 Bhopal made the headlines because of Union Carbide plant exploded, creating untold havoc and deaths. The blame, of course, was laid at the doors of politicians in India who were corrupt. Nothing in India worked.
One US correspondent, writing in Wall Street Journal in September 1986 noted that telephones in India did not function. According to him ?most Indian telephone exchanges aren'tmuch more than masses of wires.? In July 1975, there must have been wholesome glee among US correspondents, one of whom, writing for the Washington Post, noting the Emergency that had been suddenly imposed said it only showed that ?India was little more than a dictatorship, hardly different from the many third world countries whom the Indians had looked down upon with pity and contempt?. Indeed, at one stage, at the bidding of the Nixon Administration, one staunch anti-India correspondent was dispatched by a prominent newspaper just to write the most damning reports on India. He finally had to be asked to leave. The Anglo-American newspapers had little respect for India. In the fifties, India was the land of holy men sleeping on beds on nail, leprous beggars seeking alms by the roadside, cows wandering on the streets, and poverty and starvation everywhere. In March 1951, Reuters probably couldn'tfind anything worthwhile to write about, except that India was becoming a hunter'sparadise for Americans who want to shoot tigers. In October 1959, an article in The Atlantic tried to convince its readers that Indians were illiterate, (only 18 per cent of the people could read and write) people live in the age of the bullock cart, there is only one phone for every 1,000 people and travelling was miserable because in a train ?the smell of humanity is re-inforced by the odour of the inadequate and seldom-cleaned toilet, and administration was so poor that ?throughout India, the government moves so slowly that it is not uncommon for an official to die before his pension is sanctioned and paid.?
When Nehru died, The Daily Herald'scorrespondent dismissed him as ?melancholy, irascible, intolerant of lesser men and to the very and incapable of delegating responsibility?. In December 1966, the Swiss Paper Neue Zuercher Zeting wrote of the situation in Bihar where ?ration cards, which Patna claims to have distributed, don't exist?. In June 1987 The Wall Street Journal wrote a most damning indictment of Reliance and the Ambanis; the story has to be read to be believed. In 1988, the correspondent of the London-based Financial Times writing about the Khalistan movement mentioned ?numerous deeply-felt regional and social rivalries, widening economic disparities which increase jealousy between communities, in additional to communal riots.? The New York Times correspondent writing for his paper reported how Indian forces resorted to torture of Kashmir is, whose loyalties were in doubt and how Indian soldiers of the Border Security Force robbed Kashmiri homes.
If one were to believe our friendly foreign correspondents from the US and Britain (and a few from western Europe) India is a damnable country where nothing good occurs and there is nothing commendable or decent to write about. Much of what was written, unfortunately was true and that only made matters worse. The book, say the compilers of this volume, is meant to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding, in 1958, of the Foreign Correspondents Association of South Asia (FCA), later to be re-named Foreign Correspondents? Club (FCC) in 1990-91. Apparently, of the total membership of around 400, there are over 200 foreign correspondents?a most frightening thought.
If all these two hundred men and women write stuff such as has been published in this volume, no wonder India commands so little respect abroad. The compilers concede that ?some articles may seem unduly critical of the people of the subcontinent but it is the duty of a journalist to question and to criticise, to expose corruption and mismanagement.? The excuse for negative and ill-conceived reporting is plain: ?What service would we be doing to the charmed by corrupt officials and ignore the people they are cheating?? Good question, but aren'tthese Indian correspondents ready and willing to take on that job? Do we require British and American correspondents to do our jobs for us?
The only consolation in this book is a farewell piece written by Robert Stimson of BBC in March 1949 which mentioned that ?as a rule, the Indians were most considerate, partly because they value formal good manners? and praised, especially, ?the quality of Indian friendship which, once given, is given unconditionally and for life?. Thank you, ole boy. It is nice to know that we are a civilised people. Hope-fully, in the years to come, as India gains in weight and prestige, our US and British journalists will come to realise that there is more in India to write about than levitating yogis, emaciated cows, leprous beggars and corrupt politicians. But perhaps, that is asking too much of an arrogant and ignorant race. Journalism may change, but do journalists?
(Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park New Delhi-110 017.)