We have been carpet-bombed with coverage of the prime minister’s visit to Israel, including the little tidbits which are usually restricted to the society pages. The cute stuff seems to have become par for the course with foreign correspondents. On Narendra Modi’s last outing Stateside, there was that delightful little story of how alert national security advisor Ajit Doval leapt into action to salvage the prime ministerial notes, when they were blown away by the wind. In the course of the Israel visit, much disappointment has also been voiced about the PM’s resolute avoidance of Palestine, and India’s determination to not think very much about Zionism’s terror campaigns in the past, like the bombing of the King David Hotel.
We have also followed celebratory coverage of the visit in the Israeli press, it was not of universal occurrence. The Jerusalem Post led with an article titled Namaste Modi and another which suggested that the visit marks, apart from 25 years of diplomatic ties, “Israel’s coming of age as a nation”. But the resolutely left-wing Haaretz found no room on its front page for the visit. It led the issue of the day with Assad’s cease-fire in southern Syria, a case of arson at the Church of Loaves and Fishes, an antibiotic shortage, the fortunes of Labor and shrinking bird habitats.
It’s been a week to watch the print media rather than the idiot box, and it is interesting to find that Volvo’s abjuration of gasoline engines was highlighted days earlier by Foreign Policy than the mainstream press. The Swedish carmaker, now in Chinese hands, will produce only electric cars and hybrids from 2019. From India’s perspective, the paper to read these days is Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Diplomatic channels have piped some uncharacteristically blunt talk between Delhi and Beijing on the military standoff at the trijunction of the Chicken’s Neck, generally asking if 1962 is identical with 2017 or not, and if the universe changes with the passage of time, or doesn’t. Such questions about entropy and the structure of time are best left to quantum physicists and cosmologists, rather than mere politicians, and it is more useful to ask about tactics. Strongly nationalist and pro-government, Global Times leaves nothing to the imagination.
“India is humiliating the civilisation of the 20th century. The Chinese public is infuriated by India’s provocation… We firmly believe that the face-off in the Donglang areawill end up with the Indian troops in retreat. The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity, or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers.” Of course, this is not necessarily indicative of what the party really thinks, but is what it really, really wants Indian readers to believe. Global Times values editorial bombast (Foreign Policy once referred to it as “China’s Fox News”, in an article by Christina Larson) and exists to draw international media attention to issues in which China has an interest. They have only threatened to administer a kick to Indians. In an earlier instance, they gained coverage in Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan, apart from international wire services, by threatening cannon fire over the issue of detained fishing boats.
Their story about the India-China faceoff has travelled well and off the air, Indian TV professionals are voicing their disgust about Global Times’ arrant jingoism. It’s as if their territory has been stepped on by foreigners in hob-nailed boots. Indian news TV cannot presume to enjoy a global monopoly on high-decibel nationalism, which has become its theme music. Recently, we saw Modi walking off the stage, after a speech on GST at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, to the strains of an imperial march from Star Wars, the leitmotif of Darth Vader. Astonishing but true: some unsung chartered account involved in the planning of the show has a taste for subversive black humour. Who would have ever suspected?
And who could have imagined that the Saudi demand to close down Al Jazeera would go largely unchallenged by the world’s media? The channel is indeed promoted by the royal family of Qatar but it is professionally edited and, unlike state-backed ventures like Global Times, not given to bombast and controversy. Besides, it covers regions like Africa and the Middle East with a depth that Western broadcast media is not interested in. It adds something substantial to the media stream, and the threat to it should not be taken lightly.
A multiplicity of voices makes a difference. Amidst the very loud coverage of the communal violence in Bashirhat, West Bengal, over an apparently blasphemous Facebook post, the Bengali channel Kolkata24x7 reveals that its author, the class 11 student, was saved from a Muslim lynch mob by two Muslim neighbours. The national channels did not seem to have the story. A diversity of reporting, whether in rural Bengal or the Middle East, is useful for public understanding.