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Monday, October 25, 2021

Has Beeb taken on more than it can chew?

BBC can be precious some times — ‘gunmen’ in Mumbai on 26/11; the whole world was calling them terrorists.

Written by Saubhik Chakrabarti |
May 2, 2009 12:12:41 am

BBC can be precious some times — ‘gunmen’ in Mumbai on 26/11; the whole world was calling them terrorists. BBC also,when covering India,goes through the interesting and inevitable struggle between its commitment to seriousness and the ‘wow this is a fascinating place with quirky stuff everywhere and we gotta show it’ impulse.

I should make it clear,for the purposes of what follows in this edition of the column,that there’s nothing wrong with this impulse. Broadcasters,indeed any news organisation,have their home market and their home instincts and it is natural these would get reflected in foreign coverage. In fact,BBC probably tries harder than most broadcasters to keep ‘home’ away from ‘away’ coverage.

Certainly,BBC on India is on average more nuanced than,say,most Indian broadcasters are on Pakistan. Pakistan for most Indian TV channels is simply a place where chaps BBC might call gunmen get up to dangerous stuff. It is certainly that,but even Pakistan’s problems are multidimensional. You would never guess that watching Indian news TV.

But guess what? BBC’s Indian election coverage looks a bit like Indian news TV. I base this assessment on the travels so far of BBC’s election train. The train itself was a great idea. Trust a British broadcaster to remember how wonderfully the railways catch the India story. Indian news TV has traveled in sleek buses and in politicians’ aircraft for these elections. BBC beat everyone fair and square with the train idea. Also super is BBC’s train route map on its web site.

However,the stories,bluntly put,are underwhelming. If you ignored the somewhat better basic communication skills of the BBC correspondent,you could place these reports in India’s English language news channels. The interview of the young student at the Haryana railway station where she said the BBC covers all walks of Indian life is pretty typical of the coverage so far. As was the session with first time voters in Mumbai. The BBC representative was sitting among the young voters; strong empathy was being signaled. This even reminded me of particular interviewing techniques seen on Indian news TV. The clip from the market in Ahmedabad,from Dharavi,from a voting booth — they all had the same attribute of being terribly thin as stories.

I say this conscious of the ‘home market/instinct’ factor. BBC has to explain why voters’ index fingers are inked. But BBC isn’t probably serving its serious core viewers very well by sticking a microphone in front of a Dharavi resident and letting him run out of words as he answers the ‘what do you want from this election’ question.

If I were a Brit with very little idea about India and switched to BBC for election coverage,I don’t think I would get to know much. What’s missing is what’s usually missing from news TV in India — perspective in reportage.

India,if you will pardon a cliché,really is a fascinating country,warts and all. Taking a train through it as it votes can produce good stories. BBC has done good stories on India. One recent example is its reportage on the economic downturn,when it traveled to areas hit by job losses and produced people stories that were smartly situated in the bigger picture. So,what happened with the election coverage?

Still,the Beeb’s election train has miles to go,so may be,there will be better stories.

For now,the only bit I loved came in the story about life inside the election train. Railway authorities have assigned security personnel for the BBC team. As the camera framed the cops,you could see one of them was in the middle of preparing his chewing tobacco. With a skill that only comes from practice,he smoothly put that activity in temporary abeyance.

Which Indian won’t relate to that?

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