Monday, April 14, 2008

The Hindu Death Spiral Watch: Tibet edition

K. Narayanan, the Hindu's news editor, has a thankless job, and he's getting busier by the month. After the Nandigram episode, it's Tibet's turn this time. To reiterate, this criticism is about the Hindu's news coverage, and not about its editorial stand. He states his case with admirable clarity:

I compared the reporting of the events in other Indian newspapers (English) and also The Guardian and the New York Times with that in The Hindu from March 15 to 19 and could not but note the wide gap which led to the readers’ protests. (The angles given to the stories and their display are not to be questioned; that is editorial privilege). Overall, these points struck me as noteworthy:

1. Reliance on Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency. Its reports should have been balanced by inputs from other news agencies, but their use was scanty and selective. No doubt they too would have had their angles and biases but that would have been another side of the picture. Why was The Guardian, otherwise used extensively, ignored (except for an eyewitness account which was not very informative)?

2. The Hindu’s perceptive correspondent in Beijing, Pallavi Aiyar, made no contribution, except to report Prime Minister Wen’s press conference.

3. The statements of the Chinese Prime Minister and the Chinese envoy in Delhi were fully reported. The Dalai Lama’s were truncated versions. Many readers noted that his remark on “cultural genocide” was edited out.

4. The most surprising feature was the total absence of Tibet in the “Letters to the Editor column” — in which otherwise comments appear even as events are unfolding and continue for days. A few letters appeared after an article and an editorial were published and ceased abruptly.

The response from N. Ram, the Chief Editor, is noteworthy for its belligerence:

We have an arrangement with Xinhua. We have also used western agencies and PTI. The violence reported and confirmed editorially was by Tibetan discontents, some hundreds of them. The Chinese authorities seemed unprepared at first but moved to stop the savagery in Lhasa and violence in some Tibetan areas. The riots were easily overcome. The violence in Lhasa, by every account, was by protestors, who included monks. No specific incident of violence by the police or paramilitary forces has been reported by any credible news source or eyewitnesses.

The comments in the column fail to look critically at the abundant editorialising in the guise of news. If the content in The Guardian, The New York Times, and Western news agencies is analysed, the problems of professional news reporting on the Tibet developments can be better appreciated. They were full of editorial judgments and loaded phrases and were often inaccurate (such as death toll). Their websites published wrong photographs or photographs with wrong captions. The Dalai Lama’s statements were edited because he is a separatist and tended to justify the savage and murderous riots in Lhasa. Not many letters were received other than what we published.

Nobody asked Pallavi Aiyar not to report in The Hindu on Tibet. She has been on leave during the relevant period.

Guru wonders if it's time to start a series on the Hindu Death Spiral Watch. I think it is.

See also Bhaskar's post.


  1. Anonymous said...

    And all Ms. Aiyar finds interesting in Beijing is the newly opened Indian tourism office and the trickle of Chinese tourists to India.

  2. Rahul Basu said...

    Mr Narayanan mentions my letter to him regarding the Hindu coverage of the Tibet issue. My letter was sent on 18 March -- almost a month ago. Anyway, for what it is worth, here is the text of the letter I sent to the Readers' Editor:

    Dear Mr Narayanan

    It is clear that the Hindu Editorial Board has learned nothing from the
    disastrously biased coverage of Nandigram which came under so much
    criticism. (You will perhaps recall that I, along with 20 other
    academics had written about the coverage). On Monday 17th March, the
    Hindu ran a headline saying 'Lhasa returns to normality' when the
    situation on the ground was anything but. Virtually every other
    newspaper - the New York Times, The Guardian (both of which contribute
    many articles to the Hindu) had headlines talking of the worsening
    situation and the Chinese leadership's heavy handed attempts to
    stifle protests. So did almost every other newspaper in India.

    The Hindu on the other hand

    1. dutifully quotes the official Xinhua Chinese news agency
    2. dutifully quotes the Chinese envoy's comments about the
    incidents and the Dalai Lama
    3. takes only brief extracts from PTI and Reuters to give the
    news item a semblance of balance.

    There is no attempt to give any representation to the Tibetan viewpoint,
    except a quote from the Dalai Lama saying the Olympics should be held in
    China. Reprinting any article from either the NYT or the Guardian would
    have been enough to give both sides of the issue.

    Most of us have long given up any hope of the Hindu not taking a
    partisan view when the Communist party either in India or elsewhere is
    concerned. However there is a crucial difference between editorial
    policy and news reportage. I may not agree with, but would defend the
    Hindu Editorial Board's tilt towards the left, as a policy matter of the
    newspaper. However, news reportage must be fair and balanced (and also
    seen to be so). In this, the Hindu practises, to put none too fine a
    point to it, convenient self censorship
    to cover up any news item that shows the Communist Party, whether here
    or in China, in a poor light. I believe this is dishonest in that it
    only releases one side of a story, when it suits the newspaper to do so.
    After all, the newspaper is always free to present its viewpoint in the
    Editorial columns.

    What is even more mystifying is that the Hindu happens to have its own
    reporter Pallavi Iyer in China. Her articles about daily life in China
    as the economy liberalises are well written, balanced and informative.
    Why is it that no first hand news is forthcoming from this source? Is it
    because that would be too inconvenient for the Hindu Editorial Board to
    allow its appearance in the newspaper?

    Best regards

    Rahul Basu

  3. Anant said...

    Rahul: way to go! I saw Narayanan's reference to your letter.


  4. Ludwig said...

    About time. Thanks for starting this. It's minor, but I submit this to offer, mainly for archival purposes. It was front page "news" in the Hyderabad edition last June.

    Have since confirmed from an Israeli academic historian who specializes in Telugu, Tamizh, Sanskrit etc, that it's all balderdash.