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Friday, Dec 13, 2019

Dateline London: The other side of reporting UK for India

Since independence, the flow of news from London to India has been regular and institutionalised, with leading newspapers and news agencies posting correspondents.

world Updated: Aug 16, 2017 20:01 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times, London
One of the secret documents of the British government on the Indian Journalists Association (IJA) that was recently declassified by the National Archives.
One of the secret documents of the British government on the Indian Journalists Association (IJA) that was recently declassified by the National Archives.(HT Photo)

The relationship between the State and journalism in democratic societies has been a long established theme in media research. Beginning with the idea of the news media as the “fourth estate” in Edmund Burke’s famous words, to Jurgen Habermas’ conception of the “public sphere”, to the discourse of “manufacturing consent” by Edward S Herman and Noam Chomsky, to Benedict Anderson’s link between newspapers and nationalism – the many layers of interaction between the State and journalism have been closely examined.

At its most basic, the relationship is a daily contest of whose version of reality gets more space in the news media, whose perspectives prevail, and who gets to set the public agenda. Issues such as propaganda and spin are central to examining the relationship.

The contours of the contest, however, change in the case of foreign correspondence; here, the focus is on how journalists report a host country to their home country; how national interests come into play; how the host country exerts to ensure that the right message is received in the foreign country. London has been one of the capitals of international news, host to a large number of journalists from all over the globe. London-based correspondents have been reporting for Indian newspapers long before independence; in fact, one of the earliest “despatches” from London appeared in James Silk Buckingham’s Calcutta Journal in the early nineteenth century. Nearer independence in 1947, several freedom fighters based in London wrote for the nationalist press back home.

Since independence, the flow of news from London to India has been regular and institutionalised, with leading newspapers and news agencies posting correspondents; they often functioned under the banner of the Indian Journalists Association (IJA). The new post-1947 situation between India and Britain also led the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to keep a close tab on Indian journalists’ output. Steeped in the culture of “file and forget”, journalists rarely seek to know or are given feedback how their output has been received in official circles in London. Thanks to Britain’s long cherished and envied value of freedom of expression, few, if any, questions are raised officially to journalists whose output may or may not uphold the national interest from London’s perspective.

However, no official feedback does not mean the journalistic output is not analysed, discussed and commented upon within the layers of the FCO and the British high commission in New Delhi. A rare example of this official discourse was made available in a declassified file in July by the National Archives. Titled “Coverage of UK by journalists from India”, the file dated 1985 includes communication between the high commission and FCO in London, between officials based in London and New Delhi, analyses of Indian publications, profiles of journalists, IJA’s invitations, drafts of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s responses to a questionnaire by Press Trust of India before a visit by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and significant clippings from Indian newspapers.

Contents of the file provide an insight into how the State views and deals with the output of foreign correspondents based in London. It is from 1985, but given the officials’ forensic analyses and frank remarks about journalists at the time, the discourse can be expected to have become more sophisticated over the years. However, how officials view the current lot of Indian journalists or their output will not be declassified for another 20 years.

Two examples from the file (dated January 1 to December 31, 1985) are indicative of the close engagement of the State with journalists and journalism. One relates to the visit of Pritish Nandy, the then editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, and his article published after the visit; and the reporting of the then London-based correspondent of The Times of India, KN Malik. It was a time of much tension between New Delhi and London on individuals and developments in Britain related to Khalistan and Jammu and Kashmir. New Delhi resented anti-India forces being allowed to operate freely in Britain. Birmingham-based Indian diplomat Ravindra Mhatre was killed in 1984, while Khalistan leader Jagjit Singh Chauhan was interviewed on BBC and held press conferences, raising hackles in New Delhi.

A note from the high commission dated November 1985 set out Nandy’s age and profile, with the comment that he would base most of his writing after the visit on interviews with the Sikh and Kashmiri communities, but recommended he be given an FCO briefing in London. NE Cole of the South Asia Department wrote on November 5: “He (Nandy) is clearly not a newcomer to the Sikh terrorist scene. We could not reasonably make it a condition of our seeing Mr Nandy that he should not seek to interview Khalistani and Kashmiri extremists in this country but at the same time it is important that he gets the facts right about the recent arrests. I suggest you make it clear to him that all of our information is given unattributably.”

After the briefing, a note was sent to the high commission in New Delhi on November 15: “Nandy took no notes. But as the discussion developed he made clear that he had little patience with the GOI’s position on the Sikh problem generally...In this context he also seemed sympathetic to our position, recognising that we could only act as far as the law permitted in curbing acts by Sikh extremists which would be offensive to the Indians. Our discussion with Nandy was therefore amicable and he seemed very well disposed”.

British high commissioner Robert Wade-Gery wrote on November 19: “Nandy is entitled to seek our views and we are entitled to brief him. Nandy is not the sort of person who we would expect to make a point of giving the Indian high commission a read-out of FCO views. Even if he does divulge the fact of the briefing, we doubt whether the IHC or MEA would infer that he had visited Chauhan at our suggestion. If, of course, there were any suggestion to the contrary we could rebut it.”

After Nandy’s piece was published, RP Nash wrote from New Delhi to TC Wood in London on December 20, with a detailed description of the Weekly’s cover and contents: “Pritish Nandy’s article ‘The terror network’ finally appeared in the Illustrated Weekly on 15 December...The predicament of the British government is not unfairly portrayed, but various measures taken by British law enforcement agencies to apprehend individual activists (eg. the detentions in the run-up to the Rajiv visit) are interpreted in essentially PR terms (betraying once again a fundamental failure to understand how things work in Britain). Though sensationalist and undoubtedly unhelpful in its overall presentation, Nandy’s article contains no glaring inaccuracies or distortions which might suggest that the decision to brief him was wrong. Indeed, the article might have been worse had we not agreed to see Nandy. But the overall effect will be (A) to confirm the impression in Indian minds that Britain could be doing more: (B) to suggest that the problem posed by Kashmiri/Sikh extremists abroad may in fact be more serious that previously supposed: (C) to give credence to the view that extremist/terrorist sympathies are not, as frequently contended by HMG, confined to a tiny radical fringe.”

Compared to Nandy, Malik often attracted frank and robust remarks. On April 12, MA Runacres informed London of his news report in The Times of India on India-UK relations and Sikh extremists. The report is termed “another particularly objectionable article by KN Malik” as well as “very entertaining reading”. The official concludes his note with a comment of what he saw as a “tradition” of reporting by Indian journalists based in London; the perception was that the Indian news media had an anti-British bias.

He wrote: “It is depressing that not only that Malik should be taking a negative line, but also that he should be getting facts wrong, especially as we understand that the Indian high commission is his major, if not his only, source. Of course this sort of article is in quite a tradition of Indian reporting from London and Malik would be clearly difficult to deflect from his policy of painting the Indo-British relationship in gloomy colours, but anything which could be done to set him right on a few points would be beneficial, particularly as his articles are given quite some prominence.”

Another New Delhi-based official, RC Samuel, took the issue further, in a note to London on May 10: “We were glad to know you had tackled Malik and hope it will help to restrain his wilder allegations…Your decision on regular briefings is also welcome – they lapsed earlier partly, I think, because they proved to be unproductive. But some of the personalities will have changed since then and it would be well worth trying to get into a fruitful dialogue with the present generation of Indian journalists. Since their raison d’etre is to come up with stories that will get printed, it may of course be unrealistic to discourage them from reporting anything they regard as newsworthy. But I expect you will be making the point to them that inflated coverage of minor incidents or Sikh extremist statements who no-one else in the UK would want to pay attention to only exacerbates the problem so far as the Indian public is concerned.”

Declassified files such as the 1985 one have rarely been used in media research, even though several academic journals in Britain, United States and elsewhere focus on various aspects of journalism. The issue of how a host country deals with reporting of its affairs by foreign journalists to their home country can enrich research into foreign correspondence, particularly in relation to countries as close to each other as India and the United Kingdom.

(This article appeared in the 70th anniversary issue of the Indian Journalists Association (Europe), which was established in London on May 29, 1947.)