What follows is a response, partly visceral, to NYT’s piece How To Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India by its India bureau chief Ellen Barry, this week.
It isn’t a personal attack on Ellen Barry. The piece is very well written and would hold for me as a sample of impactful writing, It is also not meant to be an emotive response charged with nationalistic pride, which is likely to condemn such critical reports about law and order, enforcement of law etc in India. Instead, this is about trying to understand power dynamics that come into affect when foreign correspondents take liberty to report in such critical undertone selectively and from only certain parts of the world. Where, one needs to ask, does this tone disappear when the same media outfits report from their own countries or from economic superpowers like the United States. Any chance that what happened in Charlottesville could have been reported in the same seemingly cold detail, daring and assertive in tone as the piece from India? My guess is – no! Of course, NYT wouldn’t let that get through when it is goes against powerful governments or when it steps on any of its benefactor’s feet (for instance, does anyone recall any criticism about billionaire Carlos Slim and majority stakeholder in NYT, published by NYT?). If they did report with uniform and impartial standards, Charlottesville event would look something like this. To clarify again, focus of this piece is international power relationships and role of media within the web of these relationships. It is not us vs. them even in the faintest implication.
This applies to foreign correspondents in India, particularly from influential media houses based in US and Europe, who live and operate under the impression that they represent free, fair and independent press and its values. This is self-delusion. Self-righteous groups of foreign correspondent tend to suffer this as a chronic ailment. If this was indeed true about their conduct, headline as this – How To Get Away With Murder in Small-Town India, or similar in its provocativeness should have emerged from several other parts of the world where the correspondent herself or their newspaper’s bureau is working from. Why, in this case didn’t we see such an allegedly bold reporting from Moscow when Ellen Barry was a correspondent there? Is it because there were no murders in small-town Russia? It would be laughable to suggest that.
It was interesting to see Barry’s tweet being shared so many times and Indian journalists hailing that as a fine piece of reporting from India. I ask them, will they ever be able to write a piece like this as a correspondent anywhere in Western Europe or US?
In short, a part of my argument is similar to what Barry reports as a quote from a conversation with the police constable, in the article –
“This is the trick that foreign countries like yours are playing,” he said. “You will write something. People will read what you write, and say, ‘This country will progress only after 100 years.’”
It must be acknowledged that Barry reports this in fairness. Also, that this is what Barry herself might end up doing even with all her good intentions. With NYT’s readership, does the author have any idea how this piece shapes opinion about India for its readers outside of the country, when, the same or much heinous acts are being committed in several different societies across the word, which, are not being reported for a variety of reasons. The erasure of such reports from other parts is what I allege as being unfair. Some journalists may pounce as soon as this argument is made, by arguing that a journalist’s job is to report stories and that is that. In my opinion, the job is half-done (and should be condemned), if it conveniently maintains silence when the same happens elsewhere in the world. What then, the media presents is an incomplete view of the world, to put it mildly.
Reading Barry’s piece doesn’t hurt my pride in being Indian. It frustrates me to see this variety of reporting only from a world where the correspondents can get away with it! An average citizen like the police constable that Barry speaks to, can see these dynamics, and understand them well too. Don’t take that for him being naive enough to tell you the truth, only because of your exceptional investigative journalism skills.
On a slightly different note, Binyawanga’s stunning piece How to Write About Africa comes to mind. Makes a remarkable read for what writing on Africa looks like and native authors’ view on it.