Et tu, Indian Express?

04 Jan,2022

 

 

By Ranjona Banerji

 

Ranjona BanerjiHere we are with the first column of 2022 and I thought it would be all about lists, general outrage, what to look forward to, plus my daft bits of advice and dreams of better journalism.

 

Well, ha-ha to that!

 

Instead, we’re in one more fine mess. So, let’s just jump straight to it!

 

The Indian Express’s position in the world of Indian journalism is a unique one. Its reputation is not just of an anti-establishment newspaper; it is of a newspaper that was willing to invest in investigative journalism and focused, comprehensive reportage. A journalists’ newspaper, we called it.

 

But are we looking a bit tattered at the edges now? Money is something the Express never had a lot of. Chutzpah and courage, plenty. Money though is apparently of bigger concern now than before. Because the current cosiness between the UP Government and the Indian Express has made a mockery of the Express’s pompous lie of “journalism of courage”.

 

The front page of the newspaper carried an ad from UP which suggested through its photographs that before the Yogi Adityanath-run government came to power in 2017, Indian Muslims were terrorists and now cap in hand, they beg for mercy. The BJP’s hatred for Muslims is not new but it was still shocking to see it played out in such stark terms in the front page of a respected newspaper.

 

For context, last year, in an advertorial between the UP Government and the Express, photographs of infrastructure from other parts of India were presented as examples of UP’s “development” under Adityanath. Some weak apology was presented after the mistakes were pointed out.

 

But this time? Silence.

 

This ad, a series of badly-made half-pages about the supposed achievements of the UP Government, came after the terrible “dharma sansad” in Haridwar where Hindu religious “leaders” called for genocide against Muslims. The timing and context are both despicable.

 

In spite of enormous anger directed at the Indian Express, there was no public explanation or apology. Apparently under the Express’s rules, it’s all right to publicly vilify all Indian Muslims as violent terrorists.

 

Many media people tried to explain how the editors of the Express were innocent and probably did not know. And even more pathetically, shift focus to say that if Express was bad, the Dainik Jagran was no better. Pathetic because, compared to the Indian Express, what high level of anti-establishment investigative journalism has even been expected of the Dainik Jagran, with due respect to them? The Express has to take the flak here; no deflection will help.

 

The “money” argument is the stupidest. The general public may imagine that the news media is a philanthropic exercise. It is not. Money is a must, or how will any organisation be run? The general public also apparently believes that journalists should not get paid for their work and live on stale polluted air. Yes, there is idealism and in my day, there wasn’t a lot of money and but there was and is still some money. The only way the “money” argument weakly works is to sort through the degrees of desperation that lead you to make certain decisions.

 

This “innocence” explanation is sweet. But I have also been involved in pagination for years and it is more than possible for the editorial department, from top to bottom, to know what’s happening in the ad scheduling department. You sit together, you negotiate. In the old days, you got dummies. In the not-so-old days, with software like Quark Xpress, the ad department placed the ads first and then released the page to the page-makers. By the time the page was converted to PDF format to release to the printing press – by the editorial department – the page was complete with ads. Now I believe the software has changed. But there is always communication between the two departments. You may need to change the page. Some breaking news may mean ads have to be shifted or removed. I cannot therefore buy the “no one knew” argument.

 

Here are your options: a weak and spineless editorial and management or a sold-out editorial and management.

 

The Indian Express has said nothing. Two prominent contributors, both academics, Apoorvanand and Jayati Ghosh have said they will no longer write for the Indian Express because of the ad.

 

But as far as the paper’s reputation, built up over years with hard work and dedication? It’s sad to see what’s happened to it. Very sad.

 

**

 

To make the New Year even worse, there was the targeting of prominent Muslim women, including many journalists. They found themselves put up for “auction” on a website. This is the second time has happened to them. The first was called Sulli Deals and appeared in July 2021. This time, they are being “sold” as Bully Bais.

 

This is not just part of the general patriarchy of the commodification of women. It goes beyond that to the dehumanisation of women, of prominent women and of Muslim women who speak out against injustice. And against Muslim women in the media.

 

Although FIRs have been filed and complaints made, and even one arrest by the Mumbai Police, there is a sort of dismissive attitude of general society and the authorities when it comes to crimes against women unless they involve extreme violence. The media itself, if an organisation like the Indian Express thinks it’s okay to vilify all Muslims as terrorists, cannot be relied on. The Network of Women in Media, India, politicians like Priyanka Chaturvedi and Priyanka Gandhi have spoken out but it is unlikely any more will happen.

 

I will update this, as and when official statements from media organisations are made.

 

But sadly, the beginning of 2022 does not bode well for the Indian media. Here we go again.

 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia on Tuesdays and Fridays. Her views here are personal.

 

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