The hollowing out of Indian news media—from being serious, agenda-setting, conscience-keepers, to frothy, gutless, market-driven beasts without a soul—is all too obvious, but it was never more apparent than during the recent India-Pakistan kerfuffle.
As the two nuclear powers peered into the abyss, there was a barely a commentary in any part of the world which did not find a problem with the bellicose, hate-spewing, war-mongering discourse on television, mostly Indian news channels but some Pakistani too.
But what about print journalism?
What role did good, “quality” newspapers on either side of the line of control play in lending their wisdom, in lessening the tension, in counselling peace, in urging for dialogue, in not giving their readers more of the poison of last night’s TV?
How did they use their most sacred space, the sanctum sanctorum of a newspaper, the editorial and op-ed pages?
Dawn is Pakistan’s most-respected English newspaper. Set up in Delhi in 1941 as a weekly by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, it became a daily the following year, with a South Indian Christian Pothan Joseph as its first Editor. (Dawn moved to
Lahore Karachi after its Delhi office was set on fire by the Jan Sangh in September 1947.)
Deccan Herald is Karnataka’s oldest English newspaper. It was established in 1948 by K.N. Guruswamy, an excise contractor who was persuaded by the then Diwan of Mysore to abandon plans of starting a theatre on M.G. Road in favour of a modern newspaper. By a happy coincidence, Pothan Joseph was its first Editor, too.
Pothan Joseph is long gone. His two babies have grown, matured, and are in their 70s.
Over time, both papers have had their troubles, but both have retained their ethos. Both are nearly similar in girth and gravitas; both are known for not taking the low road; both have an editorial page and an opposite-editorial page; and both are, generally speaking, sober purveyors of news and views with an evolved weltanschaaung.
So, what did Dawn and Deccan Herald bring to the table during the recent skirmish?
A purely quantitative analysis of the edit and op-ed pages of the two newspapers from February 15, the day after the CRPF convoy was attacked in Pulwama, to March 10, after the war cries had somewhat died down, reveals how Indian print media has abdicated its role as thought-leader.
The broad numbers:
# Over the 24-day period, both Dawn and Deccan Herald had some “content” or the other on its edit and op-ed pages relating to the India-Pakistan situation on 19 days.
# Dawn carried 15 unsigned editorials, 25 opinion/comment pieces, 2 news analyses, 34 letters to the editor, and one editorial cartoon.
# In contrast, Deccan Herald carried a mere 7 editorials, 7 opinion pieces, 3 news analyses, 2 interviews and 30 letters.
In other words, Dawn beat Deccan Herald hands down, the scoreline reading 77-49.
If letters to the editor are taken out of the equation, it is a more dismal 43-19.
Dawn consistently, repeatedly and creditably used its stature as a voice of reason and batted for sanity. More importantly, instead of mortgaging its edit and op-ed space to academics, security experts, think-tankers, diplomats, military men and other vested interests, it often deployed its own editorial team, reflecting the paper’s stand.
A former editor of Dawn, its resident editors and staff writers, all chipped in. Its Delhi correspondent Jawed Naqvi did two front-page analyses, and three opinion pieces. An Indian journalist Latha Jishnu was among two women who lent voice to the debates.
Dawn also used its front page to send a signal to the powers-that-be in Pakistan effectively, by publishing an appeal by three former foreign secretaries.
Probably because of Bangalore’s distance from Delhi; probably it had other things to do deal with; probably because it is improperly staffed; probably because it operates in India’s most crowded newspaper market, Deccan Herald fell back on the usual rent-a-quote policy wonks and retired bureaucrats.
Most of its letters to the editor were from the usual names that populate its edit page on most other days, many of them dressing up propaganda messages received on WhatsApp.
Deccan Herald once had a correspondent in Pakistan. In its absence now due to visa restrictions, there was nothing like a view from the Pakistani side. The only “independent” view came from a New York Times syndicated piece.
And because Deccan Herald works on pre-cast design templates, it was constrained from using its front page to denote anything of significance. Business as usual.
In fact, on 12 of the 24 days, the front page was an advertisement in Deccan Herald.
By carrying 100% more editorials than Deccan Herald, and 225% more opinion pieces, Dawn underlines the value it places on the edit and oped pages in articulating the newspaper’s voice, in shaping minds and moulding policy—attributes Indian newspapers have abandoned in the post-liberalisation age in the name of “giving the readers what they want”.
Dawn also demonstrates, generally speaking, that their in-house writers, past and present, have the intellectual bandwidth to churn out cogent prose of a 1,000 words or more. There is no evidence of that in Deccan Herald in the 24-day period.
With general elections round the corner, Deccan Herald also comes up woefully short in explaining the motivation and implications. And like most Indian newspapers flooded with advertisements of Narendra Modi, is happy to be seen beating a triumphalist drum that is music to the ruling BJP.
The edit and op-ed pieces in Dawn:
February 15 to March 8
February 15: Pulwama attack, editorial
February 19: Shun the TV, stop a war: opinion by Jawed Naqvi
February 20: PM’s bold offer for dialogue with India: editorial
Geopolitical challenges, Zahid Hussain, opinion
Blaming Pak for Pulwama: two letters to the editor
February 22: One speech and more: Asha’ar Rehman, opinion
February 23: Ban on Jamaatud Dawa, editorial
Shoddy Pulwama investigation, three letters to the editor
February 24: Time for restraint, by Iamul Haq, Riaz H. Khokhar and Riaz Mohammad Khan, page one comment by ex-foreign secretaries
Militant-free Pakistan, Muhammad Amir Rana, comment
A terrifying fallout, Latha Jishnu, comment
Pulwama attack, two letters to the editor
February 25: The divide over Kashmir, editorial
February 26: War rhetoric and reality, editorial
The real threat to India, Jawed Naqvi, comment
India’s response post-Pulwama, two letters to the editor
February 27: When truth is the first casualty, Jawed Naqvi, news analysis
On the brink, editorial
Dangerous escalation, Zahid Hussain, comment
Balakot attack, two letters to the editor
Pulwama affair, two letters to the editor
Aiming for peace, editorial
De-escalate now, Khurram Husain, opinion
Pulwama attack, one letter to the editor
PAF’s victory for Pakistan, two letters to the editor
March 1: Time for diplomacy, editorial
This side of war, Asha’ar Rehman, opinion
Bravo PAF, bravo the nation, three letters to the editor
March 2: Towards normality, editorial
Balakot and beyond, Abbas Nasir, opinion
Wag the dog, Irfan Husain, opinion
Releasing Indian air force pilot, two letters to the editor
Downside of war, two letters to the editor
March 3: LoC attacks, editorial
Now the diplomatic battle, Munir Akram, opinion
Irony of history in Pakistan-India conflict, letter to the editor
The ‘real terrorist’, two letters to the editor
March 4: Effective diplomacy needed, editorial
Surgical Reich, Asad Rahim Khan, opinion
Indian jingoism, one letters
The issue is Kashmir, one letter
March 5: Fighting militancy, editorial
How to talk peace, Arifa Noor, opinion
Death wish as nationalism, Jawed Naqvi, opinion
Not isolated, Moeed Yusuf, opinion
Pakistan’s stand, two letters to the editor
March 6: Bigoted minister, editorial
Pulling back from the brink, Zahid Hussain, opinion
Information warfare: danger to Pakistan, one letter to the editor
Jingoistic Indian media, one letter
March 7: De-escalation time, editorial
Pulwama: verify the facts, Najmuddin A. Shaikh, opinion
Ballots and blood, F.S. Aijazuddin, opinion
UN role in Kashmir conflict, one letter to the editor
March 8: India’s bid to isolate Pakistan, one letter to the editor
March 9: Nobel Prize anyone, Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, opinion
Silver lining for Kashmiris, Abbas Nasir, opinion
Dissent in crisis, A.G. Noorani, opinion
March 10: Crackdown in earnest, editorial
Renewed campaign to ban groups, Muhammad Amir Rana, opinion
Between two fires, Sikander Ahmed Shah, opinion
Imran-Modi contrast, one letter to the editor
The edit and op-ed pieces in Deccan Herald:
February 15 to March 8
February 16: Build on support to isolate Pakistan, editorial
Pulwama attack, intelligent failure: three letters to the editor
February 18: Beyond Pulwama attack, Maj Gen S.G. Vombatkere, opinion
Pulwama: India must strengthen diplomatic channels, letter to the editor
Heartening support, letter to the editor
China’s obduracy, letter to the editor
February 19: Stop vilification of Kashmiris, editorial
Terror financing, letter to the editor
February 20: Pak economy in doldrums but it has rich friends, Ajit Ranade, opinion
Abolish Article 370 to change situation in Kashmir, letter to the editor
February 21: A laughable claim and an untenable offer, letter to the editor
February 23: Pak ties rank higher for Saudis, editorial
February 24: J&K: have we lost the plot, Zulfiqar Majid, analysis
To war with wisdom, not blustering into it, Syed Ata Hasnain, opinion
Radicalisation of valley youth is frightening, Amitabh Mattoo, interview
February 25: Cutting India’s nose to spite Pak’s face, editorial
J&K: not military adventurism, peace the only way, letter to the editor
Making our own way, letter to the editor
Play to win, letter to the editor
February 26: Karachi bakery attackers are hooligans, no patriots, letter to the editor
February 27: Air strike: strong message to Pak, editorial
Caught on wrong foot, what will Pakistan do now? Saurav Jha, opinion
February 28: Balakot strike shows India is no longer “soft state’, letter to the editor
March 1: Return to diplomacy, editorial
India must accept advice from superpowers carefully, letter to the editor
Why publicise, letter to the editor
Voice of reason, letter to the editor
BJP first, the nation next, letter to the editor
March 2: Abhinandan’s return, a major diplomatic victory, letter to the editor
March 3: To the war and back, Gurmeet Kanwal, analysis
A threshold has been breached, Srinath Raghavan, interview
Indian diplomacy did well, now to step it up, Vivek Katju, opinion
March 4: De-escalation is a temporary truce, letter to the editor
Gallant soldier, two letters to the editor
Arming to the teeth, letter to the editor
March 5: India’s military, ailing, and poor nears its brink, Maria Abi-Habib, New York Times-syndicated analysis
Resolve Indo-Pak standoff through diplomacy, letter to the editor
Under no obligation, letter to the editor
March 6: Politics over everything, editorial
Pak takes aim at Ajit Doval, opinion
Tackle pressing issue, letter to the editor
Another political game, letter to the editor
March 7: Political games played at the cost of national security, letter to the editor
March 8: Democratise J&K, Ramanujan Nadadur, opinion
Glaring contrast, letter to the editor
Stop ill-treatment, letter to the editor
War is serious business, especially when unstable, individualistic leaders prone to quixotic decision-making sans any accountability, are at the helm. So, humour is understandably at a premium in the 24-day period despite Pakistan’s superb satirists.
For nearly four decades, Pothan Joseph wrote an unsigned, freewheeling daily column titled “Over a cup of tea”. It appeared in the Dawn and in Deccan Herald and in most of his other ports of call.
In his 2007 biography ‘Lessons in Journalism: the story of Pothan Joseph‘, T.J.S. George reproduces a snippet.
“The New York Times raises the scare that the one front in the world where there might be war is between India and Pakistan, but if the Anglo-American companies and the Dutch refineries stop supplies of petrol and aviation-spirits, the movements of mechanised columns must fizzle out in two days. There will thus be no war, thought there may be periodical rioting for the relief of emotional stress; that’s the long and short of the situation, Bob.”
How would “Bob” view Wag the Dog?