J-POD || Podcast || “Coverage of border conflict is a dangerous new low. It signals to China that the incursion doesn’t matter very much or the government has controlled the media” || ex-FT journalist Rahul Jacob

Like nearly news event these days, China’s incursion into Ladakh has revealed the deep fault lines in the media.

For weeks, most Indian newspapers and nearly all TV channels pretended nothing was amiss at the border.

The exceptions—Ajai Shukla of Business Standard, Sushant Singh of The Indian Express, Manu Pubby of The Economic Times—could be counted on one hand.

After the news of the killing of 20 Indian soldiers came in, the media was split again.

Most media outlets preferred to amplify the prime minister’s farcical claim that no one had intruded while the satellite images of the border left no doubt.

Many circulated stories of the valour of the soldiers in combatting the Chinese without arms.

On social media, there is much name-calling of journalists on the defence beat who have chosen to reveal the actual situation. And journalists who have done what journalists ought to be doing have been called “anti-national”.

Rahul Jacob, the former Hong Kong bureau chief of the business newspaper, Financial Times calls it a “dangerous new low” for a media in deep decay.

Now based in Bangalore, he says that the unquestioning coverage in the media today is in sharp contrast to the coverage before and during the 1962 war with China.

In this episode of J-POD, Rahul Jacob expands on the thought and provides much needed perspective on how the Chinese view the compliance of the Indian media which is all too apparent.

***

3.40: “Part of the function of the media is to be not just a critic or an advocate of government policies, but also an early warning signal on economic and social issues, and certainly when a country is facing a border conflict. Overwhelmingly large sections of the media have chosen to sidestep that by ignoring the incursions along the border which had been going on for weeks.

7.35: “Suppressing the media is part and parcel of the way Communist Party of China operates. I suspect they admire the way the Indian government has been able to work with most of the media, but it also encourages them, the Chinese, to continue, because they didn’t see the backlash of public opinion in those several weeks. They didn’t see public opinion pushing the government to stand up. With the media choosing to ignore it for all these weeks, we risk signalling to China that this doesn’t matter very much or the government has controlled the media as China does all the time.

9.45: “When you choose to ride the tiger of nationalism, it gets a bit difficult to disembark gracefully. The Chinese media has chosen to stay silent on the Galwan Valley incursions. The local media in Mandarin has not been covering the situation at all.

12.30: “In 1962, there was widespread coverage of the problems between Gen Thimayya and defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon. To prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s discredit he did not pay enough attention to the coverage but he did not clamp it down. It all played out in the media at the time.

Dom Moraes at the age of 21 went to pay a courtesy call to Nehru sometime in 1962, and sat down to have a wonderful chat for half an hour about poetry and whether Nehru would have been a writer. That may seem beside the point, but Dom’s father Frank Moraes was a senior editor, a major pillar of the media establishment, and although generally supportive of Nehru, had been critical on China issue. Yet, here was his son meeting the PM. There wasn’t this antagonism with the media, people were able to write editorials criticising Nehru; there was a normalcy to it, which is sadly a bit lacking today.

15.45: “The polarisation of the media in the social media age is a worldwide phenomenon in democracies. It denigrates democracies. It certainly denigrates the role of the media. It leads to a kind of tribalism, where people are essentially cheering politicians the way they cheer on their favourite football or IPL teams. They are completely blind to their faults. Part of it is possibly a calculation, that the only way to keep media outlets growing is to follow this kind of tribalism because it drives up ratings or bolsters readership.

“I have never seen the media in such free fall. It is a vulnerable time for the media across the world but particularly in India.

18.05: “When residents welfare associations ban newspapers due to COVID it makes people dependent on WhatsApp. I see a clear correlation between people who rely on WA and those who read newspapers. The worldview and wellbeing of people who read newspapers is immeasurably higher.

19.30: “The acceptance of the killing of the 20 soldiers does it make it difficult for one narrative to triumph. It becomes hard to argue what seems downright inaccurate. There is also a certain safety in numbers. Once the story of the 20 soldiers as well as the satellite images began to be published, a lot of journalists jumped on the bandwagon because you no longer have to have the courage of Ajai Shukla or Sushant Singh to row that particular boat alone.

24.04: ‘The Global Times’ serves the purpose of sending a message to the outside world, in this case India. It is not read by the local population. What matters is if the ‘People’s Daily’ and other state-owned media start to cover this. It has not shown up much on Weibo and other kind of WhatsApp equivalents. The Communist Party of China is keeping this off the front pages, out of chatrooms. This follows a pattern. They have chosen not to highlight say clashes with Japanese Navy or the Indonesian Navy.

“What they are signalling is that they are the top dog in Asia and they are not going to be messed around with. They keep coverage under wraps so that they have much more negotiating room. In Doklam, because the BJP government was able to signal that they had managed it well, the Chinese government decided that they could get away with it because the media was silent in the initial weeks.

30.20: “China has one of the most massive superiority complexes ever in the history of geopolitics. You do not want to be playing into their hands by allowing their egos to be boosted and their sense of power to be further inflated.

31.00: “China is already five times the size of the Indian economy. You would have to have the Chinese economy collapse in two successive great depressions of the 1930s order, and India to race along at about 12% growth, to catch up. We have passed the point of the hare and tortoise fable—this particular tortoise is still sleeping in terms of making strides in exports.

“Vietnam is probably going to pass us in terms of manufacturing in a few years, and that’s a country of 95 million people. By posturing in economic terms that we are a rival to China we are doing ourselves a great disservice. Our rivals, realistically, are really Vietnam and Bangladesh, in manufactured goods at any rate.

“The ‘Chindia’ idea is laughable given China’s share of world trade.

34.05: “For 10 years, I have not had a TV set. I would advise you to throw your TV set, whether Chinese made or not, out of the window. It is a solution to a better life, richer life, and certainly more peaceful life.

“I would pick times in the day to switch off wi-fi and stay off WhatsApp. I have left every single family group, school group and college group. There are plenty of ways to get news.”

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