I have just recently returned from working in India for over a month. I won’t go into what I thought of the world’s biggest democracy, this blog is not a travelogue. I did get the opportunity to watch quite a bit of Indian television. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are quite a few English channels in the country, at least two of which are all-news, all talk stations. While I did dip into BBC-International and CNN-International, these stations were not readily available on my travels, so I found myself trying to find any news that was available.
I struck it lucky on two counts. The first being the visit by President Obama to Mumbai and Delhi while I was India. The Indian stations provided an interesting take on the president’s visit. I got to see a range of opinion that I never would have seen or heard at home. The bottom line in the coverage, as it would have been in Canada if Obama was visiting Toronto and Ottawa, was what is in it for us. How are the U.S. promises going to affect India? Parochial? Not really. It amounts to serving the viewers with information that is important to them.
The second stroke of luck was to be in India during both an election campaign and the aftermath of the Commonwealth Games. It was here that Indian TV revealed itself to be far different to the Canadian and American mold we have become so used to. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to see interviewers and panels that were hard-nosed, tough and sometimes incendiary. I don’t mean unfair, I mean pointed.
On one occasion I saw an election panel made up of one sitting cabinet minister and seven other men running for parliament. Each guest was a member of a different political party. The subject of the interview was primarily public works, buildings, bridges, but in fact the real crux of the conversation was corruption. In Canada you might expect the opposition candidates to attack the cabinet minister and in India they did too. But here was the difference, the host went after the cabinet minister with a gusto I have never seen in North America. He pointed out the scandals. He pinpointed the lies. He called the minister out by explaining what he said in the past and what he had done. There was no Canadian style pussy-footing. He finally asked the minister why anyone should ever believe a word he says and further why would any sane voter choose him or his party? This is the party in power, remember.
I was glued to the television. It was great theatre but more important it was great journalism. It left me feeling empty and despairing however about the brand of political interviewing and the level of polite political discourse practiced by Canadian interviewers and TV hosts. Anyone who has watched CBC NN or CTV News Channel, let alone The National, Global National, or CTV News would feel the same way I felt. The comparison to the beige news and current affairs we are treated to was stark. Anyone who has ever seen Evan Solomon and one of his panels hem and haw through a nice polite discussion would be embarrassed by the difference.
A few days after that discussion, on a different channel I saw a news program eviscerate the two most important men, both politicians, behind the Commonwealth Games. They had, it seemed been going after these guys for months. They had interviews with them done over the course of those months. They chronicled the changing stories of the Commonwealth Games’ leaders. The shone a bright light on the lies being told throughout the process. They investigated the funding and the waste. In the end they took full credit for the fact that they were responsible for the firing and political downfall of two more corrupt Indian political leaders.
There is a fearlessness in Indian TV that is remarkable. In Canada, journalistic organizations seem to be afraid to take on the government. Not so in India. In Canada I have heard important interviewers say they can’t go after their guests because if they offend them they won’t come back and perhaps neither will anyone in their political party. In India this excuse doesn’t play. It is time for Canadian journalists to understand that they are in no way beholden to our political and business leaders. When the government has a story they want to get out they will come calling. When business has a new product to sell they will be available for comment. Politicians and business people need the media more than the journalists need them. When did we forget this fact?
Canadian media has lost its mojo, its power. Not because of what is being done to them, but because of what they are doing to themselves. Canadian journalism is for the most part too timid and too worried about the backlash from the people they cover. In today’s media world there is no place for the tough investigator, the crusaders are all but gone. It is a polite world of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. I saw this happening at the CBC in the Mulroney years when we backed off stories that might affect our budget. CTV was once led by men like John Bassett who wore his political views on his sleeve for all to see. You didn’t have to agree with them, they didn’t care.
Today self-censorship may be the biggest roadblock to good journalism. If you don’t believe me, watch Indian TV.