The Australian’s Interest in Contemporary India. Part 2
Octogenarian Mr Rupert Murdoch is a global media magnate of Australian birth and adopted American nationality. Since taking over News Limited from his father, Sir Keith Murdoch, he has devoted almost six decades to building up the huge media and publishing empire now known as News Corporation or News Corp. His first major farsighted venture was the creation of Australia’s first national broadsheet newspaper in 1964. The Australian has become the most lavishly staffed, most informative, most prestigious, powerful, and, not infrequently, the most controversial, newspaper in Australia. However, Mr Murdoch’s media interests have multiplied exponentially and the income of this newspaper – like many others in the News Corp stable – is not a significant contributor to the Corporation’s income. (See List of assets owned by News Corporation, on Wikipedia.)
Nevertheless, The Australian, which has a daily circulation of only 150,000 (and 300,000 for the Weekend edition) employs a vast staff of journalists, who produce a very broad variety of quality news and views in all the usual national and international fields. Because the journalists are further indulged by the scope they are given to pursue approved topics, often over long periods of time, The Australian exerts a strong influence on Australian public opinion. In some cases, the newspaper puts both points of view on a controversial topic, although, as in the case of the Climate Change Debate, the balance of its opinion is always on the side of the discussion favoured by the Editor. As an example of the firepower and tenacity of this media organ, in 2007, the Australian government’s (and the Federal Police’s) outrageously unfair treatment of the young Indian doctor, Mohamed Haneef, was vigorously researched and thoroughly reported on by the newspaper, with ultimate success.
For the past eight years (at least), India, as the “up-and-coming giant” and a “very good prospect” for Australia (and the Pacific), appears to have been accorded similar special treatment, with the number and variety of news and views pieces multiplying over the past eight years, and becoming particularly numerous in 2010 and 2011. As with other important topics, the coverage has been reinforced by syndicated republication of essays and op-ed pieces from other “Murdoch” newspapers, such as The British Times and Sunday Times and, more recently the American Wall Street Journal. (The reader is the beneficiary of such unusual largesse.)
In the case of Indian coverage by The Australian, I have cuttings going back to 2004. Between that year and about 2007, there were occasional short articles on India but the major pieces were written by the newspaper’s Foreign Editor, Greg Sheridan. Mr Sheridan is probably the most experienced foreign and geopolitical correspondent in Australia, with several books to his name and a BlackBerry full of important overseas contacts and colleagues, notably in USA and Asia. He is a firm supporter of US geopolitical doctrines and, with India’s rapid evolution, he has strongly advocated its special importance to Australia, as the following articles from The Australian indicate. These are in addition to his other frequent articles and essays on geopolitical matters.
14 February 2004: ‘An Indian Summer’
A 2,500 word essay based on a visit at pre-election time and interviews with prominent Indians. Sheridan’s essay is an enthusiastic recommendation (and plea) for more official Australian action to increase trade and contacts with India at this important phase of its steady development, which he compares to that of China fifteen years previously. He fills in the background history of Indian development, mentions the Indian diaspora of 20 million (with a claimed 150,000 in Australia) and lists important existing contacts in education.
His list of Indian contacts is impressive. (Interestingly, with hindsight, Sheridan informs readers that the favourite to win the 2004 election was Atal Bihari Vajpayee (“a figure of moderation”) and the BJP Coalition, but that general expectation was not fulfilled. Sheridan offers as India’s two main problems Pakistan and Hindu-Muslim hostility.
(On 25 May 2005 The Australian’s Emeritus ‘Editor-at large’, Paul Kelly published an article on ‘[G.W.] Bush’s Indian gambit’, referring to important new US initiatives which were nearing fruition, with India being wooed despite the reservations of some Indians. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met G.W. Bush in Moscow, Condoleezza Rice visited India in March, bringing a draft of a wider strategic relationship “to help India become a major world power in the 21st century.” Manmohan Singh was due to visit Washington in July. In other words, the US was ready to help India achieve its global ambitions, with the subtext of strengthening US strategic power.
23 July: ‘India, US make a tectonic move’
This essay by Sheridan highlighted the significance of the meetings between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and George W. Bush, which Sheridan likens to “one of those moments when you can feel the tectonic plates of geo-strategic power shifting”. In his final sentence Sheridan hopes Australia will be able “to take advantage of the new US-India entente”.
(Related to this important event is Sheridan’s article describing his interview with P.M. Manmohan Singh, ‘East meets East: the Sino-Indian rivalry’, published in The National Interest in 2006 and available here.)
11 March: ‘In our interest to support India’s rise’.
A short piece describing Sheridan’s interview with Dr Manmohan Singh just before Prime Minister Howard’s visit to India. It refers again to the important geopolitical changes indicated by India’s negotiations on nuclear matters. The author highlights India’s strong need for Australian uranium and Howard’s refusal to reconsider the current ban on exporting it to India.
6 October: ‘Powerful dash of new spice’
A long essay introducing the vastness of India, the sheer numbers of its people, and the disadvantages and challenges posed by these, and by the contrasts between rich and poor. Sheridan adds to the impressive economic development story the country’s important ‘soft power’: its democracy, the prosperous diaspora, especially noticeable in USA and UK and the other attractions for foreigners like its “huge cultural presence in the Western imagination” and common denominators like cricket and Bollywood. (He could have added the major plus factor of the widespread use of the English language in middle class Indian life and in business.)
22 October: ‘India’s absence a serious failure’
“Closer ties with the subcontinent are essential to our regional security.”
The reference is to the forthcoming meeting of CHOGM in Perth.
The day before, one of the Australian editorials had been: ‘The Next Big thing. China may be important but is India the better bet?’
Several more of Greg Sheridan’s essays and articles on Indian-Australian relations were to follow in the coming five years. To back up its growing interest in India, The Australian appointed a Correspondent for South Asia in 2006 or 2007, with responsibility for covering news in the vast area of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Burma (Myanmar), Nepal and the Maldives. The first journalist appointed was Australian veteran Bruce Loudon who reported in 2007 and 2008. In early 2009 the post was taken up by Amanda Hodge, the present incumbent. She has kept up a regular supply of short background and topical articles on India (mainly) and the other countries within her ‘portfolio’. In the last two dramatic and difficult years for India (2010-2011), the frequency of her valuable locally-based reports has increased. (Her less frequent posts about the other countries in the region, notably Pakistan, appear to be very well informed.)
This busy but disastrous year for India is reflected in coverage by The Australian. The year destined to be so globally triumphant with the hosting of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in September attracted a small army of Commonwealth reporters to India from January onward. These journalists, left to roam freely around India (where language is not a barrier to them), tracked down a succession of negative pieces of news, beginning early in the year, with reports on the unreadiness of the CWG installations and a skyrocketing budget for the Games. From there the stories moved on to possible graft and corruption among the authorities. The very worst story from an Australian point of view was that of several Australian entrepreneurs who were not paid for their work, That controversy is, unfortunately, ongoing.
Coverage in The Australian was very broad. In addition to its many other reports on business and political matters, its resident correspondent, Amanda Hodge, filed frequently. The following short pieces by her were published in April alone:
2 April, Shortage of girls in India
9 April, Superbug rampant in Delhi hospitals
18 April, Delhi denies water dangers
23 April, Human rights abuse (in the small state of Chattisgarh)
30 April, Caste killing
Other reports by Hodge deal with the spate of CWG shortcomings and crises. On 21 September she reported on the use of Gandhi-like public fasting by popular gurus Swami Ramdev and Anna Hazare and by the ascetic Chief Minister of Gujarat State, Narendra Modi, as a form of political protest and pressure.
To the chagrin of the Indian Government and people, foreign journalists were digging deeper into the chaotic final preparations for the Games and the growing hints of graft and corruption. In October come the first reports of action by a highly embarrassed Indian Government. Amanda Hodge filed: ‘Ex-minister charged with graft’ (18 October).
Foreign Editor Sheridan was quiet during these 2010 distractions and during much of 2011, when old and new scandals about rampant corruption and growing public protest by the long-suffering Indian public were the main journalistic and public concern. However, The Australian continued to publish useful reports and comments. For example, on 15 February, a syndicated article from The Times by Rhys Blakely, ‘India corruption scandal deters investors’. Blakely describes how the massive inflow of foreign investment of 2010 has been hit by substantial withdrawals following charges brought against the former Telecoms Minister. (The infamous Y2G Spectrum scandal)
On 27 April, an Australian editorial, ‘Making a start in India’, explains that “There needs to be a wider crackdown on corruption” and sternly lectures that “there needs to be a far wider crackdown to change age-old national habits before India can be accorded the place it believes it deserves in the global market.”
Correspondent Amanda Hodge, meanwhile, was very busy during the whole of 2011, filing articles on the protest fasts by the gurus (6 June and 21 September) and in the final months of the year describing the Government’s embarrassing failure to pass the Lokpaal (Ombudman) Bill and the Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) Bill, designed to fast forward the growth of foreign-run supermarkets. Following the Australian Government’s belated agreement to supply India with uranium, Hodge published two articles in one day (26 November) on popular protests in two regions by locals opposed to new nuclear plants:
‘Heat rises beyond the smog’ and ‘India’s nuclear ambitions face people power’.
“The nuclear debate in India has never been fiercer.”
By the end of 2011, Greg Sheridan returned to the scene with a short warning and then a short series of major articles. While maintaining his basically optimistic outlook, he signalled the existence of important problems and obstacles.
22 October, ‘India’s absence a serious failure’.
The reference is to India’s non-appearance at the Perth CHOGM Meeting, which was taken to be a sign of displeasure that Australia had still not agreed to supply uranium to India.
(The Labor Government finally agreed to do so at a pre-scheduled party meeting in November.)
10 December, ‘India’s Rise as a Superpower has China on edge’. [Dealt with in Part 1]
Sheridan gives an account of his latest visit to India, to attend a conference in Kolkata on the Asian Century, sponsored by the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute. In a blunt 1500 word article with a blunt title, Sheridan proceeds to relay many known but still worrisome revelations by four prominent spokesmen on Indian strategic affairs.
In the following six days Sheridan published two more articles based on his recent visit to India:
15 December 2011, ‘India’s emissions are set to soar’
To highlight the shallow agreement signed by so many countries at the recent Durban conference on Climate Change action, Sheridan describes the lifestyle of the burgeoning Indian middle class(es) and the inevitability of a large increase in Indian emissions to maintain the momentum of development and Indian aspirations.
17 December 2011, ‘India on Highway to Prosperity’
“The country has one of the world’s most impressive economic success stories.”
While pointing to a recent slowing in Indian growth, Sheridan is optimistic about the future, especially because of India’s overwhelming expertise in the field of IT. Nevertheless, he relays the warning of one of his many well-placed Indian informants (interviewees) that “the two greatest reforms India needs are a simpler set of labour laws and more effective anti-corruption laws. These are part of what discourages foreign investment.”
Since the current State elections in a few Indian States are expected to give an idea of the possible outcome of crucial national elections in 2014, further reports from both Foreign Editor Sheridan and on-the-spot Hodge and others at The Australian (or in its stable), should keep us well informed on India as it endeavours to cope with its problems and maintain and consolidate its progress since 1991.
India (and Indian-Australian relations and commerce) has been well served by The Australian in recent years. It is to be hoped that, when she finally leaves her post as South Asian Correspondent, Amanda Hodge will follow the excellent and enlightening example of other expatriate English-speaking reporters and observers, like Edward Luce, Christopher Kremmer and Patrick French – or the legendary Mark Tully, who has spent most of his life in India – by writing a book about her experiences and interviews.
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