Ditch your preconceptions

BY SEVANTI NINAN| IN Books | 15/03/2016
Whatever fixed ideas you have about the Chinese media vs the Indian, forget them. Both are constrained, in different ways.
SEVANTI NINAN culls the insights from a comparative study



MEDIA AT WORK IN INDIA AND CHINA-Discovering and DissectingEdited by Robin Jeffrey and Ronojoy Sen, Sage Publications, 2015, New Delhi.  Pp 347, Price Rs 995, hardback.


This volume offers a comparative study of the media in two very different countries and the ways in which they are changing. Eighteen writers - mostly scholars and journalists - bring their experience and differing perspectives to it, and pick a range of subjects to look at, through a twin India-China lens. The editors have devised a framework in which chapters on China and India alternate through four sections which explore media structures, reporters, practices and comparative case studies in two areas - social media and disaster reporting. 

The product of a six-year process anchored at the National University of  Singapore,  it is a multi-faceted  volume on comparative media systems,  with so many different sub topics and approaches  that it becomes difficult to encapsulate what it offers in the space of a review. Overall the volume is both informative and insightful.

An introduction on the four ‘sames’ and three ‘differents’ in the two media systems sets the stage. The sames are advertising (a surprise there), the vast number of media outlets, the experience of journalists in the newsrooms, and the degree of suspicion and hostility with which the media in the two countries  regard the other country.

The differences are language (one common written language in China and much higher literacy), the degree of control and regulation, and the media’s self perception of their role in the two countries. The Chinese thought it was their job to promote development and harmony; the Indians thought their role was to keep politicians honest.

"The Chinese thought it was their job to promote development and harmony; the Indians thought their role was to keep politicians honest."

Li Yang’s opening chapter on the evolution of the Chinese media is fascinating for an Indian reader. It is a lucid account of the country’s historical evolution and the media’s ordained place in the scheme of things. Since India is not a country where nationwide debates are held on the criterion for truth, or where periodic decisions are taken by the state leadership on what role the media should play in society (a tool of the class struggle, then a tool of public opinion, and so on) this chapter is an education in how a directed media system evolves.

The media in China became part of the market because in 1978, the government picked eight major state-owned enterprises to experiment with “running as enterprises.” It is now a booming sunrise industry.

On the Indian side you have Robin Jeffrey revisiting his scholarship on the subject to describe the business and ownership of newspapers in India, as well as the people who become journalists.

Television is dealt with in a variety of chapters from differing perspectives: those of the media business and that of journalism. Ying Jhu, a scholar who has written extensively on China Central Television (CCTV), looks at China’s culture war against the West, its political economy, and the political, ideological and market reasons which drive it. She discusses bans on Western and Chinese entertainment shows and how the reasons are to do not just with political control, but also profit share. 

"Given the highly unequal competition between our state broadcaster and regional TV channels, nothing of the sort could happen here. "

When a provincial broadcaster launches a talent show which becomes an overnight sensation, CCTV goes into attack mode to ward off the ratings competition! Given the highly unequal competition between our state broadcaster and regional TV channels, nothing of the sort could happen here.

Nalin Mehta in his essay on ownership and democratic debate in the Indian television universe, surveys the spectrum of television availability and concludes that there is far more diversity of ownership and editorial control here than the seeming dominance of five big pan-Indian players in the television entertainment business suggests.

There is plenty of media in both countries but a comparative perspective which goes beyond the binary of free/not free leaves you with the following takeaways:

In China the room for free expression is being created within a structurally unfree media, because of the Internet.

The structurally free India media is constrained by its ownership.

As for information policy, if we have the Right to Information, the Chinese have promulgated a Decree of Government Information Openness. 

In terms of state control, there are fundamental differences of permission. The government controls the media in China or the Communist Party does, whereas  the central or state governments are not allowed to control the media in India. (What happens de facto with the autonomous state broadcaster is another issue.)

The Indian obsession with China is, alas, unmatched in mind space on the other side. Danny Geevarghese, who is an Indian chief news editor at CCTV News in Beijing, lays out what the priorities in a Chinese newsroom are on a given day, and India, stated baldly, is not a priority. The pecking order in international news priorities would be Japan, US-China relations, Hong Kong and Taiwan, the Middle East, East Asia, Afghanistan-Pakistan.

"The Indian obsession with China is, alas, unmatched in mind space on the other side. "

The Chinese public or state broadcaster throws much more at covering international events than either public or private broadcasters in India do. In sheer numbers of correspondents deployed.  And CCTV is a global broadcaster with many channels viewed internationally, whereas no Indian broadcaster has made the cut globally as yet. The Zee group is getting ready to unveil an international news channel later this year, which will offer a South Asian perspective.

On international news, who calls the shots in Indian and Chinese newsrooms? There is no black and white answer. Mehta gives instances of news TV being accused of sidetracking bilateral relations between the two countries. Simon Long offers an example of bluster based on fiction, from the Times Now stable.

But the Indian government also uses TV channels and they take their cue from briefings.

Is the news media in China controlled in theory, but wayward in practice?

As Simon Long (a western journalist who has covered both countries) says pithily, the official line in the Chinese media is often hard to discern. It may on occasion shoot off, and be more hardline about India  than the Chinese foreign office at that point is inclined to be.

An example is given of Global Times, from the People’s Daily stable, lecturing India on not overestimating its strength when it launched a missile with a range of over 5000 km (capable of reaching Chinese cities) in 2012. Yet there is a caveat: we don’t know if that is how the Chinese want it to be understood - that the media is choosing a hard line, whereas it may be actually projecting what the government does not want to convey directly.

The most illuminating part of the insights gleaned from this book concern the use of the Internet and social media. All you hear of, sitting in India, is about what is blocked in China.  You do not hear about what it is doing within the country, how the Internet has ushered in a public discourse absent for half a century, and how it has become an outlet for Chinese citizens who can now air discontent on it about the conduct of district and county governments. 

There are websites exposing and disseminating what is termed “social incidents”.  The Internet enables communication between ordinary citizens and government officials. Top leaders read the opinions of people from websites every day, Li Yang tells us.  If only we saw more of that here.

There is also a right–left divide within the new media, and the state run media has become a mediator between left and right.

One disappointment is that Ananth Krishnan, formerly the Beijing correspondent of the Hindu, chose to do a case study on the misreporting around a blogpost rather than write about his experience in China, in the way Tang Lu, the Xinhua bureau chief in Mumbai, does about covering India. That is an account you do not get in this book from anyone else here either, which is such a pity. If there are four Indian correspondents in China, we needed to hear about how they fare  from at least one of them.

For an Indian student of the media, the best gain is what is learned about China, and what the contrast with the Indian media  tells us. There, the state is telling you what to do, here your proprietor is.


This review was first published in The Book Review.


Sevanti Ninan is a media commentator, author, and editor of TheHoot.org



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