Reporting India


John Elliott, Dean Nelson and Andrew Whitehead in conversation with Barkha Dutt

Presented by Aga Khan Foundation

Sangeeta Bhagawati

Official JLF at Southbank Blogger


Barkha Dutt explored some of the challenges of being a journalist, specifically a foreign correspondent, in a pluralistic and dynamic country like India. She pointed out that often foreign correspondents come under more scrutiny than other journalists for the choice of their words, because the insider/outsider dichotomy is more pronounced.

This phenomenon can be observed in the way India used to be orientalised in Western narratives during colonial times, whereas in a post-colonial context, Western reporting on India goes far beyond this parochial approach. Dutt cited panelists Andrew Whitehead, Dean Nelson and John Elliot as examples of modern day reporters who manage to cross barriers of orientalism and exoticism in their commentary on India. Nelson argue that although in the past, the language of orientalism was part of the British media presentation of India, it had also made ‘India’ a kind of light relief for the Western audience,which was part of its strength: the clichéd exotic stories that we now sneer on is one of the reasons why Western people felt so “warm” about India.

Elliot reflected that a depth of cultural understanding had developed after spending three to four years in a given country.Nelson questioned the contrast between the insider/outsider as a false dichotomy, since he observed that foreign correspondents have a symbiotic relationship with the Indian press. He added that a certain amount of distance from the subject could also be helpful, and provide alternative angles and observations. He added that it meant he got to be a ‘passionate seeker’ for the first few years in a place. Elliot qualified that it was a fine line, since too much detachment in journalism can lead to over-simplifying subject matter.

Dutt enquired if being an outsider meant that reporting was more loaded for foreign correspondents, and if it was always possible to understand how a certain choice of words might trigger a firestorm amongst the Indian population. Nelson argued that it was the duty of a foreign correspondent to report in the best possible language it can be conveyed in. Whitehead added that it was best to avoid using labels as much as possible. Dutt explored whether Indian readers were over-sensitive, or there was some legitimacy to that sensitivity. For example, the way words like ‘gunmen’ and ‘terrorist’ are used in the foreign media was debatable in regards to the Kashmiri situation. She enquired whether some Indians believed that their story was only theirs to tell, and whether that was a kind of xenophobia if so.

The nature of the media in India has changed dramatically in recent times, with the evolution of a cacophony of chat-shows and news events within Indian media itself, and recent documentaries like India’s Daughter has presented a different facet of India to the Western audiences. Dean noted the massive change in his readership following the Mumbai terror event, from primarily British readers to a much more global audience through twitter.

The panel shared some of their most difficult reporting experiences in India as well as some of the more improbable stories they had come across. Whitehead gave the example of reporting on the ‘milk-drinking Ganesha’ phenomenon, and Nelson gave a hilarious account on the parrot who solved a murder case. This summed up a delightful exploration of the diverse and unconventional world of foreign reporting, and the many complex challenges and considerations they work with.

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