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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 6, February 4, 2023

Is The BBC Documentary: Much Ado About Nothing? | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 4 February 2023, by Papri Sri Raman


POOR BBC. THE Left never liked the BBC. Its offences include the cold war reporting, Vietnam, North Korea, China, reporting of so many events. The Afghans would tune in to BBC to learn about how many Soviet battalions had retreated and how soon the Americans would arrive. The Iranians would track the sanctions list. The Left has also raised concerns regarding homophobia and transphobia within the company. In 2006, a University of Leeds study found that the BBC is ‘institutionally homophobic’ towards ‘lesbians and gays, references to them, or related issues.

In 2020, 150 people, including members of UK’s parliament, signed a letter which said the BBC had engaged in ‘institutional discrimination’ and failed to do balanced reporting about transgender issues. In August 2020, it was accused of broadcasting racist slurs, and reportedly apologised. Now the Right too don’t like it; in India, the second-largest English-speaking country, the government has taken down the links to a telecast of a 2-part report on the Gujarat riots of 2002, and Narendra Modi’s ten-year rule as chief minister and then his eight-year rule as prime minister.

Me thinks, sometimes the British Broadcasting Corporation forgets that Britain no longer rules the world — not the lands, nor the seas and fifty per cent of its population is not of English origin. Now it is becoming an embarrassment even for the government in the United Kingdom. Margaret Thatcher and her government did not like it. Tags like ‘Iron Lady’ for women leaders like Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and several others only indicate the sexism displayed by the media. Unlike the Murdoch media which openly flaunted its (Fox, News Corp etc) capitalist bias, the BBC thinks of itself as ‘Liberal’ — which many interpret as right of Left. BBC chairman Richard Sharp has admitted that ‘the BBC does have a liberal bias’. He is a former Rishi Sunak adviser.

Sunak, UK’s prime minister of Indian origin, had this to say, when asked to respond to questions on the row that erupted in India, following airing of the telecast on the Gujarat riots in mid-January: The UK government’s position on this has been clear and long standing and hasn’t changed. Of course, we don’t tolerate persecution anywhere, but I am not sure I agree at all with the characterization the honorable gentleman has put forward (sic). The BBC works under a Royal Charter and, of course, is the UK government’s official broadcaster and answerable to the British parliament.

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price has said that he is ‘not familiar with the documentary but is very familiar with the shared values of India and the US’, especially as both are democracies. The US was clearly distancing itself from the BBC and not wanting to jeopardise relations with the Modi government.

The Telecast

Now let me tell you what the two episodes are about. The timing of the release of the documentaries is suspect as general elections are just sixteen months away, and can be earlier. The incumbent government sees it as an ‘anti-Modi positioning’ as critiques like Aakar Patel (he served as the head of Amnesty International in India between 2015 and 2019 and currently serves as the chair of the Board of Amnesty International in India) and Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay (author of the 2013 book Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times) analyse the 2002 pogrom against Muslims and the Modi government’s policy implementation until now.

The BBC tries hard to project its neutrality by giving a lot of say to Modi’s admirer Swapan Dasgupta and to a scholar of Hindutva and identity politics Christopher Jaffrelot. It perhaps tried too hard; the government of India did not buy it. In the first part, BBC’s reporter clips, seen many many times by Indians, in courts, on other tv channels, on websites, and other platforms, have been stitched together with reporter voices and expert opinions. The content does not justify the title: India — The Modi Question. It does not raise any questions, it is a mere statement of fact, that is with no new revelation, no new insight. That, of course, was greatly disappointing, from a viewer point. The second part begins with the prime minister announcing, in his gung-ho style, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) [1]. Nowhere even in the second part too are any questions raised on the legality or undemocratic way of doing anything that is being shown in the videos. One can’t even call it old wine in a new bottle.

India described the documentary as a ‘propaganda piece’ designed to push a particular ‘discredited narrative.... The bias, lack of objectivity and continuing colonial mindset are blatantly visible’, External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said at a media briefing, replying to questions on the documentary. It is best described by British MP Bob Blackman, who has said, the BBC documentary on Modi is ‘disgraceful’ and a ‘hatchet job’. He was speaking at an event in the House of Commons. At whose behest did the BBC think of this at this time, is another question to ask.

Friend of Censorship

The Global North, of course, is a very loud advocate of the ‘freedom of speech’ and BBC, like every other media house, has the freedom of speech. The question here would be, does it have the right to exercise this ‘freedom’ in other parts of the world, outside of the United Kingdom?

We all know, China has one of the world’s most restrictive media environments, relying on censorship to control information in the news, online, and on social media. [2] [3] China blocks many US websites, including Facebook, Instagram, and some Google services, though the Chinese public has found ways to circumvent, what the outside world calls the ‘Great Firewall’. ‘China’s constitution affords its citizens freedom of speech and press, but the opacity of Chinese media regulations allows authorities to crack down on news stories by claiming that they expose state secrets and endanger the country. The definition of state secrets in China remains vague, facilitating censorship of any information that authorities deem harmful to their political or economic interests.’ Chinese internet companies are now required to sign the Public Pledge on Self-Regulation and Professional Ethics for China Internet Industry.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power, censorship of all forms of media has tightened. In 2016, the thinktank, Freedom House ranked China last out of sixty-five countries that represent 88 per cent of the world’s internet users. The France-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked China 176 out of 180 countries in its 2016 World Index of Press Freedom. Censorship guidelines are circulated weekly from the Communist Party’s propaganda department and the government’s Bureau of Internet Affairs to prominent editors and media providers. More than a dozen government bodies review and enforce laws related to information flow within, into, and out of China. The most powerful monitoring body is the Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department (CPD), which coordinates with General Administration of Press and Publication and State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television.

All this no-nos could be very well applied to the Indian government as well in 2023. The 2021 RSF World Press Freedom Index placed India at 142nd rank out of 180 countries. Freedom House, in its 2022 report, ranks India 68/100 (Political Rights 33 points out of 40 and Civil Liberties 33 points out of 60).

‘While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population. The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized.... The ruling BJP has disproportionately benefited from an officially sanctioned campaign-funding mechanism, and because the government has selectively used investigative bodies to target opposition parties’, says one Rights report.

‘The political rights of India’s Muslims continue to be threatened. In December 2019, Parliament adopted the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which grants special access to Indian citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants and refugees from neighbouring Muslim-majority states. At the same time, the government moved forward with plans for the creation of a national register of citizens. Many observers believe that the register’s purpose is to disenfranchise Muslim voters by effectively classifying them as illegal immigrants. Importantly, Muslims disproportionately lack documentation attesting to their place of birth. Undocumented non-Muslims, meanwhile, would be eligible for citizenship through a fast-track process under the CAA’, the Rights report-cards said.

‘Attacks on press freedom have escalated dramatically under the Modi government, and reporting has become significantly less ambitious in recent years. Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to quiet critical voices in the media. Hindu nationalist campaigns aimed at discouraging forms of expression deemed “anti-national” have exacerbated self-censorship. Online disinformation from inauthentic sources is ubiquitous in the run-up to elections. Separately, revelations of close relationships between politicians, business executives, and lobbyists, on one hand, and leading media personalities and owners of media outlets, on the other, have dented public confidence in the press’, the report-cards said.

In 2021 February, the Indian government introduced new rules that made it easier for authorities to compel social media platforms to remove unlawful content. Among other removals during the year, Twitter was ordered to take down posts that criticized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

An Indian Express investigation in 2022 reported that ‘Deleting references to the 2002 Gujarat riots, dropping passages that dealt with Emergency’s (1975-77) draconian impact on people and institutions, removing chapters on protests and social movements, including those spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Dalit Panthers and Bharatiya Kisan Union. These are some of the most sweeping changes in social science school textbooks since the NDA government came to power in 2014’.

So, there was little surprising in that the BBC documentary was pulled down.

‘...but government response could have been more self-assured’, wrote Vivek Katju in the same publication, adding, ‘Takedowns should not be routine responses to controversial documents or documentaries even if their content is offensive — as indeed this documentary is in some respects’.

The controversial member of parliament Shashi Tharoor called the government’s response, childish. He said, ‘Why give the Brits the power to shake you up?... India’s sovereignty is not so fragile that a BBC documentary could undermine it’. He told a YouTube channel: If the government had not gone over the top in condemning the documentary, thereby drawing attention... to something that wasn’t otherwise available in India, there wouldn’t have been all this noise. I was bemused by the vehemence of the government’s reaction. A mature democracy would have simply ignored it and said people can say what they want to and we’ve got more important things to deal with in today’s India’.

Sadly, India’s official reaction got people to go out of their way to watch the BBC documentaries. India is no longer dependent on BBC or Voice of America, but alas, the government often forgets this. Also, the Babri Masjid demolition happened thirty years ago, the Gujarat riots were twenty years ago. The Indian Muslim perspective and priority today is different, as we see from the response of the Aligarh Muslim University Vice-Chancellor, Tariq Mansoor, who in an article said, ‘Indian Muslims want to move on from the past — we do not live there anymore....The BBC has assembled 20 years of biased reportage, peppered it with outdated condiments, and garnished it with loads of misplaced victimhood.’

He went on to say, ‘the BBC would be wiser if they controlled their urge to perpetuate victimhood among Muslims. Our community has had enough “false godparents” who have merely used Muslim issues to build their brands. The challenges our community faces will never be addressed by half-baked agendas.... I would like to urge the BBC to shed its “white media’s burden”. The horrors of imperialism are for everyone to see.’ While VCs condemned the documentary, student in universities across the country watched the documentary with avid interest, their lives began post Gujarat.

In other words, by airing a documentary on which no homework or work was done, the BBC has not only been lazy but become more friendless. In the process, it provided a juicy opportunity to the government to implement further censorship. A lesson, the media must not forget. 

The Angad Singh Case: On 27 January, the Government of India told Delhi High Court judge Pratibha Singh that ‘American journalist Angad Singh has been blacklisted despite being an OCI cardholder for misrepresenting facts in his application for obtaining a journalistic visa and violating certain norms’. Singh was not allowed to enter India in August 2022 and sent back to the USA from the Delhi airport itself. Singh produces documentaries for Vice New, an American news disburser, with focus on Asia. The high court was hearing Singh’s plea against the GoI refusal to permit his entry into India. The journalist has challenged the action of refusing him entry into India as illegal and violative of Articles 14, 21 and 25 of the Constitution. The government submitted that Singh had depicted India in a ‘negative manner’ in the India Burning documentary. It said, an affidavit has been filed by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) stating the petitioner is a ‘blacklist subject’ and was blacklisted at the instance of the Consulate General of India in New York.

(Papri Sri Raman is a senior journalist, manuscript editor, and author)

[1The National Register of Citizens (NRC) is a register of all Indian citizens whose creation is mandated by the 2003 amendment of the Citizenship Act, 1955. Its purpose is to document all the legal citizens of India so that the illegal immigrants can be identified and deported.

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