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Hello CNN, BBC And The World Media – Time To Tune Into India

CNN and BBC should highlight India’s efforts at preparedness and success in its vaccination program, says Dr Annurag Batra

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Sensationalism sells in news media, especially in the digital age - negative narratives driven by clickbait headlines drive pageviews and ultimately revenue scaling. News organisations and editors – whether digital or television – are increasingly doing stories showing subjects, in numerous cases an entire country and its citizens, whose seeming inadequacies are amplified in a negative light. And then this is simply used to vilify, and even terrorize, everyone to fall in a line. A line that the media has decided to draw.

However, before I deep dive into the merits of the argument that I am presenting, let me caveat by saying I am a global traveller and citizen. I can say without gumption that I am fascinated with America. I love Hollywood just as much as I love Indian cinema. I would like to see my both kids study at Ivy League Universities in the US and am enamoured by its culture, business, and stock markets. The country has a culture of innovation that solves problems and creates massive companies and drives entrepreneurship like nowhere else. I even share my birthday with a two-time American president Lyndon B Johnson. I can go on about my love for America and everything American. However, there is one element that enamours me more than everything else American, most certainly on account of my vocation – media. 

I especially admire CNN and love the way that content – both news and brand – is developed and packaged. CNN international is my default channel and I invariably end up watching 2-4 hours every day – and maybe even 6 hours on a Sunday. There are two shows that I never miss: GPS by Fareed Zakaria and Reliable Sources by Brian Stelter. Even I am busy I make sure these are recorded and I make sure I catch up with them even if it’s late in the day. I recommend this to everyone I meet, whether personal or business and the count is probably in thousands. Like a lot of Indians with an interest in world politics and global media, I have been hooked to CNN since the Gulf War. News stalwarts like Riz Khan have had my admiration for years now and it was around twelve years ago that I personally invited Riz Khan to speak at NewsNxt, my exchange4media news broadcast conference.

Another organisation that has my respect on account of a news product that I consider superlative is BBC. I grew up watching Hard Talk with Tim Sebastian – and continue to watch with new hosts. I have had the privilege of hosting Mathew Amroliwallah under the aegis of exchange4media he was nothing less than superb. On a personal note, I even attended the wedding of the then BBC India Business Head Sunita Rajan and was delighted to be at her special day. However, the icing on the cake was a one-hour conversation with Tim Sebastian. BBC remains my go-to platform after CNN. 

I can go on endlessly about CNN and BBC (and their likes), my respect for them, and the amount of influence they have on me. Both of them present the point of view of the home markets, and their interests while bringing top-notch news and live events to our homes. I also feel there is the convergence of content many times between the two leading platforms, however, the styles and the way it is presented remain different.

However, why am I sharing all of this with you?

To let you know that when I present my views it is with the background that I engage with CNN and BBC – on TV and now digitally - and I am deeply familiar with what they put out. I respect them though they have their own agendas, convictions, and maybe sometimes even biases. I also believe in the quality of their anchors - high integrity top quality. I know this first hand - both as a media industry insider as well as some who has personally met with and interacted with them. A lot of these media professionals are also Indians and professionals of Indian origin – a fact that is worth a mention in the context of my argument. 

During the second phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in India earlier this year, CNN, BBC, and several world media turned their focus on India. They reported from the ground and showed heart-wrenching stories. The stories showed funeral pyres, corpses, and grieving relatives. They were unrelenting and persistent in their criticism of the Indian Government, the society in general, and its citizens. They got a bunch of interested parties who are government baiters - or shall I say India biters - or are in the opposition, to amplify the adversities being faced by the country. By no measure was everything hunky-dory in the country. The central and state governments could have done much more, as a society we could have been much better and as citizens, we – and I – could have done more to help.

In the recent cabinet reshuffle, the Union Minister of Health was shunted out for his poor handling of the pandemic and his and his ministry’s pathetic speed of response. The PM took cognizance of this and took action. With the appointment of a new minister, and oversight of the PMO the pace of vaccination has picked up. The central government through the Health Ministry and its new head, the new Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya, R S Sharma, head of the task force on vaccine and COVID-19, various state governments, civil society, doctors, health workers, NGOs, corporates, and most importantly the citizens of India helped our country manage the situation far better and reach the incredible milestone of one billion doses of vaccinations. The citizens of India trusted its government – and to my mind in reflection of PM Modi's credibility – have gone out and got vaccinated. More than 700 million Indians have received one dose, and 300 million-plus are fully vaccinated, and we are not yet giving up. We will choose a newer loftier milestone and achieve it - and maybe even be looking at starting booster dose administration from April onward. Cowin’s success as a platform has been an incredible catalyst in the progress of the administration program, which speaks volumes about its success. On a global scale, this is a massive achievement.

Let us in this convex look at vaccine hesitancy in the US as well as the relatively lower rates of vaccination in developed countries across Europe. These are the very countries delivering sermons to India. Media platforms led by CNN and BBC that talked India down must now certainly realise that they were unjustly harsh in portraying India in such poor light as they deliberately ran down the country’s global credibility.

We are on the path of economic recovery, greatly on account of our vaccination program - yesterday PM Modi outlined this in his address. He brought out the broad contours of what has been happening and plans to bring the economy back to the growth track and at pace.

As fair news platforms, CNN and BBC should possibly now talk to stakeholders and citizens in India about how they feel. I know India is working hard to remain prepared for a third wave, should it come, with hospital beds, healthcare infrastructure, oxygen availability, and other capabilities. I expect CNN and BBC to now highlight India’s efforts at preparedness and success in its vaccination program. I expect Washington Post and New York Times to show pictures of how vaccination has happened in India and how it is a huge success. I expect the foreign media to showcase the Indian Governments success in vaccination and many related areas. The Indian civil society, NGOs, healthcare delivery providers, and even media outlets have played a stellar role in this. I am doubly vaccinated and getting a vaccine jab was as good and easy as getting a coffee in a nearby coffee shop.

I can say with empirical evidence over the last 20 years including in the UPA regime, that foreign media plays up negatives of India and especially belittle India’s achievements. This has been accentuated in the last seven and a half years of the NDA government. Adding fuel to this conjured up fire the Indian journalists who represent an anti-India Brigade with a vested interest in ranting against the current regime and the PM. The foreign media must balance these views and speak to all stakeholders in India’s growth whether politicians, policymakers, government officials, media leaders, opinion leaders, and independent analysts across the spectrum. I believe it's their fiduciary duty to show the positives of India, alongside criticism where that is due.

India is growing and in the next 3 years it will grow at an incredible pace – and I can promise no western journalist is either comprehending or analysing – and dare I say even willing to open their eyes to the genuine progress India has made under this government and the dynamic PM. It’s time to give credit to India and Indian citizens and the government and the PM. Please do not shy away from being fair.

India has an embracing inclusive humanism. We Indians were always creative, hardworking, a sincere society filled with many selfless ordinary citizens. The last 18 months of the pandemic have seen the citizens open up their hearts, homes, and purses in support of their fellow citizens. I would like to see foreign media look at numbers, statistics, progress, and overall success of our vaccination program as well as our response to shortcomings we may have had – something that every country has experienced in the course of the pandemic and not always responded as well as we have. 

Thanks to the Atmanirbhar (self-reliant) pledge of the PM, all of us Indians are even more determined to contribute to solving the problems of the world. We as Indians know what happens in one part of the world can have a global impact. India’s incredible vaccination drive has the potential to be a role model for the world and be an inspiration for many leaders, governments, and civil society to accelerate their vaccination drives and achieve rates that can help the world. So to the world media: for God’s sake wake up and smell the coffee. It’s time to showcase India’s success in vaccination to the world. It may just save the world. By putting India first, you are putting the world first. Give us Indians some credit and our government some credit for an outstanding feat for the greater general good. 

Postscript: Even as I wrote this note was disappointed to note CNN feature a headline that says “India delivers 1 billion COVID vaccines, but millions are yet to receive a single dose”. If there was to be a template on how to reluctantly deliver a compliment this would have to be it.

The author is the Chairman & Editor-in-Chief of the BW Businessworld Group and the Founder & Editor-in-Chief of the exchange4media Group