Junked junkets

The news from media circles in New Delhi is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, quite unlike his predecessors, is not ready to fly with him journalists whenever he officially journeys abroad. This has caused much consternation among scribes, which is natural considering the fact Modi’s decision is a major blow against the freedom of the press, as represented by its personnel travelling to foreign places on fully-paid expense trips.

Travels to foreign lands by the Prime Minister have always got prominent coverage in the media all along because it involved — pay close attention here — travel to foreign lands. Otherwise events involving heads of state have a funereal air to them and more often than not you will find yourself falling asleep even though you don’t happen to be Rahul Gandhi.

For a journalist, covering the world of diplomacy calls for a lot of nuance, and here I use the word nuance to mean complete chicanery. For instance, when two business executives meet, talk, but don’t come to an agreement over whatever they are discussing, they give up on the talks and mark it as a failure. But when two leaders meet, talk, but don’t agree on anything, they don’t deem it as a failure. Because that would be too honest. So they come to an agreement to, well, meet again and talk. This the media would deem as a major coup.

The Middle-East peace process is a good example as to how the world of diplomacy works: In school you would have encountered this typical arithmetic problem that made you to give up on mathematics itself: ‘5 people work for 5 hours a day for fifty days to complete a task. How much will it take for 50 people working for 20 hours a day to complete the same task?’ The question is a no-brainer as the five people have already completed the work, why should 50 people be employed to do the same job? The 50 people obviously would gather around, talk endlessly, enjoy themselves and eventually claim that they have finished the work. This is roughly the philosophy behind the Middle-East peace process, or for that matter, any other diplomatic initiative.

If all those countless number of people and all those efforts that went into travelling and talking on the Middle-East peace process had been channeled elsewhere a parallel universe, without the modern blights of terrorists, global warming and those callers to music shows on the TV, could have been created by now.

The other thing to note in diplomacy is protocol. For example, if there is a problem of racial attacks on Indian students in some country, India will be mighty concerned. Logically, it should simply mean the Indian Prime Minister lifting the telephone and calling up his counterpart in that country to get cross his message. But that will amount to diplomatic gaffe and a breach of protocol. And it is also not known whether there is an international call facility in the PM’s phone.

So that country’s ambassador is summoned by the Indian government and delivered a message. This he will immediately take it to his country, from where he will carry the response to India. By this way both India and the country concerned not only cut costs on expensive international calls but also can re-route the money gainfully to uplift diplomats who don’t know where their next Scotch and Caviar is going to come from.

Getting back to Modi’s reluctance to take along journos, people can turn around and ask why media organizations don’t send their correspondents on their own to cover the Prime Minister’s trips. We don’t because it’s expensive and in the scheme of things that exist in the industry now we are already cutting down on things that are extraneous to our every-day operations, like journalists.

But we would cover Prime Minister’s trip ourselves if it is ever proved to us that there is substantial readership for the same. As per indications available to us in the media, news reports on Prime Minister’s official functions are read by a sum total of 8 people (this is all-India figure), of which seven are retired personnel who generally read end-to-end even pamphlets that insurance agents standing outside banks hand out.

Otherwise, these days, normal people don’t have patience for reports that contain —- happy reader alert: this sentence is about to end — many words. This reasoning alone possibly explains why a national newspaper has gone ahead and published in its report on the Union Budget — a solemn document that charts fiscal future of this country — a delicious picture of Shakira. Just say it aloud once more: ‘Shakira’s photo in a news report on the budget’. Yes, this is where journalism in India stands now.