Simon Denyer

Reuters journalist, 1992-2010

Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia

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Foreign correspondents lead a privileged life. We travel the world, report on people and events as we see them, and have hundreds of thousands (in some cases millions) of readers or viewers who depend on us for news and views. In South Asia we are specially privileged because of the immensity of the story, and the status of journalists and the welcome given (with rare exceptions) to visitors.


We have the awesome task of  covering a “beat” that includes nearly a quarter of the world’s population, with wide ethnic diversity, and, as V.S.Naipaul put it, “a million mutinies” in some of the world’s most notorious trouble spots. Politics and major events unfold on the streets, not just in closed rooms. Where else does a journalist cover a country in which the ballot papers were printed (before the arrival of electronic voting machines) in so many languages? We are also lucky that the sub continent shares complex and intense historical relationships with our home countries, which increases interest in our reports.

As foreign correspondents and photographers we try to inform people across the world about the complexities of the region, to expose what is wrong, cruel, and criminal, as well as to celebrate what is good and successful. We do not always get it right. It is easy to be professionally seduced by a sudden idea, to jump onto the bandwagon of “shining India” for example, or be charmed by a military ruler promising to restore order before restoring democracy. We impose ourselves on people, interviewing victims of disaster and taking their stories, giving them nothing in return except a vague promise that their story would be told.
This book, with its collection of reportage, comment and photographs, reflects these ambitions and limitations. It marks the 50th anniversary of the founding in 1958 of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of South Asia (FCA) – renamed the Foreign Correspondents Club (FCC) in 1990-91, when we also moved into our current club bungalow opposite Pragati Maidan on Delhi’s Mathura Road. We have not been too strict about 1958 as our starting point and have included a few articles written earlier (by people who became FCA members) for reasons that we hope are clear: how could one resist Peter Jackson’s Reuters scoop report on meeting Hilary and Tensing as they came down from conquering Everest in 1953, or Robert Stimson’s Goodbye to India, with which the book opens.
We have not managed to include every major event of the past 50 or so years, though many are here, nor have we covered every country evenly. Rather, we have gone for a mixture of good writing and historic moments that give a picture of how foreign correspondents have covered the region.

Significant numbers of foreign newspaper correspondents began to arrive and settle in
India only after independence in 1947, and Delhi became their first home in the “third world”. Before then, the region was mostly covered by roving reporters who were sent out for a visit or a temporary assignment.  Many papers continued to rely on such correspondents, aided by local “stringers”, till well into the second half of the 20th century. Business papers like the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal only opened bureaus in the 1980s, and foreign photographers began to be based here around the same time. Now there is an ever increasing number of foreign correspondents. Out of the FCC’s total membership of around 400, there are over 200 foreign correspondent members, half of whom have been posted from abroad and the rest are from India. The other 200 includes journalists working for the Indian media and other non-journalist associates.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, news from Calcutta, then the capital, took four months to reach the English port of Falmouth. Sketchy reports of India’s First War of Independence – “the Mutiny” – which erupted on May 9, 1857, did not reach London until the following month. British journalists established papers here in the early 19th century and sent occasional reports back to London, but the first full-time foreign correspondent posted here, as far as we know, was 22-year-old Henry Collins who arrived for Reuters shortly after a telegraph line between Europe and India was established in 1865.  His first base was a tent on the esplanade at Bombay. By 1878, just 13 years after he arrived, the outbreak of the Anglo-Afghan war created such interest in India that Herbert Reuters said “we cannot afford to let Indian politics drop”. Even so, dispatches were limited to just 77 words a day – brevity, some say, that often generated as much uncertainty as information. There were also men (rarely women) from various walks of life – businessmen, missionaries, teachers, even military officers – who wrote occasionally on what was happening.

In the early years, foreign correspondents were perceived, and thought of themselves, as exclusive observers (if not judges) of India’s progress, second only to foreign diplomats. Communication – often by post – was slow. It led many to offer, apart from reporting on the large flow of events, lofty judgments and advice. As Gerald Priestland says in his article: “It was the Agencies’ job to belt out the facts and figures; the Specials took more leisurely care of the background, interpretation, interviews, and colour”.

Fifty years later, this approach has changed dramatically, partly because of a revolution in communication technology. Post was first replaced by telex and slow unreliable telephone links. Now we use mobile phones and almost instantaneous e-mail. This forces foreign correspondents today to relay events immediately as they happen, with daily or even hourly updates. There is still plenty of in-depth reportage, which may involve weeks of research and travel, and our collection has such examples. But they flow within a huge stream of news and opinions on multiple channels and round the clock. The news consumer back home is today much better informed – and internet means that ‘back home’ can be the world at large, not just a single country, globalising the collection and delivery of news.  

The job can be dangerous, even life-threatening. We have included two Wall Street Journal articles by Danny Pearl, who was kidnapped and killed by Islamic militants in 2002. We know of at least four journalists who have been killed in Afghanistan since 9/11, and there have been more. Yet we have to acknowledge that local journalists across South Asia face far more danger and personal violence than we do.

Access to top political leaders varies widely. Curiously democracy does not make them more available. Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who seems to have been close to several foreign correspondents 50 years ago, later leaders have not always been so easy to meet. Military rulers are much more easily accessible, presumably because they need to conjure up international support. Pakistan’s Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf both ran charm offensives with foreign correspondents – it became a cliché for reporters to recount how Zia came to the doorstep of his residence to bid them goodbye. Indian officials, by contrast, are much more concerned with getting their message across to local reporters.

The FCC decided to produce this book at its annual general meeting in April 2007. The three of us came together as editors in the following months: John Elliott as the FCC president; Bernard Imhasly, who brought articles he collected ten years ago for a similar book project that did not materialise; and Simon Denyer who added the focus of a news agency bureau chief and previous experience of two years in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Madhu Chandra joined us as our hardworking research and editorial assistant, without whom we would have descended into chaos, and David Orr came in to find and edit the photographs.

We decided to collect articles and photographs primarily by inviting past and present members to send work of which they were most proud and would most like to have included. That produced a fascinating mixture of colour writing and big event reportage – see the articles from Peter Kann in Dacca and Barbara Crossette who was with Rajiv Gandhi when he was assassinated. Later we supplemented that by searching the internet and other sources to fill some historical gaps and journalistic achievements. We finished up with a total of over 400 articles, from which we have been able to choose the 79 that you see here.

We are aware that many of the voices heard in this book have a strong Anglo-Saxon accent. We would have liked to bring in more pieces by colleagues from China, Japan, Eastern Europe and elsewhere, whose presence in South Asia has increased in the last 15 years or
so. But over the whole of the last half century, it has been journalists from Britain and America, plus the Commonwealth and a few European countries, who have formed the largest contingent of South Asia correspondents and who therefore dominate this book. There are also pieces by local journalists, who work as foreign correspondents for publications abroad.

Some articles may seem unduly critical to the people of the subcontinent. But it is the duty of a journalist to question and to criticise – to expose corruption and mismanagement (or worse, murders and massacres) – without fear of recriminations. What service would we be doing to be charmed by corrupt officials and ignore the people they are cheating?

It has been said that journalism is “the first draft of history” – incomplete, momentary, often opinionated, but history-in-the-making nonetheless. We hope that this illustrated anthology of great reportage, analysis, writing – and stories that just demand your attention – will be seen as such a ‘draft report’, complementing other non-fiction books. We have tried to show the range of what we write about, from politics to tigers, from business to inequality, from religious fanaticism to fans of P.G.Wodehouse.

We have however only been able to provide glimpses of the many issues that are at work in
a region of this size, complexity, and rapid change. Not all momentous events or political developments are covered, partly for reasons of space and sometimes because we have not been able to secure pieces that do justice to what happened. We have also had to leave out some of our initial choices – the book could easily have been twice the size – so we apologise to those who are disappointed that they have not been included.

We are very grateful to everyone who has helped us produce the book in such a very short time. We have had support from the FCC Committee – Pallava Bagla, Soutik Biswas, Christoph Heinzle, Penny MacRae, Ayanjit Sen, Ashok Sharma, Phil Turner, and Raghavendra Verma – and from Kiran Kapur, our hard working club manager. We have been advised by the club’s lawyer, Vijay Shankardass, and by Namita Gokhale, a writer and publisher. Many other colleagues and friends have helped us track down sources.

Above all, editors and publishers of all the newspapers and magazines in this book have generously waived their usual reproduction charges and arranged for us to use articles free of charge. Our photographers have been equally generous with their images. Finally, the book would not have been possible without the cheerful encouragement and patience – and flexible approach to deadlines – of Ravi Singh, Penguin’s publisher and editor-in-chief, and our editor Ranjana Sengupta.  Thank you all!

Written by simondenyer

October 14, 2008 at 7:01 am

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