The Thursday column January 22, 2004

Dude, where's my country?

How far is nationalism taken in journalism?

Rahul Dravid's was yet another case of unwarranted criticism by a nationalistic media
© Getty Images

A taxi driver in Singapore brought home the point in the simplest manner possible. Upon learning that I was a journalist, and an Indian, he asked earnestly, "Do journalists always write the truth?" Before I could furnish a reply, he added, "I know the situation in Singapore. But what about India and Pakistan? I have an interest in South Asia. But when I read newspapers from both the countries I find the same incidents described as if they were different ones."

"When complex international issues are involved," I tried to reason with him, "there are no absolute truths. Complete objectivity is a great ideal, but it is virtually impossible to achieve because like all human beings, journalists are products of their environment and it is inevitable that some of their perceptions and judgments would seep in to their writing." He wasn't entirely convinced. "So how do I find out the truth?" he asked, shaking his head. "Like neutral observers, does the world need neutral journalists too?"

One would like to believe that, in the democratic world at least, it hasn't yet come to that. But he did have a point. Nationalism does cast a shadow over objective journalism because while facts are incontrovertible, raw facts would often be incomprehensible without perspective, and because perspective cannot be absolutely detached from personal beliefs, it is inevitable that the truth reaches the reader in a somewhat coloured form. The constant challenge before the journalist is to be open to other beliefs and to be able to consider facts from different realities.

That way, cricket writing is fairly simple. Cricket writers are rarely confronted with myriad and complex issues requiring them to assume positions. But still, there remains an uncomfortable amount of nationalism in cricket writing, which, even more uncomfortably these days, is sought to be justified in the name of reader interest, which is distinct from the interest of the reader.

Writing for the home constituency is understandable to the extent that there is greater emphasis on the performance of the home team and home players. But cricket writing becomes jarring when one team becomes the sole focus. Having been guilty of it myself, I can say with authority that it does injustice to cricket when writers get obsessed with one team. Being blind to the excellence of the opposition is not only unfair to them, but also to the home team, who then bear unfair criticism when they might have just been outplayed.

Nationalism acquires an even more virulent form when it concerns questions of right and wrong. India went into an uprising against Mike Denness in 2001, when he fined Sachin Tendulkar 75% of his match fees after he was filmed fiddling with the ball in South Africa in 2001, whereas the extremity of Denness's sentence was really manifest in his banning of Virender Sehwag and fining four other Indians, all for over-appealing. Ravi Shastri was a spectacle at the press conference, asking menacingly what Denness was doing there if he was not going to answer questions. The pictures looked bad, and even if Tendulkar's intent wasn't malicious, the referee was entitled to act as per the law.

Then last month, there were incredible pieces of writing emerging from the English media about the burning sense of injustice that the English team supposedly felt after Mutthiah Muralithran "squealed" to the authorities that he had been endearingly referred to as a "f***ing cheat". Last month again, most of the Australian media, particularly those who are now agog over Rahul Dravid's "ball tampering", reacted to a case of illegal pitch-doctoring by Tony Ware, one of Australia's most experienced curators, with deafening silence. Peter Roebuck was an honourable exception: "The world is a strange place and frowns more upon captains late for a toss than a local curator meddling with the playing surface," he wrote. "Imagine the fuss had the roles been reversed and the match played in Kolkata."

Mercifully, the reaction in India to the punishment against Dravid has been muted so far. Possibly it is because he is not Tendulkar. Personally, and because I know how keen Dravid is to protect his reputation of integrity and honesty, I believe his explanation. It is entirely possible that the jelly sweet stuck to his finger while he wet his finger to shine the ball. However, my position arises out of certain knowledge about a person, and not out of national allegiance. I have no argument with Clive Lloyd. The pictures looked bad, and Dravid hadn't brought the incident to the attention of the umpires, as he should have. That he got away with a 50% fine was, as Lloyd pointed out, because of his impeccable record.

The Australian media are, of course, entitled not to extend him the benefit of the doubt. But considering how eager they were to forgive Ware, whose patching-up of a damaged portion of the pitch was a deliberate act, on the grounds that it was an "honest mistake", it does smack of duplicity.