Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: We would be better off without excessive media coverage of the Budget

While Scroll.in’s coverage was better than most, it disappointed with its analysis of tax proposals.

Once a year there is this ritual that the media and the Union minister for finance enact in India. It is on the Union Budget, or the Budget as it is referred to.

The ritual usually takes place on the first day of February. The air waves are clogged that day with news and discussions and the morning after, the newspapers are carpet-bombed with news and analysis. You would think from the coverage that it is a matter of life and death.

Why should a large volume of densely printed papers with endless lists of numbers, statements and a speech full of dull prose attract so much attention? Should people be concerned with a statement of accounts? They should not. Yet, they are persuaded to pay close attention because of an unstated arrangement between the media and the finance minister that is to the mutual benefit of both.

Why the drama

There was a time when the Union Budget was indeed of concern to individuals because each year, a vast number of tax rates – on incomes, business profits, imports and domestic goods – were changed, often substantially. This had a direct impact on people’s lives. There was also a great deal of secrecy in the preparation of the Budget, which added to the element of suspense. It was natural, therefore, that there was a lot of drama on Budget day. Newspapers gave vast coverage and, in the era before the internet, even printed the entire speech of the finance minister.

Over the past 20 years, however, tax rates have become more stable. Year-to-year changes are not frequent and when they are made, the magnitude of change is small. So you could say there is no longer any need for all the theatre.

Some would say we should still pay close attention because the Union Budget is more than a presentation of the annual accounts of the government of India. It is supposed to be an occasion when the government lays out its vision for the economy for the year ahead. Perhaps this was so earlier, but no longer. The Central government now rightly sees policy formulation as a year-round affair, so announcements are made through the year and decisions, including on tax rates, are at times made outside the Union Budget.

Tall promises, free publicity

So if there is nothing much really to be terribly exercised about, why do we still have all that razzmatazz on Budget day in Parliament, in press conferences, in television studios, and then in the newspapers the next day?

I can only speculate on the reasons.

One is habit and inertia. This is a tradition that goes back more than 60 years, so why change it? The secrecy, the spotlight, the sense of importance – everybody enjoys it, so everybody continues with it.

The second reason is that the government, working through the Ministry of Finance, makes the most of the attention it gets on Budget day. The government knows that whatever it says and whatever it promises on that day will receive maximum attention. Free publicity, it is called.

On the Budget numbers of expenditure and receipts, the government usually makes a lot of unrealistic assumptions to present a rosy picture and hide the true situation. The government does not care, because it will take some time for the truth to come out. (On occasion, that does not work, like it does not seem to have worked this year on the fiscal deficit numbers, but more on that later.) On new programmes and schemes, it is even more brazen. Usually, a slew of new programmes are announced. Some may be repackaged versions of older programmes, others may receive token financial provisions, some announcements are sent to a committee for recommendations, and some may just be promises soon to be forgotten, until the next year comes around.

So Budget day is when the government promises the moon and we are suitably awed. We may later realise that we have been taken for a ride. By then, the government has already extracted what it can with the good publicity. The bad publicity can be handled later.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at the halwa ceremony marking the commencement of the printing process for Budget 2018. The government makes the most of the attention its gets on Budget day. (Credit: PTI)
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley at the halwa ceremony marking the commencement of the printing process for Budget 2018. The government makes the most of the attention its gets on Budget day. (Credit: PTI)

Media’s money-maker

If it is a bit of a sham, why then does the media give it so much positive attention? This takes us to the third possible reason. The media has a self-interest in continuing with the drama around the presentation of the Budget. There is big money in it, in the form of more advertising revenue than usual. By making the Budget presentation, discussion and news a media spectacle, television news channels and newspapers attract many more viewers and readers on Budget day, and this is then sold to the advertisers. Ever notice how on Budget day there are so many more advertisements on news channels and in the newspapers? Unknowingly then, if one has to be charitable about it, the media plays into the hands of the finance minister and gives him complete attention.

So, it suits everyone – the government of India, the finance minister, the media houses, the advertisers, the talking heads on television, and the columnists a plenty in the newspapers – to make a big deal of the Budget. We, the readers and the viewers, are left trying to figure out what was real, what was fake, what has hit us and what is just for the headlines.

This may be putting it all a bit strongly. There is the occasional real announcement, like the one in the 2018-2019 Union Budget on the new long-term capital gains tax on the sale of shares. There is no reason though why even something like this could not have been announced publicly and in advance, and the changes approved by Parliament. We do not need the drama and all the packaging with candy floss.

Lazy journalism

You would think that in this kind of situation, the media would use the occasion to its benefit. That it would sharpen its claws, see through the fake promises and call out the finance minister. Surprisingly, it does not do so, or at least it could do much more and not leave it to the exceptions. I do not think this is the result of any cosy relationship between the government and the media. It is just lazy journalism.

True, there is the time factor. You could say that about television, which has to give the news, see through the news and offer insights – all in real time. This is not easy to do, which is why even the tickers on the screen as the finance minister reads out his speech can be quite absurd. Considering that each channel has an army of panelists and more on call, viewers should be given a little more than they usually are. There is less of an excuse for the newspapers. They have close to an entire day to sift through the numbers and give us the true picture. But they do not. Instead, they give us a lot of “what the common man says” stuff, and volumes of inconsequential stuff or opinions from industrialists (who do not want to annoy the government, certainly not this government), from commentators who have clearly not bothered to carefully read even the Budget speech and look at the summary numbers in the document “Budget at a Glance”, and from taxation experts whose dense explanations go over our heads.

Many of these problems – a lack of integrity in the Budget numbers and the less than professional media reporting/analysis – were in evidence last week when the Budget was presented. You would think that alongside the bare details of the Budget (which television had already given extensive coverage to), the newspapers would provide analysis of the numbers, the proposed programmes and also discuss where the Budget had come up short.

Not so. Sevanti Ninan, editor of The Hoot, has already discussed how television and the dailies were just taken in by what the finance minister said in his Budget speech about rural development and social sector outlays. The media simply failed to provide readers any insight into the Budget.

Modicare hype

This was nowhere more glaring than in what the media was happy to reproduce without question as the world’s “largest healthcare programme” and was equally happy to pick up the finance minister’s sound byte christening it “Modicare”.

Any one who heard the finance minister announce a major initiative in health would doubtless have been pleased; healthcare is one area where everyone agrees we are doing poorly. The first thing that he or she would then ask is what is this National Health Protection Scheme about?

A series of obvious questions should follow:

  1. What are the details of this new scheme?
  2. Is this healthcare or health insurance? Will the scheme do anything for public health to prevent tragedies like the death in August of 60 infants in a Gorakhpur hospital allegedly because of a lack of oxygen supply?
  3. Many states have their own health insurance schemes. How is the new one different? How will the Central scheme work alongside those of the states?
  4. Doesn’t the Centre too already have its own health insurance scheme? How is this one going to be different?
  5. Has the current Central scheme been working well? An expansion was promised in 2016 – what happened?
  6. And the big question, of course: has the government provided any money for the new scheme?

Did any of us see a discussion on these lines in the papers the next morning? No.

Here was the biggest promise in what everyone expected to be an “election Budget” in the run-up to Lok Sabha polls due in 2019. So, instead of looking at that one paragraph in the Budget speech more closely, the newspapers were happy to put out news of the scheme much like a press release. Here and there in the newspapers, we had a sentence or two close to hesitant in saying no provision had been made for the scheme. (The Indian Express had this most forcefully said in its headline.) Other than that it seemed as if the media had swallowed the Budget announcement hook, line and sinker.

In the days that followed, a number of commentators did look at the scheme (or what few details we had) more closely and also the various aspects of healthcare. In a sense, it was too late. First impressions count and there it was “mission accomplished” for the Narendra Modi government. Their grand promise had been successfully sold.

One could say the same about the media’s overall coverage. Everyone did cotton on to the fact that the agriculture or “rural development” package had a lot of listings in the Budget but these did not amount to much. Almost no one put the fiscal deficit, expenditure, income and capital receipt numbers, among others, through the scanner. Everyone did highlight the expected introduction of the long-term capital gains tax. Very few, though, cared to (a) explain and analyse the rationale for the new tax, (b) outline how a seemingly complicated measure would work, and (c) give an illustrative example of what could be the burden on an investor.

The collective hysteria we have built for decades around the Budget cannot be broken easily. (Photo credit: Reuters)
The collective hysteria we have built for decades around the Budget cannot be broken easily. (Photo credit: Reuters)

The exceptions

True, there were exceptions. On the fiscal deficit numbers, there was this quick assessment in The Wire on the day of the Budget itself. And the next morning, there was this analysis in Mint. Readers, however, do not pore over every available publication. Each of them would expect their morning newspaper (or two) to give them a comprehensive assessment.

Online publications such as Scroll.in and The Wire did a surprisingly better job the morning after the Budget. It may well be that free from the demands of having to reproduce all the details of the Budget, they could focus on analysing the substance (or what was supposed to be the substance).

Scroll.in, for instance, was right on target in exposing the neglect of public health in the Budget. It showed up the limited allocations for rural development as well as the problems of too many announcements and too little money for agriculture; and revealed even the false promises in education. Where it disappointed was in its analysis of the tax proposals. This was quick off the blocks but did not say anything other than make sweeping generalisations about the middle class being short-changed.

It was intriguing that no journalist in Scroll.in or elsewhere went beyond buying into the short-changing-of-the-middle-class argument. Whoever the middle class may be, does short-changing mean a larger net tax burden on the salaried, or did it mean no concessions for the salaried? I did not see any illustration of the net income tax burden turning out to be higher after the standard deduction, higher cess and long-term capital gains (on, mind you, gains of more than Rs 1 lakh a year). And is handing out concessions, including to the middle class, all that the Budget should do?

There was no assessment in Scroll.in of the Budget’s fiscal deficit numbers (all important for the markets) and I did not see a comprehensive overview (the summary we had the next morning was scanty).

To go back to what I started with, we would be better off with reduced media coverage of the Budget. The government may then even reduce the extent to which it tries to sell dreams it knows it cannot realise. The media can then marshall its resources to more closely examine the Budget numbers and announcements.

Who will be brave enough to break from the herd? The collective hysteria we have built for decades around the Budget cannot be broken easily.

Disclosure: For more than a quarter of a century, I earned my bread in the media in part by participating in the annual ritual. So I have done my bit to maintaining the hysteria. It took me some time before I realised we were being taken for a ride.

The Readers’ Editor can be contacted at readerseditor@scroll.in

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.