Friday, 28 June 2013

Above 90% to study journalism - you must be joking!

Colleges under Delhi University are asking astronomical grades for journalism courses. Does scoring high grades in school make someone a good journalist?

My friend George Holland -Hill served as a sub –editor for almost all the major UK national newspapers.  He once told me that he had to hide the fact that he had a degree in English while hunting for a job in the newspaper industry.

"I always kept low- profile, careful enough not to let anyone know that I had a degree. No one really cared about a degree, because in those days no one had one,” said George.

He said: “ If you walked up to someone in the Fleet Street in 1970s and said I have a degree and want a journalism job, people would frown at you. They would rather hire someone who had some sort of practical experience like working for the village newspaper.”

He narrated an incident about a bloke on a look out for a reporter's job in Manchester. It was a Christmas day and a young lad died in an accident because of excessive drinking. The editor asked the young boy who was looking for a job, if he could go out early in the morning, knock at the family’s door, who lost their son on the pervious day and request them for their son’s photograph. That was a real test!  

 Journalism is not about learning theory. It is about deploying real –life skills and acquiring practical knowledge either at work, through internship or doing a short-term professional course. But, at the end, journalism is all about passion.

I find it extremely strange, when I read in newspapers that one needs above 95% to study journalism in Delhi University. I wondered if anyone has to be that intelligent to study journalism. Moreover, does one really need three years and then an additional postgraduate degree (five years in total) to be a journalist?

A person who wants to be a journalist must have a strong nose for news. He (or She) must love cultures and be adventurous. The person must be an inborn leader, possess strong management skills and be able to work in a team. It is also important to be a strong negotiator, a great listener and a very good salesman. Above all, the person has to be a very tolerant and liberal.

These are the inherent skills of a journalist, other than acquiring and perfecting the practical skills like ability to write well, and in case of a television and radio journalist ability to speak and edit well.

Whilst the find product of a journalist reveals the person’s great writing and speaking skills, the inherent qualities mentioned above are mostly required at the production stage. For example, it requires a great craftsmanship to convince someone to give an interview. Remember in journalism, you are asking someone’s time without giving something in return.

I discovered my talent in journalism while writing a letter to the editor following 9/11. I then realized that I am more inclined towards international affairs- something that couldn’t have occurred to me when I was at school.

School level grades are not enough to access someone’s journalist abilities. The maturity to understand social and global issues at large comes with time, and not on someone’s ability to score high grades at school leaving exams. The decision of some colleges of Delhi University to scrap entrance exams for the journalism course in not a prudent step, and it spells disaster for the next generation of Indian journalists, as they are likely be too driven by the market and not by passion.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Is Indian education system too harsh?

India's education system is highly competitive and over -stretched. A cohesive policy and a change in social attitudes are required to accommodate the aspirations of its vast young population.

Veena's funeral
In a Delhi crematorium, a family gathered around the funeral pyre to conduct the last rites of a 17 year old girl. Veena  (name changed) felt so shattered with her grades of the secondary school leaving examination that she decided to kill herself.

Veena’s grades were not good enough to get admission in a good college. India’s higher education system is extremely competitive: the cut –off percentage (qualifying grade) for one of Delhi’s top college  announced this week stood  over 98% for subjects like economics, literature and history. There is a similar demand for other subjects.

At the Delhi University, we see thousands of students queuing up to buy admission forms for the University’s 70,000 odd seats. By any estimate, it is a big number in  any country, but in India, chances of making through to a decent college is one in five. 

Deepak tells us: “I have scored 89%.  I am still not in a hope to get admission in one of these colleges. The pressure is obvious.”

Where does the pressure come from?

Abdul Mabood
Delhi University has over 80 colleges affiliated to it. However, most students are under tremendous social pressure to make it to the top ranking colleges because they feel it is a matter of prestige to study in one of best colleges, says Sandeep Sharma, principal of ARSD college.

In a very quiet neighborhood in south Delhi, we catch up with Abdul Mabood, director of a NGO called Snehi. He has ben running a helpline to counsel students and their parents in distress for the past 17 years.

The phone at his office never stops ringing. Abdul says: “many parents who couldn’t meet their goals in thier lives want to meet that expectations through their child. And, if they find that expectation is shattering they (parents) put a lot of pressure on the child." 

He blames the education system in the country, which he describes as faulty. He says it's money driven and  stifles creativity in a child. He says:  "the schools have to just inject the syllabus and nothing else. That is how you will not get a child that has saved his or her creativity or innocence, cultural understanding, civic sense, care for others. The schools teach (promote) sheer, horrible and cut –throat competition.” Indian education system, he says  “is  killing its children.”

He says that students will benefit more if they built more quality institutions for higher studies or improve the standard of education in universities and colleges in other cities and towns of India so that students don’t have to migrate to bigger cities.

Demographic dividends will be hard to come by.

Please don't let us down
India has one of the largest growing middle class populations in the world.   A good education is often seen as a passport to a quality life and even a way out of poverty for many. It can dramatically change the fortunes of a family.

However, access to good education in India is a privilege of those who can afford it. In rural India, state run schools are in a dilapidated condition and there are serious shortages of teachers.  Also, ability to speak good English is a strong criterion for most corporate jobs and other blue-collar jobs in cities –a skill that is mostly confined to the urban middle classes.

According to an estimate, India will soon have a fifth of the world’s working-age population. The Economist says India will add 124 million people to its working –age population over the next decade, and that figure will soar to one billion by 2032. However, Indian has abysmally failed to create quality jobs in the second half  of the last decade. The jobs in manufacturing sector are scarce due to lack of investment.

Clearly, if India wants  to get dividends of its vast human resources, it needs to educate its population on technical skills. It is about time for policy makers to rethink India’s education policy.  The formal education system that exists is long and theory based - it doesn’t guarantee jobs. Higher professional education is very expensive and remains out of bounds for the majority of Indians. 

India needs more vocational schools, where young people can be trained on practical skills after completing basic education.   Like its neighbor China, it needs to create more industrial jobs.

If India’s unemployment figure in India begins to soar, it will create  great deal of disillusionment amongst its huge working –age population, which might create massive social unrest in the country.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

David Cameron and Britain's public diplomacy

David Cameron showed great dynamism by speaking directly to BBC's global audience.

David Cameron
It was great to see the British prime minister, David Cameron walk into the BBC studio in London and take questions from the audience all over the world in its popular global show: The world have your say.

Mr. Cameron’s ease and humility on answering questions on a range of topics like Syria, the role G8 in Afghanistan, aid and poverty reduction was simply amazing,

It's difficult to get a prime minister of a major country to be rallying questions even at a press conference, let alone a TV show. This also came at a time when Mr. Cameron couldn’t be busier: he will be meeting the Russian president, Vladmir Putin on Sunday, and hosting the G8 summit in Ireland on Monday.

Divya Arya, from the BBC’s Hindi language service, later said that it is just impossible to get of hold political leaders here in India for such a talk. (India’s PM rarely addresses the media and the much touted future PM Rahul Gandhi is infamous for not speaking out even in the parliament).

Lesson for other leaders?

In the era of social media, it is important for nations and its leaders to assert their views and personality by adopting smart public relation strategies. Mr. Cameron’s willingness to interact with the world through BBC shows that Downing Street clearly understands how to use modern communication tools to further Britain’s international image.

It was evident that the BBC used the full force of social media tools to get questions across to Mr. Cameron.  BBC’s audience from all over the world were encouraged to ask questions via Twitter, Facebook, Skype, e-mails and even phone calls.

Modern day communication is all about speaking directly to your core audience.  People, on the other hand, are more interested in listening to what the top leader has to say.  It is a strategy that is widely used by businesses: the reasons CEOs blog or the Fortune companies tweet on an average 25 times a week.

Mr. Cameron’s questions came from all over the world, which shows that people are curious about Britain’s voice in international affairs. The power of that voice rests greatly on the ability to do some smart pubic diplomacy aimed at winning peoples’ trust and hearts.

Mr. Cameron has impressed the world with his frankness. To a question about how it feels working from office which is also his home, he said in the mornings he works in pyjamas! 

It is about time that leaders from other nations take a cue from Mr. Cameron’s dynamism. Obviously, an Indian, for example, would want to know from its leaders directly what it is doing about poverty and climate change than from Mr. Cameron. Also, the world at large would want to know from the leaders of emerging economies about their views about pressing issues for the world.


Thursday, 6 June 2013

India's obsession with permissions

Working as a journalist in India, particularly for a foreign broadcaster, can be exciting but also ridiculously frustrating.

My Dutch correspondent and I went to a college affiliated to Delhi University. It was the first day of the new admission season; thousands of students were out to register themselves for Delhi University’s 70,000 odd seats.

We wanted to do a radio story about college admissions: the enthusiasm of first time college goers and the competiveness of India’s education system. It was a simple, light and positive story on students - we wanted to interview them to learn about their aspirations.

As we entered the college gate with my tall European looking correspondent, the security stopped us. I explain that we just want to do a radio interview. Half convinced he tells us to follow him, and soon we find ourselves in the principal’s room!
The principal welcomes us warmly, and asked us if the programme is going to be telecast in India. We tell him that we are a state broadcaster of Holland and it is for the Dutch audience. He says: “ I don’t think there is a memorandum of understanding between any university in Holland and Delhi university”

Unable to really comprehend his out of the blue statement, I clarify that we are a news organization and not a university. Then he says: “ Well, I haven’t heard about you (NOS) and since you don’t broadcast in India, it’s difficult to grant a permission.”

We tell him that this is just a simple students’ story, nothing political and that we are a resident journalists with a proper bureau in Delhi. “Well, that’s alright, but you are not registered with Press Trust of India”, he says.

We realize that he had no idea of what he was talking about and was hell bent in making things difficult for us. Without buying into his argument, we explain politely but firmly, that in a democracy it is not really desirable that journalists should be stopped from performing their duties.

He responds by saying: “ you can take an official view from me but can’t ask the students about the system." We understood that he wasn’t convinced about our story and presumed that we are there to expose something about the administrative affairs of the university.

To make him happy, we decide to do CI (our code for courtesy interviews) We ask him very general questions. Pleased with the interview, he allowed us to go and speak to the students, who had come to register for admission into new academic session.

We almost wasted one hour dealing with an unnecessary bureaucratic hurdle – something that we face at all levels right from the security guard to the top boss while doing stories in the Indian subcontinent.

India’s obsession with permission and the inability of the people to say ‘no’ is simply amusing. People  love to exercise their power in whatever way they can within their limited scope.

While permissions are required for even little things, the reason for not granting a filming permission can be mind blowing.

We were filming a special series on Delhi. We decided that the story should end with a shot of the presenter eating Indian food and exclaiming how great the food is!

We walk into a posh south Delhi restaurant for a good lunch. We tell the waiter that we want film for a a couple of minutes (a shot of the presenter munching the first bite). Immediately we are directed to the manager, who instantly refused to allow us to film.

The manger tells us that if we film, the competitors might just copy the recipe!  Amused by his reason for denying permission, we go on an offensive mode. We tell him that people take videos on mobiles while in a restaurant; we are only journalists and going to praise his food.  Finally he tells us to wait, disappears for while (pretending as if he had to consult someone) and returns to say  ‘no worries’! 

Please say 'no' if you cannot 

On one occasion, we went to a posh south Delhi school to seek permission for filming the school building for a special programme. One of the official told us that she would get back to us after discussing the matter with the principal. We kept calling her for the next four days. She kept on reassuring us that she would sort it out. On the day of the shoot, while we waited outside the gate, she told us on phone that she still haven’t had a chance to speak to the principal! We were appalled by such callous behavior, especially, coming from a teacher of an apparently a very affluent school.  A proper refusal would have been much appreciated rather keeping us in a limbo!

Recently, we had to wait almost two and half s to get journalist visa for Bangladesh. Since we didn’t pursue it, the visa never came. It is only when we spoke with a number of officials in the foreign office in Dhaka, we were granted the visas a week later from the date we requested for. The reason: ‘procedural delay’!

It is absolutely justified to ask if we have  a requisite permission, and as journalists we understand that. However, creating  unnecessary obstacles  even when we explain that we mean no harm, and it is only a general news story is indeed frustrating.

In an age when secret filming is rampant, nervousness with cameras is well understood. But it's disappointing when people express apprehension when we show our press cards and establish who we are. 

The overwhelming belief that foreign broadcasters tell negative stories is unfounded.  India has come-off an age, and India’s reputation abroad is really good, and there are a lot of positive talk about the country.

Yes, there are certain stories that  journalists have to do because they are newsworthy, and in many cases are shocking.  The purpose of such stories are not to demean a nation. They are human interest stories for which global awareness and collective action are required.

Recently, I worked on a BBC documentary on human trafficking. It was a strong story that exposed the suffering of young girls. Some viewers came forward to help the charities that were highlighted in the documentary. A Dutch pharmaceutical company, in fact visited a shelter home in Calcutta. It is now planning to raise thousands of dollars so the rescued girls have access to quality education. I am sure this will change a few lives.

Journalism is a noble profession, it’s objective is to inform and show the realities of a society based on in-depth research, observation and analysis. Clearly a ‘permission raj’ doesn’t really help the cause of anyone and is largely self defeating for a democracy.