How not to cover a major strike

IN Media Practice | 06/03/2013
The magnitude and purpose of the protest was trivialised, especially by pink papers.
On top of that, they unquestioningly put out estimates of ‘loss to the nation’, says ABHISHEK SHAW.

The all-India general strike called by 11 central trade unions on February 20-21 was one of the biggest strikes in recent years. However, if one followed news surrounding the strike in the English press, one would find that hard to believe.

All English papers, including the pink papers, covered the two-day strike focussing on the violence in Noida, the ATMs without cash, ‘loss to the nation’, and most importantly whether the strike was ‘successful’ or ‘partial’. Some papers did not even mention the demands of strikers.

Day one of the strike was reported in all newspapers, though largely on inside pages. Economic Times (Chennai edition) did not give the story front-page space, but a single column on page 6, without mentioning any demands of the trade unions. An editorial accused the striking workers of being ‘labour aristocrats’, unwilling to allow labour law ‘reform’. In ET’s opinion, reforming labour laws is the only way to improve the situation of the working people of India, but the blatant illegal employment of workers by corporations through informal arrangements is not an issue worth discussing.  Some car manufacturing firms, for example, argue that ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ operations are different, and that they do not employ temporary workers in any of their ‘core’ car-making operations. Using this argument, they outsource most of the ‘non-core’ operations to logistics companies who employ casual labour. This argument is spurious simply because all forms of labour required to build a car are essential: without even one of them, the car cannot be produced.

Day two coverage was even less, in the aftermath of the Hyderabad bomb blasts. In fact, Deccan Chronicle’s Chennai edition did not carry a single news story about the strike making do with a short editorial, “Terrorising ‘unionism’.” The short piece asserts that the unions no longer understand unionism and that the violence in Noida ‘terrorised’ ‘ordinary people’. Further it says, “demands of the workers were routine, of a kind the government itself is trying to meet in its own interests – such as lowering inflation and expanding employment.” It summarily misrepresents the trade unions’ demands for a minimum wage of Rs 10,000, and their call to apply the principle of ‘same work same pay’ which has not been upheld, given rampant contractualisation of the workforce.

This was a common trend in most newspapers that focussed on the violence by workers, who indulged in ‘killing, looting and arson’, according to Economic Times. Yet the only life lost was that of Narendra Singh, treasurer of the All India Trade Union Congress, who was run over by a public bus while it was leaving the depot in a convoy of district officials in Noida. ET decided to say that the strike caused ‘killing’, which was subtly attributed to the workers, which again misrepresents facts.

None of the newspapers carried sufficient detail about how the activist was killed.  The second day of coverage also did not follow up on what actually led to the death of the worker. Whether it was really an accident or a deliberate use of brute force to break the strike remained unclear. However, the second day coverage highlighted how a Trinamool Congress member cut off the ear of a Panchayat member who was attempting to join the strike. This story was ‘political’ enough or newsworthy to report, while the real cause of the death of Narendra Singh was not.

The other aspects of the reportage involved emphasis on how ‘ordinary people’ were affected by the strike, all the while emphasising that workers were either a fringe group in society, or that they were ‘self-serving’, as some of the editorials said.

Another rather disturbing fact that was continuously highlighted was the ‘loss to the nation’ which, according to ASSOCHAM, was about Rs 26,000 crore. The source of this information is an association of factory owners. They have a direct interest in spreading propaganda against workers who are demanding higher wages, which will directly impact capitalist profits. Yet the media decided to report these ‘estimates’ uncritically, and simply attributed it to ASSOCHAM.

‘Loss to the nation’ is an interesting idea. Does it mean that the exchequer loses revenue of Rs 26,000 crore, or does it mean that private industries lose that much? Or does it mean that Rs 26,000 crore of potential profit is not realised? If it means the latter, then doesn’t the mismatch between the wage and the value produced by a worker mean a loss as well?

The English press has almost consistently taken a stance supporting the ‘common man’, while forgetting that the most ‘common man’ in India resides in the rural hinterland, and most likely works for someone who can afford to employ him/her.

The media has misrepresented labour strikes as criminal acts, devoid of context and purpose. The strife between labour and capital is fundamental to the politics of our society today. The blatantly skewed reportage of the media only tells us that English-speaking India is being drawn further and further away from the real issues of our times.

Abhishek Shaw is a student at the Asian College of Journalism. 

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