Standard Deviation

The illusion of BBC India’s independent journalism

Media equipment outside the BBC office where Indian Income Tax officials were carrying out a “survey” for a second day on 15 February 2023. The survey was carried out weeks after the release of “India: The Modi Question.” Kabir Jhangiani / ZUMA Press Wire / Alamy
Media equipment outside the BBC office where Indian Income Tax officials were carrying out a “survey” for a second day on 15 February 2023. The survey was carried out weeks after the release of “India: The Modi Question.” Kabir Jhangiani / ZUMA Press Wire / Alamy
01 December, 2023

ONE AFTERNOON IN JANUARY 2023, Rupa Jha, the India head of the British Broadcasting Corporation, held a tense meeting with reporters and editors in the collaboration zone of its Delhi office. According to two staffers, Jha announced that the BBC’s London team was releasing a documentary that would be critical of Narendra Modi’s policies in India and examine his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence. Even though the documentary would not be aired in India, a journalist present in the room said, the team was told to be prepared for a backlash from his government. The journalist recalled the reaction of their colleagues to the meeting: “Why should BBC do this?” “The Supreme Court has acquitted him from everything, what’s the point of reopening this?” “We’ll face consequences.”

The first part of India: The Modi Question was released on 17 January. The documentary was largely based on an inquiry conducted by the British government, which held Modi, who had been chief minister in 2002, “directly responsible” for the violence. It also focussed on the treatment of Muslims during Modi’s reign as prime minister, since 2014. The Indian government called the documentary a “propaganda piece designed to push a particular discredited narrative” and banned it in the country. Another BBC journalist told me that Jha asked the staff to comply with the ban and not post about the documentary on social media. “If anyone expresses their opinion on social media, the BBC will not be responsible and strict action will be taken,” the employee recalled Jha saying in a Zoom meeting. (In response to a detailed emailed questionnaire about the allegations in this piece, a BBC spokesperson mentioned that the staff is “regularly reminded of the social media guidance including across BBC India—this is not unusual.”)

The expected consequences came soon enough. Around fifty personnel of the police and income tax department swarmed the Delhi office on 14 February. The government termed it a survey and not a raid, despite several BBC journalists reporting that the officials had confiscated their phones and searched their computers. A similar search was carried out in the Mumbai office. But, as a BBC employee pointed out to me that day, “The documentary was produced in London and broadcast there, not here in India.”

Outside the Delhi office, that evening, one could see two dominant approaches that news outlets took when reporting about the situation. Mainstream organisations parroted the government’s narrative about the BBC’s alleged tax evasion; some even raised absurd suspicions of “Chinese funding.” Meanwhile, alternative news outlets emphasised that the survey was an attack on the BBC, which they portrayed as a flagbearer of independent journalism, and a part of the ruling dispensation’s long trend to intimidate and silence critical journalists.

The truth of the matter lay somewhere in the middle, as I found over months of reporting on BBC India. A few months after the raids, unnamed officials told the media that the BBC had admitted to underreporting Rs40 crore of income in its tax returns. The organisation has not denied the claim. “The BBC is cooperating fully with the Indian tax authorities and will continue to do so,” the BBC spokesperson told me. “The process is ongoing and will take time to conclude. The BBC takes its tax obligations very seriously.”

While the BBC headquarters continued to support the documentary, that support did not appear to resonate in the corridors of the Delhi office. In its response to us, the BBC stated, “For the record, India: The Modi Question was made by BBC News in the UK without involvement of the bureau in India.” A BBC journalist told me that Modi supporters in the office have become more emboldened since the raids following the documentary. They recalled one such supporter commenting on the raids, “It’s good that this happened with them. Inko thikane lagana zaroori tha”—It was necessary to show them their place.

Mark Tully, the bureau chief of BBC in India, records a dispatch from the historic Jama Masjid in Delhi on 10 May 1994. Tully, who said that he “was extraordinarily lucky to be in a period where the BBC was so important in India,” pointed out that the corporation does not hold the same influence in the country it once did, because of the proliferation of private media outlets. Sondeep Shankar / Getty Images

THE BBC’S shortwave radio service reached India a decade after the corporation was founded, in 1922. It launched a Hindi service in the country, in May 1940, and eventually expanded to other languages—Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Punjabi—and other media, such as television and the internet. The BBC cultivated a separate English online team too, separate from the global team, which reports to the India bureau. Today, India appears to be one of the BBC’s largest markets. As of 2020, BBC News Hindi was the biggest digital service of the BBC, with a reach of 13 million. The BBC India offices now have an elaborate set-up, with multiple departments and a strength of about three hundred employees across the country.

In India, the BBC has historically been looked at as a news organisation that abides by values of old-school journalism, such as balance, accuracy and pursuing public-interest stories. Quoting the BBC would make you win any argument, Satish Jacob, a senior journalist who worked with BBC India in the 1970s, told me. Barring occasional trolling by the right-wing media, the BBC’s reputation of being a trusted news organisation largely remains. The fact-checking website Alt News has published several stories on how individuals try to impersonate the BBC to gain legitimacy for fake news.

But conversations with over thirty journalists who have been or are associated with the BBC revealed that the organisation was not living up to reputation. Journalists said that its regional language services—primarily BBC News Hindi—have often succumbed to clickbait, censorship and a majoritarian ideological bent. “Our stories are not different from any other Indian media house,” a senior BBC journalist told me. “We are forced to operate like them.”

Another senior BBC journalist said that the government is keeping a watch on their Hindi and English content. “Large population reads Hindi, and the elite and policymakers read English,” a second senior BBC journalist told me. “Since BBC Hindi is being monitored closely, people have started self-censorship.”

Consider some examples from BBC News Hindi. In the summer of 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India, the media and members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party blamed the Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim revivalist organisation, for holding an event that allegedly contributed to the “super-spreading” of the coronavirus. Many of the allegations against the organisation appeared to be false, as was later reported, and were not levelled against any other group that had conducted events during the pandemic. The incident led to an explosion of misinformation targeting Muslims.

In September that year, BBC News Hindi uploaded a social-media update of new COVID-19 cases and deaths that had occurred in the past day. The graphic had a photo of masked women wearing burqas. On 18 April 2021, with the Kumbh Mela having become a superspreading event during the lethal second wave, BBC News Hindi used the photo of a man in a skullcap covering his mouth with a handkerchief to illustrate a tweet about twenty-five thousand new cases the previous day. “That’s Islamophobia,” a BBC employee said of such tweets. “That is unconscious biasness, or maybe conscious biasness.”

On 12 June 2022, BBC News Hindi produced a video report about the demolition of Javed Mohammad’s house in Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh. The text in the report, accompanying visuals of the demolition, mentioned that Mohammad was named as a prime accused in the violent protests that had unfolded in the city the previous week. Mohammad had been arrested, and, on 11 June, his family was ordered to vacate the house. The video showed a police official assuring that action would be taken against perpetrators of the violence. This was followed by screenshots of tweets by the leader of the opposition, Akhilesh Yadav, questioning the validity of and the deputy chief minister, Keshav Prasad Maurya, retorting, “Rioters–stone pelters are beaten, and Shri Akhilesh Yadav is hurt. What is the reason?”

A cartoon posted on social media by the BBC in July 2018. According to an employee, in recent years, the BBC editors have rejected many cartoons by its employees without any explanation.