Thursday, March 18, 2010

Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage - Differing coverage by TOI and Hindu

I am a regular reader of The Hindu, but I do occasionally get to read The Times of India also as other guys in the hostel subscribe it. The fact that The Hindu and The Times of India (TOI) are two very different newspapers need not be repeated; however I am unable to control my urge to share with you what I observed – the massive differences between the two dailies with respect to the way they reported proceedings related to the recent ‘Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage Bill’.

The Hindu came out with a brilliant edit page-analysis of the text of the bill on Saturday, March 13th. [] The article by Brahma Chellany provided a meticulous analysis of the clauses. Needless to mention, edit page articles in Hindu are generally much longer (in terms of words) than their counterparts in TOI. While it is true that a voluminous article need not be better than a crisp one, but the points that I am about to mention shall nullify all hopes that TOI betters Hindu by putting more quality in lesser words.

1. Incomlete reporting:
On Thursday, March 11th, The Times of India (New Delhi edition) carried a front page report titled ‘N-liability bill trips on compensation’ []. The news-piece mentioned the bill as “critical to participation of US firms in atomic commerce with India”. However the TOI did not care to explain to its readers as to why the bill was ‘critical’ (if at all it is critical) for ensuring the participation by US firms. The explanation part was done in The Hindu (13th March edit piece). The Hindu explained to me that the bill would limit the liability – in case of a nuclear accident - of foreign suppliers to a maximum of Rs. 500 crore ($109 million) even in the worst of worst cases, i.e. even if the nuclear catastrophe causes damage in excess of Rs. 500 crore and it was the sole fault of the supplier. Thus “a foreign builder will need to take insurance for a mere Rs. 500 crore”[1]. Thus, as the Hindu article points out, “The Indian Bill, in effect, amounts to a huge hidden subsidy by protecting foreign reactor builders”. Thus, when TOI claimed that the bill was “critical” for ensuring participation of US firms, what it actually meant was that the bill was “critical” for ensuring easy profits to the US firms, and that even at the cost of the taxpayer[2].

2. Ridiculing opposition to the bill:
In the same TOI issue of March 11th, the newspaper carried an article on page 13, titled ‘Liability bill caps payout at Rs. 2.3k cr’ []. The newspaper did mention that the BJP, the Left and the Trinamool Congress opposed the bill. However, the TOI made no single reference to the faults in the bill that could have possibly created opposition to the bill. Instead, the TOI tried to create an impression that the opposition to the bill has been baseless, naïve and opportunistic. In particular, the article read, “… Trinamool Congress may (object) … (in order to) blunt any “advantage” to Left for opposing a “pro-US” move…” Moreover, in blatant transgression of journalistic ethics, the TOI tried to portray Muslim sentiments as being the main obstacle to passing of the bill. TOI read, “… Trinamool is ultra-sensitive about allergy its Muslim vote bank has to the US”. Please not two terms here – ‘allergy’ and ‘vote bank’. Somehow, the TOI is subtly trying to argue that Muslims do not have the right to have anti-US feelings, or that the feelings of Muslims are naïve (if at all they have such). Moreover, by somehow suggesting that Muslims are somehow responsible for the blocking of the bill (which TOI is presenting to be crucial for participation of US firms), the TOI maybe contributing to negative stereotypes against Muslims.

Contrast this with The Hindu. Although, the Hindu did criticize the Govt. on the grounds of supporting such a bill, but the Hindu never levelled allegations on the Congress party of wooing its urban vote bank who have an ‘affinity’ towards the US. The Congress was never criticized by the Hindu on the grounds that Congress members and ministers have family members in the US and therefore maybe overtly ‘pro-US’. Instead, the Hindu chose to calmly analyse the bill and criticize the bill rather than criticize the Congress. However, the path chosen by the TOI seems to be to ridicule the opponents of the bill, in order to subtly swing readers’ opinion in favour of the bill.

3. Moreover, of the few recent issues of The Times of India that I have read, I have never found a serious discussion of the clauses and facts related to the bill. For example, in its 16th March issue, the Hindu carried three different news items related to the bill, all on page 11. Since, so much about the bill was on one page, one would expect that the newspaper would tell its readers at least something about why the bill was being opposed. But alas, there was no explanation about the limited liability of foreign companies; there was no mention of the fact that victims of any nuclear disaster could not directly sue the foreign company and that only the Indian Govt. may sue the foreign company; there was also no mention of the 10 year-expiry rule of the ability to sue, and so on. In the news item titled ‘Govt defends bill as afterthought’ [] on the same page (i.e. page 11 of 16th March issue), phrases have been used so as to create an impression – without explanation – that the bill is in ‘national interest’. The phrases that have been used are, “… misconceptions of the new bill” (instead of possibly using “reservations against the new bill”); “… Deep political polarization has made the passage of the bill difficult”. Thus by using the term ‘polarization’, the TOI is subtly trying to suggest that it is petty politics that has held up the bill, and not principled opposition by informed politicians.

Obviously, my analysis is very amateurish and is certainly not serious research. But, I guess, from preliminary examination we can safely conclude that The Times of India is a newspaper that gives more of gossip than news; it is hardly worth the time of some serious reader.


[1] Because the Govt. shall be liable to pay compensation in excess of Rs. 500, and up to Rs. 2087 crore.