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Response to Review of The News of Empire: Telegraphy, Journalism and the Politics of Reporting in Colonial India

I would like to thank Anindita Ghosh, whose work on print history in Bengal has provided some of the inspiration for my own study of journalism and technology in colonial South Asia, for her careful reading and generous commentary on my book. By way of response, I would like to address what I understand to be the three main points of criticism Dr. Ghosh raises: the lack of engagement with vernacular newspapers and, by extension, the issue of government control over the vernacular press in colonial South Asia; the book’s failure to deliver its alleged promise of examining how cultures of orality intersected with the field of news journalism; and, finally, the review’s conclusion that the book ‘excels [in] an area that … was under-emphasized …  – the material culture of news and news making – rather than in its stated objectives of outlining the interconnected story of technology, modernity and print-culture’. I will conclude by responding briefly to the more minor charge that the book should have included a reference to David Arnold’s pioneering study of ‘everyday technology’ in India.(1)

With regard to the first point, it is indeed true that the focus of the book is on English-language newspapers published in colonial South Asia in the course of the 19th century. As Dr. Ghosh acknowledges, the introduction contains a section on methodology (pp. 25–8), in which I discuss the main criteria that informed the selection of the newspapers examined. Briefly, they were: a newspaper’s use of telegraphy, which inevitably meant a bias towards daily newspapers that placed a greater emphasis on the timely reporting of news and were often published in English; a newspaper’s lifespan and current availability in the archives and libraries I was able to visit; the book’s own thematic focus on the development of the press in the 19th century, a period that witnessed the introduction of electric telegraphy in the Indian subcontinent; project manageability; and, of course, my own linguistic abilities.

Hindi is the only South Asian language I am able to read, albeit imperfectly. This is certainly not ideal, since full-fledged daily journalism in this language was a development of the early 20th century rather than the period I have studied. As Francesca Orsini has discussed in her work, ‘While Urdu newspapers flourished in the nineteenth century, the only Hindi daily launched in the North Western Provinces was more the result of an experiment than of existing demand (Hindosthan, 1883)’. Calcutta, she goes on to point out, was ‘an early centre of the Hindi press’, due to the ‘concentration of Marwari capital and of Bengali publishing … But it was only between 1910 and 1920 that political weeklies, and dailies after 1920, grew in every town into real focuses of political activity, and often of factionalism, attracting activists and writers.’(2)

This caveat notwithstanding, as the introduction also suggests, the book does contain occasional references to news published in Bharat Jiwan, a Hindi weekly from Benares, whose news-reporting practices I examined in the issues published in July 1884. Based on this analysis, the book highlights some of the main points of difference between reporting in English-language and vernacular newspapers, for example in the field of meteorological news, newspaper layout and the reporting of foreign and domestic news (pp. 178, 270, 282). Perhaps the most remarkable difference was Bharat Jiwan’s practice of publishing domestic and foreign items of intelligence in the same section (called samāchārāvalī or ‘News miscellany’), a stark contrast to their English-language counterparts’ usual insistence on the segregation of these two categories of news. Furthermore, the format of the telegram was not clearly identifiable in the issues of Bharat Jiwan examined, although this was not the case with another Hindi weekly, Shree Venkateshwar Samachar, published from Bombay at the beginning of the 20th century, which featured a ‘Gist of Telegrams’ (tārsār) dedicated to the reporting of foreign news, including Reuters telegrams (p. 282). In this respect, one of the main arguments of the book was that, although it is possible to trace the crystallization of certain trends and patterns of reporting, both for the English-language and vernacular newspapers examined, it is equally important to emphasize that there was also plenty of room for innovation and diversity in the way news journalism was practiced.

While I agree that this degree of engagement with vernacular sources is not sufficient and I can only hope that other scholars will be stimulated to pick up the threads of inquiry this book has begun to suggest, I would, however, like to stress that the book is not based solely on the examination of English-language sources, be they primary or secondary. In fact, it also makes use of material in languages like Japanese, French and Romanian, for example in its attempt to highlight the interest of the Japanese Telegraph Association in the development of the Indian telegraph network, as reflected in the pages of their Denshin kyōkai kaishi (Bulletin of the Telegraph Association, pp. 96–7) or the global appeal of Indian news, which reached, albeit sometimes in highly misreported form, audiences in regions as geographically and culturally remote as Transylvania (p. 151; also pp. 150–1, 295–6, on interactions with the press in Japan). It is an aspect of the book that I am keen to emphasize, not least because this type of auto-ethnographic confession suggests how my own educational training in a number of academic traditions has shaped the type of history I write, amongst others by prompting me to uncover connections and exchanges that have received less attention in previous literature.

While reconstructing the mechanisms of press control put in place by the colonial government, especially in relation to the distribution of official intelligence via the electric telegraph, was an important aim of the book, it was not, however, my intention to suggest that such mechanisms were unequivocally successful in practice. On the contrary, there is a constant emphasis throughout the book on the need to distinguish between the discourses and practices of telegraphy (e.g. chapter two, ‘Sites of practice and discourses of telegraphy’, pp. 95–147). Put differently, the book argues that we need to distinguish between colonial regulations – of telegraphy, of the press – as they appeared on paper and their actual processes of implementation, which were much more fraught and complicated than the colonial machinery itself would have us believe. It is for this reason, for example, that I refer to A. R. Venkatachalapathy’s pertinent remark about the imperfect and ‘limited’ manner in which the colonial government was able to survey the printing presses and literary production in colonial Tamilnadu (p. 11).(3) It is also for this reason that I point out that there is no indication that Sir Owen T. Burne’s elaborate proposal to ‘divide-and-rule’ the press in India by assigning newspapers to ‘imaginary classes’ and playing them against each other through the supply of official intelligence in a preferential and discriminatory manner was ever implemented in the way he envisaged it (pp. 220–9). Perhaps more relevant, for the overall argument of the book, is my attempt to show how vernacular – and, indeed, English-language – newspapers that were either excluded from the press message privilege which would have enabled them to receive telegraphic news at reduced rates or could not afford to subscribe to Reuters’ services, successfully eschewed such prohibitive government regulations and financial barriers. One example was the practice of newspapers that did not subscribe to Reuters to publish its telegrams, oftentimes without attribution: in fact, ‘clipping’ news was not necessarily an ‘objectionable’ practice in the early days of journalism, but it became increasingly so after the advent of news agencies whose business model was based on the commodification of news (pp. 247–53).

With regard to the second point of criticism, contrary to what the review suggests, it was not my intention to engage in any substantial way with the world of non-print, but merely to acknowledge its relevance to the topic by way of occasional examples. In fact, the introduction (p. 3) acknowledges this ‘narrow focus’ of the book on printed news and goes on to point out, drawing on Francesca Orsini’s work on the intersection of oral and print cultures in colonial north India, that this should not be interpreted as an endorsement of a ‘rigid distinction between printed and written news’.(4) Indeed, as Dr. Ghosh rightly points out and her own work has convincingly borne out, such a distinction between the world of print and orality is not tenable. In this context, the above caveat was meant to acknowledge the limitations of my own approach, limitations that were dictated primarily by considerations of manageability and my own interest in the history of print journalism. My contribution to the topic was to outline some of the ways in which orality intersected with the history of news journalism, for example in the field of reading aloud or by pointing out that word of mouth could travel faster than intelligence via the latest technology of communication (e.g. during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, p. 131). In the former case, I argued that practices of collective reading and reading aloud were not restricted to Indian audiences but, contrary to what British colonizers themselves often suggested, were also encountered among Europeans in the 19th century, whether in the confines of their homes, in clubs or coffee shops (p. 187).

Coming to the third point, the stated aim of the book was to ponder how technologies of communication and English-language journalism intersected in 19th-century India by looking specifically at the example of the electric telegraph and its incorporation into news reporting practices (p. 2). Reconstructing the material culture of news and news making was central to this exercise and involved examining the relationship between telegraphy and journalism from three complementary angles: 1) tracing the routes along which news travelled and understanding how technology enabled its circulation, 2) ‘embedding the use of technology in the specific socio-economic and historical circumstances of the period examined and identifying the social networks that shaped the exchange of news’, and 3) conceptualizing newspapers as ‘sites of practice’ of telegraphy and ‘examining specific instances of reporting in order to understand how the format and content of news journalism developed’ in the course of the 19th century (p. 25). In other words, one of the arguments of the book was that reconstructing the material culture of news was essential to understanding the relationship between news journalism and technology. While previous studies of the history of telegraphy in the Indian subcontinent have certainly engaged with questions of modernity (5), as Dr. Ghosh also points out, my contribution to the topic was to highlight the manner in which that technological modernity was fraught not only for the colonized Indians, but also for the colonizers themselves, a point that has received much less emphasis, particularly in accounts of telegraphy as a ‘tool of Empire’.(6) This perspective is also connected to the earlier point about the need to distinguish between the discourses and practices of telegraphy.

Lastly, the bulk of this book, which is based on a doctoral dissertation submitted to the University of Heidelberg in 2012, was written before the publication of David Arnold’s study of ‘everyday technology’ in India. This explains the lack of reference to that particular book, although the study does engage with his earlier work on the history of science, technology and medicine.(7) Arnold’s book, with its emphasis on sewing machines, bicycles, typewriters and rice mills, highlighted the manner in which a scholarly preference for ‘big’ technologies like steamers, telegraphs and railways – a sin of which I confess to be guilty myself, at least in this particular book – has led to the neglect of ‘smaller’ technologies which have played a central role in the lives of millions of Indians. In the same time, by showing that a significant percentage of the sewing machines, typewriters, cash registers, matches, etc. that entered the Indian market after the turn of the 20th century were not of British, but of American, German and Japanese manufacture, Arnold also documented how extra-colonial interactions and networks of exchange shaped the history of technology in India. I hope that some of this spirit, of going beyond the British experience, can also be distilled from my own book, in particular in its conceptualization of journalism as ‘an enterprise predicated upon the circulation of intelligence and opinion’ (p. 23) that involved multiple layers of participants across geographical, socio-economic, political, institutional and technological divides. 

Notes

  1. David Arnold, Everyday Technology: Machines and the Making of India’s Modernity (Chicago, IL, and London, 2013).Back to (1)
  2. Francesca Orsini, The Hindi Public Sphere, 1920–1940: Language and Literature in the Age of Nationalism (New Delhi, 2011), p. 63. In this connection, see also R. R. Bhatnagar, The Rise and Growth of Hindi Journalism (Varanasi, 2003).Back to (2)
  3. A. R. Venkatachalapathy, The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu (New Delhi, 2012), p. 183.Back to (3)
  4. Francesca Orsini, Print and Pleasure: Popular Literature and Entertaining Fictions in Colonial North India (Ranikhet, 2009).Back to (4)
  5. E.g. D. K. Lahiri Choudhury, Telegraphic Imperialism: Crisis and Panic in the Indian Empire, c. 1830 (Basingstoke, 2010).Back to (5)
  6. Daniel Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford, 1981).Back to (6)
  7. David Arnold, Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (Cambridge, 2004).Back to (7)