John Oliver on Modi: The Last Week Tonight Host Has Done What Indian Media Has Failed to Do

Social Commentary

John Oliver on Modi: The Last Week Tonight Host Has Done What Indian Media Has Failed to Do

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Given his fondness for walls, implementation of detention centres, and general distrust of foreigners, you’d be forgiven for thinking that US President Donald Trump is not one for bringing people together. Even so, POTUS has managed to bring together two disparate groups in their coverage of his trip to India: Indian news reporters and American talk show hosts. While news channels at home have been feverishly following the trail of Cheeto dust that Trump presumably leaves in his wake from Ahmedabad to Agra to Delhi, talk show hosts like Trevor Noah and John Oliver are mining the Trump-Modi meeting for comedy material in their segments.

While Noah stuck to ridiculing Trump’s gaffe-laden speech, Oliver went for a more incisive approach, taking a look at Modi’s connection to Hindutva ideology and how his second term is facing a wave of public resistance after passing the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. Oliver’s segment on Modi was not flattering, and indeed, the comments section of the video on YouTube was predictably soon flooded with people calling out John Oliver and his show, Last Week Tonight, for having an anti-India bias. He was called out for his sources – Al-Jazeera and The New York Times – by people who are likely to consider whatever is published on Postcard News as the gospel truth, no matter how many times it is exposed as a peddler of fake news.

There’s no denying that Oliver’s segment on Modi will have offended many of the Indian Prime Minister’s supporters. But as far as the commentary went, he saved his most stinging barbs for Trump, not Modi. In fact, if you listen close enough, you might even be able to hear faint praise for Modi. The host called Modi’s personal story “inspirational”, made repeated mention of his “significant appeal” among India’s voters, and gave Modi and his government credit for improving the lives of the poor by providing gas connections and building toilets to end open defecation. He even pointed out how Modi seems to have barely aged a day since he first covered him in a segment in 2014, while Oliver himself looks comparatively haggard.

But as far as the commentary went, John Oliver saved his most stinging barbs for Trump, not Modi.

True, the meat of the story was focussed on the negatives, but what is noteworthy is how Oliver still found time to touch upon the positives, which is a lesson that Indian commentators and journalists could learn from his coverage. While it doesn’t bode well for Indian journalism that a British comedian in America is providing more balanced coverage than our own publications and channels, at least the public can finally enjoy a piece of content that isn’t blatantly leaning one way or the other. Despite his scathing criticism, Oliver chose to follow the middle path, which might have been the best possible route from which to approach a story of this nature.

John Oliver is not a journalist, yet he still managed to paint an accurate picture of his subject – shades of grey included. But between the labels of “presstitute” and “Godi media”, it seems like Indian journalists are only capable of working in black and white. Just as liberals like to make fun of Arnab Goswami for being a government shill, right-wingers delight in ridiculing Barkha Dutt and painting her as a Muslim apologist. Goswami and Dutt might be the two most recognisable faces on either side of the aisle, but there are many others in their moulds – anchors and reporters who enjoy wholehearted support from those within their ideological echo chamber, but are cast as clowns by their detractors outside it.

Perhaps the gulf between John Oliver’s fairly balanced story and Indian TV news’ often biased narratives is a product of their environments. The political atmosphere in India has become more polarised than any other time in recent memory, and some of that has naturally seeped into the media. On the other hand, Oliver has the benefit of being an outside spectator; not having a horse in this race means he (and his extensive team of researchers and producers) were able to see what those closer to the issues here in India were not.

Now, a day after its release, the video is trending in the top 10 videos on YouTube. (But has not been aired on Hotstar.) Maybe its success will mean that Indian TV news channels, forever hungry for more TRPs and eyeballs, take a leaf out of Oliver’s book, and cut back on the prevalent bias. We can only hope. Or change the channel.