Top Gear, Jay Leno: Does India have a global media strategy?

If India has a global media strategy at the moment, it appears to be, "Control the message".

When the Indian High Commission in London overreacted to Top Gear's India special, it was obvious they needed to grow a sense of humour.

But now that they're calling on the US government to act over Jay Leno's use of an image of the Sikh holy site, the Golden Temple, you have to wonder whether this is an exercise in co-ordinated control.

Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi said: "The American government should also look at this kind of thing. Freedom does not mean hurting the sentiments of others. . . This is not acceptable to us and we take a very strong objection for such a display."

If anyone knows the US, and most of us do inescapably, then we know that no US government would ever attempt to silence a comedian over a joke. They might be equally unamused, but such a blatant act against the American constitution's First Amendment protecting free speech would fail against public opinion and in the courts.

And if anyone has ever seen Jay Leno, they know he's not been particularly funny for a number of years. The best bits any week were usually from highlighting mistakes in newspapers sent to The Tonight Show he hosts.

 Top Gear, Jay Leno: Does India have a global media strategy?

If anyone knows the US, and most of us do inescapably, then we know that no US government would ever attempt to silence a comedian over a joke. Reuters

Some have called for Leno to be fired for the joke and the petition online argues that Leno is clearly racist.

The use of the Golden Temple might not have been the most sensible choice, but it was designed to illustrate a running joke of the US election currently, that candidate Mitt Romney has significant wealth. It's entirely within the rights of the Sikh community to object and to question the choice, even ask for an apology. The issue is whether it is for the Indian government to get involved in every foreign mention of Indian politics, faith or society.

Let's leave aside whether the government might have better things to do with its energy — including promoting the nation for investment abroad.

It isn't just in Washington or London that the government is focusing on India's image. At home, they have in recent months targeted news and entertainment output at home, as well as social media output. It has already been said, by myself included, that the idea of walls to protect Indian hearts and minds from online comments flowing from outside is unworkable and over-reactive. So why bother talking about it?

It is a very strange approach, to criticise foreign media highlighting India on one hand, while trying to prevent access to any criticism of the country from within the nation's borders.

Insults and defamation against individuals is not constructive or healthy in a civil society. But any institution or public official must accept that they can be criticised and scrutinised in a democracy. That includes everything from government to religion, and just because you examine or even satirise the institutions of organised religion does not mean you are disrespecting a person's faith. To prosecute Catholic priests for abuse of children in the US or Ireland, does not mean the faith is invalid. To hide the crime in the name of preserving the faith would be even worse.

There is a lot of interest in India, and it noticeably increased in 2011 across online media. It's hard to necessarily tell if that is a natural interest in news around the globe, or a realisation amongst those web businesses that there are so many people — and therefore potential web hits — that they need to cater to India in the same way major news sites now cater to the US market.

But all that interest means you cannot control the message all the time. It's natural to worry about reputation. India wants, and certainly deserves, respect on the global stage. Respect doesn't necessarily mean you won't be criticised or even mocked. Every nation and religion has been made fun of at some point - daily.

Stories such as Top Gear in India or Jay Leno and the Golden Temple won't end tomorrow. So the Indian public need to ask what should be their government's focus: try to control the message at home and abroad; or work to make India a nation that inspires respect everywhere, regardless of the jokes.

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Updated Date: Jan 25, 2012 13:37:05 IST