Byline by M.J. Akbar : Nothing New About Page 3
The Gazette was launched by James Augustus Hickey.However, Hickey’s own publication did not survive much longer, but it was not "scurrilous" journalism that brought him down. He lost the battle of power with Hastings. On 14 November 1780 a diktat was issued from Fort William: "Public notice is hereby given that as a weekly newspaper called the Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser, printed by J.A. Hicky, has lately been found to contain several improper paragraphs tending to vilify private characters and to disturb the peace of the Settlement, it is no longer permitted to be circulated through the channel of the General Post Office."
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Exactly 225 years ago this week, the first Indian newspaper, a weekly, was published from the capital of the rising (although still far from pre-eminent) power of the subcontinent, the British Raj.
It was in the language that would soon become the lingua franca of power, English. Its owner was egoistic enough to name the paper after himself, which made him suitable for media. The owner was also its editor, which makes him a contemporary spirit. And it might be of some comfort to present-day newspaper owners to realise that Hicky’s Bengal Gazette had a second name, the Calcutta General Advertiser.
It appeared on January 29, 1780, the year in which Writer’s Building was completed in Calcutta to serve as the office of the junior civil servants of the East India Company; Gwalior became a feudatory state of the British; Haidar Ali an ally of the French when they declared war on Britain; and governor general Warren Hastings fought a duel in Calcutta with the aspirant for his job, Sir Philip Francis (neither died, though Hastings had the better of the encounter).
No line has better summed up the nature of the media business than the Gazette’s motto: "A Weekly Political and Commercial Paper, Open to all Parties, but influenced by None." News must be political and commercial. A newspaper must be open to all interests but subject to none. It must offer due respect to advertising. When you consider that there was a spelling mistake in the title, and lots of Calcutta gossip on its pages, then all the components of a modern newspaper may be found in the path breaker. After all, what is a newspaper without a typo?
The Gazette was launched by James Augustus Hickey (I presume you’ve noticed the typo), one of the most exotic stars of a multicoloured era. We think of the British as staid Victorian gentlemen with stiff necks and stiffer upper lips. But they stiffened after the uprising of 1857, when India was incorporated formally into the British Empire. As long as the buccaneers of the East India Company, who created British rule, were in charge, life was not only more flexible but also more interactive with Indians. The officials of John Company were a different breed whose favourite toast after victory at Plassey (Palashi) was to hope for "a lass and a lakh a day". After the excesses of Robert Clive and the corruption charges against Hastings, a lakh a day became more difficult, but the former option flourished. Many of the Sahibs were delighted to turn "native" as they discovered the pleasures of not merely living in India, but living in India like Indians.
Job Charnock, who founded Calcutta, married Leela, a beautiful Brahmin girl he rescued from suttee. Francis Day chose the site of the Madras fort only because it was near his Indian mistress’ home. The first British resident after the capture of Delhi in 1803, David Ochterlony, popularly known as "Loony Akhtar", deserves all the legends attached to his name; he was accompanied by all 13 of his wives when he went out to "take the air" every evening in Delhi, each wife on a separate elephant. Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta between 1823 and 1826, could not take his eyes off Bengali beauties bathing in the river at five in the morning and confessed that "the deep bronze tint was more naturally agreeable to the human eyes than the fair skins of Europe".
Hickey, a good journalist, wrote a splendid account of his Indian Bibi, the superbly named Jemdanee who "lived with me, respected and admired by all friends for her extraordinary sprightliness and great humour. Unlike the women in Asia she never secluded herself from the sight of strangers; on the contrary she delighted in joining my male parties, cordially joining in the mirth which prevailed though never touching wine or spirits of any kind".
So it was an exercise in double standards (typical, did I hear?) when Hickey sent the circulation of his paper up by sensational reporting on the first adultery case to reach the Calcutta High Court. The principal accused were Madame Grand, a young Dutch-English woman of exceptional beauty, who was born near Pondicherry and blossomed in Chandernagore, and, astonishingly, went on to marry Napoleon’s brilliant foreign minister Prince Talleyrand; and Philip Francis, Hastings’ quarrelsome deputy, who was caught by unobliging servants while clambering over the wall of her compound while her husband was away at dinner. (The servants refused to accept a bribe for letting their prisoner get away.) The first sittings of the trial commenced on 8 February 1779, just in time for circulation growth. There is something to be said for the theory that Francis left India not because of his duel with Hastings, but because of the scandal.
If the laws of libel made it difficult to publish a story, Hickey happily switched to transparent pseudonyms like "Pompos" or "Turban Conquest" or "Hooka Turban" or "Chinsurah Belle". Here is an example of journalist double entendre: "March, 1781. Public Notice: Lost on the Course, last Monday evening, Buxey Clumsy’s heart, whilst he stood simpering at the footstep of Hooka Turban’s carriage: as it is supposed to be in her possession, she is desired to return it immediately, or to deliver up her own as a proper acknowledgment."
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As one commentator noted, Hickey "admitted contributions which, while hypocritically affecting to teach and uphold public and private morality, in reality pandered to the impulses of the prurient and the vicious". Anyone recognise anything familiar? The owner-editor, of course, never descended from his high pedestal, pompously noting, in one instance, "Lothario’s letter and poetry is received, but is not fit for insertion, nor will anything ever be inserted in the Bengal Gazette that can possibly give offence to the ladies".
He was always happy, though, to give offence to the men.
Success, but naturally, encouraged competition. Success was not necessarily financial success, but Hickey’s power became phenomenal. And so a salt agent called Peter Reed, in partnership with a theatre-person named B. Messink (I could not have made up a name like Messink for a fictional newspaper proprietor even if I had tried), started the India Gazette in 1781. Hastings, who hated Hickey’s guts, helped the new paper. It was "well-printed," with four pages of 16 inches long, divided into three columns. Hickey joyfully nicknamed his rivals "Peter Nimmuck" (as in salt, of course) and "Barnaby Grizzle" (for reasons I have not been able to discover, but perhaps Messink was fat and bearish). Hickey was in rapture when the India Gazette closed down because Grizzle cheated Nimmuck.
Hickey’s own publication did not survive much longer, but it was not "scurrilous" journalism that brought him down. He lost the battle of power with Hastings. On 14 November 1780 a diktat was issued from Fort William: "Public notice is hereby given that as a weekly newspaper called the Bengal Gazette or Calcutta General Advertiser, printed by J.A. Hicky, has lately been found to contain several improper paragraphs tending to vilify private characters and to disturb the peace of the Settlement, it is no longer permitted to be circulated through the channel of the General Post Office." In a private letter to a friend in England, Hastings explained why he had been emboldened to act against Hickey. Hastings wrote that since his formidable enemy, Philip Francis, announced he would leave India, "I shall have no competitor to oppose my designs, to encourage disobedience to my authority, to excite and foment popular odium against me. In a word, I shall have power, and I will employ it."
I shall have power, and I will employ it. How many rulers of India have thought the same since!
And how many journalists have responded in the manner Hickey did? Enough to ensure the honour of the profession. His paper was more noble in death than it had been in life.
Talking in the third person, Hickey responded: "Before he will bow, cringe, or fawn to any of his oppressors … he would compose ballads and sell them through the streets of Calcutta as Homer did. He has now but three things to lose: his honour in the support of his paper, his liberty, and his life; the two latter he will hazard in defence of the former, for he is determined to make it a scourge of all schemers and leading tyrants; should these illegally deprive him of his liberty and confine him in a jail, he is determined to print there with every becoming spirit suited to his care and the deserts of his oppressors… Shall I tamely submit to the yoke of slavery and wanton oppression? No!"