India’s First News Scandal

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Newspapers and the Government have been at loggerheads with each other. Today, History repeats itself - yet again.

On March 23, 1782, a prominent newspaper was shut down and its owner arrested, after he called the then-Governor General of India, Warren Hastings, “the miserable successor of Lord Clive.” Its printing presses were dismantled and taken away, while its founder and editor, James Augustus Hicky, languished in jail (soon released, however).

It was the end of India’s first newspaper – Hicky’s Bengal Gazette. Hicky, the owner, toyed with mocking the government, and crossed the law in the process.

This week, the New Delhi Television Limited (NDTV), one of India’s prominent news outlets, faced the aftermath of a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigation into the company’s loan history. The backdrop is the running animosity between the channel and the ruling government – not entirely dissimilar to Hicky’s feud with the Governor General.

Newspaper feuds in India are as old as the oldest newspapers themselves. As NDTV respond to the allegations against them, we look back to the scandal that dominated India’s (and even Asia’s) first newspaper, the Bengal Hicky’s Gazette.

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Started by James Augustus Hicky in 1780, the Bengal Gazette spent two years in circulation as a largely unregulated two-sheet weekly. Its motto read:

A Weekly, Political and Commercial Paper, Open to All Parties but Influenced by None.

Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was a popular publication with a wide circulation. For it published stories of gossip and extravagance of the British elite in Calcutta’s party-going circles. What took India’s first newspaper down after only two years was a public feud between its owner and the first Governor-General of India, Warren Hastings.

Hastings, like Hicky, had landed in India on a boat with no big names behind him. Hastings reached India first, in 1750, a period when the country was strife with chaos. The East India Company had yet to cement a uniform rule of law. In 1756, political instability saw Calcutta, a major British trading post, invaded by the Nawab of Bengal. Hastings was taken prisoner and thrown into Calcutta’s notorious “Black Hole” prison. Conditions there were so bad that he had managed to break out.

He returned soon after with an army, and retook Calcutta. His conduct and subsequent affairs won him the position of governor-general of India in 1776.

In 1778, Hicky was already a prisoner, unable to pay the debts he incurred in the shipping business. A memoir by William Hicky (unrelated to James) recounts the first impression one had of the Irishman.

I had only been a few days in Calcutta when I received a letter from a Mr. James Augustus Hicky, then a prisoner for debt in the common jail, requesting I would have the goodness to call upon him. I did so and found a most eccentric creature apparently possessed of considerable natural talents, but entirely uncultivated. Never before had I beheld a mortal who so completely came up to what I had often heard described as “a wild Irishman”!

Hicky’s reputation for violent outbursts against his lawyers preceded him, and none were willing to defend him in court. He needed William, who took up his case along with two other lawyers. Mid-trial, Hicky erupted at the other lawyer – who resigned the case in a huff. William took a stern tone with Hicky, as he reported:

I told him he was a lying vagabond scoundrel, who ought, and should for me, rot in jail.

It brought the Irishman to tears, who pleaded his case and vowed to listen to the lawyer better. The judges, moved, freed him of his debts. Hicky was free from jail, and had an idea. Whilst in prison, he had acquired the tools needed for a printing press. His intention in setting up the Bengal Gazette was to cater to the local European population, not less than 200 people.

Besides poetry and general advertisements, Hicky also wrote direct accounts of the parties of the rich and famous. He disapproved of the ostentatious displays of wealth, and often directly critiqued party goers for their attire. It was imbibed with a sharp wit, as Hicky seems to have found much comic material in the local Europeans. He gave them pseudonyms, and pointed out who had stolen what and from which party along with requests from the owners for their return.

It was spite that gave Hicky his journalistic teeth. The very year that Hicky’s Bengal Gazette was published, a Government order emerged banning its circulation through the General Post Office. Hicky responded by lampooning the judges behind the order. He started to heavily criticize the government; from its failures in the Maratha War to the corruption of East India Company officers and the hanging of Maharaja Nanda kumar (the first hanging under British rule). He nicknamed Elijah Impey, a close friend of Hastings, ‘poolbundy’ for using nepotism to secure a contract to build a bridge (pool being a word for bridge at the time).

Hicky’s Irish temper was triggered when a government publication, the India Gazette, emerged and tried to poach his subscribers. Worse, the Gazette received a subsidy on its circulation through the General Post. This sent Hicky on the warpath towards Hasting’s wife, who he alleged was approached in secret with an offer by the India Gazette. He kept up a campaign of irritating Hastings – and matters reached court once Hicky called Warren “the miserable successor of Lord Clive”.

It was libel territory, and Hicky was dragged to court. After insulting the judge for associating with Hastings, Hicky surprisingly won the case on his own defence. But he returned to court but a few months later after an article called for the army to mutiny. A Reverend whom Hicky had called a “Mammon” also filed for libel at the same time.

Paying large fines, Hicky went to prison. But his paper ran on, dragging the names of the powerful through the dirt. Fictional plays and stories personified Hicky’s increasing score of rivals. In one, Elijah auctioned away Justice itself, while the presiding judge, Robert Chambers, connived with Hastings and his associates over their unwanted media attention:

A Pox [on] these boobies

They keep such a bother.

Six more lawsuits crushed Hicky’s paper and his finances. At first, the judges refused to confiscate Hicky’s printing press – prompting a rare statement of praise from his part for having “protected the Liberty of the subject, and the Liberty of the Press.” But soon, those too were seized away.

Hicky was released from jail on the pardon of Hastings.  His later life is unknown. His charges of corruption against Hastings were vindicated by the seven-year-trial and impeachment that soon followed in Britain. And Hicky set the stage for a slew of publications that, if not as belligerent as his own, were also critical of the government.

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Defaming the powerful then, as with today, was an unexpected consequence of the freedom to print and express oneself. The British sedition law, Section 124A, written a century after Hicky’s Gazette closed shop, gave sweeping powers to the government to prosecute those who would speak against it. It remains in force today.

124A also had to do with slander. But it was libel, the written (and assumed to be permanent) form of slander, that was particularly punishable. Defamatory libel, under Section 499, is still used today by industrialists and politician.

Hicky wrote of leaders and powerful figures with an irreverence that is considered almost impossible today – and was considered libel then. NDTV has often criticized the government since it took power, but it is not being investigated for libel.

However, the CBI raids followed mere days after a BJP spokesperson was asked to leave an NDTV debate for accusing the channel of having an agenda. And just on Monday evening, a broadcast by the channel’s senior executive editor, Ravish Kumar, spoke of a prevailing atmosphere of fear among Delhi’s journalists. Could these just be coincidences?

From its very inception in India, journalism has had to fight to stay alive. There are many ways that this fight can reach a courtroom. The hope is that freedom of expression can survive the government’s attempts to muzzle the free press.

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