An old twisted tale of press freedom

From the killing of journalists Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari to numerous recent attempts by governments to harass, intimidate and restrain media organisations, India’s record on press freedom is slipping ignominiously. Last month’s World Press Freedom Index Report by Reporters Without Borders placed India 138th out of 180 countries: It downgraded India's position from 136, just one spot above Pakistan and one below Myanmar.


The struggle by embattled journalists to fight suppression by government, commercial and religious interests is an old, bitter story; it’s never been better told than in compelling new research by a young American historian and Fulbright scholar. Hicky’s Bengal Gazette, which ran for two years (1780-82), before being thrown into jail and run out of Calcutta (now Kolkata). Desperate and destitute, his corpse was thrown off a ship sailing for China.


Wild fortune-seeking Irishman or scurrilous scandal-monger, the bare bones of Hicky’s story are widely-known — of how he relentlessly exposed the web of corruption surrounding the ruthless, free-booting Governor-General Warren Hastings, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Sir Elijah Impey, and the German priest Johann Kiernander (whose dreams of establishing a grand church and schools for the poor were a self-enriching rip-off).


One reason why Hicky’s story has never been pieced together in detail is because some of the material is lost, inaccessible, or widely dispersed. There is, for example, no visual image of the man himself though archives bristle with portraits of the grandees of the time. Mr Otis describes what he was up against during his five-year odyssey among India’s history-keepers. At the Victoria Memorial they said 18th century records were being digitised. At the Calcutta High Court, the archives were all over the place and barred; he had to get legal help to access “bundles … wrapped in twine between wooden slats, looking like accordions overstuffed with crinkling paper”. This venerable court is key to Hicky’s tale for the libel suits brought against him by Hastings and the priest Kiernander, leading to his imprisonment. At the Supreme Court in Delhi contemporary records hadn’t been looked at since 1911.


The journalist Hicky’s story is recorded in the voluminous memoirs of the lawyer William Hickey (no relation), who interviewed him in jail. Intrepid Mr Otis then discovered that part of these were written in code and had to enlist a code specialist to crack it for further details.


What were the allegations of corruption and other misdeeds that the publisher of the Gazette brought against Hastings and the most powerful in the land? He showed that not only was Hastings’s wife susceptible to bribes but that the governor-general himself — in his quest for annexing Bengal and Awadh and during the famine that left 10 million dead — took money from prominent Indians to usurp the Nawab of Bengal’s power and enrich himself in other ways. He accused Hastings of forgery and even erectile dysfunction!


Students of history may know the intricate contours of this period that eventually led to Hastings’s and Impey’s impeachment but Hicky’s life has never been thoroughly investigated.


Was he “a rogue or scoundrel…who undermined the British empire…[or] was his newspaper ‘a gem of journalism’ unmatched and unparalleled?” High courtroom drama is an essential part of Hicky’s life. He chose to defend himself, arguing that “the mere writing, printing and publishing is no proof of guilt. The malicious or seditious tendency must be proved. Otherwise they ought to acquit the defendant”. He did not succeed. Originally trained as a printer he continued his campaign in jail, painstakingly hand-setting type to disseminate news — in itself a revolution that replaced hand-written bulletins. In the end his type was confiscated by a court order.


A considerable achievement of Mr Otis’s narrative is its structural form; he places Hicky and his newspaper at the centre of a much bigger canvas of India in turmoil. He also challenges the notion of subaltern studies to include not only voiceless Indians and their unrecorded histories but of a seething mass of European low-lifers who flocked to Calcutta — a “city of palaces” that contrasted harshly with its filthy, diseased-ridden jails and dens of drunkenness and debauchery.


However, given that he supports his wide research with 60 pages of source notes, his efforts at inventing dialogue to add colour are a mistake — a case of gilding the lily.


The chief merit of Mr Otis’s book lies in the mirror it holds up to our times — of deep-seated political corruption, and a conspiracy of control by the political, religious and judicial establishment to smother information and free expression of all shades of opinion.


The jury may be out on whether Hicky and his Bengal Gazette were the first champions of a free press but Mr Otis’s biography is worthy of top honours.

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