After decades covering the budget as a text/print journalist, I have been spending the past three Union budgets more as a commentator on TV news channels. I read the newspapers the next day, and some online reports on the event. And I ask myself: is there anything I have missed? Fact is, there is plenty that I may have missed.
On the one hand, the budget is not as important as it used to be because a number of vital economic decisions often trickle through the year. On the other hand, TV channels and newspapers have made it a clever business opportunity to promote their brands or sell advertisements around it. The budget has become an opportunity to discuss just about anything on or around the economy, even if the announcements are unconnected or the topics irrelevant to the presentation of the budget.
Reflecting on the years behind, especially because I worked in business papers, I know there is much more to the budget than the Finance Minister’s speech made in the Parliament that is watched by millions as if it was a World Cup cricket match. Last week, I kind of goofed when I made a slightly critical comment on a sector because the speech did not seem to make any reference. Yet, in the evening, when a senior business editor mentioned a hefty increase in outlay for the sector, I went ‘Aha.’
A lot of the budget details that are newsworthy are hidden in the footnotes and tables of accompanying documents or involve interpretation or value-added reportage. Also, the Finance Minister’s speech is often a reflection of what the government chooses to emphasise as it sticks to conventions and plays to the gallery.
In a deeper sense, the budget is not a one-off event but one that should serve as a mother ship for stories that may pour out over the next dozen months or longer. My sense is that barring a few committed finance ministry experts, most journalists let it all pass by.
Event-driven coverage has pushed back theme-driven coverage. I wish online journalism, in which there is no space constraint, would throw up more interesting, insightful or colourful stories triggered by documents presented during the budget. Combined with some smart sources, ground-level reportage and the new journalistic weapon, Right to Information (RTI) applications, there is scope for a lot of solid stories around the budget.
I do hope younger journalists find ways to do some cool, smart post-budget coverage. There is a lot of good stuff happening in journalism when the budget is treated as a hot event, but there is a case to do some “alt-journalism” by poring through the documents accompanying the budget speech. They might appear boring but they often contain gems.
Also, meaningful analysis on the budget takes days or weeks or months. By forcing quick-fix analyses, often involving platitudes from so-called business leaders, budget coverage gets blunted. I call this chew-and-spit journalism. May we be rescued from it by some inspired journalistic work.
There was a time when budget documents had to be physically procured in limited copies to accredited journalists. Now it is all out there to be downloaded from the Web. But few seem to have the time, patience or inclination to dig deeper. Smart journalists store away ideas triggered by the budget, take a break, and then go for the big hit some time later.