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I want to recommend a book today. It’s titled “Delhi Calm” and I’m recommending it not just because it’s well-drawn and has interesting characters, but because its sepia tone illustrations talk about a period of Indian history that we’d do well to not forget.

The graphic novel is set mostly in a New Delhi of the Emergency era, during which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ran the country like a dictatorship for 21 months. The Emergency doesn’t figure in the history syllabi of Indian schools. It’s referred to only occasionally as something that was wrong  but it’s rarely talked about in detail, probably because explanations would show a very dark side to Indira Gandhi, a haloed leader of the Congress Party. I think those who lived through the Emergency think it can’t be forgotten. But for most of India today, the Emergency isn’t even a dust patch on their memories. Particularly the Indian media, which is filled with 20 and 30-somethings, for the most part. Of course, senior journalists remember but perhaps the free press of the recent past has made them forget what it meant to be in a country where news had to be approved before it could be reported.

We can’t imagine today a scene where there’s a 2-day long power cut to ensure newspapers can’t be printed, but it happened in Delhi. The power supply to Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, where most of the newspaper offices were located, was cut off on June 25, 1975. It came back two days later. The power cut extended to Connaught Place, where The Statesman and the Hindustan Times had their offices. In those two days, the government figured out the “modalities” of censorship. Anyone who tried to get their publications past the eagle eye of the Delhi cops invariably failed. Newspapers were confiscated from vendors and newsstands. When the power returned and printing could be resumed, censorship was solidly in place. Most editors capitulated and printed the news that the state allowed, even though they were painfully aware of how fabricated it was. My mother remembers the Hindustan Times resisted on occasion by printing the paper with empty chunks where articles would have been, had they not been barred by the censors. Both my parents can rattle off lists of people they know who got arrested or disappeared for opposing the Emergency’s stranglehold upon the freedom of expression. They were both young bureaucrats at the time and it battered the idealism with which they’d joined government service. There was a frantic helplessness they felt. “You just looked at a paper and knew that it was all lies, and it drove you mad,” my mother told me. “Because there was so much being said but so little being heard and too much being silenced.” Then, probably realising how poetic she sounded, she said abruptly, “Which sounds like nonsense to you, of course. Your generation would probably go mad if you saw a newspaper that wasn’t all lies and PR.”

Enter Nira Radia, a public relations consultant who runs a company called Vaishnavi Communications (at least she did until recently. I’ve no idea if she continues to do so). As a PR person, Ms. Radia’s job involves getting good press for her clients. The list of Vaishnavi Communications’ clients include some of India’s biggest corporates, including Tata and Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. It appears that the government found Ms. Radia’s success a little dodgy and so ordered an investigation of her dealings in 2008-2009 during the course of which her phone was tapped. Earlier this year, 140 of her conversations, presumably recorded by government agencies and copied on USBs, landed up at the offices of all major media outlets. No one mentioned anything in the media. Except OPEN magazine.

In November, OPEN came out with a cover story about prominent members of the Indian media lobbying for the spectacularly corrupt A. Raja. The magazine particularly singled out television journalist Barkha Dutt in their hoardings. OPEN also put the unedited conversations up on their website. Outlook magazine followed soon after, declaring that the media was complicit in selling India to the highest bidder.

The media lies. Gasp.

Facetiousness aside, it must have come as a shock to much of the country (at least the small part of it that was Internetted and watching tv news in English. Most Indian newspapers behaved as though the story didn’t exist with the kind of stoicism that would make Emergency-era censors proud). We journalists, however, think the Indian media is largely corrupt. So for us, this wasn’t precisely breaking news. We’re certain reviewers can be bought using simple favours or even simpler wads of cash. We believe many journalists can be won over with fancy meals and trips to foreign places. We’re convinced that most media outlets present news from the angle that political parties have paid them to take. That the media isn’t unbiased isn’t news to us.

I don’t know if it’s true that Vir Sanghvi will do the bidding of anyone who gives him a fancy paid holiday and a decadent meal at a Michelin-starred restaurant, but I’ve heard it said with sneers and envy. I’ve also heard people say with great conviction that Barkha Dutt is power-hungry and has “dubious” ways of getting exclusives. (Interesting how men don’t have to sleep around for stories. I wonder if it’s because they don’t dare hit on women politicians or because it’s unbelievable that anyone would want illicit relations with the Arnab Goswamis and Rajdeep Sardesais of this world. Incidentally, Sardesai is one of the journalists Radia chats with.) This is the kind of stuff that counts as shop talk when journalists meet. In our cynicism, we forget how hard fought the press’ freedom is in India. Our generation hasn’t seen media censorship and few know what it’s like to not be able to print facts. (Unless they work for a Times of India publication; then they have some idea.) Perhaps it’s because we haven’t had to fight for it or because we’re complacent that we can get the news from somewhere else – the Internet – but we don’t value how media outlets in India technically can report on anything, regardless of how it affects a company or a government or a politician’s interests. I don’t know if you can conclusively tell from the recordings whether or not Dutt, Sardesai, Sanghvi and others are corrupt, but it wouldn’t be shocking if they were. And that’s tragic. Because it should be shocking.

From the little that I know of journalism, stringing someone along with the hope of getting more information is a basic tool of the trade. Perhaps that’s what these journalists and Suhel Seth were doing but we’ll never really know and we’ll always suspect. While I find it unlikely that a journalist (that too from the English-speaking media) decides who will get important ministries, I also know that if Suhel Seth wields that much power in the Indian government, then I want to migrate. Now. More relevantly, I’m glad these tapes have come out, if only to make journalists work harder at winning the trust of their readers and audience. However, the way that the issue of media ethics got reported is frustrating. Why didn’t OPEN or Outlook name their source, even though both editors insist that they have no doubts that the recordings are bona fide? How have they ascertained that the recordings are authentic? Don’t either of the magazines understand the distinction between accusation and analysis? It’s great that they’ve taken the trouble to transcribe the tapes but where is the analysis of the conversations? Oh wait, it’s in the Wall Street Journal. Where’s the essay/ article that deals with the questions of who decided which 140 conversations would be circulated and the timing of the leak? When I’d asked a journalist friend about the source, I got shushed. “Obviously the government. Maybe Mukesh Ambani. Focus on the important part,” I was told.

The editor of Mint, R. Sukumar, had written in an earlier article that he had “no doubt where they [the recordings] came from”. The article explained why Mint didn’t carry the story (the facts couldn’t be verified) but he didn’t share his doubt-less conjecture. Editor Manu Joseph’s explanation for why OPEN carried this story is well-observed (I particularly agree with his point that stings on the government have become possible because it’s not a major advertiser) but surely this doesn’t mean we ignore the fact that that by releasing these tapes, Joseph has also fulfilled someone else’s agenda*. Whoever leaked the conversations must have an agenda different from Joseph’s, which was presumably to improve OPEN’s sales and champion correct media ethics. Barkha Dutt asked him about his sources in yesterday’s The Buck Stops Here but didn’t get an answer. It’s a good thing that Dutt’s recorded conversations really are very generic because I’m not sure how effective the show would have been at aquitting her. She seemed more intent on shouting  Joseph down than answering the questions put to her. For instance, she didn’t provide any satisfactory answer to the question of whether she was considered a target by Radia because her reportage has a Congress bias.

I’m going to stop now (almost 1600 words. Oops.) with this quote from an interesting article from the American Journalism Review:

In the face of a Wild West world where so many outlandish charges, many of them based on absolutely nothing, are cavalierly tossed around, the old he-said, she-said approach seems bankrupt. If you are giving equal weight to truth and nonsense, you really are in the stenography business. It’s critical to take that next step and have the courage to reach conclusions — conclusions based on facts, not the ideology of the journalist or the news outlet.

*It’s also interesting how Dutt and Sanghvi have been taking the heat more than the others whose conversations have been leaked.
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4 thoughts on “Free Speech

  1. I just loved the irony of a sting against a journalist. I think, sting has finally come full-circle in India.

    I think, Open was inspired by Wikileaks. They wanted to present raw data to people to make up their minds. When journalists do analysis, everyone screams “editorialisation”, when they present raw data, everyone complains of an agenda. They just can’t win.

    I was left totally confused at the end of that debate on NDTV. It reminded me of exactly why I never watch Indian newschannels. But I enjoyed watching the TOI editor sitting sanguinely and talking about media ethics.

  2. Re: sting against journalists, I want a proper Tehelka-style sting. Getting USBs isn’t enough. 😛

    Appreciate your point about data versus opinion but I think we often use that as a cop-out so that we don’t have to take the trouble of formulating an analysis.

    I collapsed with laughter when Padgaonkar asked his questions. It was just too funny. There’s just so much screaming that goes on in “debates” on Indian tv. I could barely follow anything anyone was saying. I did think, however, that Dutt was going to burst into tears very soon.

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