Wo Chahte Hain Jaage Na Koiiiii, Ye Raat Ye Andhakar Chale Har Koi Bhatakta Rahe Yunhi, Aur Desh Yunhi Lachar Chale
Saturday, 20 February 2016
Mass communication or mass manipulation? Is journalism living up to the ideals it espouses?
Intolerance in India is not the preserve of political parties as is constantly being made out to be. My experience, detailed below, reveals that intolerance and blocking the expression of alternate views is a national malaise, in which a large mass of people of all hue and color and possible Congress loyalties are also major offenders.
I was invited to speak at a panel discussion ‘Mass Communication or Mass Manipulation?’ which was held at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce on Monday, February 15, 2016, but rudely interrupted and shut down within minutes of my speech, the full text of which is pasted below. Please decide for yourself if the contents are objectionable enough to invite such behavior.
My speech on ‘Mass Communication or Mass Manipulation?’
As an individual for whom journalism has been more of a passion than a profession, it is somewhat disturbing to be speaking on a topic like this, which states an endemic problem rather than poses a question.
While its fair to say that both communication and manipulation coexist in the media, the taint of manipulation has been growing stronger and for obvious reasons. The main ones include: the corporatisation of media, with ownership of media being increasingly concentrated in the hands of big business and politicians along with the commoditization of news – with TRPs/circulation/advertising revenue/profits and political and market influence becoming central to all news gathering efforts rather than the activity of journalism itself.
Though journalists attribute credit for this distressing model to one large media house, it has been shamelessly embraced by all media firms. It has become omnipresent and omnipotent. It is an absolute. There is no getting away from it.
But that is existence. The essence is centered in journalism’s real objective, which is to function as the soul of a nation – as a conscience keeper, while the role of any journalist should be to relentlessly work for meaningful change, eventually leading to the upliftment of humanity. A journalist’s only obligation is to the truth. Truth that can be verified in public interest. And journalism is only reliable when it is delivered by a journalist who is independent in mind and spirit.
Some of you might argue that this sort of idealism is impractical and only palatable in theory. But if you do indeed believe that, then why even have this debate? Why indulge anger over alleged mass manipulation by the media? People make their choices – to be either the best or the worst of themselves and their choices are not our concern. But if we are upset about anything in our world, if we find it hard to accept the status quo, then we must focus on our own choices and subsequently, the actions and reactions, the rewards and punishments that lead forth from those choices.
Let me quickly take you through my own journey as an investigative journalist to illustrate the significance of individual choice.
When I became a journalist in 1995, the first briefing given to me by a senior colleague was that salaries would always be depressing, and it was impossible to progress without a Godfather – more so for a woman. That most journalists who were successful, were corporate agents, that there was no question of attempting to write anything about a growing club of powerful corporates who were additionally private treaty partners with media houses, or even in challenging the ruling political establishment, since they would hit back with legal notices, and finally, that I would become a victim of crippling boredom and cynicism within a maximum of 10 years just the same as everyone else.
At the time this was shattering, because I believed journalism was a calling and one that resonated with the highest ideals. In retrospect, I am deeply grateful to this senior colleague for re-setting my expectations to zero on my very first day in the job. I was now free to concentrate on my work, knowing full well that I could not expect any professional gain, since I neither had any powerful connections nor the mindset or the aptitude to cultivate them.
Interestingly, it is in this very backdrop of cynicism, vested interests and gender discrimination that I later went on to deliver, in a span of just 7 years, a deeply incriminating body of investigative work exposing what is now popularly known as the Rs 1.76 lakh crore, 2G telecom scam: the award of 2G telecom licenses to builders rather than telecom players on January 10, 2008 at historic 2001 prices based on an illegal first-come, first-served allocation policy.
This was followed by an expose of the Rs 1.86 lakh crore coal scam, popularly known as Coalgate. Vadragate, the shady land deals of Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, Haryana chief minister B.S. Hooda’s largesse in licensing 22 thousand acres of land to first-time builders at the cost of poor farmers; Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh’s corruption scandal, NABARD’s largesse towards rich corporates at the cost of the rural poor; the 4 billion dollar Sahara Ponzi scandal; the potential abuse of power in the award of new banking licenses and Chhattisgarh ex-chief minister’s son Amit Jogi’s election scandal, followed in quick succession.
The 2G expose, undisputedly the biggest and most rigorously documented financial scam in independent India, culminated in a Cabinet minister A Raja, his telecom secretary, along with several officials of privately held firm Swan Telecom being jailed for 18 months or more. Similarly, the Supreme Court cancelled 214 of 218 coals mine permits in its order of September 24, 2014. A Public Interest Litigation against the Himachal Chief Minister is being heard in court, while legal action is being prepared against the former Haryana chief minister, B. S. Hooda. Sahara chief, Subroto Roy once an untouchable has also been a resident of Tihar jail since February 2014 while the Robert Vadra scandal became a major cause for the Congress Party’s debacle in the recent elections. NABARD has withdrawn its controversial scheme favoring corporates at the cost of the rural poor.
However, establishing the direct involvement of the then finance minister, Mr. P Chidambaram, the prime minister’s office and even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself in the 2G and Coalgate scandals invited severe hardships. These included personal and professional attacks, surveillance, threats and censorship. It was around October 2008, after many months of reporting on the basis of access to secret documents that the then prime minister, finance minister and telecom minister Mr. A Raja met and decided to have a press conference to clarify that all these stories that I had done were wrong. I was threatened by Raja’s personal secretary and the tightening pressure by the government and big telecom players involved in this scam was used to first censor and eventually block all my stories. This is despite Raja going to jail, the Controller and Auditor General of India, or the CAG independently verifying my exposes, a government committee endorsing the stories and even a landmark Supreme Court verdict in February, 2012 upholding the allegation of illegality that I had made way back in 2007 by cancelling all the 122-telecom licenses.
Through all of this, the worst attack came from within, colleagues and senior editors, the gatekeepers of newsrooms would sit around me discussing with earshot how the 2G corruption didn’t qualify as a story. Since every minister was corrupt, how was the singling out of the telecom minister any great achievement? They doubted my sources, dismissed the verification of facts as opinion, even going so far as to say I didn’t know how to write. This was despite my then tenure of 16 years and the fact that my stories were always printed without any editing and completely overlooking the fact that I was absolutely a zero maintenance resource, with no legal notice to my name till date, despite challenging the richest and most powerful people in the country.
It is in this backdrop of hostility and complete scorn for the truth that I still continued to deliver stories. I was told that newspapers didn’t support campaign journalism or activism so basically I learned that it’s not okay to be identified as an activist journalist in India. Such a label is a matter for ridicule and not honor. Once you are given such a tag, your colleagues will persistently suspect your motives, ignore your research and dismiss you for being emotional, and all of this is aimed at destroying the journalist professionally.
Despite this hostile environment, the 2G scam was rigorously documented in over 50 or 60 stories, becoming the symbol of big and embedded corruption, exposing the nexus between journalists, PR firms, bureaucrats, big business and politicians. Its unexpected upside was that it unleashed unprecedented social and political transformation as the outcome of public anger against corruption.
The 2014 general election in India was fought on 3 primary issues: corruption, governance and governments’ political accountability – a first in India’s 67 years of Independence. Through these years, I continued to counter the anger of colleagues, since investigative journalism also hits at the interests of beat reporters who survive by protecting their sources and keeping them happy. And the only way to do that is by not telling the real story and preventing others from doing so as well.
Another smart way of killing investigative work is to deny news space, since the devil lies in the detail, especially in the unveiling and unraveling of complex financial scams. So when an editor says that he will only publish your story if it can be condensed to 450 words or less, it is obvious his intention is to block the investigation.
This journey, painful as it has been, has only confirmed for me my core belief: that the only reward for any work, particularly journalistic work, is the work itself. The effect of undertaking such work is that such journalists are pushed to the fringes by their own community. The punishment is that they never become editors, ensuring that they are never given the authority to set the agenda.
Such punishment, such sacrifices can not be undertaken by the faint hearted. Eventually, journalism or any other profession, can only achieve its purpose of serving humanity if it attracts the best people. The best people are those who are strengthened by a deeply spiritual core. This makes the discussion of character, conduct and spirituality even more relevant in a world of ever-expanding and dissenting voices. But it is a discussion that doesn’t seem to interest too many people.
At one level, my story is everybody’s story – a complex and often competing mix of existence and essence, in which true winning emerges out of the ability to endure pain and struggle, about being able to sift the grain from the chaff, and most importantly, to be able to eventually make the right choices.
The real question to be asked in the cacophony of these times is how many people are willing to step forward to truly and joyfully choose the path of service – in this case, mass communication – rather than the path of professional advancement or the path of mass manipulation? If choosing the path of service means embracing a crown of thorns, are they still willing to take the plunge?
According to Ernest Hemingway – an American novelist, short story writer and journalist – “The best people possess a feeling for beauty, the courage to take risks, the discipline to tell the truth, the capacity for sacrifice. Ironically, their virtues make them vulnerable; they are often wounded, some times destroyed”.
Some disclosures which reveal why this incident was condemnable:
On Monday night, one of the panelists called to express their dismay at the condemnable conduct meted out to me, which confirmed that this public humiliation was not lost on anyone, the panelists, the students, or the DCAC faculty present there. However, nobody present made the slightest attempt to intervene or rescue the situation.
1. When I was invited, I was told that the decision to select the topic was inspired by the revelations made by me in two interviews published recently – October 9, 2015 and January 22, 2016 – on the state of the media.
2. Prior to the interview, I checked multiple times with the organizers and the moderator, urging them to indicate the structure of the discussion and the kind of issues they would like to discuss, but they chose not to revert. On Sunday evening, at around 5 pm, I enquired, via a whatsapp message to the organizer, how much time had been allotted to each speaker to speak and was informed that it was 10-12 minutes.
3. I then called the moderator to ascertain if he, too, was in agreement with the time limit.
4. I was the first speaker at the event. Barely 3 minutes into my speech, I was abruptly asked to stop and leave the podium. This was while I was pointing out that establishing the direct involvement of the then finance minister, Mr. P Chidambaram, the prime minister’s office and even former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself in the 2G and Coalgate scandals had invited severe hardships. The DCAC FACULTY which had invited me to the event, DID NOT INTERVENE. They remained silent spectators.
5. Though things became hazy after that, most panelists made it a point to disagree with me on the sliding values in the media.
One panelist scoffed at my belief that “journalism’s real objective, is to function as the soul of a nation – as a conscience keeper, while the role of any journalist should be to relentlessly work for meaningful change, eventually leading to the upliftment of humanity”. She did not specify what her own idea of journalism is.
Another panelist indulged himself with a dig – that since everyone was talking about themselves, he wouldn’t. Thanks to the clumsy moderating, none of the panelists were introduced, which is customary protocol. How can a journalist speak without some contextual reference to their work and circumstances?
The panel, in self congratulatory mode, eventually went on to cheerfully concur that the media space was fair, balanced and above board. None of the other panelists were snubbed or cut short, like I was.
6. My work and views are well known, particularly to these organizers and journalists, who had read my recent interviews. I have never sought respect or honor and thats why repeated attacks of humiliation have not crippled me so far. But I am completely certain of one thing: that it is despicable to invite someone just to humiliate them in full public view and in front of students.
7. The conduct that I witnessed, further displays the appalling standards of educational institutions as well as the incompetence and laziness of the faculty. If they don’t have the skill to coordinate a simple event of this nature, be gracious hosts, they should not attempt it. On February 16, I received a message from a DCAC faculty member admitting that the situation was “unfortunate”. Well, who was responsible? How would you have described it if you had been up there on stage instead of me?
8. Character is established by conduct, not false talk and fancy writing. It is horrifying to see well-educated people, people of privilege and influence, passively witness events – without the slightest urge to intervene and correct them.