After the Tehelka expose, investigative journalism has once again become the hot topic of conversation everywhere. Of course, investigative journalism may be somewhat new to India but in the West it as old as Watergate. Way back in the seventies two intrepid journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein blew the lid off the chicanery of 'All the President's Men'. Their brilliant piece of espionage led to the fall of President Richard Nixon and immortalised 'sting' journalism forever.
Since then of course investigative journalism has been exported beyond the shores of the American continent. In India, Arun Shourie armed with the blessings of the redoubtable Ram Nath Goenka's Express steamed ahead unearthing many slimy deals, uncovering many a scam and unleashing many a scoop. His missionary zeal even inspired a film called New Delhi Times, which sought to highlight the dilemmas and concerns of an investigative journalist. An Express scribe, Ashwini Sarin bought a woman for a few pieces of silver. Kamala's story shook the nation. This along with the exposes of Bhagalpur blindings by Arun Sinha and Tihar jail tortures, again by Sarin, gave India its first taste of sting journalism at its daring and vibrant best.
Gradually, the idealistic fervour and the crusading zeal of the seventies and eighties seems to have faded away giving way to a new kind of journalism. A journalism that is not about issues and ideals but about big bucks and raw power. This is more stink than sting journalism.
Bedroom to Boardroom
Today investigative journalism has reached new heights of sophistication. From the colour of Monica Lewinsky's panties to the list of the late Princess Di's beaus - nothing is beyond the scope and scrutiny of the Modern Media Man. From bedroom to the boardroom nothing is sacrosanct for him (and now increasingly her). Take the case of the Bill–Monica affair. The entire nation, and at least a quarter of the world, watched the drama unfold on the boob tube, in the newspapers and on the internet. Who did what to whom, in what position and how many times became an issue of national and international debate. I am sure the time, energy and the nation's resources spent on understanding the finer nuances of the 'cigar episode' and enjoying vicariously other such subtle and not so subtle trysts, could have been used far more constructively.
I am certain my journalist friends would immediately take umbrage. The nation, the people, have a right to know, they would fume. Definitely they do. But at what cost? That is the question. Some one once said the private lives of public figures should be beyond scrutiny. I agree to some extent. Take for instance the recent biography of Indira Gandhi by Katherine Frank. It talks at some length about the so-called affairs she had. Most, if not all of it, is based on hearsay and conjecture. Moreover, all this is being raked seventeen years after her death and also much after the passing away of her children. Naturally, this is very convenient since no one is left to deny or confirm the allegations. And even if the allegations are true, so what? Even if Indira Gandhi had an affair with one or more persons, does it dilute in any way her immense contribution to the nation? She was one of 20th century's most charismatic leaders and she will remain so. The 1971 victory, which broke Pakistan's back forever, the Pokharan explosion which put India on the nuclear map of the world – the nation will always be indebted to her for these contributions. Instead of highlighting these aspects what is being focussed on, in the garb of offering an insight into the charismatic leader's personality, is her sex life. And naturally, all the reviews are playing this up. What is the biographer trying to achieve by giving intimate details of Indira Gandhi's private life? Increase in sales what else. Biographers, who belong to this tribe, have not spared even Mother Teresa. To them the greatness or the nobility of the individual does not matter. What matters is the sales curve. And whatever can get the sales curve up is promptly included and highlighted. Is this kind of writing ethical? I leave it to the reader to judge.
Now coming back once again to the hottest topic, so far, of this millennium? The Tehelka expose. I know reams have been written on this. Most columnists have written paeans to the initiative and daring of the Tehelka team. I would like to add just one point. While I am all praise for their meticulous planning and brilliant execution, I want to question the ultimate purpose of the entire exercise. What was the end objective?. Tehelka has been declaring from the rooftops that their objective was to expose the large-scale corruption in the establishment. Great. But was this the way to do it? Holding a press conference, inviting leaders of political parties and creating a real 'TEHELKA'. And by doing this laying bare the nation's vulnerability before the entire world. Showing every one how stupid, how crude, and how venal, we are. I am not saying that NDA was doing great. But definitely, it had provided us a stable government for the last two years. The government had also notched up quite a few achievements during the period. By creating a 'Tehelka' in front of the entire world these sting (or stink?) journalists were once creating a situation for the country which was far from salubrious. If the Vajpayee government had fallen what would have been the result? A rag-tag combination of disparate elements, whose only objective was to somehow get into the government by hook or by crook, would have taken over running the country. This coalition would have promptly collapsed in a few weeks or months and forced another election on the nation – an election which India and its people can hardly afford.
Moreover, has this expose not made us even more vulnerable in the eyes of the world? If our defence establishment is so porous that, a couple of journalists masquerading as suppliers can penetrate its highest echelons then it is terrific news for our 'friendly' neighbours. This might embolden them to try other experiments of the Kargil variety with a greater degree of frequency.
So what could our Tehelka warriors have done? Stay put? Definitely not. This kind of venality has to be exposed. But not in the way, it has been done. The Tehelka team could have taken the tapes directly to the Prime Minister or if they had doubts regarding his integrity taken them to CVC. The incident could have been handled in a more discreet manner. And if the response from the PM or the CVC was not encouraging than they could have exercised the final option of going to the public.
But making a spectacle of the establishment's moral turpitude was really not necessary. Then why was this done? Was it to increase the number of hits to their site and/or because there were other big names interested in the decline and fall of the Government? Whatever may be the reason, in the final analysis – it all boils down to a game of money and power.
Heroism, Humanism and Hope
Mahatma Gandhi once said, "The role of journalism should be service. The Press is a great power, but just as an unchained torrent of water submerges the whole countryside and devastates crops, even so an uncontrolled pen serves but to destroy." Unfortunately, for most members of the fourth estate, no news is bad news, bad news is good news, and good news is no news at all. Sensationalism is what journalism is now all about.
In a country like ours, where for the common man each day is a kurukshetra, there are thousands of instances of heroism, courage, and humanism. But these very rarely get highlighted. If you pick up any paper what do you, get to read - scoops, scams, and now tehelkas. If our country was really only about all these then I think it would have disappeared from the globe long ago.
My humble appeal to the journalist community is: "By all means highlight the lacunae in the society, but take an objective view. Along with the warts, scars and blemishes take some time off to write about the heroism, the resilience, the forbearance of the common man. In all the despair, the gloom you describe, add at least a touch of hope. Do not always see the glass as half empty; see it, at least sometimes, as half full."
H.K.Mencken, the former Editor of 'Baltimore Sun' said, "The function of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." The media is performing quite well the role of afflicting the comfortable, but as far as comforting the afflicted is concerned, it is lagging far behind.
"People who mould opinions are greater than those who make laws," Abe Lincoln once opined. As moulders of opinions, the media can play a constructive and decisive role in shaping the society, the country, and the world at large. Can we, in the near future, look forward to a media which is humane, whose primary strength is objectivity, whose main pursuit is truth and whose ultimate aim the greatest good of the greatest number?