Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Media Role

We are living in dangerous times. Journalism is taking a new turn. Technology has entered into the picture. The dividing line between ‘on record’ and ‘on record’ conversations is beginning to thin out. Everything is now ‘on record’. Even innocent telephone conversations can be taped without one party to the conversation being aware that he is being tapped. In the name of ferreting out truth, politicians are being secretly filmed and recorded, the excuse for such treachery being that there is no other way of finding out what the facts are. Today this is done in the living room; tomorrow this may be done in the bed room. Politicians could be trapped into situations they did not bargain for. Somewhere down the line one must draw the Laxman rekha to separate what is permissible and what is not. Today the media is glorifying Tehelka. Some day the media may live to rue it. The first thing that the media should know is that its role is not ‘that of the policeman or the CBI. The second thing it should be aware of is the distinction between investigative and entrapment journalism. The two are as different as chalk is from cheese. It is not the business of the journalist to entrap anyone, be he a politician, film star or sports celebrity. As Shri Fali S. Nariman said the other day there is a downside to the Tehelka tape syndrome. It has, said the jurist, ‘the potential for great public mischief, even blackmail”. Tapes can be doctored, as were the Nixon tapes. Pictures can be inserted that could damage an individual’s reputation for ever. Even conversations can be inserted with impunity. Impropriety can he suggested through appropriate means. What Tehelka has done is to show what is possible. Tehelka may argue that what it has done is to expose the corruption in public life. It sounds great and the media is lapping it up as if it is a major achievement. That is exactly what it is not. And the sooner it is understood, the better for all concerned. The charges made by Tehelka against certain politicians can be set on their head. With equal force the charge can be made that Tehelka paid R.K. Gupta and R.K. Jain for saying what they said, in order to damage the reputation of third persons. And has it occurred to anyone that Admiral Bhagwats’ book may have been published to synchronise with the Tehelka revelations, in order to do the greatest possible damage to the former Defence Minister George Fernandes’ reputation? Were Tehelka and the Admiral in cahoots as seems likely? If once we concede that ends justify means then we would be releasing forces over which it would be impossible to exercise control, in future. Those who salivate now because the BJP has been pushed into a tight corner may find the tables some day turned against them. If Shri Rajeev Dhavan is to be believed, “an entrapment of the Tehelka kind cannot be dismissed as illegal or illegitimate journalism”. He does not obviously realise the kind of Pandora’s Box he is unwittingly opening. The truth of the matter is that what Tehelka has done is both illegal and illegitimate. Defending it shows the utter callousness of our intellectuals. That so many people-may in high walks of life-are defending it shows the degradation that has come about in our society. If Bangaru Laxman is guilty of accepting money, then Tehelka is guilty of offering it. The corrupter is as much guilty as the corrupted. The greater tragedy is that the media in the Tehelka case has been quick to draw impermissible conclusions about the BJP that are not warranted by the facts of the case. No BJP Minister is involved in alleged bribe taking. Bangaru Laxman is NOT, repeat not, the Government. R.K. Gupta is not, repeat not, a “key RSS trustee” as Tehelka claims. Tragically, the media swallowed whatever Tehelka said, hook, line and sinker. Thus, when Tehelka dubbed R.K. Gupta “one of the middlemen in the recently concluded Sukhoi deal worth a staggering Rs 36,000 crore” it should have been immediately pulled up by the media. For the truth is that the Vajpayee Government has had nothing to do with the Sukhoi deal which had been clinched during the Deve Gowda regime with Mulayam Singh Yadav as the Defence Minister. Why hasn’t the media pulled up Tehelka for this gross lie? Tehelka was caught on the wrong foot again and again. First it said that Jaya Jaitley had accepted a bribe of Rs two lakh. Then it changed track to say that the money was paid to Srinivas Prasad who wasn’t even in Delhi at that time, let alone in the office of Smt Jaitley. What is self-evident is that just as anybody can gain entrance to the homes of a Bangaru Laxman or a Major General, so can anyone pass on crass lies to the media which would’ swallow them without checking out the facts. The excuse given is that for the media time is of the essence. Apparently the reputation of public citizens not to speak of its own credibility is of no matter to the media so long as it can succeed in bringing down the BJP a couple of rungs, if not more.

What is sickening is the politicisation of the media to such an extent that elementary rules of journalism are flouted. The first thing that is expected of any newspaper is that it check out whatever information is passed on to it for accuracy. In this department the media has failed miserably. It has shown itself to have feet of clay. As one contemporary commentator has noted, “the Tehelka chaps were so overwhelmed by their questionable feat in having caught the hapless Laxman on tape that they thought nothing of destroying a couple of more reputations gratuitously”. It is incumbent on the media to observe certain rules of conduct one of which is that no matter how sensational a given piece of information is,’ one has to check it out before publication. In this department the media has failed miserably, a point that cannot be stressed too often. The point has been made that the era of “decent” journalism is past and now anything and everything is fair, in the great fight against corruption. It sounds very noble and creditable but it is clearly forgotten that it is far better that two criminals escape rather than one innocent man is sent to the gallows. It is shocking to hear even such a distinguished jurist like Fali Nariman saying that one should keep their (media’s) teeth in place even though they may sometimes bite the innocent. In any civilized society this is totally unacceptable. Tehelka does not signify coming age of techno-journalism. What it does signify is a fall in our values and a cynical approach to the collection of information through doubtful means. Tehelka is a calculated assault on decency and fairness that should not be allowed to go unchallenged. If this opportunity is not grasped a time will surely come when blackmail will be the order of the day. And then let the media not say that it had not been forewarned. For whatever good that Tehelka has now done, some day society will find itself having to pay a grievous price for it.