It has been a tumultuous fortnight for readers and viewers of news; all the extremes of journalism have been on display.
On November 21, Sudip Datta Bhaumik, a journalist in Tripura, was shot dead inside a camp of the Tripura State Rifles in what prima facie seems to be a direct fallout of the stories the reporter had written on corruption charges against a commandment of the force. This was another confirmation that journalism has become a dangerous profession, especially for reporters in small towns and places far from the metros.
On November 24, the Aaj Tak office in Bengaluru saw demonstrations against one of its journalists, not for a story that the television channel had reported but for a tweet. The tweet by the journalist was said to have offended religious sensibilities, another all too common phenomenon in India today. But instead of media anger focussing on the demonstrations, social media, for one, saw another round of whataboutery: “Where are all those liberals, seculars in defence of free speech?”
The media events of the fortnight were the blanket coverage given to Padmavati and, at the other end, the initial silence on the story of the death of judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya.
Uproar over Padmavati
The headlines in the papers and online publications and the screams on television undoubtedly belonged to Padmavati. Whatever some of us may think about the opposition to the release of the film and whatever we may think it says about us as a nation and society, the media had to report on the criticism as it built up ahead of its earlier scheduled release on December 1.
But did journalists, especially on television, have to give the critics (if one can legitimise them with such a decent description) so much attention? There is a difference between covering news and fuelling news. In the Padmavati case, television did as it has been doing the past decade and longer – creating news. As before, the “leaders of the agitation” were willing to perform in front of the cameras. They went from studio to studio, and from interview to interview spewing their venom. The news channels dutifully reported this news and print/online followed.
The issue will never be settled: when should editors shut out news that is actually made for the attention of the cameras, and then acquires a life of its own? While there never will be a clear cut answer, it is simply unacceptable that editors right now take refuge in the argument that “we have to report all news”. They will neither admit nor ask themselves if they may also be contributing to the creation of such news.
As always, while television went ballistic, print and online were more restrained. The more thoughtful opinion pieces were to be found in the latter. Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote on the editorial page of The Indian Express in anger and sorrow about the state of our republic. Divya Cherian in The Hindu discussed the “historical facts” about Padmini of Chittor, and Shalini Langer wrote in The Indian Express what one commentator accurately described as an article that was “Audenesque” in tone. Of a different kind and for me the best of comments was the one in The Telegraph by Mukul Kesavan, where all the anger and sorrow was hidden under biting satire.
Scroll.in reproduced a fine piece by Tanuja Kothiyal, which it had published in January, when the first signs of trouble made their appearance.
Scroll.in found itself in the middle of a minor storm when it first removed and then had corrected and re-titled an article that had attracted criticism for getting its facts wrong. The editor also had the explanation and apology prominently displayed.
The writer of this article, Ruchika Sharma, has been an occasional contributor and has written a number of interesting pieces before. That should not though guarantee easy publication. As Scroll.in has promised, it will work towards strengthening verification processes.
In articles on controversial topics that involve history, it may always be advisable to have an article quickly checked for the basic facts. A delay by a day or two in publication should not matter.
Silence on the Loya story
The biggest story both for its news value and for the response it evoked in the media was undoubtedly The Caravan’s two-part article and video interview (published on November 20 and November 21) on the death in 2014 of judge Loya. His family came out with the accusation that a former chief justice of the Bombay High Court had offered Loya a Rs 100-crore bribe for a favourable verdict in a special court in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, where the Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah had been the main accused. The family also raised questions about what they saw as the suspicious circumstances surrounding Loya’s death.
On any day, this would have been seen as an explosive story, meriting following up by a legion of journalists in print, television and online.
It is a measure of the state of the media in India today that other than summaries put out immediately by Scroll.in and The Wire, The Caravan story was met by deafening silence in the first couple of days.
Here was a report on the family of a judge speaking about a suspicious death and a bribe in a case involving one of the most politically powerful persons in the country, and the free press went into a shell. Was it the fear factor at work again?
True to its form, on the day The Caravan published its story and the day after, television hashtagged what it thought were more important issues, like the admittedly disgusting chaiwala meme put out by some unknown person of a little known magazine of the Congress party. Print too was silent.
There were exceptions in print. Sections of the regional language papers immediately reported The Caravan story, but the English papers did not seem to think it was worth noticing. It took a couple of days before a few of them came to indirectly report the story via the comments of a Congress spokesperson and a press conference of some non-governmental organisations. On television, the exception was NDTV, which during the course of the week carried a couple of discussions on the story.
It began to be written up more widely – still more online than in print – when the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) said it was a serious matter that should be investigated, and when Justice (retired) AP Shah said in an interview that allegations of offers of bribes by senior members of the judiciary called for an investigation.
Finally, by the end of the week, there was a follow-up. First by NDTV, which on the evening of November 26 had its reporters put out a story that seemed to suggest that the judge’s death may not have been suspicious. The Indian Express followed the next morning with more and different details, suggesting that Loya died of a massive cardiac arrest.
The original story was now under question. The views of the doctors and the hospital where the judge had died seemed to be at variance with The Caravan story. However, the equally serious matter of the allegations of the offer of a bribe were not explored by either The Indian Express or NDTV, except that the latter did report one relative of Loya saying he had been under a lot of stress over the Sohrabuddin case.
Now at last we had some follow-up, with inconsistencies and gaps being spoken about. A more widespread follow-up by all the major media outlets may have thrown up more and forced the judiciary to investigate the bribery accusation. Yet, in the face of allegations that the judiciary – the pillar of the republic in which people have the most (perhaps only) faith – was being corroded from the inside, the media went quiet.
This, unfortunately, was one more sign that the Indian press had either got its priorities all wrong (television) or had been chilled into a sense of fear and powerlessness (print).
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