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The Right to Spin and Hide

The Right to Spin and Hide
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The Right To Spin And Hide. The two most important stories of this week, however, were one, the Cobrapost-Gulail revelations that alleged gross misuse...

The two most important stories of this week, however, were one, the Cobrapost-Gulail revelations that alleged gross misuse of administrative and police machinery in Gujarat to stalk a woman at that; and the other, Serious Fraud Investigation based on a PIL in the Supreme Court into the allegedly illegal transactions engineered by one of the biggest corporate entities into acquiring control of the company that owns NewX channel. The latter story was just ignored by the mainstream media to this day.

Our news anchors are fond of talking about the ‘political class.’ Eric Hobsbawm, the great historian, says that in many democracies increasingly the citizens are withdrawing from the political process and leaving its management to the ‘political class’, which he describes as ‘a special-interest group of professional politicians, journalists, lobbyists and others whose occupations ranked at the bottom of the scale of trustworthiness in sociological inquiries.’ (Note the inclusion of journalists in the list.)

This assessment appears to be closer to the truth as never before in India today. The presence of free media is promoted as one of the two major factors that make Indian democracy vibrant; the other being periodic elections. Ironically, it is during the melee of elections that the fault-lines of both the media and the electoral democracy stand exposed.

If one looks at the media scene today, in respected media houses that have asserted the right to free speech on various occasions in courts – be it the right to publish opinion poll results or be it legislative privileges – senior heads have rolled for asserting the same right. Why is such privilege of exercising one’s conscience not available to the editors within the media houses?

With the election fever catching on, some news is being generated every day mostly out of trivial statements made in election rallies and the follow up discussions on who said what and for which reasons. Entire news hours on various national channels have been devoted to whether the word ‘shehzada’ can be used or whether a ‘tea-stall owner’ can aspire to be the Prime Minister of the country. And of course, who can govern better.

Looking closely at both the issues, one realises both are about lineage. Some kind of “Why only your children, why not my children?” tussle, even as none of them have any legitimate claim to rule.

It is not that these were lean news days. CHOGM was on. International Children’s Film Festival was on. Patna blasts investigation was transferred to NIA. New arrests were made in the case, pointing to a whole new reality. If CHOGM and Film Festival figured in the speed news sections of two-hour-long news hours, the Patna investigation was ignored.

The two most important stories of this week, however, were one, the Cobrapost-Gulail revelations that alleged gross misuse of administrative and police machinery in Gujarat to stalk a private person, a woman at that; and the other, Serious Fraud Investigation based on a PIL in the Supreme Court into the allegedly illegal transactions engineered by one of the biggest corporate entities into acquiring control of the company that owns NewX channel. The latter story was just ignored by the mainstream media to this day.

The Cobrapost-Gulail revelations are just out. According to them, the Gujarat police followed a woman, her phones were tapped, and she was under 24-hour surveillance by the orders of the Gujarat Home Minister himself for sixty-two days in 2009. This was based on the evidence a senior police officer presented to the CBI.

So far no one has denied the truth of the story. The father of the girl has issued a statement saying that he himself has requested the Gujarat Chief Minister, who was a friend, to provide security for his daughter. In the process, he revealed his own and his daughter’s identity which the Cobrapost-Gulail revelations protected! Now, probably he is in need of security cover, to protect him from the media and others.

The manner in which the surveillance seems to have happened for over two months, without the knowledge of the woman, does not seem like protection, however. It still leaves the question of propriety of using unauthorised surveillance using state police infrastructure against a private person based on oral instructions without any due process.

The Cobrapost-Gulail has released the revelations at a press conference with the videos and the detailed audio tracks of the recordings. While the big channels have carried the news of revelations, there is a distinct difference in the way it is being shown. If the players in the story were to be any others, there would be loud and over-board coverage, with repeated replay of the audio track, retelling of all the past cases against the individuals, and the holier-than-thou questioning of “Ladies and gentlemen, is this the kind of good governance the NATION wants? You be the judge!”

The news-clips that the channels have put up on their websites are concentrating on abusing the ruling party for misuse of CBI in an attempt to deflect this story also into a Congress vs BJP election tussle. Whoever is involved in the story, it remains a gross violation of all administrative principles and such sense of official impunity in dealing with a woman using senior police brass, if ignored as an aberration, will set a dangerous precedent.

The English news TV channels that have given extensive coverage to the Nirbhaya case, Priyadarshini Mattoo case and Nitish Katara case will lose all credibility with public if their coverage now shows that some crimes are less serious than others depending on who is involved.

Serious Fraud Investigation against a major corporate house is not news at all! The news channels, that never miss an opportunity to tell us about their investigative dare-devilry, have relegated the news Cobrapost story to the bottom of the bulletins and decided to give it the spin of party rivalry. Interestingly, major newspapers too buried this story in pages 9 or 10, without photo and some even giving a single column in their Hyderabad editions. All the headlines emphasised that Congress wanted CBI enquiry and not the details of the revelations.

The story is playing out on the websites and details are being circulated on the websites, but the mainstream media have backed off from it. This is the second time that the media are so noticeably ducking a major issue over the last several years. The first one was the Radia tapes revelations. In that instance, since several corporate houses were involved and so were the media persons, one could understand advertising revenues and concerns about preserving species solidarity were involved.

In this case, one is still to see what prevents the media from taking up the issue. Whatever the real reasons, it has once again revealed to the news consumers where the bread really is buttered for the media. At crunch time, media will align itself to the power at the cost of public interest. The intricate intermeshing of corporate media with big money and bigger politics seem to dictate the news priorities. Till news priorities privilege the citizen, the news media should refrain from boasting that we live in a democracy and free speech as a fundamental right is available to the media industry.

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