Stinging Judeo, Express style

BY Mannika Chopra| IN Media Practice | 27/11/2003
Does this new brand of journalism point to a lack of ethics in the media or is it the beginning of a different kind of ethics?
 

It’s the story, stupid.

They don’t tell you this in journalism school but often the hardest part of exposing corruption in high places is not the actual tracking down of the misdemeanour as much as proving to the public why you did so in the first place.  So when the Sunday edition of The Indian Express on November 16 shouted in double-deck headlines that the Union Minister for Environment, Dilip Singh Judeo, was caught on camera taking bribes in exchange for mining rights to an Australian company, after the initial shock had died down, a lot of questions were being directed towards the paper regarding its motive. 

The argument ran that the timing of the sting was suspect given that the assembly elections in Chattisgarh were barely two weeks away and that Judeo, the BJP’s choice against Congress rival Ajit Singh Jogi, was fighting primarily on an anti-corruption plank.  Although the paper went on record saying it checked the veracity of the VCD before publishing the story, by not revealing how it accessed the 35-minute film, the daily known mostly for its pain staking investigation in the past, had somehow let its ethical guard down. It was felt that since the VCD had been most likely been given by Jogi’s supporters, the newspaper had been used to influence the electoral outcome and surprisingly it didn’t know the difference from being leaked to and being leaked on.

 As the notion of Judeo’s malfeasance gained currency so did the disturbing question about whether The Indian Express had been compromised. For some, exposing the ever increasingly unsavoury world of Indian politics justified such means to the end. Others were not so sure.  The questions didn’t only come from politicians and those individuals affiliated ideologically or otherwise to the ruling government but also from within the media community. Although home minister L.K. Advani applauded the newspaper for reacting to a good news story and publishing it, some editors, past and present, privately, had reservations about this new form of aggressive cowboy, yahoo type of journalism that published first and asked questions later. Or worse did not ask questions at all.

 As a newspaper The Indian Express has always reveled in its renegade spirit. The paper’s catchline ‘ journalism of courage’ was the motto of its founder Ramnath Goenka and fifty-odd years later that axiom still survives in the daily’s newsroom. Goenka’s crusading zeal was legendary and the paper was known for its investigative rigour. Although its campaigns   peaked just before the Emergency the tradition of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted continued long afterwards.  Scams like the Kuo oil deal, fodder and Antulay exposes, more recently the petrol pump scandal, uncovering human right infringements such as the Bhagalpur blindings, the sale of Kamala, coverage of the Gujarat riots were all the result of good old fashioned legwork journalism with a solid quotient of reporting.

 On any given day the newspaper’s front page is always bustling with groundbreaking reportage completely missed out by other mainline papers. Amongst media practitioners there has always been a grudging cachet of respect for this feisty broadsheet. Under its current editor-in- chief Shekhar Gupta, whose hunger for exclusives is well known to the point of edging out non-performers, staff drive is legendary. 

 There are an awful lot of weak media leaders around but The Indian Express isn’t one of them. Friends and foes alike, no one can deny that in matters of unearthing corruption, The Express has risen nobly to the challenge--which is probably why the VCD was given to it in the first place. But the bottom line has always been: pugnacious but not partisan.

 So did the paper cross that fine line in the Judeo case? According to Tarun Tejpal, editor-in-chief of Tehelka, and an expert now on the perils of sting journalism, in the Judeo case there is a "primary and a secondary issue and the latter has no bearing on the former."  The primary issue is that Dilip Singh Judeo holding the charge of a key ministry was seen accepting money in exchange for favours. And to that end the greatest challenge to civil society is to make him accountable for his actions.  Whether The Indian Express was within its right in not revealing its source is a secondary issue.  Focusing on the secondary issue, in his opinion, diffuses the focus on the real problem.

 Nearly thirty years ago, Tejpal says, the Watergate investigation was triggered by information received from an anonymous source, Deep Throat, to two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. That investigation carried over months eventually forced President Richard Nixon to resign from office. To date no one knows who or what Deep Throat was but that didn’t take away from the enormity of Nixon’s transgressions. Then as in now, the source is of marginal importance and making that informant public is even less so.

 To be sure, there is little evidence to suggest that by not revealing its source The Express is following a particular party’s agenda or that it is in involved in a larger conspiracy that intersects media with politics and power. Most of its journalists are card-carrying liberals, some are journalist activists but in a good way. Nor have any professional doubts on the newspaper’s judgement call last Sunday translated into a full-scale media scandal. All reporters have, at some time or the other, benefited from partisan sources. 

 The core issue is not whether Judeo is guilty, very clearly he is, but whether this ‘plant’ compromised Express’s editorial integrity. By not revealing its sources or their modus operandi did it not reduce the credibility of a paper known for its precision journalism in the eyes of the public? By being too close to its source did the paper not commit the sin of being a consummate insider?

 Every journalist struggles to reconcile two clashing professional instincts: One, an instinct dominated by fairness and objectivity. It is through the is prism of these principals reporters are trained to scrutinize the powerful, the fraudulent malefactors and subvertors of the system as they challenge them. The other instinct is governed by a more basic element of muckraking, a temptation to stand out from the crowd by being cynical of the establishment, taking shortcuts. While the former instinct calls for restraint, the other calls for zeal. With the birth of twenty-four hour news channels, zeal is at a premium and restraint has taken a backseat.

 Technology, too, has changed the ground rules of journalism. What used to be recorded in notebooks and tape recorders is now being recorded by spycams. Two years ago it was the Tehelka tapes; this year it was the Judeo sting, this week the paper carried a story how a Karnataka exhibitions authority was caught on tape by a photojournalist and opposition leader "spilling the beans" about his "corrupt boss" in Mysore. The result is much more in your face kind of journalism, a kind of journalism that pushes the boundaries of the profession just that little bit more.

 In the end, Judeo’s disgrace could be a cautionary tale for this new brand of journalism. It could lead to some soul searching and some professional introspection. Or it could also point to not to a lack of ethics in the media but the beginning of a different kind of ethics.

 contact: mannika@vsnl.com

 

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