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Vinod Mehta

Without your own research no tip off is worth it

Investigative journalism has a nice, grand ring. Its practitioners in any newspaper or magazine office assume special airs and demand special treatment. Their output is seldom questioned since they are judged not by quantity, but by quality. Marketing managers and chief executives in publishing houses, who are otherwise ignorant about journalism, speak in reverential tones when the phrase is mentioned. It is the magic which allegedly gets newsstands moving.
I begin on this slightly sardonic note because investigative journalism covers a multitude of sins. The genuine article is, of course, pure as gold and should be suitably acknowledged, but it must be noted that there is spurious stuff knocking around too.

In a sense, every journalist is in some way, an investigative journalist. Even the cub reporter who compiles the listings or “daily engagements” column from hand-outs has to verify, check and probe. If investigation means going beyond what is handed-out or distributed, we are all in the game.
I first chanced upon investigative journalism in the early ‘60s. Then a gentleman called Harold Evans, now lost, alas, to the glitterati pages, edited The Sunday Times, London. He, (I may be wrong) I believe, is the father of magazine/Sunday paper investigative journalism. Evans coined the word “insight” and constituted a special insight team of four or five reporters (more hands were acquired, if necessary). It was the job of this team to produce, on a weekly basis, reports which would appear under the heading insight. It was the core around which the Sunday paper was built.
My friend, the award-winning journalist Phillip Knightley, was a key member of the Insight team which produced memorable exposes. Their length could vary from 2,000 to 4,000 words and there was a special page reserved for Insight. When I launched The Sunday Observer in 1981, I shamelessly copied the Evans formula and for eight years each week, we produced full-page investigations. Perhaps, the first organised attempt in this country to provide investigative journalism on a regular basis. Since then investigative journalism has come a long way. By and large, its record in India is distinguished. It has fallen only when it has been manipulated to “get” certain individuals, by governments out to discredit rivals. The attempt to frame VP Singh and his son in the St Kitts case comes to mind.
Investigative journalism is combustible journalism. It has to be handled with extra caution and extra care. In our country today, where politics has descended to the level of the gutter and no dirty trick is considered too dirty, journalists have a special responsibility not to let investigative journalism be misused. The temptations are enormous. There are so many people hanging in the corridors of power in Delhi, which includes cabinet ministers, always ready to provide special access, files, exclusive or privileged information. All the investigative journalist has to do is go back to his office and punch it in.
Unfortunately, this species is not investigative journalism, because the journalist has not done any real investigation himself; the material has been handed to him. If the reporter asks his “source” too many questions, he or she will get irritated. “If you are not interested, I’ll give it to someone else,” is the usual threat.
A good thumb rule is: if the information has come too easily, has been provided on a platter (intelligence agencies embroiled in their intra-agency fights or doing the ruling party’s bidding pose the biggest problem since what they offer is not easy to crosscheck) it is suspect. At Outlook, we invariably avoid working on anything if it is based on a single source, however reliable that may be. no self-respecting reporter with a degree of professional pride is likely to put his byline to a story he has not researched thoroughly.
However, I am not suggesting that leads, tip-offs, even information from suspect sources must be automatically ignored. it must become the starting point of the investigation, not its conclusion.
Indian journalists today work under trying conditions. On the one hand, there is great pressure from the Editor to produce the “exclusive”, and on the other, bogus and motivated information is all too easily available. The purveyors of this kind of material are looking for the “hungry” reporter and they might feed him some stray pieces of genuine news before ensnaring him into the big lie. Be that as it may, thanks to our politicians, bureaucrats, corrupt public services and the general culture of all-pervasive corruption, there are enough authentic reports knocking around for the hard-working reporter to consider. I confess that even after 25 years of examining, sifting and organising investigative reports, I have no tips to offer, no five golden rules to dispense for the investigative reporter. Indeed, there are no special rules for this genre, except basic professionalism.
If pressed, I would offer only one tip to an honest investigative reporter: trust your instincts. If you think your source looks, talks, behaves like a crook, he probably is a crook; he is leading you on. Professionalism and instinct – let these be your beacons and you will seldom go wrong. Look out, moreover, for an obvious motive. See how the story you are doing will benefit the individual who is so generously providing you the dope.
(The writer is Editor-in-Chief of Outlook)