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Dileep Padgaonkar
I smell a rat in investigative journalism. It flaunts a superior pedigree on the strength of lofty goals it claims to pursue. The investigative journalist deems it his duty to unravel the Truth and establish the reign of Justice on behalf of the People. In these exertions, he is forever pitted against the State, the System and the Establishment. He wears his radicalism on his sleeve. Indeed, merely because he occupies the high moral ground, he assumes he is entitled to gratitude and acclaim.
In the Indian context, however, such moral posturing is suspect. It is a pointer to another agenda which can be shady. A politician, bureaucrat or businessman is eager to connive with a scribe to settle a score or promote an interest. The scribe is privy to certain confidences.
Documents are leaked to him. His ‘investigation’ then progresses with time-tested inputs: innuendo, insinuation, guilt by association, half truths and calumny.
Since the other side of the story is seldom brought into the picture, investigative journalism swiftly metamorphoses into a campaign and then, effortlessly, into an inquisition. The individual who is pilloried is presumed to be innocent until the courts deliver their verdict. But court cases drag on for years. meanwhile, the media exposure ruins his reputation, cuts short his career or cripples his business. Even if the courts finally acquit him – which happens ever so often – the ground lost can never be recovered The pain and the humiliation cannot be undone. The honour, though vindicated, cannot be restored. No one hauls up the investigative journalist.
None of this is meant to minimise the responsibility of the press in exposing the misdeeds of the powerful. There can be no two opinions about its watchdog role. From the Bhagalpur blindings to a succession of seams, scandals and acts of malfeasance, the Indian press has given a fine account of itself. Though the methods it has used may sometimes be debatable – as has happened in the case of the Tehelka tapes – it has managed effectively to bring the corrupt to book. The press could not have played this role without the active support of people of integrity in the power structure. Both were agreed on the aims: to ensure transparency and accountability in public life.
The problem arises, as we have said, when journalism, sporting its ‘investigative’ tag, becomes the handmaiden of a vested interest. The journalist willingly gets sucked into a process where political or mercantile ambition are at work, not Truth or Justice. The high moral ground he claims to occupy is but a pit of sleaze. Such journalism abdicates its role as a guardian of the public weal. It turns into an instrument of venality manipulated by someone operating beyond the confines of the profession.
There is another reason for my discomfort with ‘investigative’ journalism. It thrives on the public’s appetite to see individuals who command influence, fame or power dragged in the mud. The ‘investigative’ journalist seeks to whet it with abandon in the sure knowledge that nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the Indian public.
Investigative journalism acquired its special aura in the wake of The Washington Post’s Watergate expose. A whole generation of American has considered it as a benchmark of excellence. So have reporters and editors across the world where the media operate in freedom. In our case, however, the genre degenerated because it fed on partisanship. The lofty ethical and social goals were a fig leaf.
Unlike their American counterparts, Indian reporters have hardly ever been able to command enough resources, and avail of enough time, to engage in meticulous investigation. (Tehelka is the exception that substantiates this rule.) They are left with no choice but to cut corners, to remain content with the documents made available to them, to rely on hearsay. The outcome is bound to be tendentious.
Here, then, is the burden of my song. Some nouns are best left without the adornment of an adjective. Democracy is one of them. In our own times, we have had to contend, professionally speaking, with ‘basic’ democracy, ‘guided’ democracy, ‘people’s’ democracy, ‘socialist’ democracy, ‘proletarian’ democracy, ‘secular’ democracy and so forth. And we have had to witness, and sometimes directly suffer, the miseries they perpetrated: double-speak, censorship, arrests, torture, the violation of elementary rights, exile and, ever so often, murder.
Journalism is another noun that can do without an epithet. It does not need a tag which endows it with highfalutin goals to do the job that devolves on it – which is, among other tasks, to uncover wrongdoing without fear or favour. When it does acquire one – whether it is ‘investigative’, ‘developmental’, ‘committed’ or whatever – it, too, runs the risk of eroding its most precious asset: its ability to earn and retain, the trust of its constituents.
(The writer is Executive Managing Editor, The Times of India)