Media

Backstory: When People Start Asking Questions, There Will Be No Room to Hide

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Mao Tse-Tung is believed to have said, “Investigation may be likened to the long months of pregnancy, and solving a problem to the day of birth. To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve it.” I must confess at the outset that I have no independent way to investigate whether a leader like Mao, who had himself many a political secret to hide, really did say this, but I was drawn to the quotation particularly because of its concluding observation: “To investigate a problem is, indeed, to solve it.” This, after all, is the winning argument for the investigative story – unearthing an issue of public import, which lies buried or forgotten or seen as too inconvenient, even dangerous, to address. The Wire piece, ‘The Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah’ (October 8), which has been shared over 147,000 times since it was put out last Sunday, does just that.

This story on Jay Shah, the son of the powerful BJP president Amit Shah, was in many ways an investigation waiting to be done. The fact that mainstream media entities far more powerful, both financially and in terms of influence, than The Wire have chosen not to do so and, worse, ignored or tamped down its significance after it was broken, reflects one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s biggest achievements in his three-and-a-half years in power: neutering if not neutralising the media. The diminishing returns of a policy of being ‘The Master’s Voice’ will soon become evident to the masters of the mainstream, as people increasingly shift to digital sources of news (‘The Online Media May be Anarchic, but Shows More Spirit than Mainstream Media’, October 13) and if the mainstream media is to recover lost ground, as we hope they do, it will need to rediscover the long-term value of distance from power rather than the immediate gains of cleaving to power.

But this column is really about the investigative story that has been long acknowledged as a badge of honour for any media platform worth its salt. We don’t have to recall what Watergate did for the reputation of The Washington Post, the details of that story still survive 45 years later; this country too is not short on examples of such journalism. Many of the investigations conducted by Indian journalists have passed into legend. The purchase of Kamala, a tribal girl, by a newspaper reporter, even made it to the big screen; others like the Bofors investigations have become central points of reference while still others have been rescued from the realm of amnesia by the reminiscences of their reporters. For instance, in his 2014 book, Off the Record, senior journalist Ajith Pillai talks about his investigation into how a brigadier, accused of not preventing Pakistani infiltrators from entering Indian soil and setting off the Kargil war, had in fact been falsely framed. It is through such retelling that the aura of this important form of journalism kept alive.

Much like a trellis for a delicate sapling, the investigative story needs an enabling framework. Three aspects are key: the professionalism, courage and contacts of those who undertake investigative journalism; supportive editors and the media organisations in general; and, finally, the public that responds to the investigation and takes ownership of it. In that sense, every great investigative story is a team effort. It can even be considered a private-public partnership!

In the case involving Jay, the reporter has displayed a remarkable maturity in the face of vicious trolling. As she put it in her widely read Facebook post, her primary job as a journalist was to speak truth to power: “I don’t do the stories I do because I am ‘brave’. I do them because that’s journalism and not bravery.” She also had the unqualified support of both the editors and the organisation. There was, in other words, a conducive environment for that story to be investigated, prepared, and circulated so that it could emerge as a topic of national conversation.

The manner in which The Wire refused to buckle under the threat of a Rs 100-crore defamation case will, I hope, go on to encourage media organisations, big and small, to take on the challenge of the increasingly belligerent SLAPP suits (‘We Need an Anti-SLAPP Law To Encourage and Protect Free Press’, October 12) coming their way. As noted in the piece, ‘Jay Amit Shah’s Case Against The Wire Is an Attempt to Censor, Intimidate Media at Large’, October 12), “Defamation cases have…become the litigation sport of the privileged and it is often the case that powerful individuals and corporations do not file defamation cases to win or to safeguard their reputations, rather their interest lies in obtaining immediate injunctive relief and drowning their opposition in protracted and expensive litigation.” One of the founding editors of The Wire put it well by observing that a “defamation complaint, whatever its merit or lack of it, is no explanation to the public, and can never be a substitute for democratic accountability” (‘Jay Amit Shah and the Khandvalas: Corporate Governance is Also About the Company One Keeps’, October 12).

But what was possibly the most conspicuous in the present case was the third leg of the support structure we spoke about: public backing. Right from the moment this story broke, there was a flood of support for The Wire. To get a sense of this, one need just to go to the response section of the report under discussion. The great majority of readers, who numbered nearly 450 when I last counted, were unqualifiedly encouraging, sending in posts like “great reporting! Kudos!”, “journalism is still alive in India”, “hats off to the writer, bravo…”

Many recognised that this period of dissimulation and fake news needs to come to an end. As one reader put it, “It is time to reject all media outlets that advertise fake news and propaganda. Such news may titillate, but does not give any value to our common issues.” There were some lively discussions. Remarked one respondent to another who had attacked both the piece and the writer, “Before you start saying that she is a congress stooge, or anti-national, do recall that the same journalist had exposed the wrong doings of Vadra too in 2011.” Another, a Modi supporter, did some plainspeaking, “I was one of those hardcore Modi fans who supported Bjp but it took almost 2 years for me to understand the true colour of the party… even though i was a bhakt I refused to be a ‘andha bhakt’ and I stick to this stand ie appreciating good job and criticizing bad decisions from any party! Now coming to this incident, I am quite surprised to see all the news channels ignoring this news, no debates, no investigations, no polls, from any media houses so far! This exposes lot of our media houses as well.”

Apart from responses from readers, the social media was also alive to the implications of the story, with bloggers, vloggers and resident wits having a field day. But it was in the calling out of the shocking bias with which mainstream television channels treated the Jay Shah expose – first by ignoring The Wire story and then scrambling to cover the government’s defence mounted by Union railway minister Piyush Goyal – that the satire was at its most pungent. One neat infographic that did the rounds carried 16 familiar faces from our Hindi and English news chat shows with the words, “I am with Jay” emblazoned below each.

Going by the metrics of public support, the Jay Shah investigation has done well. This anchorage of popular opinion will prove vital in seeing The Wire through in the crucial period ahead of it. Those seeking to bring it down by hurling at it Rs 100-crore defamation suits should understand that when people start asking questions, there will be no room to hide.

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Apart from the many mails of salutation and financial support this portal has received in the wake of the Jay Shah investigation are some queries from readers abroad who are finding it difficult to subscribe to The Wire service because of certain stipulations. Kanwal Singh from Australia, for instance, wants to be a subscriber but does not have a PAN, which is required. The Wire should set up a mechanism for payments from readers outside India which is transparent, efficient and easy to use.

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Roshan Jayakumar, a lawyer by profession, is upset with The Wire for a typo, and an embarrassing one at that. Referring to the article, ‘Questioning Periyar Is Necessary for Forging a Progressive Anti-Caste Politics’ (October 6), he writes: “Tamil Nadu is spelt Tamil Badu at one place. Please note that ‘badu’ is an extremely vulgar word in Tamil. Please check that and correct it to avoid the wrath of people who speak Tamil.” He also believes that there is a breach of ethics in stating a certain position in the headline and then terming the piece a “political debate”. He ends by advising The Wire to do three things: ‘Proof read your articles. Spell check your articles. Take this as constructive criticism from a reader and a possible donor.’ I was particularly struck by the wisdom of the third injunction!

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I will be travelling for the next six weeks. The column will be back on December 2.

Write to [email protected]

  • Anjan Basu

    ‘When people start asking questions, there will be no room to hide’. How true!

  • kujur bachchan

    2002: A certain Mr Narendra Modi, who, a few months after the Gujarat riots, when asked by the New York Times reporter Celia Dugger if he wished he handled the riots any differently, told her – “his greatest regret was not handling the media better”.

    2017: The same certain Mr Narendra Modi should have no regrets now because the mainstream media has already handled itself into disgraceful servility.