Monday, April 9, 2012

Antony first persecuted, then glorified…..

Since the time General VK Singh alleged bribe offers were made to him, AK Antony has first been reviled beyond repair and then glorified beyond limit by media. This yoyo behavior of media is hardly new – and it goes on to show how dangerous this habit of publishing half baked stories laced with strong politicized opinions can be.

Just look at some of the headlines in the leading newspapers since the story broke.

March 27th: General makes new claim – opens new front against government. The article inter-alia contains the following assertion “He fired another salvo at the government”. Interesting. Exactly who said that the General was accusing the government or the minister of any wrongdoing in this affair? No one knows, but the newspaper added that twist. The opposition predictably went after the government “Opposition MPs forced adjournment of both houses of Parliament”. Another assertion: “Antony was on the backfoot”. These statements made it look as if Antony was corrupt – the hint was that since the only beneficiary of bribing the general would be BEML, and BEML was a PSU, so somehow, it must have made the offer on Antony’s instructions. Further, the way journalists push once they get an opening, they make almost anyone take forced viewpoints even though they may not normally be prone to do so. Retired Army Chief Shankar Roy Choudhury apparently stated “It is a serious matter – what action did the defence ministry take so far?” he asked. Again, very interesting. Why would he question the government’s role in the affair, without similary questioning General Singh’s mistake of not putting his complaint down in writing?

March 28th: While admitting that the General had told him about the bribe offer, Antony was shown as being on the backfoot yet again. He is reported to have said “I was shocked”. And “If I am wrong, you may punish me. I think I’ve done my best. I’ve not covered anybody”. So Antony had to defend himself. But the media twist to his assertions was one of suspicion. As far as the media was concerned, Antony was guilty of not having acted on the General’s verbal communication with the minister. Did anyone ask why the General did not put his complaint in writing? No. There is no juice there. The juice is when a minister is crucified.

March 29th: This is the day when the General’s letter alleging ill preparedness of the armed forces was leaked to the media. Again, media gave it an interesting twist. The title of the front page story read “Angry government in bind over army chief – Leak of letter to PM scene as anti national act”. So, the media concluded that it was the General who had leaked the letter – and that the government was angry. The newspaper quoted an unnamed “source” who apparently said “We’ve no doubt that the army chief is acting on a personal agenda, looking to settle scores with the establishment that “denied” him justice in the controversy over his actual date of birth. But we don’t want to make a martyr out of him especially when he has styled himself as an honest soldier who has been humiliated by the government”. Now who is this source? Is he a source from the government or from the opposition or from the media or some “expert” – the statement has different implications depending on who the source is. But the newspaper does not bother to clarify. Without the clarification, it makes the government look defensive.

March 30th: “Antony guns for leak culprits, say they will be punished” – and the tide appeared to be turning for Antony. The newspaper, quoting the minister said “Murky deals will be scrapped at any stage. We will take strong action if any malpractice, corruption or lobbying is established…..there will be no mercy, there is zero tolerance for corruption”. Wow…..Antony seems to be getting his own back!

April 1st: In a reversal of fortunes for Antony, the newspaper story read “Antony could be jailed for inaction – delay in filing case violation of legal duty)”. Sorry….Antony, you have to wait a little longer!

The stories of the last couple of days have now swung in the exact opposite way and are painting Antony as a saint.

On April 7th, the story was titled: “Antony under fire for war on arms lobby? Fresh Controversies May Be A Bid To Oust Minister”. “Because of his uncompromising stand against corruption Antony has antagonized a whole range of interests: arms lobbies, middlemen, foreign governments and armament firms. Rarely has a defence minister attracted this sort of hostility” reported the paper.

On April 8th, the story read “Nixed copter deal put min in arms lobby crosshairs?” Almost speaking in glorifying tones, the news story said “Antony took the tough call to cancel the order for the 190-odd attack helicopters for the army due to irregularities in the bidding process and deviations from established procedures and this brought home to defence lobbyists and vendors, who were used to having their way, that it would not be business as usual anymore.”

The point of this post is to demonstrate how the impatience (irresponsibility?) of media and the deep temptation to write sensational stories can take the truth out of journalism. There was a time when the written word (in a newspaper) could be taken as the gospel truth. No longer. Nowadays, it is better to wait for a few days or weeks for the truth to slowly emerge. Newspapers (and to a much larger extent TV news channels) have long given up on truth and verifying stories before printing them. The Indian Express story of April 4th is another similar case in point.

It would be better if media outlets did far more homework in ascertaining facts, took opinions from all concerned, did a little analysis of their own…..then reminded themselves not to sensationalize the story. Editors must remember that they wield enormous powers – their opinions shape a million other opinions. When we put our children through school, we search for good teachers. A poor teacher can ruin the full life of a student. It’s the same with media…..

The real truth is that media is fast starting to look like a soap opera – maybe the words “drama” and “action thriller” define news outlets better than the old-generation ones like “truth”, “thoroughness” or “unbiasedness”. In a democracy, media is supposed to be a watchdog against governmental malpractices. But at present, media is looking more an entertainment product than anything else. There was a time when English media was different – but today even that’s not true.….

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