I am of course referring to the 1997 thriller called Conspiracy Theory starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts. Mel Gibson’s character believes everything is a conspiracy including absolute crazy stuff like NASA plotting to kill the US President using some earthcause-causing secret weapon! It’s no different in modern day India today with TV news channels seeing conspiracies in everything. There is a conspiracy in why the monsoons are delayed; why the rupee is crashing against the dollar, why Mahesh Bhupathi and Rohan Bopanna don’t want to play with Lee…..there is a conspiracy in everything! Not surprising then that TV news channels found a conspiracy in the fire that gripped Mantralaya – the Maharashtra government’s seat of power.
As government officials rushed to deny these conspiracy theories, certain TV channels (especially one I call Scam TV that has “conspiracy” inscribed into its genes) started asking why the government was in such a rush to deny a conspiracy theory! Nice. Had the government not come forward to clarify, the same channels would have said “See, no one in the government is coming out and saying anything. These theories must be true!” The same thing happened recently during the Coalgate allegations, when the opposition demanded that an enquiry be ordered. When the government didn’t initially order the enquiry, the conspiracy was that the government was trying to hide the facts. When it did eventually order it, the conspiracy theorists claimed that their accusations must be true, because “why else would the government order an enquiry”! No one wants to wait for the investigations; for the results to come. Everyone believes everyone is corrupt and everything is a scam.
It hardly mattered to the TV channels that just like they were accusing the government of hushing up conspiracy theories, they too could be accused of amplifying them in the first place. To be sure, media never makes its own controversies, only provides a platform for others to publicize theirs. Apparently some opposition leaders first claimed this fire was intentionally set so that the Adarsh scam papers could be destroyed. As soon as the CM clarified (and the CBI reaffirmed) that those papers were in order, the highly creative conspiracy-writers moved on to other “important” documents that had been gutted. In modern day India, this is what media has become. A platform for absolutely unproven and slanderous charges to be freely made. For irresponsible politics to be openly practiced in front of a shocked nation.
That is why it is always better to read newspapers than to watch news channels. The TOI gives a balanced reporting of the fire. It gives more details….when the fire started, how it started, how many fire brigades turned up, when did they turn up, how many people were inside the building, which ministers were there and not there, etc etc. It also mentioned that many documents had been destroyed as they would be in any fire. It did mention the conspiracy theory, but only in a small way in the inset (table). Very importantly, the TOI raised its voice against the ill-preparedness of the authorities to tackle a fire in even the most important of all government buildings. In my mind, the TOI’s coverage was honest and unbiased. In contrast, TV channels glossed over all the mundane details; focusing almost entirely on the conspiracy.
In the inside pages, the TOI did dwell on the conspiracy theory a bit more. “Speculation was rife through the day whether the fire was an accident or an act of sabotage carried out to destroy documents relating to crucial cases and projects.” That’s an honest statement to make. There were conspiracy theories floating around, but the TOI did not lend those theories any credibility by endorsing them. Again it mentioned that “Officials stressed that Adarsh records can be recovered from the CBI or the two-member judicial commission; CBI officers too maintained that they have all the “requisite documents necessary to file a chargesheet”. The farthest the paper went was to say that “Still, conspiracy theories raged over the cause of the inferno. Many wondered if the secretariat was sabotaged to rid of records maintained by the urban development department of real estate proposals and projects.” At no point did it sensationalize the subject.
In contrast, TV channels, especially Scam TV, had already pronounced the verdict. It cooked up some “Rs 25000 crores worth of scams” that were being probed. I have never heard of this, nor do the papers mention this. And when the CBI officials clarified that they had all the Adarsh papers with them, the anchor of Scam TV went “Aah ha” in his “see the conspiracy?” tone. The only thing missing was the Balaji-like sound effects. Give it a little time….the news channels will get these embellishments as well!
From the little I could gather on TV and in the press, I think the fire department did a fairly decent job. They reached the building in 15 minutes, which is not bad in India. They did not have any water shortage. Their equipment was working fine. They were able to reach the top floors without any difficulty. They rescued almost all people who were trapped. The fact that only 2 people died should come as a relief. Yes, we have many miles to cross before we reach Western standards in fire protection. But continuously cribbing won’t get us there. Sometimes, providing a constructive environment works better.
The real truth is what I have repeated many times. Media has lost its balance. It has lost its bearing. News anchors and editors must agree on certain minimum standards. If they demand high standards from public functionaries, they must first pass the test themselves….