Old school journalism involving committed reportage, meticulous investigation and research is dying a slow death in India
By Ramesh Menon and Ajith Pillai
Looked at purely from the perspective of the Indian media and certain emerging trends in reportage and newsgathering, Spotlight, which won this year’s Oscar for Best Picture is a film that all journalists must watch and introspect about. Critics have said that it is a gripping docudrama. The fact that Spotlight was also nominated for best director, best supporting actress, best supporting actor, best original screenplay and best editing at the Oscars is further testimony that it is a cut above the ordinary.
The story is set in 2001. Marty Baron, editor of The Boston Globe stumbles upon a newspaper column by a lawyer that speaks of child sexual abuse by a priest of the Roman Catholic Church in the Boston area. He immediately assigns a team of journalists from his paper to investigate allegations against John Geoghan, an unfrocked priest accused of molesting over 80 boys.
What started as an investigation into the conduct of a single priest soon metamorphosed into a much larger story as the team discovers that child sexual abuse by priests was rampant in Massachusetts and that the Boston Archdiocese was guilty of a cover-up.
TRIBUTE TO JOURNALISM
Over a period of two years, the team painstakingly collated evidence. Sources were tapped, documents dug up and the jigsaw puzzle slowly pieced together. But beyond the methodical research were other factors that came into play—persuasive yet sensitive interviewing skills, winning over the confidence of people and diligently following reliable tip-offs. Spotlight is truly a tribute to the power of journalism as we once knew it.
So, what is the message that the film has to offer to the media? Ben Bradlee Jr, deputy editor of The Boston Globe and one of the key players in the real-life Spotlight team, had this to say: “I think we all hope that one of the effects of the movie will be to have editors reassess the importance of investigative reporting, because it really can make a difference in our democracy. And yet in the Internet era newspapers are obviously struggling and have had to lay off staff. Editors are facing the realities of trying to find enough bodies to merely put out the paper, never mind what is perceived as the luxury of investigative reporting.”
In the Indian context, what he said is of utmost relevance. Investigative journalism of the kind that is depicted in Spotlight has been dying a slow death in this country. Some link it to the crass commercialization that has taken over the media in the last 25 years. Others call it the overall dumbing down of the press which is now more caught up in dishing out news that sells rather than news that enlightens or exposes the darker and dangerous side of our politics, economy and society.
It is not that there are no good journalists. It is just that their functioning has been cramped and their independence circumscribed by vested considerations and by restricted funds for newsgathering.
Reporters are discouraged from travelling in pursuit of a story. Reports are hastily put together by surfing the internet or talking to contacts over the phone or email. Great stories come from personal interactions. When was the last time we heard of a great investigation that has been pulled off by a team of reporters? Television channels and magazines in India have actually got rid of their Special Investigation Teams because they are either “too expensive” or because the management does not wish to get embroiled in litigation—a risk a media organization runs when it carries an investigative report.
And yet, this was not the script that was followed by a “fearless” media that flowered after the lifting of the Emergency in the 70s. Editor/owners like Ramnath Goenka promoted hard-hitting journalism and sent reporters to the far corners of the country. New publications launched in the 1980s prided themselves on the fact that they invested lavishly on reporters and on newsgathering. The story however changed with the corporatization of the media.
Marketing suddenly came to play a significant role in deciding news content and this trend continues to this day. In fact, the power equation in many publications has undergone a sea-change with editorial becoming subservient to those who run the business end of operations. The net result: managements increasingly see newspapers, magazines, TV channels and websites as mere products and journalists as nameless news processing machines. Doomsday prophets say the insurmountable Chinese Wall between the editorial (church) and the state (advertising) has now been breached and that the prognosis is not very encouraging.
The breach of the wall has been an ongoing process. It was in 1984 that Samir Jain, the current vice-chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd (BCCL), the owners of The Times Of India, surprised the journalistic world with his radical views on what is the real place of news within a paper. Jain reportedly told a meeting attended by senior editors at Times House in Mumbai: “Newspapers are vehicles for carrying advertisements and news is what we fill in the gaps between the ads.”
This template has been further informally widened to redefine news as a vehicle which can also generate income. Thus has emerged the concept of paid news where clients are charged for editorial space much like they pay for advertising display. Jain reiterated his earlier position in the October 8, 2012, issue of The New Yorker, when he told journalist Ken Auletta: “We are not in the newspaper business; we are in the advertising business. If 90 per cent of your revenue comes from advertising, then you’re in the advertising business.”
TJS George, founder editor of Asiaweek, drew attention to the following points in a lecture about the state of journalism today: “One: A newspaper has no social responsibility. Its only responsibility is to make profits for its shareholders. Two: The press is not in the news business. It is in the entertainment business. Three: A newspaper does not need an editor. Four: Readers are not important in themselves. They are important only as a means to reach the advertiser.” Some would call his views uncharitable and too dystopian. But it nearer to the truth than we imagine.
A Brave, Old World
It is not as if Indian journalism has not had its moments. There have been some great stories and editors who backed their reporters to the hilt. Here are a few examples:
Exposing human trafficking: Ashwani Sarin of The Indian Express shocked the country when he bought Kamala in Dholpur district of Rajasthan to reveal how many like her are bought and re-sold in the flesh trade.
The Emergency and after: The media stood up for freedom and showed exemplary courage in opposing the totalitarian regime of Indira Gandhi. The Indian Express and its feisty owner and editor, the late Ramnath Goenka, deserve special mention.
The Bofors Scam: Chitra Subramaniam of The Hindu and an India Today investigative team painstakingly pursued the Bofors papers to establish that kickbacks were paid in the gun deal. It embarrassed and brought down the Rajiv Gandhi government.
The stock market scam: Sucheta Dalal of The Times Of India made sense of the complex dealings of stock broker Harshad Mehta. It shook up the financial world and is billed as the first mega scam post liberalization. In the past, we had illustrious editors like Sham Lal, CY Chintamani, KM Panikkar, Pothan Joseph, Frank Moraes, Chalapathi Raju, BG Verghese and Girilal Jain. There have also been individualistic editors who carved out their identity by pioneering out-of-the-box journalism like MJ Akbar, Nihal Singh, Khushwant Singh, N Ram and Vinod Mehta. Today, most readers would be hard pressed to identify the editors of leading publications.
REPORTING ON AGENCIES
This commercialization has had its fallout on reporting. Old school investigative journalism is now rare. Instead, what we now have are exclusives dependent on investigations done by CAG, ED, CBI or the police. Journalistic scoops have been reduced to gaining access to reports of these agencies before others.
Such news or leaks is given play when it suits newspaper managements, serves vested interests or reflects the overall resentment within the business community or the middle class. At another level, agendas of the government are fulfilled through the targeting of a community, political rivals, select business groups or those critical of the establishment with headline-grabbing news for which the inputs come from intelligence agencies or some other arm of the government.
Investigative journalism in the true sense of the term, which has been captured by Spotlight, is of a totally different nature. According to reporter Sacha Pfeiffe, who was part of the investigation team at The Boston Globe, it involved tedious backbreaking research. “We created what we call our database of ‘bad priests’, where we tracked over a course of 20 years various priests and where they were assigned. This was a tedious, monotonous three-plus weeks of losing our eyesight as we went through small type and the equivalent of an Archdiocesan phonebook. But the movie makes it look quite riveting.”
The story of The Boston Globe’s reporters did not end where the film ends. After the 2002 story, some 600 follow-up stories were done by the team. Such committed and sustained focus on the story required not only human resources but also financial support. The Globe team was lucky to have the backing of the paper’s management. But the same cannot be said of owners of many media houses.
STENOGRAPHY OR JOURNALISM?
In India, investment on newsgathering is appalling. Reporting on rural issues, for example, has been virtually rendered redundant. Information about the other India is sourced from press releases and briefings from concerned ministries in Delhi or state capitals. As senior journalist and editor P Sainath once lamented: “There is journalism and there is stenography; 80 per cent of journalism you are reading or viewing today is stenography.”
One view is that drawing room gossip and sensational easy-does-it journalism have been the twin results of dumbing down and a squeeze on funds for reporting. Very often, editors under pressure to show better TRP ratings and exclusive front page stories push reporters into doing sting operations or use information from freelancers who use hidden cameras and sell this footage and information. These readymade stories have their limitations. Most sting operations show politicians or officials being amenable to accepting bribe. It only proves that the person is susceptible to enticement but does not provide proof of any real crime committed.
A sting operation could also be an off-the-record interview secretly recorded. What is casually said may be pretentious banter with no grounding in reality. It is often someone expressing personal apprehensions or imagined misgivings. Or worse, it could be sweeping statements made to impress the journalist who has come ostensibly for a chat but is armed with a secret recording device.
At one time, it was believed that television news channels would set a new bar in journalism through well-researched news stories and documentaries. But with the exception of a few news programs like Srinivasan Jain’s Truth Vs Hype on NDTV, the rest is dominated by animated studio discussions. These are a lot of hot air and scoring brownie points by the panelists.
The media boom and stiff competition post liberalization has been cited as the reason for declining standards. At the last count, there were 82,222 newspapers and over 800 TV news channels. So how do so many media organizations survive? Largely by pushing agendas, pandering to egos and indulging in practices like blackmail hitherto unheard of in journalism.
At a time when well-researched stories and cutting edge investigative reporting has become such a rarity, Spotlight is a film that tells us what true journalism is all about. Those who are perceptive enough will conclude after watching the film that the Fourth Estate can become a force and not just a propaganda tool if good values that were once practiced receive the priority they deserve. Sadly, the reality is far more grim and disturbing.