What wondrous things we discovered last fortnight. Who would have thought The Hindu would replace The Indian Express as an investigative tiger? Or that a news aggregating site effectively owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries group (Firstpost.com) would be at the vanguard of the investigative assault on Robert Vadra?
If Arvind Kejriwal’s disclosures got mileage because they had a range of media as amplifier, the man and his team did the media a return favour, forcing the fourth estate to rediscover its investigative instincts by throwing them periodic bones that they could hardly ignore.
In the process, it became a fortnight of revelation about the media’s own performance and conduct. When the Vadra disclosures came, the media fell into two categories: the willing and the unwilling. Those willing to probe went ahead and downloaded or otherwise obtained details about Vadra’s company, and the transactions with DLF Ltd, the banks and so on. But just laying out facts on different companies is easier than finding significant revelations in what they show. Even when there is a story, rusty or unformed skills have trouble making sense of what the facts are showing.
That took a while. Evidently, business journalists—young and old—are not sufficiently forensic in their skills, or sufficiently able to read balance sheets and make sense of them. Or able to write cogently when they are explaining complicated transactions. The Salman Khurshid story, on the other hand, was much easier meat, the kind of thing aggression alone can get some mileage out of.
The initially unwilling, the Hindustan Times and The Indian Express among them, had the Gandhi family and the Hooda government among their holy cows. But that omerta is being shot to pieces as the ammunition on the story keeps coming in. Both papers have had to take note of the Khemka transfer’s Vadra link, disclosed on October 16 by The Hindu. (The Indian Express did a 2-column page one story on the Khemka transfer on October 13, without mentioning Robert Vadra. Then it re-reported the story as a first lead on October 17 with a Vadra link.) On Wednesday HT came up with the Haryana Chief Minister’s hand in the land use change. We now have to see where that will lead us.
The media as an estate offers complementary skills. The hardcore investigation is still coming from reporters who write, whether in the print media or on the Web. The mike wielders and studio anchors are the amplifiers. They give a soap opera dimension to the story of the day: the transferred Haryana officer Khemka is reduced to tears in Headlines Today ’s studio, and Rahul Kanwal implores, “Mr Khemka, it would dishearten me a lot if you go out of this show with tears in your eyes. Mr Khemka, please don’t go out of this show crying!”
Arnab Goswami, who was promising the hero of the evening that he would send him all the emails of support that were coming in, could not quite match that.
And I love the convenience of where television finds its Ground Zero. In Khurshid’s constituency, not that deep into Uttar Pradesh ( CNN-IBN ), and in Gurgaon, where a patch of scrub represents Vadra’s acquired land (NDTV India). Stand there and declaim.
Not so print. Land was at the centre of the big news developments last fortnight. Tehelka made the march of the landless, led by the non-governmental organization (NGO), Ekta Parishad, its cover story, reporting on it from different states after the ministry of rural development reached a 10-point agreement with the proponents of the march. And on 17 October, newspapers found page one space for the news that the group of ministers (GoM) had cleared the land acquisition Bill. Not so the TV studios the previous night, taken up with Vadra’s land. Except, of course, for Doordarshan, which had lots of time for the GoM decision, and none for Vadra’s land.
What the GoM cleared needs dissecting and analysing in print and on television. Among other things, it will allow possession of acquired land even before the resettlement of displaced families is complete. It needs as much debate as the media is now devoting to DLF and Skylight Hospitality but, maybe, that is hoping for too much. Some stories are sexier than others. Besides, even as I write, Kejriwal is giving the news hounds their story for the next few days.
The related development, of the proposed National Investment Board, which can clear project proposals involving land by overruling ministries such as environment, also has far more import than the story of Vadra’s land, but is obviously less sexy, both for Kejriwal and the media. How differently its import can be portrayed becomes clear when you read Shoma Chaudhury in Tehelka versus Tavleen Singh’s take in The Indian Express last Sunday.
So now that journalists have got into investigative mode, Mr New Politics needs to move beyond personalities and lead them to other pastures to graze at. After all, it looks like he is going to be deciding the media’s agenda for a while.
Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.