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MEDIA MATTERS

The season of scams

BY SEVANTI NINAN

If so many scams are rocking the country today, it's because of a collaborative and continuing effort that has been in the making for years…


While everybody needs the media on the way to bringing corruption charges to some sort of fruition, the fourth estate can seldom do it entirely on its own.

Photo: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Exposed: Officials of the CAG after tabling the 2G spectrum report in the Parliament.

An expose brought to fruition has many seeking to take credit. The Pioneer editor Chandan Mitra has written about his own reporter, a young man from Kerala, who he says began doing incriminating stories on dimensions of the 2G scam from 2008. (“The man who felled a king”, The Pioneer, November 16.) For good measure, the paper also carried an interview with this reporter, in which he said much pressure had been brought on him to stop investigating. The next day, The Times of India hastened to set the record straight, listing chronologically all the stories its reporters had done on this story from 2007-end. Including scooping the CAG report in August and September this year, which Sagarika Ghose was claiming credit for CNN IBN, in a tweet.

Various claims

Meanwhile, the Adarsh housing society scam had its own claimants for credit, among them a journalist who was then in the Express and is now at the Hindustan Times. IBN 7 has also been claiming credit for this story. And the National Alliance for People's Movements has said that actually it was them: they filed complaints with the Defence Ministry and the Environment Department and the state government which led to both government departments starting their own enquiries.

Similarly, the Commonwealth Games related “misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance” has surfaced from time to time over at least the last two years before it erupted hugely in the months before the Games, when all of the media, national and international, seemed to wake up collectively to it.

But the point is that while everybody needs the media on the way to bringing corruption charges to some sort of fruition, the fourth estate can seldom do it entirely on its own. The media alleging something on the basis of some evidence is never enough by itself. And even if it looks right now like just a little persistent pushing is bringing so many different skeletons tumbling out, the fact is that the three scandals converging have been in the making for years. With regard to the Commonwealth Games, the Adarsh Housing Society and the 2G telecom licences, stories started appearing in the press three years ago in some cases, two years ago in the others. But the final push took a while and anti-corruption agencies such as the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, relevant arms of government departments, the courts and the political opposition have all played their part. Some leaks, followed by some corroborative digging, and amplified by a lot of insistent braying on TV channels. That kind of sums up what helps the media as an institution make corruption an issue.

Back in the 1980s when Arun Shourie launched his investigative journalism at the Indian Express he made sure the political opposition was primed ahead of a big scoop. Unless something rocks Parliament or a state legislature, heads do not roll even when the courts and anti-corruption agencies point to evidence of wrong-doing.

A small but conspicuous current instance of this is the allegations surrounding Prasar Bharati, its Chief Executive Officer and its other senior officials. The Central Vigilance Commissioner has come up with an incriminating report, the High Court has made observations, the media did a spell of CWG-related investigation in recent weeks, but despite two former Information and Broadcasting Ministers being leaders of the Opposition in both houses of Parliament , we don't see opposition parties demanding action in a persistent sort of way. And the heat has died down. Those accused of wrong-doing have fought back aggressively and bought more time to defend themselves.

Systematic ways

Across the world, institutions concerned about fighting corruption are outlining ways in which different arms of government and society must collaborate. This includes the political opposition, whistleblowers, anti-corruption agencies, and the media .

A blog on the World Bank website describes why anti-corruption agencies need the media if they are to survive and thrive. They need it to fight off political pressure on them, and to generate widespread public support for themselves and their work. We've seen that happening here, in the case of the CAG and the CVC. All the TV channels and newspapers have been at hand to exert pressure, once individuals in both institutions have leaked findings to the media.

Whistleblowers similarly need the media, just as the media needs them to keep the scoops coming. A National Whistleblowers Assembly in the US this year gave those attending tips on the most productive ways to collaborate with the media to achieve their cause. That included learning to handle the media to one's own advantage. Julian Assange of Wikileaks is the man to learn from.

Tailpiece: Naming names makes Indians nervous, be they politicians, high profile whistleblowers, or high profile journalists. At the height of the commotion over paid news earlier this year top politicians were reluctant to name the media houses which had asked them for money for coverage. Mr. Ratan Tata stopped short of naming names while declaring last week that he had been asked to bribe a minister to get permission to start an airline. And on Times Now, also last week, Subramaniam Swamy was not encouraged to go ahead and name names.

“Don't be generic Dr. Swamy,” Arnab Goswami snapped in the course of a panel discussion. “That's not your style.” So Swamy decided to get specific. “Raja got only 10 per cent of the loot,” he said. “If you want me to name names I can do it. It will embarrass you.” And Goswami, rather uncharacteristically, abandoned his bluster and stopped asking for specifics. (Times Now, November 16).

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