indian media
 
State Of The Indian Media: Interview With Shalini Singh

The ‘absymal low’ of journalism in India is obviously still not enough of a pain point to attract serious course correction.

This is an IndiaFacts interview with senior journalist Shalini Singh who shares her variegated experiences working in the Indian media over a period of 20 years and her assessment of the current state of the Indian media.

Shalini Singh is a senior journalist who has worked for 20 years in India with its largest media brands. Since her Rs 1.76 lakh crore 2G expose in 2007, Shalini’s entire body of work has been focused on investigation, particularly the use of discretionary powers by the government in the allocation of scarce natural resources to the private sector.

Her reports have served to shine the light on systemic corruption, uncovering uncomfortable and suppressed truths in the public interest, identifying the villains from the victims, exposing a breach of public trust, forcing a demand for accountability in a country yearning for real democracy and development, and setting the agenda for political and moral reform.

The outcome of these exposes was that the 2014 general election in India was fought on 3 primary issues: corruption, governance and government’s political accountability–a first in India’s 67 years of Independence.

Shalini received the Prem Bhatia Memorial Award for Excellence in Political Reporting and Analysis in August 2013. The Indian Council for UN Relations (ICUNR) presented her an award for her investigative work on March 10, 2014.
What is your assessment of journalism in India – print, TV and digital media – as it is today?

On the surface, journalism is active, buzzing, functioning as a healthy arm of the nation’s democratic process. In reality, especially when seen from the inside, newsrooms are essentially factories engaged in the ceaseless replication of routine events that are brazenly sensationalized to compensate for the deliberate blackout of exclusive stories.

Journalism is one of the most noble and pure professions that exists but it is being trafficked for power and money. It has lost its innocence, identity and purpose.

When independent enquiry, special stories, investigative reports are undertaken and published, it is usually not in the interest of pure journalism, but with the limited purpose of increasing circulation and credibility. Once that is accomplished, ‘watchdog’ journalism is quickly abandoned in favor of ‘lapdog’ journalism.

The credibility of mainstream media plummeted after the Radia tapes. How did things dip to such an abysmal low?

Since I took on my first job in 1995, I have, tragically, witnessed a steady, all encompassing decline in media, and the rot was already deep into the marrow by then.

Real journalists, those with independent minds and the gift of powerful, creative expression were relentlessly hounded out of news rooms or sidelined, while those with little or no talent, were converted into powerful and handsomely paid newsroom ‘administrators’.

Newsroom administrators knew whose interests were to be accommodated, how much and on what terms and ‘fixed’ news accordingly. This new breed, usually trained in the print medium, went on to occupy top slots, first in television, during the boom in broadcast media and later, in digital media, thereby creating a homogenous set of standards across the media industry.

This malaise has been blamed on the corporatisation of media, cross ownership of media, market dominance, paid news, private treaties and so on. The fundamental reason, however, is a human one – the willingness of vast masses of people to submit to their darkest selves, a condition in which ugly self interest and monetary advancement becomes an absolute and unbending master.

radiaInterestingly, though the conversations recorded in the Radia tapes revealed how seriously the professional and personal values of several powerful individuals was compromised, not one of them went on to suffer the slightest professional damage. So perhaps journalism having hit an ‘absymal low’ is either a subjective notion or one that is still not enough of a pain point to attract serious course correction.

What do you regard as your most challenging assignment? You can be as detailed as you want.

My most challenging assignment was undoubtedly the 2G scam expose. This was my first, inadvertent foray into investigative journalism which began in 2007. I ended up doggedly pursuing every twist and turn before the enactment of the scam in January, 2008, and after, all the way till 2014, despite painful and persistent, professional and personal punishment.

 

I say inadvertent, because it began innocently, through the coverage of routine telecom events with stories on the gold rush: an ever-growing pile-up of licence applications in Sanchar Bhavan based on common knowledge that licences would be awarded at 2001 prices.

Every single policy violation, the advancement of cutoff date, a refusal to adopt fair and transparent auctions, ostensibly snubbing the PM, law minister, finance minister and his own bureaucracy – all of this with a view to creating a black market through spectrum shortage to award subsided spectrum to friends and family and then allowing trafficking of spectrum in the black market – was all documented in great detail well before the eventual award of 2G licences on 10 January, 2008.

But Raja was unstoppable. He and his team went ahead as per plan, immune to the fact that their intent and modus operandi to eventually loot the nation to the extent of Rs 1.76 lakh crore in full public view had already been detailed in The Times of India.

It is quite an unspeakable outrage, that regular news reports in the country’s leading and most powerful national daily failed to stop the 2G scam loot. So in a sense, 2G is at once a bizarre story about an expose that was driven entirely by the media, but which became a curious case of media failure, just as much as it is a story about administrative and political culpability.

This battle for justice has required a huge risk appetite, courage, lots of reading and unimaginably high levels of patience. It also meant taking on the might of government and challenging the interests of some of the biggest and till now, most respected business houses in the country. In the telecom sector, policy coverage accounts for over 90% of all news, so effectively, jumping into this expose involved hitting out and destroying my biggest sources for news.

Further, the struggle against any government is severely amplified by the ever-growing popularity and clout of lapdog or PR journalists, who are privy to special government and corporate briefings, handouts and information leaks, while investigative journalists are kept out. This is a serious professional risk considering that Editors measure you by the front page headline in rival national dailies – even when it is a motivated government leak.

Since 2007, I have had several such PR journalists on my tail, mocking my work, taunting me for being an anti-corruption crusader and for being “angst-ridden”. They have tried to coach me on how not to ask questions in press conferences and convince me that journalism is really all about the art of taking dictation. When they didn’t succeed, they spread smear campaigns to make me look motivated or compromised, even rebutting every single expose with a government plant that would be released within hours on the same day.

There was also very little media take-up of the 2G scam, which only joined the pursuit of justice after the CAG report in mid 2010. That is probably because tackling the scam involved diving into a maze of technical, legal, commercial and economic complexities hidden in government documents and TRAI recommendations since 2001 which run into upwards of 2300 pages. Most print journalists or even television anchors who juggle several beats simply don’t have the time to do this.

This takes me back to the point about media effectiveness: that though the scam was pre-announced way back in 2007, with an expose running across over 60 articles in The Times of India – the country’s most powerful newspaper – no less, I failed to prevent it.

The ToI even published my piece about Sanchar Bhavan being turned into a fortress on January 10, 2008, the day licences were being awarded with armed guards physically preventing some companies from making their licence payment so that others could jump the queue.

Nobody blinked. Parliament did not react. There were no Opposition or public outcries for the offenders to be punished. It was as if nothing untoward had happened.

The CAG report was later released in November 2010, which gave two estimates of the loss from the 2G scam. It used the Unitech equity sale transaction and the 3G auction rates as benchmarks for establishing the market value of 2G spectrum. The Unitech sale pointed to a Rs 45,000 crore loss estimate. What was new about this? It was reported in ToI in November 2008, two years before the CAG report.  Based on the 3G rates, the over Rs 1 lakh crore figure for a certain segment of spectrum was also revealed by ToI in May 2010

rajaThe CAG replicated this figure in its report. So clearly, loss could not have been the trigger for the ensuing uproar that followed, because it was already reported.

If there had been greater support in terms of high decibel media take-up of the 2G scam from 2007 and not just after the CAG report was released in November 2010, perhaps the 2G scam could have been prevented, much before irreversible damage was done by the creation of third party rights.

The longer that it takes to expose a scam, the more firmly entrenched scamsters become, making it even tougher for the courts and government to recover losses. So in the 2G matter, I was able to present a water tight case, across over roughly 60 stories which were supported by some 50 odd government documents, but I was wholly ineffective in preventing the loot.

Do you think investigative journalism is dead or dying out?

Watchdog/Investigative journalism combats three key hurdles – the intellectual capacity and emotional depth to keep going at extremely complex issues, the ability to withstand a complete dry up of sources both in the government and business and lastly, falling into the intellectual trap of: “how can one person make a difference?”

Since corruption finally emerged as the largest identified social evil in India in 2014, with 2G and other scams turning the lens on the culpability of all aspects of civil society – politicians, bureaucracy, big business, lobbyists, lawyers and media, the demand for watchdog journalism should logically be on the rise.

Yet, the journey ahead still appears troubled mainly because the influence of PR journalists remains disproportionately high, giving them the power to doctor, black out or trade news that is unpalatable to those in positions of power.

The inappropriate influence of large corporates and powerful politicians additionally remains a practically insurmountable obstacle. For example, if journalists want to write against large corporates, they have to work through multiple levels of scrutiny. While scrutiny is welcome at one level, the disproportionate respect and fear offered by media to select companies and individuals creates holy – or not so holy – cows and untouchables which is especially worrying for the freedom of the press in a country that is widely acknowledged to be one of the world’s most successful democracies.

To illustrate further, the people whose roles were not adequately highlighted in the 2G scam are the former Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, the then Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram and the then Attorney General of India, Goolam Vahanvati.

The PM knew everything that ex-telecom minister A Raja proposed to do and he knew this ahead of the actual deed of awarding 2G licences in 2008 at 2001 prices, using an opaque selection process. Yet he claimed that he never knew what was going on.

Once the heat intensified, he acknowledged receiving several complaints about wrongdoings and bribes at the time, but attributed his inaction to coalition pressures. Much later, I did a story which showed that the PMO actually gave Raja written approval, while claiming in Parliament and in the media, that it had no knowledge or role to play in the 2G scam.

Goolam VahanvatiThe Attorney General is the senior-most constitutional position in the country that is allowed to address both houses of Parliament. No one else – not the CVC, CEC or the CAG or even CJI can address Parliament. So clearly, a very serious role – of the chief law officer of the country – has been abused in the 2G scam matter considering that Goolam Vahanvati actually assisted Raja by approving all his illegal decisions personally – in his own handwriting.

The Tatas’ role was equally serious but press reports selectively attacked his lobbyist Nira Radia, in the process, leading up to Ratan Tata’s role obliquely.

Other glaring gaps include matters of coordination and the appetite to stand together on issues, which would certainly make media far more powerful and effective than it is. The reason that this does not happen is that media, being a commercial activity, is highly competitive and focused more often on fighting for higher circulation or TRPs, rather than fighting the adversary, which is clearly corruption.

Do you see yourself as an activist & crusader as well?

I am a journalist. For me, journalism is a passion and a natural calling. It has been my sincere effort to uphold the highest values of journalism – primarily of keeping public interest first and central – while doing my job. I pray that I never falter.

In the end, here are some of the key takeaways I would like to mention:

MEDIA

# Newsrooms are essentially factories engaged in the ceaseless replication of routine events that are brazenly sensationalized to compensate for the deliberate blackout of exclusive stories.

# Journalism is one of the most noble and pure professions that exists but it is being trafficked for power and money. It has lost its innocence, identity and purpose.

# When independent enquiry, special stories, investigative reports are undertaken and published, it is usually not in the interest of pure journalism, but with the limited purpose of increasing circulation and credibility. Once that is accomplished, ‘watchdog’ journalism is quickly abandoned in favor of ‘lapdog’ journalism.

# Since I took on my first job in 1995, I have, tragically, witnessed a steady, all encompassing decline in media, and the rot was already deep into the marrow by then.

# People with little or no talent, are converted into powerful and handsomely paid newsroom ‘administrators’ whose skill is to assess whose interests are to be accommodated, how much and on what terms, and then ‘fix’ news accordingly.

# This new breed of newsroom administrators/gatekeepers, usually trained in the print medium, went on to occupy top slots, first in television, during the boom in broadcast media and later, in digital media, thereby creating a homogenous set of standards across the media industry.

# The fundamental reason for the ever growing rot in journalism, however, is a human one – the willingness of vast masses of people to submit to their darkest selves, a condition in which ugly self interest and monetary advancement becomes an absolute and unbending master.

# The ‘absymal low’ of journalism in India is obviously still not enough of a pain point to attract serious course correction.

The 2G SCAM

# 2G is a bizarre story about an expose that was entirely media-driven, pre-announced, but which ended as a curious case of media failure.

# Everything in the November, 2010 CAG report on 2G had already been reported in ToI in 2007-8, including the over Rs 1 lakh crore loss figure which was published in May, 2010.

# If there had been greater support, in terms of high decibel media take-up of the 2G scam from 2007, and not just after the CAG report was released in November 2010, perhaps the 2G scam could have been prevented.

# The struggle against any government is severely amplified by the ever-growing popularity and clout of lapdog or PR journalists.

# PR journalists are privy to special government and corporate briefings, handouts and information leaks, while investigative journalists are kept out.

# Since 2007, I have had several such PR journalists on my tail, mocking my work, taunting me for being an anti-corruption crusader and for being “angst-ridden”.

# PR journalists have tried to coach me on how not to ask questions in press conferences and convince me that journalism is really all about the art of taking dictation.

# The Radia tapes conversations revealed how seriously the professional and personal values of several powerful individuals was compromised, yet not one of them went on to suffer the slightest professional damage.

# The appetite to stand together on issues would make media far more powerful and effective than it is. However, being a commercial activity, media is highly competitive and focused more often on fighting for higher circulation or TRP’s, rather than fighting the adversary, which is clearly corruption.

IndiaFacts Staff articles, reports and guest pieces