Why news isn't a pair of Levis

BY MANOJ KEWALRAMANI

Sometimes there are facts that stare in the face each day, but yet it takes a fictional interpretation of them for you to make a connection. It’s a strange and convoluted route to take in order to identify the apparent. But at least you enjoy the ride of a novel to get there.

That’s precisely what happened as I sped through Andy McDermott’s The Vault of Shiva. It’s the kind of apocalyptic fiction that follows along the lines of the Indiana Jones franchise. Evil, fundamentalist bloke, hell-bent on armageddon, searching for an ancient artifact to hasten said impending doom. All that stands in his path is a charming, gutsy, and invariably lucky, archeologist.

Sorry, I am digressing. It’s just that I get a serious kick out of such fiction. It’s my one real indulgence.

So back to the point. In McDermott’s book, the evil bloke is an Indian tech tycoon who has made his fortune through a unique search engine called Qexia. His master plan is to acquire something called the “Shiva Vedas” – the purest teachings of the Hindu God – before he can bring about an end to Kalyug.

Alright, so if you’re with me till here, this is where it gets interesting, i.e., how he intends to bring about the end.

The man’s master plan is to use his search engine and in way stretch the concept of customization to create and exacerbate fissures between nations and peoples. The example used in the book is that of November 2008 terror attack in Mumbai

After the event, users of Qexia in Pakistan would get news about how the attack was a conspiracy and how India was out to frame and isolate Pakistan, while users in India would be delivered news about how Pakistan was continuing to act with reckless impunity. That, in effect, would harden and manufacture public opinion towards the futility of diplomacy and eventually lead to conflict.

As a doomsday plot, it isn’t all that phenomenal. But it got me thinking. In a way, McDermott’s concept is an indictment of the media and the manner in which it functions today. However, it is also a scathing attack at us the consumers.

And I shall attempt to address both those issues briefly here.

Firstly, I think there has to be a complete rethink globally about the media and what we expect from it. What role should news agencies be playing? It’s a complex question and I am sure that there isn’t one answer that can satisfy everyone.

However, if there is a factor that we all can perhaps agree on, then that’s objectivity. Objectivity, in my opinion, is the lowest common denominator that every news agency or reporter must maintain.

And it must be sustained even when it defies our innermost biases.

For instance (and I’ll welcome the brickbats for this example) in the current upheaval that has gripped the Mideast and North Africa, as much as journalists may prefer, they need to avoid using terms like ‘evil’, ‘radical’, ‘despotic’ etc in order to describe some of the rulers in the region.

Before you recoil in revulsion at this demand. Let me elaborate. I am in no way arguing for shying away from the facts or calling a spade a spade. What I am suggesting is for the media to lay down the cards and let me decide if it’s a damn spade.

So please present the facts; talk about the abuses; talk about the violence; talk about the lack of freedoms; but kindly refrain from passing judgement. It’s not your job to do that. Your job is to offer an objective, nuanced and balanced debate. The rest you must leave for your private conversations during your smoke sessions.

In the Indian context, in the aftermath of the November 2008 attacks, there was a dual reaction by the media. The first was a reflection of public anger and frustration against the Indian government. This, however, was not limited to just the Indian state’s wayward policy on Pakistan and terrorism. It extended to basic corruption and the growing audacity of the political class to flaunt and abuse power.

During those days, the atmosphere seemed so charged that seeking an honest assessment about our capabilities and the consequences if it came to a war was a futile exercise.

Often the argument that people made was that enough was enough, and certain news networks cashed in big on that frustration through relentlessly jingoistic debates, while others bent over backwards to tell us that it was an opportunity for India to reach out to civilian Pakistan. Neither was, or is, a realistic or wholesome assessment.

In sum, the first thing that any news agency or journalist must maintain is objectivity – give or take a little, after all reporters are human beings too. But objectivity is the key, because that’s what distinguishes professionals from the others who can and do express their views on world events.

The second point is the audience and the changing relationship that people share with the news media. Information explosion is a fact of our lives. And that in essence has bred competition amongst providers.

While the old capitalistic notion of competition being good for the consumer may be sound when it comes to pricing of content, the problem here is that news content is a unique commodity.

In the case of most products, the consumer can and should behave like a spoilt brat, seeking complete value for money. But in the case of news, that is inherently harmful to us. It is the first lesson that the information age is teaching us. Information is gold; but is has to be appropriate and timely. Otherwise it can be poisonous.

Moreover, unlike a pair of jeans, it is imperative that we seek information on world events that is uncomfortable. It must challenge our notions; it is only through such an exercise that we can come to balanced perspective.

Controversial as it may sound, facts are a one-size-fits-all commodity. The facts don’t change just because an Indian, an Algerian, a Bosnian or an American is consuming them. Like gravity, they remain the same. It’s our interpretation of facts that matters. And thus, it is critical for the consumer to entertain a variety of interpretations.

Customization here to suit your existing notions, opinions and fancies is vain at best and potentially devastating at worst.

For instance, in India, we have this ridiculous tendency to paint most international news stories with a desi brush. From NASA space missions to Egyptian protests to insider trading cases; it’s horrendous to read stories that begin with the headline “NRI man,” “Indian-origin woman.” That’s a spin that doesn’t need highlighting the way it is.

During the days of protests in Egypt, it was more than once that I heard friends in the media talk about how the story wasn’t going to sell much in India; that is, unless we find the “Indian angle.”

So we had the tales of returning Indian citizens and then that of Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence proving to be an inspiration in Cairo.

But there is a story beyond that to sell to the Indian audiences. It has to do with what these movements are about; how are the occurring; how are they being seen in India; what lessons do they hold for us and the world; and what challenges does the reshaping Mideast pose for Indian strategists; and now what do they imply for the UN, etc.

It’s high time that we treat events in a more wholesome manner; and neither the consumer nor the provider needs to go out looking for their parochial “angle.”

(Manoj Kewalramani is a guest writer with Canary Trap. He has worked with top media houses like NDTV before becoming an Independent Blogger and Writer.)

BJP’s war within: Yashwant Sinha questions party leadership

The succession war within the Bhartiya Janata Party has intensified as senior leaders are questioning the party’s decision to reward those who should have taken the responsibility for the humiliating defeat in the just concluded Lok Sabha polls.

After Jaswant Singh, another former foreign minister and senior BJP leader Yashwant Sinha wrote a letter to the BJP president and blamed the top leadership for ignoring grassroots leaders like him.

“It is difficult to avoid the impression that in the BJP we put a premium on failure. Our reluctance to introspect and introspect comprehensively and openly is unacceptable to a large number of people within the party. So is the rat race for posts,” Sinha wrote in his letter.

Sinha also mentioned in the letter that he is resigning from all the posts of the party and will serve the party as an ordinary worker and an MP from Hazaribagh.

The BJP, meanwhile, has accepted Sinha’s resignation from all the party posts.

Below is the letter Yashwant Sinha has written to the BJP President Rajnath Singh:

Date: June 12, 2009

Dear Rajnathji,

As you are aware, I do not belong to the category of those great leaders who can contest and win elections from anywhere in the country. I have been rooted in one constituency, Hazaribagh, ever since I entered politics.

It is not an easy constituency for me. So as on previous occasions, this time also I had to work very hard to win my seat. Apart from the work that I did in my constituency over the last five years, I spent all of three and a half months since the beginning of January until my election was over on April 16, in my constituency, moving from village to village and persuading people to vote for the party. I am grateful to the voters of Hazaribagh, to my workers and to God Almighty for my win.

My joy at my own victory was, however, short-lived when it became clear that the Party had failed to win the trust of the people of India. The little euphoria which was left also evaporated when I reached Delhi to a cold reception from the leadership here. I had expected that there would be a flurry of activity in Delhi, that the Party office would be abuzz with a series of meetings to review our performance, that the necessary lessons from our defeat would be drawn quickly and remedial steps initiated without loss of time. I was surprised, therefore, when I noticed that nothing of the kind was happening. It was business as usual.

It will be obvious even to a casual observer that this election has thrown up a number of issues which we can ignore only at our peril. These relate to our basic tenets, our policies and programmes, the issues that we raised during elections, the language in which we expressed them, the strategy that we worked our for the elections, the manner in which that strategy was implemented, the campaign style of our leaders, and finally, the faces that we projected.

The media has been quick to draw its own conclusions about our defeat. Many of them are superficial and unsupported by empirical evidence. But some facts stand out.

We have never won a seat in Kerala. We have been wiped out in some marginal States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and most of the North-East. We have drawn a blank in Orissa, Delhi, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir. We have done poorly in Rajasthan, Punjab, Maharashtra and UP. In Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh our performance is below our expectation.

The only States where our performance has been satisfactory are Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Karnataka. What are the reasons for this wide variation?

Similarly, one would like to understand the voting behaviour of the minorities, the first-time voters, women, scheduled castes and tribes, the urban middle class, the government employees and most importantly, the farmers and the industrial workers in this election. Which is the vote bank we have lost? Which is the vote bank we have gained? And finally, an analysis of the factors which helped the Congress Party increase its tally from 145 seats in the last election to 206 in this.

I am sure a detailed review would be instructive and show us the path for the future. At the same time it would also help us establish the principle of accountability in the Party. We failed to carry out a review after our defeat in the last election. I am getting a sinking feeling that once again there is a conspiracy of silence.

We are shying away from pin-pointing our weaknesses and fixing responsibility. We are hoping that time shall heal our wounds. Thus, while one of the one hand, the Party is avoiding a systematic appraisal of its performance, on the other, those who were responsible for the management of the campaign have already made their views public through interviews and articles in the media, drawn their conclusions, apportioned blame and given themselves a clean chit.

Those of us who actually toiled in the field and took all the risk have not even been heard. Advaniji set a fine example of accountability by declining to take up the position of the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha. It was an eminently appropriate and dignified decision. He was persuaded to continue. So have the others who wanted to take responsibility and resign, it appears as if some people in the party are determined to ensure that the principle of accountability does not prevail so that their own little perch is not disturbed.

Separately, in our anxiety to distribute amongst the few higher mortals in the party whatever goodies were available, we completely disregarded the parliamentary party constitution in the election of the office-bearers of the parliamentary party on May 31.

It is difficult to avoid the impression that in the BJP we put a premium on failure. Our reluctance to introspect and introspect comprehensively and openly is unacceptable to a large number of people within the party. So is the rat race for posts.

If we are a party with a difference, let us set an example in abnegation. If the responsibility is collective, as I have often heard you say, then all of us should jointly share the responsibility for our defeat. Let the party implement its own Kamraj Plan under which all office bearers of the party and the parliamentary party should resign from their posts which should then be filled up through the process of election laid down by our constitution. In order to facilitate this and to establish the principle of collective responsibility, I am making a beginning by submitting my resignation from the post of Vice-President of the party, from the membership of the National Executive of the party and from all positions of responsibility in the party at the national and state level. I shall continue to serve the party as an ordinary worker of the party and as its member in Lok Sabha from Hazaribagh.

In the meanwhile, I hope you will give due consideration to the issues I have raised in this letter. I am endorsing a copy of this letter to all members of the Core Group of the party.

Yashwant Sinha

RSS forms committee to select Advani's successor

Tired of the escalating infighting in the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) over the leadership issue, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has decided to take the matter of deciding the next Leader of Opposition (LOP) into its own hands.

According to sources, the Sangh has formed a committee under the leadership of its senior leader Madan Das Devi to select L K Advani’s successor. Other RSS leaders who are in the committee include Shrikant Joshi, Madhubhai, Suresh Soni, and Indresh Kumar.

The need for forming a committee arose after it looked clear that it would be difficult to maintain the unity of the BJP in the current circumstances where various factions were proposing different names for the post of LOP.

Earlier on Sunday, senior RSS leaders met L K Advani in the presence of BJP President Rajnath Singh and inquired about his choice for the post of LOP. Advani is believed to have given the names of Jaswant Singh and Sushma Swaraj, which sources say, are not widely acceptable in the party circles.

It was then decided that Advani would remain as the Leader of Opposition till a consensus is reached on the name of any leader.

Sources told Canary Trap that the present arrangement suits Rajnath Singh. Singh realises that it is impossible for him to hold the position of party president and LOP at the same time.

According to them, Singh wants Advani to remain as the LOP till the end of 2009. Interestingly, his terms as party president also ends during that period. Singh hopes to succeed Advani as the LOP after that.

Advani is the only leader in the BJP who has held the positions of the party president and the Leader of Opposition at the same time.

Meanwhile, party sources told Canary Trap that in such challenging times a senior and experienced leader like Murli Manohar Joshi is the best bet to lead the party in the Lok Sabha. Joshi has held various senior positions in the party organisation, including the post of party president between 1990-1992.

BJP sources say that Joshi is not preferred by either Advani or Rajnath Singh.

While giving an interview to a news channel after the poll debacle, Joshi targeted Rajnath Singh and said that the party’s ticket distribution could have been “better” and it should have had some Muslim candidates.

Joshi did not even spare Advani when he said “If Advaniji says anything he says it in the interest of party members. He is the most experienced leader in the party. This cannot be criticised if he has taken the responsibility for the loss,” said Joshi.

He further added that the veteran BJP leader is setting a good example by expressing his desire to step down from the post of the Leader of Opposition.

The RSS leaders met Advani in the midst of all this infighting. According to party sources, even the RSS thinks that it would be better if Advani retires now than he does after a year or two as that would not give enough time to the new leader to prepare for the next general elections.

Now all eyes are on the RSS committee which will deliberate on all the aspects and decide the name of the leader who will succeed Advani.

Keep tracking Canary Trap for more such information on the ongoing crisis in the ‘party with a difference’.

Sri Lanka releases pictures of Prabhakaran’s dead body

The Commander of the Sri Lankan Army, General Sarath Fonseka, has confirmed that LTTE chief Prabhakaran’s body has been found on Tuesday morning by the Lankan troops.

The terror chief’s body was found by the 53 Division troops led by Major General Kamal Goonarathne, Sri Lankan military sources said.

A Lankan military spokesman also said that Prabhakaran was in uniform and there were bullet wounds on his head.

Canary Trap brings you exclusive pictures of Prabhakaran’s body released by the Sri Lankan Army.

1. Sri Lankan troops surround Prabhakaran’s body.

Prabhakaran - 3

2. Sri Lankan army soldiers lifting the body of Prabhakaran.

Prabhakaran - 2

3. Prabhakaran’s body was recovered from the battlefield on Tuesday.

Prabhakaran - 1

Earlier, the Lankan military also released a photo of the body suspected to be of Prabhakaran’s eldest son, Charles Antony. According to the sources, Antony was the head of Information and Technology department of the LTTE.

Charles Antony - 1

The Lankan military claimed that they have positively identified 18 bodies of senior LTTE cadres. The list of identified LTTE leaders include:

  • Pottu Amman: LTTE’s Intelligence Wing Leader
  • Bhanu: LTTE military leader
  • Jeyam: LTTE military leader
  • B Nadesan: LTTE’s Political Head
  • S Pulidevan: Head of LTTE’s Peace Secretariat
  • Ramesh: LTTE special military leader
  • Ilango: LTTE Police Chief
  • Charles Anthony: Eldest son of LTTE chief V Prabhakaran
  • Sudharman: Aide to LTTE leader’s son
  • Thomas: Senior intelligence leader
  • Luxman: LTTE military leader
  • Sri Ram:  Senior Sea Tiger cadre
  • Isei Aravi: LTTE female military leader
  • Kapil Amman: LTTE deputy intelligence leader
  • Ajanthi: Female LTTE training in charge
  • Wardha: LTTE mortar in-charge
  • Pudiyawan: Secretary to the LTTE leader
  • Jenarthan: Special military leader

Controversey surrounds Rahul Gandhi’s MPhil

The Congress party on Thursday served a legal notice to The New Indian Express for publishing what it called “wild allegations and sly insinuations” on the educational qualifications of party General Secretary Rahul Gandhi.

“Deeply distressed by your wild allegations, sly insinuations and self-serving innuendos, all premised on complete falsehoods and steeped in malice, a notice is being issued,” party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi told reporters at the AICC headquarters in the capital.

Singhvi quoted a letter from the University, which stated that Gandhi was a student at the institution as a member of the Trinity College from October 1994 to July 1995 and was awarded an M Phil in Development Studies in 1995.

Earlier, Rahul had also said in a press conference that he will serve a legal notice to the newspaper for writing the article.

Below is the article that the Chennai based newspaper published. Will keep you updated on any further developments on the issue.

(The article, dateline Chennai, was published in The New Indian Express on April 7, 2009. It has been reproduced here with proper permission)

Truth about Rahul Gandhi’s MPhil

Rahul Gandhi appears to have been economical with the truth on his affidavit while filing his election nomination papers in Amethi this weekend.

In the affidavit, he states that he obtained an MPhil from Trinity College of the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1995, in Developmental Economics. A certificate from the University shows that not only has he got dates wrong, he has even got the name of the course he took incorrect.

Worse, the man touted as a future prime minister failed one of his four papers.

Rahul got 58 percent in “National Economic Planning and Policy” (according to the grading scale given in the certificate, 60 percent is the minimum for a pass).

The certificate, shown alongside, was issued a year ago by Diana Kazemi, the secretary of the department of Development Studies (and not Developmental Economics) in which Rahul Gandhi studied.

He enrolled under the name ‘Raul Vinci’, a pseudonym given by the British authorities in a common practice as there are a good number of VVIP wards from around the world enrolled at British educational institutions. The pseudonym came to light during the 2004 elections in the Telegraph and the Hindu.

According to the University, Rahul read for the MPhil in 2004- 05, and not in 1994-95, as stated in his affidavit.

His affidavit’s other claim, to have obtained his Bachelors from Rollins College in Florida, USA, is true (and is a departure from earlier claims by ‘supporters’ that he graduated from Harvard). He also briefly attended St Stephen’s College in Delhi, gaining admission through the sports quota.

His mother (and Congress president) Sonia Gandhi was also in a minor controversy in 2004 over her educational qualifications.

Her nomination papers’ affidavit claimed she obtained a certificate in English from Lennox Cook School, University of Cambridge, in 1965. After it was revealed that the school had no affiliation to the University, Sonia claimed that the error on the affidavit was the result of a secretarial typing mistake.

Rahul Gandhi Certificate

LS Polls 2009: One pricey affair!

The world, including India, maybe facing a severe economic crisis but it seems that the Indian political parties are immune to the global economic slowdown. According to a recently released survey of Centre for Media Studies, around Rs 10,000 crores (USD 2 billion) will be spent on Lok Sabha Polls 2009. This does not include the cost of conducting assembly polls in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa.

What is surprising here is that the amount to be spent (USD 2 billion) is more than what US President Barack Obama and other presidential candidates spent on their campaigns.

The data provided by the US Federal Election Commission states that Obama and other candidates collectively spent close to $1.8 billion (nearly Rs 8,000 crores) in the 2007-08 Presidential elections. While the US presidential polls were spread over a year, India will witness such massive spending in just over two months.

A close look at the break-up of Poll and Poll-Eve Expenditure provided by the CMS throws one interesting figure.

  • Govt ( EVMs, Booths, TA, DA, etc.): Rs 1500 – 2000 crores
  • Canvassing (Vehicles, aircrafts, fuel, workers, etc.): Rs 3000 – 3500 crores
  • Printed material of all kinds (Posters, banners, advertising, poll surveys, etc of all kind at all levels): Rs 1500 – 2000 crores
  • Other media (Video, audio, cable, cinema, SMS, TV advertising etc.): Rs 1200 – 1500 crores
  • Miscellaneous (public meetings, wages, inter-personal, rallies, etc.): Rs 1000 – 1500 crores
  • Cash paid to voters: Rs 2000 – 2500 crores

As the figures show, around one-fourth of the total money to be spent comes under the ‘note for vote’ strategy of political parties. The parties will pay around Rs 2000 – 2500 crores to the voters in the hope that they would vote for them.

The CMS data further indicates that in comparison to 2004 Lok Sabha polls spending, the amount to be spent this year would be more than double. While Rs 4500 crores were spent in 2004 parliamentary elections, the 1998 and 1996 general elections has cost the country Rs 3200 crores and Rs 2100-2200 crores.

(The post was published on NewsX blogs. You can read it directly by clicking here: http://newsx.com/node/50185)