A fired journalist creates a fictitious letter from John Doe, as her last column, who threatens to commit suicide for society’s ills. The letter enjoys wide public curiosity and the journalist is hired back. Also hired is a character to play the fictitious John Doe. Before the journalist and her employer know it, John Doe’s movement becomes a real political movement and he really attempts suicide. That’s the story of Frank Capra’s 1941 movie ‘Meet John Doe’. Closer home, Bollywood remade that movie as ‘Main Azaad Hoon’ featuring Amitabh Bachchan and Shabana Azmi. In the Bollywood version Bachchan does actually commit suicide. These are works of fiction but good examples of how far journalists can go for sensational stories and lucrative careers. However, there is every reason to believe that even in real life many stories are manufactured, especially in the new dreamland of Indian media. Fame, wealth can lure the best to fake stories and slanted reporting and planted stories.
Not convinced? Okay! In an article titled "Jimmy's World", which appeared in the Washington Post on September 28, 1980, Janet Cooke wrote a gripping profile of the life of an 8-year-old heroin addict. She described the "needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms." The story engendered much sympathy among readers, including Marion Barry, then mayor of Washington, D.C. He and other city officials organized an all-out police search for the boy, which was unsuccessful and led to claims that the story was fraudulent. Barry, responding to public pressure, lied and claimed that Jimmy was known to the city and receiving treatment. Well, despite suspicions, the Post’s Assistant Managing Editor, Bob Woodward of the Watergate fame, stood by the story. Janet Cooke went on to win the Pulitzer prize for her story. It was finally established that the story was a fraud and Cooke returned the prize and was fired from the WaPo.
TV news media is not all that old in India but has acquired all the bad symptoms of shoddy journalism very quickly. Imagine the luck of TimesNow that the thrashing of Prashant Bhushan happened right in front of their cameras. And they went on to film the whole scene without pausing to think. Soon the scenes were on all the channels. The reason for beating up Bhushan was a statement he made supporting plebiscite in Kashmir. The incident was enough to set up discussions on all news channels with the usual suspects turning up as panellists. And the usual rant was about freedom of speech and intolerance. But this one is about a particular telly troll who considers herself the champion of free speech. Barkha Dutt. Except for some hot heads I don’t even believe anyone would remotely condone the thrashing of Prashant Bhushan. But BD would like the world to believe that there is a huge population of hot heads are spreading hate and encouraging violence.
Now personally, I support ABSOLUTE freedom of speech with no limits and no restrictions. If in that exercise someone defames, libels, incites violence or overthrow of the state or causes real damage to any person or group the courts can make him pay the price. Those who call themselves liberal and tolerant will never support that kind of absolute free speech. Why? Because it would then open the door to speech against the very things they hold dear – their fears, their biases and their hidden agendas. Barkha is fond of calling people who vehemently criticise or ridicule her ‘trolls’. Barkha was even silly enough to threaten a blogger for an article criticising her. That is the level of tolerance she has for opinions and criticism. After peddling all possible biased opinions and analysis on her channel, she then finds solace in sermonising in print. Therefore she writes another article “Argue your case” in Hindustan Times. That this media outlet is a mouthpiece of the Congress is not exactly a big secret, but that’s a different issue.
Her opening shot: “One would have imagined that increased communication opportunities would have led to a greater civility in public discourse. After all, the internet and social media have democratised debate and eliminated the arrogance of a hierarchical talking-down style. Yet, lurking online - usually behind anonymity or names that suggest an evangelical religiosity - are many propagators of hate and violence”. Maybe in her dreamworld Barkha doesn’t understand that the Internet didn’t bring about hate or violence. They have existed for eons. The social network just provides a vent where every other forum has failed. Would NDTV publish all the feedback it gets (if it does have a feedback system) including hateful, negative ones? People in public life need to get used to ridicule, sarcasm, satire and even hate messages. Someone saying “I feel like killing so and so” is not exactly a violent threat. It’s an expression that the literary types like Barkha fail to understand even as they invoke Shakespeare and Lewis Carroll so frequently.
“What lessons can we learn from our own experience? Is it that as our country travels through a phase of restless flux - the sense of being betrayed by the political leadership - all kinds of subterranean faultlines are being exposed? My instinct is that disillusionments notwithstanding, the majority of Indians are uncomfortable with extremes of any kind - opinion, ideology, politics or religion. Yet, our public discourse has been slotted into black and white boxes in a manner that can only be called anti-intellectual”. The main reason for the hate and ridicule Barkha experiences seems completely lost on her. That biased reporting and opinionated TV shows anger people. As in the case of Cooke’s fraudulent story that won the Pulitzer prize, there is a former Admiral who has mentioned that a lady journalist was the cause of some deaths in the Kargil war. The lessons that Barkha hasn’t learned yet is that terms like Paidmedia, Chormedia, Dalalmedia didn’t come about because people simply wanted to sit in a corner and spread hate or coin new terms.
That many had suspicions of Barkha’s reporting and her doctored panel discussions was finally established when the Radia tapes broke. Amazingly, unlike Janet Cooke, Barkha continues to retain her job. Why? It is something nobody knows but it’s quite possible that she holds many secrets about NDTV and therefore sacking her may not have been a good idea. And she also forgets that much of the anger against her is generated by the kind of people she hosts. She proudly claims that she cut off and never had that Imam Bukhari on her shows after he had called Shabana Azmi a ‘naachnewali, gaanewali’ on her show. There was Taslima Nasreen who was attacked in Hyderabad by the group belonging to A. Owaisi. So why does she host this Owaisi so frequently? The man is foul mouthed, vulgar and has also stated on NDTV that he wants all Indians to convert to Islam. I guess those are ‘liberal’ views that Indians should tolerate and get past.
There is an old case of the publisher of a book called “Rangeela Rasool” about Mohammad. He was murdered. I wonder what Barkha would ever have to say about that. To not acknowledge that much of the intolerance that has invaded this country comes from religious sentiments is to ignore reality. The Kashmir issue also has its roots in religion. Some hotheads thrashing up someone does not mean society as a whole has become intolerant. If anything, it is the so called liberals in the media and in the establishment who have become intolerant of any opposing views. That’s the reason Barkha finds so many trolls on the net and has to use the block button so often.
“Anna's Team clearly struck a chord and tapped into a deep public anger. So, it was not surprising at all when its members were heralded as new-age heroes. Yet, the moment, any member of the team deviated from a certain kind of online consensus, they were heaped with abuses and vitriol. Whether it was Kiran Bedi's criticism of the arbitrary arrest of IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt or Prashant Bhushan's comments on Kashmir and Maoist violence - suddenly the same individuals who had been feted were now being roundly condemned. When I argued on Twitter that serious disagreement with his comments could not in any way justify the sickening assault on Prashant Bhushan, I was immediately targeted by some of these 'trolls' for supporting traitors”. That’s a strange twist of facts. That Anna or his team were feted by people doesn’t mean a permanent fan-base. Barkha must finally realise that such support is for causes and not a blanket sanction. Kiran Bedi tweeted a lot of rubbish about Gujarat and Modi in the case of Sanjiv Bhatt’s arrest. By the end of the day she had changed her stance about Gujaratis. She did not differentiate between Gujarat and Sanjiv Bhatt. The second lie that Barkha peddles is that she makes it appear that online people approved of the thrashing of Bhushan. On the contrary a very huge majority of people online condemned the attack while also stating that his comment was bad. Even Sachin Tendulkar, God of cricket, would have received severe condemnation had he made the same statement as Bhushan. And yes, no one would approve of beating up Sachin either had such an incident were to happen.
How can anyone explain Mallika Sarabhai as a panellist in the case of tolerance? She lies profusely and her own lawyers have exposed her lies. Yet the media insults the public’s intelligence by hosting her frequently. That, dear Barkha, does anger people. NDTV frequently hosts Teesta Setalvad who has been exposed for fake affidavits. That, dear Barkha, does anger people. When Radiagate broke the first response of Barkha Dutt was not “argue your case”… it was a threat, probably of legal action. Barkha also forgets, that it’s the social networks that brought pressure on the MSM to discuss her Radiagate episode when her Hammam friend and others tried desperately to bury it. The media has gone overboard with the case of Bhushan. The same media didn’t find time to discuss the death of a woman called Rajbala who was a peaceful protester and following police atrocity was paralysed and later died. I suppose Rajbala’s death falls within liberal tolerance for the likes of Barkha Dutt.
While Barkha complains about online ghosts and calls them trolls she forgets that like Vicky (Bachchan in the movie Sharabi who has chamchas “wah-wahing” his stupid Shayari) she too has her followers who wah-wah everything she does. Be grateful for that and stop sermonising the trolls. Some of her fans even cite the awards she has won. Well, I did point out the case of Janet Cooke who was awarded a Pulitzer for a fake story. Media awards in India are more of scratching backs than anything else. As far as I am concerned Barkha Dutt is just a Telly troll… who trolls a lot more than any of those online ones she constantly complains of. She is, on TV, the queen of trolls!