I cherish, among my scattered flotsam and jetsam of memorabilia, a note scrawled to me in barely legible handwriting by the legendary American investigative journalist Jack Anderson, whose most widely-read, Pulitzer-winning daily column was the nemesis of crooked presidents, dictators, judges, oligarchs and politicians. The note—on the inside flap of his bestselling book, Peace, War, and Politics—reads: “To Indy, one of my star reporters who introduced our brand of journalism in India.” (‘Indy’ was my nickname in America where I had worked as a journalist for 22 years, the last eight with Jack’s formidable team of ‘muckrakers’, as his senior associate investigative reporter). He personally gifted this book to me in Washington, on December 31, 2003, as he lay mortally sick with Parkinson’s and bone cancer.
By then I’d returned to India and led the editorial team of India Today for 10 years, and had taken a pilgrimage to pay a last visit my ailing guru (he died two years later). He believed in the axiom that journalism must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”, and exhorted his reporters to write stories “with barely controlled outrage”. Ours was not a profession for the weak-hearted, but a calling—an unabashed crusade against injustice and all forms of authoritarianism, especially government secrecy. We exposed crooked defence deals and illegal operations by the FBI and CIA. Some of us went to jail for not revealing our sources, faced tortuous defamation depositions. We were constantly followed and spied on. Jack was even singled out for murder by President Nixon’s Watergate dirty tricksters during that shameful episode in American history.
My muckraking friends and I had kept in touch; many of them followed my journey as an Indian editor. I have no idea whether I had any success in bringing “our kind of journalism” to India. If I had contributed to this, it was not out of any missionary zeal but because subconsciously I was propelled in that direction, there being no other for me to pursue. Also, I parachuted into India when change was cutting a wide swathe through conventional journalism. Here, I address myself only to English-language journalism, even though the Hindi and regional-language industries were also being simultaneously transformed.
The makeover was palpable. After being throttled by the Emergency, the Indian press was beginning to fulminate with a newfound verve while governments unaccustomed to this brashness could only moo guffishly in return. This phenomenon would produce and be propelled over the years by a whole roster of new names like Arun Shourie, Ashwini Sarin, Vir Sanghvi, Prannoy Roy, Dilip Bobb, Sunil Sethi, N. Ram, M.J. Akbar, Madhu Jain, Harinder Baweja, Ritu Sarin, Prabha Jagannathan, Chitra Subramaniam, Vinod Sharma, Farzand Ahmed, Vinod Mehta. The list runs on. They bit, they kicked, they explored, they investigated, they INStigated, they mocked.
We exposed illegal operations by the FBI and CIA—facing jail and being targeted for murder by Nixon’s men.
India Today was not my first tryst with Indian journalism. I was a proofreader and cub reporter with Indian Express in the late 1960s when the redoubtable Frank Moraes was editor-in-chief, and the feisty and fearless Nandan Kagal, a Northwestern (Evanston) journalism graduate, was editor. There were other giants in that generation, but their journalism was of a different genre. They were pontificators and thoughters rather than reporters and diggers, with exceptions like Kagal who wrote the most perspicacious account of the Naxalbari movement in the mid-1960s after prodigious footwork. Not that the others were not effective. Moraes was a courtly, conscientious and engaging columnist whose occasional swipe at a politician would send him reeling. Girilal Jain of the Times was capable of starting a war with his advice. When G.K. Reddy of The Hindu wrote, you never knew whether his voice was his own or that of the prime minister, so profound were his insights.
In those days, a scoop was not what you had dug out but what some minister you had cultivated leaked to you. Your power as a journalist was in direct proportion to your ability or guts to attack a Congress strongman like the burly ex-wrestler Y.B. Chavan when he was home minister, or a Krishna Menon, as Kagal did.
Magazines were for the most part for family fun, the Illustrated Weekly being a prime example, until Khushwant Singh gave it some political teeth. Nikhil Chakravarty’s Mainstream, Sachin Choudhuri’s EPW, Lawrence Bantleman’s Century (financed by Krishna Menon) and the cartoon-oriented Shankar’s Weekly contained biting, ideology-based socio-political critiques, often poking fun at Nehru. The notable tabloid was Blitz, edited by the colourful, irreverent, high-living R.K. Karanjia. Blitz was often irresponsible, but it contributed to the advent of investigative reporting with stories on the Chester Bowles forgery case, the Mundhra scam that forced the finance minister’s resignation, and the Nanavati murder case which became Karanjia’s magnificent obsession.
In those days, you could count the women in my profession on your fingertips: Bachi Karkaria (a Khushwant acolyte), Raji Narasimhan, Razia Ismael, Usha Rai, Uma Vasudev. Razia was a hardcore reporter, as good as they came. The others were fine writers and reviewers, and probably had a more fulfilling experience than most of us young male reporters, with drone beats that meant rewriting and subbing PIB press releases or cyclostyled statements from party offices. Financial reporting lay mostly in reproducing Planning Commission handouts or attending press conferences—selectively, attending those where there would be a guarantee of booze.
It took a lifetime to become a big-shot editor. Those of us who started in the profession young were called nutcases. The pay was abysmal. You started at Rs 350 a month as a junior reporter for the Express, and travelled by bus or train, third class. An executive editor made about Rs 4,000, with free housing in Defence Colony or Golf Links thrown in.
For me, the belief that those who ruled this nation were the ones who made the news died a timely death. On a hunch, in the waning 1960s, Moraes asked me and photographer Bhawan Singh to travel through eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, hit by famine and drought, where Indira Gandhi’s government was supposedly carrying out heroic deeds to mitigate the scourge and rehabilitate the afflicted. We travelled for two months, by bullock cart, bus, train, sleeping on railway platforms and outdoors. What we captured on camera and I wrote about in a series of despatches morse-coded through local telegraph offices—long-distance calling was a virtual impossibility—were untold horror stories of manmade shortages, neglect, bureaucratic indifference and official lies.
We told it like it is. No holds barred. It was a people’s story, told to us by hundreds of starving, migrating peasants. They were the ones who made the real news. I returned to Delhi, covered with lice, to discover each story had made page one, with my byline in bold letters, and that to accommodate the overflow of words on a lengthy piece, the Express had, for the first time, vacated the cherished sports page. That series had apparently created a sensation and shaken Mrs Gandhi’s government to its foundations.
Today you might call that investigative reporting. At that time I had never even heard the phrase. Nor was there the slightest thought in my mind that dissemination of news was a political act. We were simply recording what we saw. The truth poured out not because of any compelling zeal but because it was the natural thing to do. I suppose all good reporting is ultimately investigative by nature. A fearless newspaper baron who backed his lion-hearted editor had given me my first chance to discover the value of my chosen profession which I had found, until then, mostly boring and without challenge.
Fast-forward to the mid-1980s, when I returned to lead India Today’s editorial team under the stewardship of LSE chartered accountant-turned-media boss Aroon Purie. “I’m glad you enjoy exposing corruption,” he told me during our first meeting. “You’ll find a scandal under every stone you turn, and you’ll be turning a lot of stones.” The media world had metamorphosed beyond recognition—it was bristling with youngsters who had awoken to the challenge. The wages were competitive. New technologies had slowly begun altering the communications landscape—desktops, online print commands, simultaneous editing, and then, of course, satellite broadcasting which broke DD’s tiresome, stifling bear hug.
Remind your owners of one thing: if you write for your masters and politicians, your readers will desert you.
Many of us still call that period the “golden years”. It was born after the Emergency when editors swore “never again”, had a long gestation period, and then blossomed into gold. Behind India Today’s Connaught Place reception desk hung a plaque that read: “News is what someone is trying to hide, the rest is advertising.” An inspiring motto that seemed to have travelled across India’s newsrooms. Reporting became competitive. Sunday, founded by the flashy Aveek Sarkar, gave India Today a run for its money. Inspired by IT which, starting as a sarkari mouthpiece for the Emergency, took off like a bat out of hell, other newspaper and magazine owners began to back their editors and reporters. An acknowledgement that, in a democratic world of free institutions, press and government must, perforce, be adversaries.
Women entered the newsroom in droves, revolutionising the work space, demanding equal treatment, often beating hollow their male counterparts at getting the best stories. At India Today, only talent, not gender, determined who would handle the toughest stories. We called Harinder Baweja and Anita Pratap our “danger junkies”, often assigning them to cover gunbattles in Kashmir and Afghanistan and Jaffna accompanied by female photographers.
In TV, the trendsetter, indubitably, was Madhu Trehan. Through the revolutionary video newsmagazine Newstrack, she trained armies of first-generation reporters, many of them women, to go and get the damned story at any cost. I was associated with Newstrack, which later spawned Aaj Tak, when we covered Bofors, the Mandal Commission fallout, lynchings in Meham-Chaubisi, the Babri Masjid demolition, timber mafias, terrorism, and governmental and political corruption, often with hidden cameras.
Happily, the media liked the competition hot. Outlook came as a breath of fresh air under the intrepid Vinod Mehta to scare Aroon Purie into stricter vigilance on the quality of his own magazine. These were the best of times, not too long ago, when that newspaper landing at your doorstep or the magazine arriving in the mail quickened the pulse.
Fast-fast forward. The pulse now slackens to a limp. Newstrack is no more. India Today now sounds like a tired old windbag of bafflegab and gobbledygook. People barely glance at newspapers except when the Express carries something racy. The talk in the Press Club is no longer about breaking stories but about which editor or owner is in which politician’s or corporate oligarch’s pocket. A recent EPW survey shows that, with over 1,00,000 newspapers and periodicals, some 900 TV channels, and a similar number of radio stations, there are only 12 major producers of news content nationwide due to rampant cross-media ownerships. Circulations are rapidly falling.
Social and digital media are now where people get their stories, but you can’t judge their credibility: it’s often hard to distinguish a paid troll from an honest reporter. Greed, fear of political repression, a polarised and intolerant society, orchestrated attacks on reporters, cowardice and the erosion of a moral core have taken a toll on the Indian media in this decade.
Contrarily, mainstream American media, under vicious attack from political forces and a President who dubbed it the “enemy of the people”, has arisen like a phoenix from a long slumber, all guns blazing, gaining traction and credibility despite competition from social media. And herein lies the challenge for Indian journalism. More than ever before, mainstream media and enlightened promoters must take on trolls and Twitter execution squads—just as doctors take on quacks—and make journalism relevant and credible. And remind your owners of one thing: if you write for your masters and politicians, you will become irrelevant to your readers. And once your readers desert you, your advertisers and financers will also desert you.
Learn, again, to quicken that pulse.
(Badhwar is editor-in-chief of India Legal magazine and APN-T)