Political gossip has gained such prominence in recent years that almost every leading daily has scheduled columns of in-house and outside experts. The field of those picking up gossip has widened—from Parliament and party offices to weekend parties and select conclaves.
But how authentic are these pieces of gossip? How biased are the columnists?
Says journalist and TV personality Rajiv Shukla, who writes a political column for The Indian Express: "As much as 40 per cent of gossip are plants by individuals or groups who have some vested interests in spreading a particular rumour." Shukla, whose berth in the Rajya Sabha courtesy the Loktantrik Congress Party last year created quite a flutter, is candid about the media-politics nexus: "Persons who report on politics turn half politicians themselves. This involvement is unavoidable and reflects on the gossip they write." He, however, adds that gossip is often more reliable than political reports which have greater tendency of being based on hearsay.
Shukla is not off the mark. The last few years have seen a surge of speculative stories with very little grounding in fact making it to the front pages of newspapers. Notes columnist Dilip Cherian: "At a time when the Internet has the advantage of immediacy and television of visual impact, more and more newspapers find themselves hard pressed to report news that is still on the edge. But reporting rumour is also now recognised as news. This very fact imparts some sanctity to it," he adds.
So any tip-off, genuine or not, is instantly served in gossip columns. Spats, transfers, appointments, exits to breaking news of pregnancies. It's a no-holds-barred domain, and blunders are inevitable.
Says senior journalist Coomi Kapoor, who writes a weekly diary column 'Inside Track' in The Indian Express: "One must make a distinction between a rumour and an informed tip-off. The political gossip writer should sift through the passed-off information and find out if there is any grain of truth in it."
But it isn't in order to always blame journalists. Argues a noted columnist: "If senior party leaders like Govindacharya tip off journalists about the PM's failing health, the reporters aren't to be blamed."
Cherian adds: "Every columnist is a victim of some plant or the other at some point of time. Besides, there is a breed of sarkari columnists who owe allegiance to whosoever is in power. But if you continue to churn out rumours which fall flat, the column loses its credibility."
Evidently, the credibility factor decides the popularity of political columns. More and more journalists are getting careful about what they write. "It's incumbent upon them to separate myth from history." says columnist Sunil Sethi. "Unless the journalists become careful about being used as an instrument of spreading baseless rumours, the political reporting may end up the Bollywood journalism way," concludes Shukla. Ethics perhaps is an issue of debate, but there is certainly no disputing the fact that politics and gossip have begun complementing each other. And both are thriving on this association.