There is a rule in journalism that most of us follow. It is not a rule etched in stone but an unwritten one based on that old idiom that dog does not eat dog. When I tried to find out where the idiom originated and why, all I came up with was the explanation that ‘one disreputable person will not harm another disreputable person’. You do not need me to tell you that disreputable people abound in the media, but on account of the dog not eating dog principle, we of the mighty fourth estate almost never attack our comrades.
This week I am going to break this rule and write a critique of our newest English news channel, Republic. Not because I have anything personal against Arnab Goswami or against his frenetic, haranguing style of television journalism, but because he is breaking a journalistic rule that is definitely etched in stone. This is that journalists must not usurp the powers of the criminal justice system under any circumstances. If an investigation is deliberately slowed down or botched on account of political interference or money power, we have every right to point this out and we should. But, to set up a kangaroo court in which we become judge, jury and executioner is not just wrong but dangerous.
This is what Republic TV did last week with their ‘investigation’ into the death of Shashi Tharoor’s wife. The channel decided that Sunanda Pushkar was murdered and that her husband was complicit. It then tried to prove this through conspiracy theories, innuendoes and open threats to the Congress MP. We have you now, Arnab pronounced over and over again, my reporters have surrounded your house and you cannot go anywhere because we are an ‘independent channel’.
These reporters then appeared on screen to declare that Tharoor’s ‘goons’ assaulted them and pulled a woman reporter’s hair. There were no visuals to corroborate this but plenty of visuals that showed some very goon-like questioning by Republic reporters. Most reporters have had at least one door slammed in their face at some point in their career, by someone who did not want to answer questions. And this is what the visuals showed happening. Nothing more. Republic reporters used melodrama and embellishment to make themselves the story, but this was not all they did wrong.
What was really wrong with Republic’s supposed ‘scoop’ was that Tharoor was judged and sentenced on national television. His late wife who has no means to defend herself was charged with being involved with the Russian mafia in Dubai. And the fantastical theory that she died from some mysterious Russian poison was flung about as if it were a routine, credible possibility. If these things are true, it should have been Republic’s role to investigate and provide details. If the police did not do their job, it is the duty of the media to draw attention to the gaps. And, if the man who conducted the postmortem was leaned on by powerful people to declare that Sunanda Pushkar died from natural causes, then it is valid to reveal every detail. Beyond this journalists cannot and should not go.
Republic seems impatient to prove that it is different to other news channels and that it is prepared to do stories that others are afraid to touch. This is a terrific objective and may they succeed in achieving it. But to pass off a media lynching as investigative journalism causes serious damage to its own reputation and to the reputation of the Indian media in general. It also whips up a passion for lynching in an ugly season of lynchings. Social media is awash with people who want to see Tharoor arrested and jailed. False claims that he was never interrogated by the police are being spread around as fact. The worrying underside of this story, clearly evident on social media, is that people whose political loyalties lie with the BJP revile Tharoor as someone they describe as a ‘Lutyens darling’.
Once more I apologise for being the first person to misuse the name of the architect who built New Delhi. For those who do not understand why the word Lutyens is used so much these days, let me explain that it is seen as representative of a class of people who are privileged enough to live in this most exclusive enclave. What haters of the word Lutyens seem not to have noticed is that more than 99 per cent of the people who actually live in Lutyens Delhi are politicians and bureaucrats.
These are the new Rajas of India and most of them come from the same middle-class background as those on social media who spit the word out as a term of abuse. For the record, there are no ‘Lutyens journalists’. Only good journalists and bad journalists.