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Spooks & the media

Print edition : Jul 27, 2012

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News of the arrest of Abu Jindal for his involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks and his return to India led to a frenzy of discussions on TV channels and huge stories in newspapers, all of them quoting unnamed "sources", obviously from the intelligence agencies. Here, a typical scene before any media conference.-V.V. KRISHNAN

News of the arrest of Abu Jindal for his involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks and his return to India led to a frenzy of discussions on TV channels and huge stories in newspapers, all of them quoting unnamed "sources", obviously from the intelligence agencies. Here, a typical scene before any media conference.-V.V. KRISHNAN

A lot of what has come out after the arrest of Abu Jindal that was attributed to sources can compromise the countrys information-gathering systems.

How the information world has changed! Cleopatra says in the play Antony and Cleopatra: Though it be honest, it is never good

To bring bad news. Give to a gracious messageAn host of tongues, but letill tidings tellThemselves when they be felt.

Today it is not so much that bad news is always good, and good news does not sell, it is that it is more important to be first with the news; news was always commercial the messenger in Antony and Cleopatra was paid well for the news he brought, but now that it is competitive its nature has changed.

Imagine 20 different messengers trying to get Cleopatras attention with more and more sensational versions of the news that Antony had married Octavia. The telling would have been drowned in the manner of the telling sensation piled on sensation as, inevitably and imperceptibly, fact moved towards fiction.

Or imagine, in todays world, James Bond followed by 20 reporters and the inevitable camera crews. He would have to dodge not only the evil Dr Ernst Blofeld but the media teams as well as they would have been yelling out, Mr Bond, what did you do with Pussy Galore? Did she say anything about the nuclear warhead? Mr Bond, what were you doing with her? De-briefing her? Mr Bond, did she reveal anything? Come on give us some clue! Eventually the book or film would consist of Bond issuing press statements every now and then, as he went about obtaining information, killing the baddies and helping the goodies.

Consider the hysteria that set in when Abu Jindal, Lashkar-e-Taiba handler of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks, was brought back to India. The media frenzy, the excited studio discussions, the huge stories in newspapers, all of them quoting sources. Whoever these sources are, the fact is that a great deal of what has come out following his arrest is stuff that not only does not help the country but may even compromise some of its information-gathering systems. How Abu Jindal was traced in Saudi Arabia, for example, the phone intercepts and other means, is not exactly helpful to Indian intelligence agencies. The standard answer is that the other side knows much more about all this anyway, so revealing all this is no big deal. Then follows a long bit about the sanctity of the right to know.

To put the matter in perspective, it is the job of the media to report, and to report what it gets, so long as they are hard facts and have been checked. The problem lies, from what one can see, in the sources. There seem to be a large number of them in all our intelligence agencies, in the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and other agencies, who are ready to talk to their contacts in the media.

The question is, why? One can understand a disgruntled politician talking about his partys internal power struggles, but not someone who is, presumably, an officer of whatever level inside the agency talking about things that would not in the normal course be available to the media. All right, he may be disgruntled. But would such people reveal information that may harm the country?

It is a fine line that people in the media have to tread. Often mediapersons may be told things that are potentially dangerous for the security of the country and which they keep to themselves. That they do keep things to themselves is well known; there is, for example, a well-established, if incomprehensible, convention that the personal lives of political leaders are off limits. The most intimate details may be known to several mediapersons, but they would never think of using them.

But personal lives are quite different from security issues. These are decisions that mediapersons must take on their own. Is it, for example, right for the country to know that the Army has some kind of equipment it is not supposed to have without express approval from the government? It may or may not have that equipment, that is not the point. It is whether the information should be made available to the public. That decision can only be made by the mediapersons who have got it. And they have got it from a source who may have his or her own reasons to pass this information on to his friends in the media. What is of concern is that the source obviously has no interest in whether what he is revealing is going to compromise, even slightly, the security of the country.

To be sure, this kind of investigative journalism has been going on in most countries where there is a free press; some have a convention that some items of information are notified as not to be published, and the news is not carried. There is a well-known story of a Director-General of the BBC being given such a notice about the imminent broadcast of an interview with a leader of the Irish Republican Army, then declared a terrorist organisation, and his refusal to accept it. He broadcast the interview and was removed from his post by the then Prime Minister.

Cleopatras messenger reported the facts, and though he was whipped for doing so, he was given a large amount of money. But is reporting the facts enough? Some facts may jeopardise security, others may seem to but will not. Who decides? Ultimately, in todays world, it is the mediaperson who has the facts, and the decision is for him or her to take, with only ones conscience as guide and not because someone else may get the same story and make it public.

Talking of facts, in an earlier column I had said C.P. Joshi, Union Minister of Surface Transport and Highways, spends more time in his constituency than in his office. On learning that he was pained by this statement, I rechecked and found I was wrong. He is a conscientious office-goer. This is fact and I apologise for having got it wrong.

It only underscores the necessity of checking and rechecking ones facts. I was told by a veteran journalist that the late Girilal Jain used to ask of everyone who brought him a story: Have you checked it? and if the answer was yes, then he would say, Check it again.

Perhaps his wisdom holds good even more so today.

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