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Credit for legwork

Print edition : Aug 17, 2002

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WHILE explaining the mechanics of and the level of motivation that drove a fine piece of investigative journalism, Shekhar Gupta, the Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express, said that the most dismaying disclosure with regard to the petrol pump scam was the involvement of former members of the judiciary. He said: "The most outrageous thing is that the pump allotment was done under a system controlled by retired judges. This is an avoidable thing. The judiciary is an institution of highest respect in this country."

With the headline, 'BJP blank cheque on Naik oil pool account', the petrol pump allotment story first appeared in The Sunday Indian Express on July 21. It was not picked up by the rest of the media or noticed overtly by the political class. Executive Editor Raj Kamal Jha said: "This worked to our advantage. We investigated the story further and came up with something which was much bigger." That neither the media at large nor the government could ignore the story any longer became clear on August 5 when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee cancelled the allotment of some 3,850 petroleum, liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene dealerships. This proved to be an ineffectual effort to cap the growing list of beneficiaries which had been appearing in The Indian Express from August 2.

The series continued to reveal the blatant allotment of outlets across the country to friends and relatives of BJP leaders. The achievement of The Indian Express was for all to see - it had revealed the entrenched networks and conduits that seek to misuse the system to its advantage. "The story affected the people at a different level. They came to know how a legitimate system was being misused by the BJP. This is a kind of betrayal that makes an average person on the street very unhappy. It was like you are called for an interview, the result of which is not level at all," Jha said.

It took the team of reporters four to five weeks to build the whole story. Shekhar Gupta said: "This was after the initial tip-off which was just something that we overheard somewhere that there were some tensions in the government over the allotment of petrol pumps. One of our correspondents was able to get the entire list of names of all those who had been allotted pumps. However, these were just names and did not say who the allottees were."

The hard work came in the legwork that took the reporters to numerous petroleum outlets located on the outskirts of cities to find out who owned them and how they had come to own them. Said Jha: "We knew that this was a story that needed hard work. We were clear about several things from the start. To make an impact it was important to get in as many names as possible. We had to be brutally objective and hundred per cent sure about the facts. We knew that the government would only be waiting for us to make a mistake. A lot of time was spent on cross-checking facts. Once we had our list we knew that the only thing left to do was to publish it. No further interpretation or analysis was needed."

Jha said that the reporters who worked in the bureaus were aware that they were on to something big. Said Gupta: "The first State that we worked on was Maharashtra. This was partly coincidental and partly because Union Petroleum Minister Ram Naik is from there. Once we found that our strike rate was very high, we realised that we had a bigger story in our hands."

Shekhar Gupta said that getting hold of the list was a relatively easy task. "The list has been available to several MPs. The basic list is not a secret document. Our work came in investigating each and every name. There was no list that told you who is who. It was like you have pages from a telephone directory in front of you. Several hundred names and addresses had to be checked out."

Said Jha: "Any good story which is not a report of a speech calls for investigation. This is more important for the print media now that we have to compete with television. Television has its own disadvantages which print can exploit. The best stories come from sources who don't go to studios to reveal facts. This is a huge vacuum for print journalism, which we tapped. In the end our story was based on Rule One of journalism - plain and simple fact checking." Shekhar Gupta emphasised: "This story challenges the idea of news as entertainment and entertainment as news. The confusion of file-snatching for investigative journalism must end now."

On the conduct of the BJP, Shekhar Gupta said: "The story has shown that this is a government of the people, by the people but for the politicians. It has shown that politicians think that once they get elected they can use the system as they want to. These people came to power promising change and after coming to power they can't say we are only doing what the other guy was doing."

Did the newspaper consider the possibility of a backlash from the government? Shekhar Gupta said: "It is in the DNA of the newspaper to do stories like this. We know that once you decide to take on the government, it brings you lots of glory. At times you have to pay a little price as well."

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