Not too long ago Barkha Dutt had harassed a certain blogger named Chetanya Kunte for some supposedly offensive comments he had published on his blog. She even managed to get that post removed. Well, that was one post of one blog. Today, she will lose count.
I would like to start my presentation by claiming, rather flatly, that the combination of internet, technology and journalism has never been so fruitful before in India. Alan Rusbridger had spoken to us at length, a few months ago, about new media tools and how they have changed journalism for Guardian. We listened rather sleepily for an experience like this one was yet to knock on Indian media’s doorsteps.
The only difference being, most of our mainstream media houses have shied away from something that independent blogs and media-watch sites have been extremely bold with. A Google search now will return numerous blogs that have written and analysed obsessively about what the Radia tapes mean for Indian media and governance. Some are random opinions while others are well-worked analyses. There are writers we have all heard of, and some little known.
The first such blog I would like to mention here is by a journalist called Girish Nikam. Girish Nikam on his website indiasreport.com had written a piece on Radia’s involvement in the matters as early as May 2010 when no other mainstream media had made any such analysis. The site also contains scanned copies of correspondence between CBI and DGIT as well as DGIT’s reports of the taped conversations. Nothing of this magnitude was seen in mainstream media – TV or print. Again, technology played its role by allowing Nikam to upload all the scanned copies on the same web page.
Such usage of technology in being able to upload documents is very important in situations like these, where a large amount of documentation is required to unearth crucial evidence. Outlook, thus, put up the tapes it had on its website. Thus, the very fact that today we can play all the Radia tapes, if we so fancy, in this classroom is testimony to this fact. Downloading these tapes, and listening to them has helped make this scam highly active in online media.
This has led to a Guardian.co.uk-style crowdsourcing initiative, taken by Shivam Vij of Tehelka magazine. He has started a blog called reading radia, where he has enlisted all the radia tapes available on the Outlook website. He has invited volunteers to listen to each of these tapes and transcribe them, put them as comments. Again, technology and journalism have again converged to unearth information. This method has involved readers into the whole debate, letting them share a piece of the big pie that the scam is.
While the above have shown activity in news gathering, websites such as The Hoot.Org have pioneered intellectual output about this issue. Just like the articles on media in the Indian sub-continent that it hosts, the hoot has been persistently posting articles and debates since the radia debate began around November 18th. There were various opinion pieces by experts such as Sevanti Ninan, and much before any mainstream media, apart from those already involved, published such things. The crescendo was an online debate, where the website invited views from readers and journalists. They have, since, being publishing these views. The Hoot had already published around three sets of debates and three articles by the time The Hindu, for e.g., got its act together and published an editorial that raised the issue of media ethics. By this I am referring to S. Varadarajan’s column that appeared on Nov 29.
Not only has online media been active in putting up ideas, it has also been active in terms of reader’s responses. This is visible almost everywhere.
The Hindu’s letters to the editor, which gets published in the print edition, has carried eight letters as of yesterday. This is much smaller than the 50-odd comments posted on a single column on the radia tapes published on its website. This reflects how online media has attracted much more outrage from the public, akin to the twitter experience, compared to mainstream media.
Where the online media took names and published matter with full, unprecedented attribution — channels such as CNN-IBN in its televised discussion on Nov 22 only mentioned a ‘a development which involves the operational head of a rival channel’ – marked difference from the online media was already going bonkers with names, pictures, and explicit details.
The online media has, also, been more liberal. It hasn’t given much heed to the age-old ethic of not reporting other media houses issues.
When internet was abuzz with so much articulation of Radia tapes, it would have only looked absurd for mainstream media to be quiet. The Hindu, which had till a few days ago only been publishing news reports and focusing more on the 2G scam, has started taking up the bigger issue as I mentioned a while ago.
Just yesterday, the Indian express gave large coverage with full-page spreads.
While many newspapers restricted to reporting the bare facts of events as they happened, few resorted to analysis or opinion in the first five days of the news.
These responses were slightly delayed, and were not a surprise. For anyone following the radia tapes on the blogosphere, there was nothing new in the lengthy analyses offered. For someone reading only newspapers, it would have looked like something very suddenly cropped up that led to these articles.
An interesting trend observed here, was that of mainstream media being more active online than on paper. And this was reflected in their online edition’s blogs section. DNA blogs is a classic example. While their opinion and editorial sections are devoid of anything on the radia case, their senior journalists’ blogs are full of their views on the issue. Seeing these on the DNA website definitely makes a reader feel that the newspaper endorses these opinions. Yet, there seems to be a disconnect that it is trying to show between what is in print and what is not.
Even in the Times of India blogs, RE of Hyd Kingshuk Nag goes at length to describe his first meeting with Niira Radia and what he thought about it. But the paper is yet to break the editorial silence in its print edition.
Mind you, there are 150 comments that follow this blog post, most of which urge him to “take the name” of Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi.
Indeed, if we come to these two protagonists of the radia tapes as we know them, online media has been extremely vibrant with their views. Especially for Dutt, since her television channel broke silence only last night in the televised inquisition of sorts. The only way she or NDTV could make any written statements was through their site. Narayan Rao, CEO of NDTV was the first to make an announcement on behalf of the channel. Then Barkha Dutt posted a lengthy and detailed explanation of why her name appears in the tapes and how she is being falsely implicated, etc etc. With these examples we see how the online media has been active not just with third parties writing about the ongoing scandal, but also for the people involved in it to reach their audience. Again there is a disconnect between what is “official” – a televised statement in this case which obviously did not happen – and what is put up online.
Dutt accompanied this statement with a long list of video clippings of her supposedly unbiased coverage of the govt formation of 2009. This just completed this entire series of opinions, blogs, and commentary in the online media. Someone following the news online was definitely more well-read so-to-say on this matter than was someone following this in the print medium, more so someone trying to watch TV to gain an informed opinion.
What really makes one think is this seeming divide between what is online and what is on print. Journalists seem to have taken liberty in expressing their opinion online rather than in print. They have written blogs, and published statements. Is it because online they are free of the pressures of the advertising and marketing mafia?
“People should be willing to spend on content. Otherwise you get what you paid for” said Manu Joseph in an editorial in Open magazine. That is precisely where online and social media took off from, where mainstream media got left behind. These bloggers and tweeple, who did not have to worry about advertisers when they clicked the ‘publish’ button, it was they and their freedom from corporations that arm-twist everytime something ‘wrong’ is published. From Nira Radias calling up and telling you what to publish in your next column.
A situation like that would point us back to the debate on revenue models controlling editorial spaces. It would urge us to think that not only is new media the media of the future, but new media is already the bigger platform for the very freedom of speech and expression that the press survives on.
[Based on a speech delivered at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, as part of ‘Radia Media‘ colloquium conducted in December 2010. Parts of this were summarized in a report subsequently published in The Hindu. Hyperlinks added specially for Free Left Turn]