A journalist once said, “News is something someone somewhere doesn’t want to be published – all the rest is advertisement”. That may be considered a far-fetched definition in today’s media world which considers advertisements the lifeblood of journalism and a starlet delivering a baby more attractive news than a wave of suicides among exploited farmers.

However, any newsperson worth his/her salt knows that uncovering a hidden story is far more challenging and satisfying than covering a prime minister’s foreign tour or hunting for Page 3 gossip in a celebrity party. Regrettably, this breed of committed reporters is fast vanishing, thanks to the bulldozing forces of the market that are converting the media profession in India into an enterprise like any other industry producing consumer goods.

Modern investigative journalism is a discipline, rigorous and demanding. Modern journalism, despite its many aberrations, is considered the most effective monitor and upholder of democratic values. And the powerful instrument to fulfil this obligation is investigative reporting. Democracy involves accountability of elected representatives and civil servants. There are many mechanisms for checks and balances, but these can be abused, circumvented, ignored or made ineffective. Investigative reporting steps into this vacuum to scrutinise and expose the wrong-doings of those in authority which hurt public interest and make them accountable to the people.

We rejoice at the robustness of our democracy. We celebrate the vibrancy of the sparkling free press of India. But we know that the constitutional instruments to make the establishment accountable are weakening or failing. The parallel democratic institutions, which are supposed to nourish these instruments, are not fully evolved. Leave alone the ordinary citizen, neither our political leaders nor the academicians and intellectuals have fully cultivated a democratic mindset and culture which should involve transparency, professional commitment and accountability. To that extent, our democracy is fragile and -- to use an unpleasant word -- underdeveloped.

The importance of the “organic” relationship, as described by Walter Lippman, between a healthy democracy and the free press need not be elaborated here. One cannot sustain without the other. Indian media is so intoxicated with its so-called freedom (freest press in the world, one might say) that it fails to understand that it is also equally underdeveloped and fragile, that freedom carries certain grave responsibilities and that as upholder of democratic values and freedom (not just another profit-making industry) it has some specific obligations and duties towards the society. It is so obsessed with itself that it does not realise that it is throwing to winds its credibility, respectability and power by not attending to its basic obligations.

For investigative reporting to flourish, what is required is: an independent and pluralistic media which is fearless, committed to democracy, universal human values, journalists with commitment who can identify problems and have the grit, perseverance, patience and skills to do research and owners and editors professionally non-partisan and without vested interests.
 •  Investigative journalism isn't dead

What goes under the name of investigative journalism (with some honourable exceptions) in India, can hardly be taught in a journalism school as classic investigative journalism. The so-called investigative reporting in India in the Bofors case, Fodder scam, Jain Diary Case, Petrol Pumps largesse scandal and even Satyendra Dubey’s murder case have been either rankly partisan political exercises or half-hearted attempts to show off the fearlessness of those media units. Has anyone followed Satyendra Dubey’s case to the end? Who are the murderers? Are they arrested? Who leaked Satyendra’s confidential letter from the PMO? Is that person booked? And the mafia contractors of the Golden Quadrilateral? Has any paper or channel pursued them?

One remembers the sensation caused by Arun Shourie’s series of ‘investigative’ stories on the then chief minister AR Antulay of Maharashtra in early 1980’s. Shourie, then, was acknowledged as the pioneer of modern investigative journalism in India. One also remembers the first sentence of his first story. Paraphrased in memory, it ran something like this “…look at these political rats; how they run when cornered…” Now, any news editor worth his/her salt would spike that story. It broke all the tenets of not only investigative journalism, but also of ordinary reporting. Shourie’s stories were written in a style that was blatantly partisan and spiteful. Moreover, he had not uncovered anything that had not been published earlier, that too, with much more detail, in local newspapers. Antulay’s sins of omission and commission, his acceptance of cheques for his public trust in front of TV cameras, was public knowledge in the entire state of Maharashtra. But Shourie, instead of writing scathing comment pieces on the edit page, wrote ‘investigative’ news stories on the front pages of his newspaper!

Political expedience

Bofors, St.Kitts, Fodder Scam, Satyendra Dubey -- none of these stories were followed thoroughly and with the rigour that investigative journalism demands. The pursuit was half-hearted; the stories tapered off occasionally, but were revived vigorously whenever a political occasion demanded.

No doubt, there have been laudable attempts at exposing some major scandals at local or state levels. But, often, the exposure is made in one sensational burst and then the press loses interest. The story tapers off or is not followed at all. Clearly, the Indian media has not nourished the discipline of classic investigative reporting. The political, economic and social scenario of India is so complex and rotten and the media’s credibility, despite its enormous power, is so low that even conscientious bureaucrats do not dare to blow the whistle. One whistle-blower who dared was murdered. And the press has nearly forgotten him.

What investigative reporting really needs!

For investigative reporting to flourish, what is required is: an independent and pluralistic media which is fearless, committed to democracy, universal human values, journalists with commitment who can identify problems and have the grit, perseverance, patience and skills to do research and owners and editors professionally non-partisan and without vested interests.

We have a fantastically free press, so free that it does not have a professional self-regulatory mechanism to monitor fundamental ethics of the press. Not even the journalists’ associations, which are more interested in begging for more perks from the government and corporate bodies than in the health of their own profession. Many journalists may have the aptitude and skills for investigative journalism. But their owners and editors do not have the will, even if they have the resources, to encourage them. The owners and the editors too have multiple vested interests -- in political parties, individual leaders, corporate bodies and so one.

Indian bureaucracy, notorious for its red-tapism, does not easily part with even ordinary information, never mind the information acts on the book, and, as mentioned earlier, those who really want expose the malefascence do not trust the press.

Why sting operations?

In such circumstances, what does a restless committed journalist do? He takes a hidden camera with him and broadcasts countrywide bulletins of responsible people accepting bribes. If documents, receipts, accounts, papers or files are not forthcoming as proof, here’s how the journalist furnishes the proof. Live on screen. Tarun Tejpal and Tehelka’s sting operation and subsequent imitations by others have raised a hornet’s nest questioning the ethical propriety of this kind of journalism. A positive outcome indeed. At last, ethics in journalism is being discussed, albeit half-heartedly.

How credible is the media?

But alas! We do not have that culture and discipline. The press is losing credibility because of its blatant partisanship and rank commercialism. So take the camera and expose. Never mind, it is one-time exposure of a part. But the proof is there, clearly visible on the screen to make an impact on the minds of the people. This will at least shake the people and those who are concerned out of their slumber.

No, this is not investigative journalism. But it is the sting. An occasional sting operation made with professional commitment may serve the cause for the time being. But that is no alternative to investigative journalism. To build its credibility and ensure its freedom under democracy, the media in India will have to turn to serious investigative reporting.