Saturday, February 2, 2013

When Journalism & Public Opinion Don't Mix

The Hindu's articles on past events at the Line of Control have set of a storm. Some readers dismiss the reports as a fabricated lie. Others dismiss them as Rawalpindi's propaganda. Both groups hold the opinion that the reports were designed to demoralise India's armed forces. Analysis on the South Asian Idea (SAI) blog, for example, portrays the stories as going against India's "national interest'. It argues that the article plays into the hands of the enemy by diminishing our own forces' morale. 

This is an interestingly-phrased argument. The author of the SAI blogpost does not actually deny Indian forces have committed atrocities. Instead he or she argues that the act of revealing these atrocities is the real problem. I disagree wholeheartedly. 

Jaideep Prabhu has a very thoughtful take on this episode here. In a sort of 'preamble', he writes the following: 
"Unlike those offended by the article, I do not think that the events show the Indian Army in a bad light. Having studied conflicts over centuries, one accepts that tragedies occur when people with weapons under a lot of stress are put in extreme environments. This is not to impose an equality between India and Pakistan – the latter has acquired an international reputation for aiding and abetting terrorists while the former, us guys, may have problems but do not indulge in such activities. It is also incredibly obtuse to think that one side would not give as good as it gets, no matter what the orders are from HQ – unit cohesion would not last the week otherwise." 

I share Jaideep's opinions and tweeted something very similar last month. Now that you know where I stand on whether Pakistan gains any moral(e) advantage, let's move to the Hindu's coverage. 

I asked myself this question: If I had access to the the UNMOGIP documents and I was able to verify their authenticity, would I write about them? My answer was 'Yes'. When I reached that answer, I realised it did not matter how I got the documents. It could have been someone at the "Media Facility" as indicated in Major Lucero's first email to Jaideep; or another contact at the UN Headquarters in New York, where the Major indicated these documents were sent. In fact, as the SAI blogpost author suggests, the source may well have been the ISI's New Delhi station chief himself. 

Frankly, though, once I could confirm the documents were indeed from UNMOGIP, where I got them from was no longer important. The only thing that would matter is that I reported their contents in a balanced and responsible manner. Here's how I would do it. 

STEP ONE 
Since Pakistan's complaints were not been investigated, I would present their version as claims and allegations. Here's how The Hindu did it: 
"...The allegations, laid out in confidential Pakistani complaints to the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan..." 
"...The most savage cross-LoC violence Indian forces are alleged to have participated in..." 
"..The Pakistani military claimed to have recovered an Indian-made watch..." 
"...the Bandala massacre is alleged to have been carried out by irregulars backed by Indian special forces..." 
"...Indian troops, Pakistan alleged, killed a JCO... and three soldiers in a raid on a post in the Baroh sector..." 

There are at least four more instances where the word 'alleged' appears in the article. 

So here's an experiment: remove the words 'alleged' and 'claimed' each time they appear. As any practitioner of journalism, law or diplomacy will tell you, the meanings of the sentences would be dramatically altered. From one-sided allegations, they would become statements of fact. The Hindu has been very deliberate in not allowing this to happen. 

STEP TWO 
Approach the Indian government and armed forces for an official response. The Hindu approached the Ministry of Defence (which only responded after the report was published), the Ministry of External Affairs, a military spokesperson and an army officer who served in India's Northern Command when some of the incidents allegedly occurred. 

Here, it is important here to explain how this business of 'official comment' works. One individual who clearly has no reporting experience, reached some embarrassingly premature conclusions because of his lack of understanding of this process. Your source and the official spokesman are not always the same person. So, the source could well have been a disgruntled ministry staffer with access to the UNMOGIP files. While the spokesman who has no knowledge of the exchange of information with your source, would deny the story.

Sometimes it gets more complicated. It isn't unheard of for the spokesman to be your source, and yet simultaneously issue a denial on behalf of the ministry!

STEP THREE 
Write the story presenting the various allegations and responses. This step is the easiest. The hard part of journalism is the stuff you do before you sit down to write. It is the coaxing, convincing and cajoling of officials to hand over information you shouldn't have. Strike that, it's actually the many hours you spend drinking tea with them before you ever approach them for information. It is the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of pages of research you go through to understand the contours of the story. It is the meetings with editors to shape and direct your focus. All of that happens before pen is ever put on paper. 

As far as I am concerned, there is no doubt to the authenticity of the UNMOGIP documents. Jaideep found two of them while conducting his own research. Others are possibly still classified and therefore unavailable on the UN website.

Still, what is in doubt is the veracity of Pakistan's complaints contained therein. For my money, the writer has made this explicitly clear. To some this may sound like a load of journalese, but as any one who pays attention to linguistic details will tell you, that is where the devil lies.

14 comments:

  1. You are absolutely right about the journalese processes being followed in obtaining information. In fact the author's involvement with Pakistani journalists finds no mention in your discourse. That is where the ISI trapped the journalist with their Wajahat moment. That they never consulted ADGPI is also a truth.

    Unfortunately, you misquote us. We never agreed to or even hinted at admission of any barbaric atrocities by the Indian Army as reported in the Hindu story. That is not the stuff Indian Army is made of. The hard part of soldiering(as is with journalism) is maintaining your sanity in extremely hostile environment, terrain and temperatures 24X7 - something that goes beyond a job and is therefore a calling. When you attack that sanity based on the "alleged" "sources" and "claims" of a hostile war fighting machinery, you are contributing to the cause of the enemy.

    Unfortunately India does not have a good system of accreditation of journalists to matters military - that is why they relegate national interest to scoops and become an easy prey for ISI or for that matter any other hostile power.

    It therefore is not the legalese or the journalese alone which needs to be debated - the moral argument of a media house falling into the hands of ISI that merits discussion. Despite their best intentions in revealing the truth, they failed to even consult ADGPI before exposing lies perpetrated on them by ISI - that is the larger and more pertinent question.Did they try hard enough before going to press - in our opinion NO.

    In US, the President receives the mortal remains of their soldiers - In India we declare them barbarians and undermine their morale based on flimsy evidence and expect them to fight perennial enemies along the most hostile borders in the world - what an irony!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I had posted a reply earlier, but it seems to have got lost somewhere. I'll take your comment point-by-point.

    1. By "the author's involvement with Pakistani journalists", I assume you mean the on-air comment about a game-changing narrative. The Hindu's editor has addressed that to my satisfaction here (https://twitter.com/svaradarajan/status/296487565555556352) and here (https://twitter.com/svaradarajan/status/296488061636857856). You may continue to disbelieve him if you like.

    2. Your comment "That is not the stuff the Indian Army is made of" is either naive and/or uninformed. It is naive because you seem to think the Indian soldier is the most unique warrior in the history of human conflict. But let's forget ancient history. You argue that he is unlike the Japanese in China or the Vietnamese and Koreans at home. More recently, he is unlike even the British in Basra or the Americans at FOB Ramrod in Afghanistan.
    It is uninformed because any army man who has served along the LoC or in combat will give you a more realistic understanding of what happens in a war. I suggest you meet some of these folks and ask them about why a particular regiment bears the nickname "Headhunters".

    3. Let's come to your central argument about reporting in the "national interest". This comment stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role journalism plays in an open society. Let's suppose for a minute that journalists in democracies played by your rules. The American media would still be cheering the invasion of Iraq. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and civilian deaths in drone strikes would still be a secret. Back home, the Sukhna and Adarsh scams, the "ketchup colonel" and numerous other incidents would never have come to light. Why? Because reporting negative stories about the armed forces undermines their morale.
    Actually, let's extend this further. In the national interest, we should bar all reporting of scams and corruption. This not only affects our image abroad, warding off potential investors, but it also reduces our citizens' morale, affecting their productivity. Both these factors lead to poor economic growth. And isn't economic growth a critical 'national interest'?
    Sorry, I simply do not accept the argument that reporting should only be in the national interest in an open, democratic society. If you feel that way, China and North Korea would love to hear more.

    4. It is true India does not have an official accreditation system. However, every major media house has a dedicated defence journalist. The MoD is well aware of who these individuals are and is in regular contact with them.

    5. As to whether the Hindu's writers are beholden to the ISI, I'm going to need more than an opinion to believe that. It is true the reports go against the narrative. However, there is a well-established principle of logic - correlation does not imply causation. (I do not know what the ADGPI is. A google search was unhelpful. At any rate, this entity is unlikely to have greater authority on the subject at hand than the MoD, MEA and armed forces).

    6. Some 6,500 american soldiers have died in the 4,000-odd days since the Afghanistan war began. The US President has not received every one of those bodies State side. I'm not sure what purpose this evidently untrue statement serves.

    7. Finally, it is not the media's responsibility to build force morale. The media's job in an open society - as I noted earlier - is to inform citizens. I won't deny that this responsibility has not always been carried out faithfully.
    That said, the responsibility for keeping force morale high lies with the officers' corps and ultimately, the civilian government.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just wanted to give you an update: I found out that ADGPI stands for Additional Director General for Public Information of the Army. As I correctly assumed, his authority would not be greater than that of the MoD on this matter. At any rate, the story does quote a "military spokesman" (who is evidently not the ADGPI).

      Delete
    2. You miss all the points made by us. But before that let me clarify that I have lived, breathed and survived the extremely hostile LoC since militancy peaked as a soldier with repeated tours of duties. I know the complexities of the social system that exists on the most dangerous border of the world. Having put that record straight let me move on to answer you on legalese first.

      No I am not satisfied by the explanation of PS or Vardaraj. It only proves that PS was duped or chose to be trapped to sell his eye catching story. Please re read my article. It explains the complexity. However, if you wish to know more about the Wajahat moment of ISI you are welcome to DM your mail id and we shall provide you with the necessary proofs which vindicate our point.

      We have never questioned media's right and privilege to investigate anything and every thing against the army. In fact we have stated that in our article which you chose to ignore as you made your case that we are absolving army of probity in their affairs.

      Our argument of such jingoistic and sensational disclosures is lack of adequate effort on part of Hindu to investigate Pak claims of barbarity through ADGPI. All defence journalists know who and what it means and that it provides answers to all media houses on a regular basis. That Hindu chose to ignore interacting with them further strengthens our argument against their greed to sensationalise the stories without going into the details. You would agree, as you mention in your comment, that media houses do a complete research before putting pen to paper, We find that missing here. Motivation to do so would naturally be for you to judge. Hiding behind "alleged" will not suffice.

      Regarding the morale and National Interest. No the armed forces are not unduly worried about such stories. They know better and can preserve the national interest at tactical, operational and strategic levels. The leadership at every level takes care of these irresponsible and motivated stories. It is the vilification of Indian Army as a barbaric force is what has prompted us to express our strong condemnation of the stories. Bhuvan Pandey, himself a journalist substantiates that in his comment below.

      On the flip side this journalist tweets to criticism of his stories by Jaidev Prabhu @orsoraggiante a respected author in an arrogant manner as though he alone has a right to his opinion. This link would explain his diatribe and our challenge to him to have an open debate on veracity of his claims. But he did not respond. https://twitter.com/southasianidea1/status/297686783045537792

      Yes we know he is powerful in his own rights and there is a fraternity of media persons and seminarists who would not like to annoy him but we, for the sake our army, are willing to take him on to get to the root of his motivation which definitely is not objective reporting but gaining brownie points by sensationalising an issue where he apparently got inextricably trapped by Paki machinations.

      On building morale Bhuvan has covered it rather well.

      India has excellent defence correspondents who have chosen to place country above their stories. I personally know all of them. All people of high integrity and honour. PS is evidently not one of them.

      We are cross posting these comments on our article so that the nation knows.




      Delete
    3. First of, in all sincerity, thank you for keeping us safe with your service.

      That said, it is all the more surprising to hear your thoughts on the apparent innocence of the Indian army in violations of the Geneva Conventions.

      Did the Hindu offer proof? I don't believe it has to when it is reporting documented allegations as just that- documented allegations. I've never seen newspapers "provide proof" when reporting alleged murders or alleged scams.
      But they are required to approach both sides to provide balance. I'm not sure how you conclude this wasn't done when three Indian officials are quoted in the story.The MoD, whose authority on defence matters supercedes the ADGPI you wish to focus on, was also approached but as we know, declined comment.

      News organisations are not a court of law. Perhaps a certain TV anchor has warped our understanding of the role of the media.

      As for your points on motivation & force morale we are on the same page.

      Finally, about this being an ISI conspiracy, as I said, I'd definitel need more evidence than 'correlation'.

      Delete
    4. Geneva Conventions! I don't wish to add more here.

      Its not a question of who supersedes. It is about ADGPI being the source and the authentic media interface since Kargil. Journalists go to MoD for press releases and ADGPI for facts and clarifications.

      There is enough proof that PS was either duped or he fell ffor the Wajahat moment as outlined in my article. He needs to clarify that. The journalistic duty doesn't end with a sham of interacting with some MoD officer or base your story on some officer in Northern Command. There is a structured mechanism in place and Hindu knows it. They just found it convenient to bypass that route..

      This is an ISI conspiracy and there is more than enough prima facie evidence to prove that. GHQ achived through credibility of PS what many of their reports would have not achieved.

      I rest my case here and would only awaken when PS or Hindu replies

      Delete
  3. National interest in this instances would mean resisting the temptation to lap up unsubstantiated charges of the rogue army of an enemy country against your army without first verifying the charges independently. In this case, Pravin Swami ended up building a case against the armed forces of his own country without having done any independent verification of the charges. What was the hurry to publish a story based on material supplied by possibly the Pak Army itself? What was the big idea, to cash it when the media was full of articles and TV studio debates on mutilation of Indian soldiers's body? Or was it plain lazy journalism to avoid the time and efforts to get independent confirmation of the facts of the case? Either way it ended up hurting Indian Army. You don't consider that against national interest?

    It may be argued that media is not responsible for building or boosting the morale of the armed forces, but media can at least desist from ruining it by giving credence to some random charges made against its armed forces. On the other hand, if you or Pravin Swami do believe that the Indian Army does indulge in the kind of barbarism it charged Pakistan with and has confirmation from credible sources, base your story on that than on random allegations, follow it through with the Indian Govt and the Indian Army to ensure the guilty are held accountable and such acts are not repeated, just as you would in a corruption case or in case of any other rights violation. If not, stop the vilification of a reputed professional army.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Bhuwan,

      I think I have addressed all of your points in my post & replies to SAI's comments above.

      SAI mentions that you are a journalist. I can only say I am disappointed that you then believe in the concept of "ours" and "theirs".

      Delete
    2. I can understand the disappointment if I had advocated blindly trusting "our own" no matter what or rejecting "their" charges even if those were accompanied by substantive evidence. But that's not the case, so what exactly are you disappointed about Pierre? And if it helps, I am not a journalist, though it beats me why should that make any difference.

      In my view each case should be looked at on its own merit, but journalists, in their attempt to be "fair and balanced" sometimes do great injustice to the issue at hand by bringing in 'but your party, organisation, etc has been accused of the same and you haven't acted on that' line of argument as if two wrongs can make things right. It's still acceptable when it's done citing cases whose credibility can't be questioned, but that's where Pravin Swami made a major, to use an expression made famous by another journalist in another case, error of judgment. By all means pursue charges against Indian Army with the same zeal as the charges made by them, but do not bring in questions of motive and, even worse, draw moral equivalence between the complainant and the accused, by bringing in counter claims of questionable credibility conveniently supplied by the accused without independently verifying it.

      Whatever you say about the efforts it takes a journalist to build a story before pen is put on paper is what brings credibility to a journalist, but that in the LOC story by The Hindu appears to have been given a short shrift. A readymade list of complaints and a few phone calls, if that's enough before pen is put on paper, we have good reason to feel disappointed, and when matter is as serious as levelling charges against the armed forces on serious crimes, there is bound to be more than just disappointment.

      -Bhuwan

      Delete
  4. To both gentlemen, I wish you would re-read the last two paragraphs of my post. You will know my position quite clearly.



    ReplyDelete
  5. A nice article. Some points I would like to make with all humility,

    1. Agree completely with the use of "alleged", also with the credibility of Praveen swami as a journo/ The question is not abt the facts but in a way thay they are presented.The devil lies in the words.The article used the Pakistani army/establishment statement " They did not raise the matter as they believe in peace with India" It was not alleged and also Praveen swami did not go through the past history of Pak army, 26-11 when they were ready to escalate even when they were proved complicit.Two words of the doubt based on history would have helped. Remember the beheading news of Indian soldier?/2 days before, every pakistani journo was tweeting abt the killing of some pak soldier/Indo-Pak match and the Irony of bollywood and Aman ki tamasha( I can post the link but its too old and If you want I can do the labour). Can you or respected Praveen Swami remind us of one time when something happened to pakistani army and the media or their non-state actors dint try to raise it in International media? Again dont give the bull abt changed hearts/Changed hearts need a pattern which has not yet come.

    2.While I completely agree abt media being open and all but yes there should be a line between personal pontification and national interest. I remember the coverage of 9/11. It was dignified,wont you say? Compared to our coverage of 26/11. People allege the death of Cpt Vikram Batra on Barkha/ NSG commandos admitted the losses due to media. I will not blame the media outrightly but dont you think that some responsibility lies on your side also? Sukna scam and the likes are not in national interest /no body will disagree there, but Yeah getting story of a granny running cross border, exactly at the time of Indian soldiers beheading is again not in national interest. What would have happened if Praveen swami would have waited a few days/ got reactions of MEA/MOD. What I am doubting is not the story, but the logic of timing of story. I have seen your tweets and i think you are logical. Think abt it.

    3.Ofcourse no army can remain saint when facing an army like Pak and in my heart i am happy/ I am a right wing guy( now you hate me may be) and i believe in answers. Ofcourse Journos should not be like judges, but other journos should not become sterile/ Your criticism is like criticising PIL of SC judicial overreach even when you know that it is filling the vaccuum created by absence of executive/legislative. Be Brave and criticize fairly. Institutions have a habit of overeaching in a state! Pak is a burning example.
    I think its long enough/I rest my case.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Friend, your contention about the story is OK. But The Hindu failed miserably in reporting the Truth, when lakhs of Tamil People killed in Sri Lanka by its Army. When you hail Hindu for reporting... journalism without public opinion, why the paper failed to act on par when it came to Sri Lankan wars?
    More over, the story of LOC may be or may not be true, it has simply played into the hands of Pakistan...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Hi, did you know that during the penultimate stages of negotiations over the huge Indian purchase of fighter aircraft, Praveen Swamy became Diplomatic Editor of The London, Daily Telegraph - a very senior and highly sensitive appointment that almost certainly requires security clearance [read MI6].

    He departed mysteriously the moment the unprecedentedly large order went to France and the hopes of the UK - European consortium to sell the Euro fighter to India, which British media and Swamy were confidently predicting, were dashed

    This same man gets the scoop that India beheaded two Pakistani soldiers last year, and somehow retains his top job despite the story being denied and Pakistan refusing to pick it up. Clearly the Indian establishment has much to answer for

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi,

      I usually don't reply to anonymous posters. But to correct you - NO journalist gets a "security clearance" simply because of their position. Giving one to someone who's job it is to publish information in the public domain defeats the very idea of secrecy.

      It is true that several journalists are in touch with intelligence agents. And indeed, many intel agencies brief journalists. This happens around the world. However, they share information for myriad reasons.

      To imply that Praveen Swami got his job at the Telegraph because he would get a security clearance is therefore factually incorrect. To say that this would help swing the MMRCA deal towards the Eurofighter is quite a stretch of the imagination.

      Delete

Be respectful to others here or your comment will be deleted.