The Castle, the Commoners and their cronies
Seldom does the Indian media today act as the cronies of the commoners. However, when it does, especially in pelting stones at the castle, it receives the unanimous support of the commoners. This was evident in the recent media bashing against the President's alleged misuse of her public office to settle her post-retirement housing plan in Pune. Media made out a case as if the plot was hatched at the personal behest of the President without taking pains to talk to the authorized source; the chief of Southern Command responsible for the execution of the project has now suo moto held a press conference to bring facts before the media. Two senior journalists took up the frog-in-a-well view of the RTI reply and the whole media, including online, sang the chorus without understanding its script.
Prompted by a commercial pressure to grab eyeballs and attention, the easy route that media followed was to demonize and sensationalize the facts and circumstances, and lionize the size of the personal wrong. Public was outraged by what it read in media and - guided that it is by its all pervasive anti-authority mood - uncritically echoed the foul play sentiment.
My personal reaction was no different until I chanced upon a member of the President's extended family. His petulance with the media over the whole issue compelled me to probe into the heart of the matter. I decided to cross check the version of the President's relative - insisting how Pune Cantonment house matter was in accordance with rules on the subject and it was implemented by the local army authority without any personal knowledge of the President - and I approached a former Secretary of the Ministry of the Urban Development.
I realized then how these journalists actually compromised with the basic tenets of journalism - of verifying facts and taking both versions - while writing the President bashing stories. Public applauded those stories because their presumption was that the concerned journalists have done their home work of facts verification and obtaining both versions well. Not only the journalists failed to follow the professional protocol, they even resisted the idea of acknowledging that some major slip has happened in naming and shaming the highest dignitary of the country. When the President announced withdrawal of claim over the house in the making for her at Pune out of sheer disgust, some of these journalists had the arrogance to even flash their triumph card to show how they brought down even the highest to their knees. They showed no humility to publish her full version even then.
What, then, are the facts?
As over zealous as they are in dethroning the idols, these journalists did not hesitate to demonize the President and to sensationalize her alleged involvement without even resorting to the basic drill of verifying rule position from the Estate Office of the Government of India about the post retirement housing entitlement of the President of India. Had they done it, it would have occurred to them immediately that a retired president is indeed entitled to the use of a furnished residence anywhere in India at his or her choice for the rest of life. They would have realized that the size of such accommodation is comparable to a residence allotted to a Union Cabinet Minister - of a size of a Type VIII quarter of the central government having a plinth area of 9175 square meter and with an undefined plot area. Even if they had measured some of such Type VIII quarters in Delhi manually, they would have found that their plinth area ranges from 4843 sqft to 16145 sqft and their plot area varies from 21527 sqft to 193750 sqft. A little digging and they would have come to know that the total plinth area of both the proposed houses, put together, at Pune is 9253 sqft - almost equal to the plinth area prescribed in the Urban Development Ministry's memorandum.
They would have also found that the total plot area of both the houses at Pune is 218111 sqft in absence of any specific norm and it was not off the cuff from the extant highest range of plot area in Delhi. The ceiling limit of 2000 sqft plinth area, as erroneously reported in some newspaper, is applicable only where government accommodation is not available and private property is to be hired on rent. Of the two houses at Pune, one was occupied a Lt Colonel ranking officer and the other was lying vacant. The land there was never earmarked for the houses of Jawans, ex servicemen or war widows as alleged. Last, but not the least, they would also have come to know that the accommodation is provided to the retired President till lifetime without any rights of transfer, sale and lease and because providing accommodation is the responsibility of the government, any land vested in any ministry can be made available for the purpose.
Cutting the long story short, though I agree that media's prime role is to hold power to account and be the watch dog of the rich and powerful, yet as media observer I feel that commercial compulsions to remain in the lead has driven media to a state wherein erring on the basics is no more an exception. As a freedom loving citizen what irked me in this case was the issue that if media can be callous to its own time-tested professional norm of verification even while reporting about the highest dignitary of the country, where a common man would go if he is wronged by media. It is high time that we, the ordinary citizens, start raising these questions in public domain.
Cracks in the castle
My story would remain one-sided if it does not attempt a peep into what was happening in the Presidential castle. Being on the side of media engagement table for long now, I felt the media interface team of the President house proved beyond doubt that it does not have the grit and the guts to rise to a media crisis situation. The team was travelling with the President throughout the crisis, and it had left no back up senior member to handle such volatile situation. I was told that the team hardly enjoyed one-on-one linkage with any influential person in media whom they could talk over phone and assert that the President also enjoys the privilege of natural justice - such as right to be heard - as much as any other citizen. It had no foresight to envisage which RTI query has potential to become a media story, it could not sniff the spin prospect of this story reportedly first appearing in a financial publication in Maharashtra, nor did it issue prompt rebuttal - highly critical in such crisis - in the golden hour. No quick interview was organized, nor was a counter-view laden with correct information unleashed through the powerful social media that was buzz marketing the negativity associated with the story. There was no spokesperson to defend the President's forte. The government's communication machinery - Press Information Bureau - was predictably sleeping away to glory. Neither did they work out a plan to handle the unjustified attack, nor did any senior minister or government functionary was prompted to respond.
To cut the long story short, on the one hand, it is the high time that the President House in the country needs to relook its archaic media engagement practices and machinery. Thanks to the increasing democratization of information flow, the people of India today aspire to communicate with the highest and the mightiest directly, especially in communication crisis situation like this. Unless the highest office in the country is equipped with quick speed, knowledge of technology and network with media to facilitate such two-faced access, it will be compelled to opt for flight, not fight in crisis. The media, on the other hand, ought to go to some length to probe facts before yielding to the commercial pressure to grab eyeballs and attention before breaking news and refrain from opting for the convenient route to lionize, demonize and sensationalize facts, events, and personal wrongs.
More about Uday Sahay
Director, Information & Publicity, Delhi Government