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Oct 09, 2012 at 02:10pm IST

FTN: Indian media steers clear of reporting on the Gandhi family?

Sagarika Ghose: Rare glimpses of the Gandhi family giving those very rare interviews to the press, the Gandhis almost never speak. In the wake of the allegations against him Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra today deleted his Facebook account after a controversial posting about India being a banana republic with mango men bringing charges. The Congress party though continues to strongly defend Robert Vadra. India's most powerful family is also the most mysterious. Does the Indian media steer clear of reporting on the Gandhi family? To shed light Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor, The Hindu, Vinod Sharma, Political Editor, Hindustan Times, Madhu Kishwar, Editor, Manushi, Jonathan Shainin, Senior Editor, The Caravan Magazine.

Let's kick it off you, charges are swirling around, we don't know the veracity of the charges, Robert Vadra puts a Facebook post saying mango men in a banana republic are bringing charges and shuts down his Facebook page. Now, is this time to shut down your Facebook page or speak against the charges? This is an agitated India where the relationship between the powerful and the ruled is changing very fast.

Vinod Sharma: Indeed of course, and I think when you are faced with this level of charges you need to rediscover yourself even if you function in a certain style. But I don't agree that the media, as is the title of your program, hasn't been adequately focus on the Gandhis. I remember the Nagrawala case which was exposed by the media where Indira Gandhi had to answer a lot of questions, and then there was Bofors where the family too had to answer a lot of questions. Though in that case the person who had to be implicated was finally exonerated, Mr Amitabh Bachchan. And the question that I have in my mind for lack of evidence today, is whether Robert Vadra sot to turned into much and too. That's the question. And I think that the media must do due diligence and must investigate thoroughly.

Sagarika Ghose: The media must do due diligence and the media failed. Let me put to Siddharth Varadarajan, has the media reported on the Gandhi family? The story about Robert Vadra's relationship with DLF came out in March 2011 in The Economic Times, not a single media house picked it up, your newspaper, The Hindu today carried the main article on the maze of unanswered questions. But have only done it because Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan have levelled the allegation. Are we firing off the shoulders of Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan? Are we emboldened to report because of Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan left to ourselves? When the story came out a year ago none of us did anything.

Siddharth Varadarajan: Quite right, I think the part of the problem is Economic Times in its story was quite comprehensive. Some light of unorthodox, unusual business which were not illegal and because they were not illegal it was very hard to take those transaction to the next step. Not only our paper but I remember a number of other media house tried to investigate but we kept coming back to the same number of transaction. Then the question came up that if you are going to re-trend what Economic Times has covered nothing new will come up.

Sagarika Ghose: But on a broader point, when it comes to travel expenses, travel details, Sonia Gandhi's illness, whether it is Rahul Gandhi's travel details, the fact is as far as the Gandhi family is concerned the media does go softly.

Siddharth Varadarajan: I don't think so, I think if you look at Indian media's treatment of personal health issues, whether you agree or disagree you'll rarely find paper or a news channel covering the health issues of an individual here Sonia Gandhi there was also Atal Bihari Vajpayee, when he went for the treatment of his knee, there was a gentleman's agreement that we would show him. Coming down the list, the special aircraft that used to fly rather than walking down the steps.

Sagarika Ghose: That's a very good and let me put this to Madhu Kishwar that in fact the Indian media is vary of proving personal life and health issues but we are not inclined to do that. But let me put to you that there untrammelled criticism of the Gandhi family, there is right wing press, there are a number of coloumnist who attack Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi. And as far as Siddharth Varadarajan is concerned we are don't probe personal lives.

Madhu Kishwar As far as the media in India not probing personal life, I think it is a very healthy tradition. So let's put that aside and I think there is no resentment that the media was not of colourful stories about Sonia Gandhi's illness. I don't think that's the issue, the issue is, media in India generally spent very less on investigative journalism, much on investigative journalism goes by the leaks and therefore it look to the public as if the investigative journalism is happening but it's not, it's mostly the leaks, as I have said.

Sagarika Ghose: But you yourself have filed a RTI asking to know about Rahul Gandhi's travel details and expenses. Why do you feel it is necessary to know about Rahul Gandhi's travel details?

Madhu Kishwar That's the point I am making, the media has been very cautious, either horning with regards to dynasty which they are so petrified, or so charmed that they lose their wit. I can stick my neck out and say that anybody who has had tea or dinner with Soniaji or Rahulji has lost his hormonal balance. They can't think straight. You can see the way they handle other politicians, their body language.

Sagarika Ghose: There is kind of reverence and kind of distance.

Madhu Kishwar And the fear actually surprises me, because having spoken to Sonia Gandhi I can say she is a very good listener. I don't know where this fear come from but it is very palpable.

Sagarika Ghose: The fear that they will not leave you out in the middle of the interview.

Madhu Kishwar No, no I am saying that it has been very cautious and all of these things that Kejriwal is claiming is only the tip of the iceberg. Talk to journalist at the press club and you'll see the kind of poison that will pour out.

Sagarika Ghose: Are the Gandhis getting away with the unprecedented level of secrecy? Does any democratically elected leader get away with this level of secrecy? Let me read out to you the statistics, Sonia Gandhi has given only three major interviews since the 14 years she's been in power. Rahul has given no interviews just a few in 2004. Priyanka just a handful of interview on the eve of the elections. Getting away with not talking to the press is in the sense not talking to the public.

Jonathan Shainin I don't know what it means by saying get away, one of the thing that people are very critical of Barack Obama because he doesn't do many press conferences although compared to Sonia and Rahul Gandhi he is quite a chatterbox. But I think people talk when they are afraid of the consequences of not talking and in order to get away with secrecy that means you're being re-elected by maintaining that level of secrecy. I don't think it is the question whether the media is forcing them to do an interview. I think that if you have perceived the consequences of secrecy then you wouldn't have this level of secrecy.

Sagarika Ghose: So the secrecy doesn't harm them but it adds to the mystique.

Madhu Kishwar I think they put up flunkies who look so foolish saying the kind of things they end up saying. And you have the Home Minister, the Finance Minister defending who they call is a private citizen.

Sagarika Ghose: Let me put the point about the popularity. The fact is that the Gandhi family seems to be at its lowest depth of popularity. Now, do you feel that in some senses this is a turning point, that become open, shed the secrecy, and maybe you'll be able to rescue your popularity.

Vinod Sharma: First of all I would like to say that certain statement that are made in your program are very sweepy as to what journalists talk in the press club. I think you must know that social media says a lot of things about Sagarika Ghose and Vinod Sharma, it doesn't disturb us.

Sagarika Ghose: Let's focus on the Gandhi family. Is it time to come out of that secrecy cult?

Vinod Sharma: See, if you are faced with certain charges or allegations you must come clean for a simple reason that we are a democratic society. It is not that we are North Korea where you're doing your journalism or you're doing your politics. Why I make a distinction between the Gandhi dynasty which is a democratic dynasty and the North Korean dynasty which is an autocratic dynasty. Transparency is essential for a democracy to follow so I my personal view when there are serious charges you should come clean in a democracy.

Sagarika Ghose: You want to make a quick point?

There are two different things. One is whether talking or not some member of the Gandhi family are talking to the media and keeping it transparent in certain affairs. And then there is second point that does the Gandhi family get less scrutiny than the others from the same media. I think Siddharth used the case of individual but in general there is not much probing into the public figures.

Sagarika Ghose: But let me put the point to Siddharth Varadarajan which Swapan Dasgupta made in is column in the Pioneer I am going to read it out, "Why does the Congress President never makes herself available to the media for a non-scripted interview. Why is everything related to that family is so secret, after all there are not private individual, they are public individual." Why this family don't give interview like every other politician? How can they get away with this level of secrecy?

Siddharth Varadarajan: Sagarika there is a very simple explanation, in a democratic party with democratic leaders communication serves two purposes there is an internal impetuous and there is an external impetuous. So for example BJP leaders are ready for jockeying.

Sagarika Ghose: But the BJP in contrast is highly open.

Siddharth Varadarajan: Sagarika that's exactly my point, when you have somebody whose position is as unchallenged as Sonia Gandhi's there is no internal impetuous for them to talking. The BJP has several layer, several leaders for the top slot. Here the communication is essentially public communication which is a function of election when the party feels or Sonia Gandhi feels.

Sagarika Ghose: So the position of the leadership is so unchallenged that you don't have to talk.