Media ceasefire on Bofors

IN Media Practice | 13/06/2005
Why have newspapers like the Hindu and Indian Express which unstintingly invested editorial resources on probing Bofors now decided that it is a non issue?
Breaking The Big Story. Though silence itself is a commentary it creates opportunities for a variety of interpretations. It looked like ennui had overtaken the media. The Hindu’s silence has drowned whatever weak noises the others made. The Hindu regarded the Bofors payoffs as India’s best-known corruption case. According to Chitra Sbramaniam, who first did the story for the Hindu, "the truth about the Bofors-India howitzer deal is straight forward. The then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was deeply involved in the ugly cover-up because he knew to whom the bribes were paid and where." The voluminous evidence that she collected was beyond reproach.

Why did the Hindu chicken out? In an age of accountability that is even global (according to the Hindu), the Southern giant owes a duty to its readers to explain why the issue has become suddenly a non-issue. If it was the latter why did it unstintingly invest editorial resources to keep its readers informed on a daily basis about Bofors developments? In the absence of any such Editor’s Note in the tradition of the New York Times, the readers will have to look for circumstantial evidence to know the mysterious mind of the Hindu. Truth-telling (a key ingredient of the panchsheel of journalism the paper proclaimed on its 125th anniversary), that has taken leave in this case, is closely linked to the recent not-so-subtle shift in the Hindu’s political perceptions. That apart, as late as 6 February last year, the Hindu was editorially proclaiming, "To suggest that Rajiv Gandhi, some of his key officials, and his regime had no role in the scandal other than their bit parts as naively innocent dupes is, well, to read Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark." Naturally, the Hindu readers expected a reiteration of that sentiment when silence would mean its repudiation.

The enthusiasm with which the Indian Express worked at the Delhi end on the clues supplied by Subramaniam from Geneva after she had left the Hindu seems to have abated as the tortuous course of the case reached a near finale. Referring to the judgment, the paper hurriedly accepted the logic of the high court for quashing the charges against both "on account of the inadmissibility of documents furnished by the prosecution which did not pass the test of the Indian Evidence Act." However, more interesting is the editorial accusing the CBI of converting the probe into a "political instrument of revenge." Against whom, one may ask. Against the same persons who were the subject matter of Express investigation for long? After years of missionary zeal, the paper meekly calls a truce saying "the Delhi High Court’s shutting the lid on the case will be welcomed by the people if it also closes the door on this culture of never-ending inquiry."

There is a danger that all parties facing some kind of inquiry or the other will demand this generosity from the media - dismissing several CBI inquiries as instruments of revenge and belonging to the culture of never-ending inquiry. See this sentence with one part contradicting the other: "From a dogged pursuit of the truth behind a murky gun deal made by a government that was ironically led by a Mr. Clean, it morphed into a political instrument of revenge, sheathed and unsheathed at will by the government of the day." From the side of the people, the NDA has to explain why it did not take interest in the inquiry. The Indian Express seems to wear down readily and exclaim, "The system, CBI, has worn down the energies that were harnessed in the search for answers about Bofors payoffs."

The Tribune was not far behind in accepting the closure. Its editorial says, "The Delhi High Court’s quashing of charges against Bofors and the Hindujas virtually marks the end of the road for the 15-year-old investigation into the alleged payment of Rs. 54 crores as kickbacks in the Bofors howitzer deal." Why should the Tribune swallow without contest the contention of Bofors and the Swedish government that they did not possess original documents? Somehow, it is difficult to believe that all this media inertia is due to the story suffering a perceived loss of news value. The media can absolve themselves either by calling off all media investigations into other scams or by offering a tenable explanation for the sudden collapse of interest in a story that held the attention of the media and the people for more than 20 years. Otherwise, the conclusion is irresistible that the media are blinded by the myth attached to the First Dynasty, a myth that is their own creation.

Why should anyone accept the High Court judgment as the last word when it could be still appealed against? While newspapers other than the Express and the Hindu have little to see in the judgment a vindication of their investigative zeal, or the lack of it, the two newspapers that monopolized the Bofors probe need to tell the readers if there is any truth other than the truth generated by judicial interpretation. Since the high court judgment was based on the inadmissibility of documents and does not refer to the veracity or otherwise of their contents, the media can continue their truth-telling mission. The Quattrocchi link still remains unexplored. Asked if the documents throw new light on the activity of these people (the three Hinduja brothers, Win Chadha and Quattrocchi), former joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation K. Madhavan told Rediff.Com last week, "Certainly. The papers will, especially, reveal the role of the Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchi."


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