If powerful people refuse to be held accountable, how else are you supposed to question them?
Twitter often provokes us to take a position on a trend or event worthy of outrage/excitement before we have thought the issue or the position through. That tendency appeared to be on full display after Kunal Kamra uploaded his directed at prominent news entertainer Arnab Goswami.
The swiftness with which many well-meaning journalists felt the need to call out Kunal for his stunt revealed a rather shaky position. Shaky because what they criticised him for is what journalists have been doing for as long as I can remember (I joined Newstrack in 1995).
So, let’s break down Kunal’s alleged transgressions. What is the problem here? That he confronted Arnab when the anchor didn’t want to talk to him? That he confronted Arnab on board an aircraft? That his language was impolite? I can’t really think of any other reason for anyone to be “uncomfortable” with the act. Let’s tackle these objections one by one.
Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to
This is the easiest position to reject and demonstrate as being unsound. One of the reasons we started Newslaundry was that we felt journalists were public figures, yet behaved as if they were unaccountable.
Too many journalists in India seem convinced that they aren’t answerable for their work. They profess to be custodians of the “fourth pillar of democracy”; they are always asking to hold the other pillars of democracy to account but never themselves. The hate being directed at them on social media is a breach in the cocoon they have felt safe in for decades.
Public figures, by definition, are open to public scrutiny. Given the power they wield in shaping public opinion (and as Arnab and his fellow travellers such as do pretty much every day of their lives), journalists must answer for their work as politicians, industrialists, filmstars, bureaucrats, and policymakers do. And there are now several platforms for holding journalists accountable. (Such as, subtle plug, .)
However, too many journalists, from across the ideological spectrum, believe they are beyond being questioned. At Newslaundry, we have encountered several journalists offering the copout line “we aren’t the story” to deflect accountability. Sorry to burst your bubble, folks: you are a story and have been for long.
There are always stories within stories. That is one of the reasons why, for example, was buried by all newsrooms until Hartosh Singh Bal and Manu Joseph broke it. They aren’t part of the cosy club; they’re aware that journalists too are the story. As social media’s reach has expanded over the past decade, it has become clear that there has long been both a need and an audience for the story of the journalist.
In 1989, Michael Moore made a documentary film called . Much of the film is Moore trying to get an audience with Roger Smith, then CEO of General Motors, to question him about his company’s devastating decision to close several plants in Moore’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, which plunged thousands of people into poverty and financial crisis. GM, one of the largest corporations in the world, has a social role and responsibility as all influential organisations do. They can make or break societies as news can (Arnab shows this nightly by injecting the body politic with his mostly poisonous narrative). People leading such organisations are answerable to the public, a point that Roger & Me so powerfully hammered home. Moore ambushes Smith outside his home and office, tails him wherever he goes, and even sneaks into a GM annual general meeting disguised as a shareholder. The film won awards, critical acclaim and made a difference.
Journalists too have been doing this forever. There was the British newspaper Telegraph fugitive Indian businessman Nirav Modi, India Today Vijay Mallya to respond and, of course, the famous “” episode.
Not all interviews by journalists are done with appointment sought and audience granted. In this government, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of ministers who have the courage and conviction to do unscripted interviews. They don’t want to be held to account. Yet, they must be questioned (by those who aren’t cowering before them). Microphones have been thrust in the faces of those who have a social standing but are reluctant to face the public.
I have done it as a 21-year-old reporter to Sushma Swaraj and Pranab Mukherjee; I tried doing it to Hema Malini too but her bouncers pushed me off. News professionals have been doing this for years; it’s a legitimate way of getting answers from public figures who refuse to be questioned.
Journalists who say you can’t force anyone to speak are right. Of course, you can’t force anybody. But you can try and you must. Many of our prominent journalists may have forgotten this given that they haven’t practised journalism since they mutated into public relations managers for the powerful. Unless the position of these journalists is that they can do this to the powerful but a non-journalist can’t, well that doesn’t cut it. Social media has made everyone a “journalist”. Hell, TV channels have shows that run on videos shot by regular folk going about their lives. Stories are frequently sourced from user-generated content and videos. So, no, you can try and provoke an answer from people even if you are not a “journalist”.
Standup comedians have emerged as the first line of resistance to an oppressive state. They are doing what journalists do not have the courage to do. Kunal was getting his material for social commentary – which his performances are, not unlike primetime lectures by TV anchors – just as journalists get theirs. The method used was the same too.
Is it about who you do it to?
An example that came up while I was debating this issue with a colleague was that TV journalists crowded a rape victim’s mother, forcing her to give a byte when she didn’t want to talk. There’s footage of mediapersons forcing their way into the house of Nupur and Rajesh Talwar whose daughter had recently been murdered. It’s wrong to do that to a victim, no question. In such a case, one should not thrust a microphone into the face of someone who does not want to talk. But does this logic apply if, say, a rapist does not want to talk? Does he have to be spoken to only if he has agreed to an interview? Is this true for Vijay Mallya at a cricket match? Does it hold for a minister accused of rape or murder walking into or out of the parliament? Clearly, the rule does not apply to all cases. So, where does Arnab fall on the spectrum from a powerful convicted villain to a powerless victim of violent crime? Is the comedian punching up or punching down?
To answer this, you just have to acquaint yourself with Arnab’s style of journalism, if you can call it that. He’s made it a format to send his army of reporters to chase down and heckle people, and present this as primetime news. It’s not a coincidence that most of these people happen to be opposition members or those opposed to the current dispensation. Some of his targets have been , , , , , ...the list is endless. But that’s not the main issue. Over time, he has used his position to pick on the weak and tarnish the reputations of people, many of whom might not have the means to fight back. Most recently, they included the of Shaheen Bagh. Most importantly, Arnab is the establishment. And questioning the establishment is legitimate.
The language or tone used during the ambush
While it wasn’t polite or gentle, I didn’t see Kunal’s ambush as abusive or an assault. The use of the word “fucking” seems to be a problem for many people. Well, if the F word makes you blush and an Anurag Kashyap dialogue makes your toes curl, then you may have a point – but a weak one. For me, bad language is never something to outrage about, it’s the messaging of what is being said that matters.
The demonising of minorities which Arnab and his sidekicks do on his show on a regular basis has made primetime news an adults-only hour for several households, including mine, even though I have no problem with children in my family listening to dialogues containing cuss words and slang. The messaging of Indian journalists across the board is often far more offensive, but if the F word is a deal breaker for you, then that sure is one thing you can fault Kunal for. I’ll certainly mock you, though, if you do, you prissy preppies.
Is this harassment?
No, it isn’t. Kunal did not prevent Arnab from moving, or physically intimidate him or threaten him. What is the difference between paparazzi and serious journalists? The aesthetic of their ambush. Nothing else. Paparazzi will trespass and peep through bedroom doors or when a celeb is in a clearly vulnerable private space. They will cross the line when the subject of the ambush is at, say, a hospital or in a situation that calls for sensitivity or if there are kids or elderly family members involved. Serious journalists will ambush when the subject is in an empowered and secure personal space. That’s how it’s been forever and it’s perfectly legitimate.
Don’t question people on aircraft, it’s dangerous.
Seriously? What Kunal did compromised the safety of passengers? Have you ever flown on any of these airlines? I’ve seen wrestling matches to get luggage out and altercations that didn’t even get a peep out of the crew or the minister for civil aviation. IndiGo should be ashamed as should the other airlines that have fallen in line, displaying cowardice that only Arnab can match. Sure, in India the government can make or break your business, but at least cling to a shred of dignity while enforcing penalties. I have read the “rules” for onboard conduct. Yes, Kunal can be held guilty of breaking some of these rules depending on who is interpreting them. But there is a process.
While Huffington Post quoted the chief of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation as saying the is a violation of their rules, the DGCA issued a statement clearly saying he was misquoted. The DGCA said the action taken by the airlines is "in complete consonance" with their rules.
A technicality is being used to deprive Kunal of his livelihood by making it impossible for him to travel and now the state-owned Railways is playing a (similar to Arnab’s panelists on his circus) to the airlines. He has a case against the government that is denying him the right to earn a livelihood. This point of objection is as lame as being arrested for having more than the authorised number of whiskey bottles in your bar the evening you are getting married.
There are a few other questions this episode raises. Arnab is powerful enough to have ministers play his hatchet men. The poison he spews is alarming, but that he has a bully squad of sidekicks in Lutyens’ Delhi is amusing. Ironically, in spite of his pathological fixation with the “Lutyens’ Gang”, he has demonstrated the most Lutyens’ characteristic. As Lutyens’ as Lodhi Garden and as Delhi as butter chicken: janta hai mera baap kaun hai syndrome. You mess with me and dekh main kya karta hun. That the government and several airlines are party to this thuggery is so pathetic that they will find it impossible to defend their positions if they are questioned. Which would be possible if the CEOs of the airlines or the minister for civil aviation, Hardeep Puri, had the courage to face a mike and camera. I doubt they will. In which case an ambush interview would be perfectly justified as long as it doesn’t physically harm the esteemed leaders.
Now, does any journalist have the pluck to do that or do we have to wait for Kunal again?