Ford vs Kavanaugh

There are watershed moments in history. They also happen in media. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegation of sexual harassment against Brett Kavanaugh in the context of his nomination as a Supreme Court judge in the US provides one of those moments.

That Dr Blasey Ford, an eminent psychologist and a Professor of Psychology at Palo Alto  as well as a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, was made to appear before a Senate Judiciary Committee in full view of television viewers not only in America but across the world was bad enough. She was also made to repeat in detail what actually happened during the sexual assault in 1982 and questioned and cross questioned by a female prosecutor on behalf of the all white male senate Republicans in the committee while the minority Democrats in the Senate committee could question her every five minutes in between. It is harrowing for anyone to relive a trauma and to do so in a very public setting must have taken Dr Ford immense courage particularly when she had, initially, tried to keep her allegation confidential.

The only reason Dr Ford reported the incident to the political representatives in her area was to make the government aware that it was nominating someone to high office for life who has a background of excessive drinking and sexual misconduct. She says she had hoped that this would lead to an investigation before the nomination of Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court judge. She had originally made the disclosure at a time when his name was in consideration with others for the post. Had the investigation been done then the situation may not have snowballed. Dr Ford considered it her civic duty to stop an error in nominating someone to such a high office for life.

Brett Kavanaugh, in his deposition, resorted to theatrics and a strong denial of having committed such a base act. He spoke of its effect on his family and the loss of reputation. He cried and thundered and often dodged answers. He also refused to be drawn into answering some of the questions by the Democratic senators and, instead, counter-questioned them. There was arrogance, bravado and self-pity on his part though the conservative Republicans remained adamant that Kavanaugh’s testimony showed he was the victim and that he was telling the truth. They thought Dr Ford was a nice woman but not worthy of being respected for her action because she should have reported the assault years ago. After all Brett Kavanaugh was an honourable man!

Had Christine Blasey Ford decided to keep the incident in the dark and hide behind her  trauma she wouldn’t have had to face the public, the doubts cast on her, the threats to her for speaking out, relocate for safety, hire security and many more endless, thankless issues. The patriarchal men in the Senate would not have condescendingly called her a nice woman while they strongly backed her alleged assaulter. Yet she finally agreed to come out and face the Senate in a situation where instead of being the victim of sexual assault she was made to feel like an accuser and Brett Kavanaugh the victim. Her courage, her attempt to answer all questions sincerely and truthfully, her voice, attitude, the prosecutor’s questions, the Democrat Senators’ questions and statements, the optics of the all white all male Republicans in the Senate judiciary committee and their expressions – all made for riveting television.

The newspeople, the individuals in their homes or at work in many parts of the world stayed glued to the television sets. Then there was the camera that caught Senator Jeff Flake trying to get into the elevator and women from the public telling him about their own sexual assault experiences and urging him not to vote for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. ‘Look at me’, said one of them to force him to see her and her anguish. A trapped Flake looked agitated, embarrassed, troubled. He went back to the hearing and then went out for bipartisan consultation. As the Senators, the government, the viewers waited anxiously to know when the voting would be held and what its result would be (although they knew what it was going to be since conservatives would vote conservatives; and hadn’t Jeff Flake already said he was going to vote for Kavanaugh?) the television commentators and reporters started to smell something. Jon Sopel of BBC said it was unusual and something was definitely cooking. Was there going to be a change of heart?

Meanwhile one of the camera’s of MSNBC had been recording the expression on Senator Flake’s face while he listened to the statements of his fellow Republicans and that of the Democratic Party Senator Christopher Coons who was appalled that this was going through without even a semblance of investigation. The expression was pained, worried and somehow he couldn’t look anyone in the eye. What was he worrying about? He had already declared his intention to vote for Kavanaugh. He let go of his chance to make a statement while his fellow partymen spoke in turn. He got up and while going out gestured Senator Coons to follow him. His absence made the other Republicans uncomfortable and none too happy. It showed on their faces and in the palpable tension in the room.

When Flake returned to the chamber he continued to look troubled but more determined and soon we knew why. He requested a delay to the confirmation and allowed a week in which the FBI could make a proper investigation into the allegation. After all the witnesses had refused to depose and there were two other women who had also made allegations of sexual impropriety against Kavanaugh.

All this was on camera – a reality thriller of would they or wouldn’t they. All this was on social media – on Facebook, Twitter, everywhere. There were ‘live’ videos being streamed, ‘live’ commentaries, ‘live’ comments from the who’s who and those who are not who’s who. Twitter was on fire.

In a volatile, populist, divided world of fake news, lies and constant political one upmanship we have become used to watching and reading completely divided and divisive opinion. So suddenly here was this one event that united all media to watch and comment. This was NEWS and this was how journalism ought to be!

We don’t yet know what the result of the FBI investigation would be…. probably a decision on expected lines but, the fact that for one day media channels could unite and focus on the most topical news of the day, report it, analyse it and put it up the way real news ought to, proved that this was a moment to remember. A moment to remember for the victims of sexual assault, for the history of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, for the Americans, for the world. Bravo Dr Ford! Bravo news media!







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There are still some bravehearts left in Indian media

While mainstream media (MSM) in India struggled with how to keep up with rivals’ TRPs and circulations, facts, investigation, balance and objectivity took a back seat. They competed with each other to become the government’s press release and apologists barring a few. The space left vacant by them is being taken over by small but more dedicated digital publications. The Wire  is leading the race at the moment. It published an investigative report by journalist Rohini Singh called Golden Touch of Jay Amit Shah on 8 October. It generated so much interest among readers that the servers went down.

The report, based on filings with the Registrar of Companies (RoC), claims that the ‘turnover of a company owned by Jay Amit Shah increased 16,000 times over in the year following the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister and the elevation of his father to the post of party president’. Based on the RoC filings there are further details about the company, its funding and more.

The report is fact based and does not say anything directly incriminating. In fact similar reportage had been made by the same journalist against people connected to the previous regime. However, this time around even before the publication of the report, moves were afoot within the ruling establishment to organise a legal challenge against the publication, its editor and the journalist in question. After the news broke a senior government minister came on television to defend Jay A Shah and the government machinery started working overtime to prove his innocence. Even the Additional Solicitor General was given permission by the Law Ministry to represent the businessman, who happens to be the son of the ruling BJP’s President, two days before the report’s publication.

So what could have been yet another story of possible crony capitalism became bigger and bigger. Along with it came a lawsuit of 100 crores Indian rupees (over 1500 million US dollars) – a staggering amount for a relatively small digital publication and the reporter.

The reporter, Rohini Singh, and The Wire also came in for online abuse and threat meant to intimidate and stop both from continuing with such investigative reportage. Despite the threats Rohini remained brave and stuck to her story. She published a Facebook post explaining that she was doing what a journalist ought to do – journalism.

Although Twitterati and Facebookers were discussing and sharing The Wire report, mainstream media remained quiet but for the usual exceptions. MSM preferred to discuss the spat between the two Bollywood stars and other less significant stories. The press conference by the Opposition about the report and its challenge to the government to investigate Jay Amit Shah were blacked out by the mainstream channels though they did not hesitate to go to town about the minister’s press statement and the threat of a defamation case.

The fact that journalists like Rohini Singh continue to do investigative journalism to bring out the truth in an adverse, unfavourable environment despite abuse and threats shows there are still some true journalists left in India.

Meanwhile the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has expressed concern over the criminal defamation case against The Wire and its editors and journalists. They have called for making defamation only a civil offence. Criminal defamation for an investigative report is considered to be an intimidatory step to muzzle independent media and goes against democratic norms.

Next: Ford vs Kavanaugh




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Where have all the bravehearts gone?

The primary role of news media is to give information. The role of good investigative journalists is to investigate and present the truth however unpleasant to governments and powerful institutions. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australia’s main public service broadcaster did a marvellous job towards this last week by presenting ‘Digging into Adani’ on their weekly Four Corners investigative documentary programme.

Gautam Adani, a billionaire industrialist, is a controversial name in India. His rise to wealth and power is alleged to have coincided with the rise in power of the then Chief Minister of Gujarat state and now the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi. The environmental track record of his Adani Group and his financial arrangements have been questioned. His bid to build Australia’s biggest coalmining site – the Carmichael project – in Queensland has led to huge protests in the country for environmental reasons. The mine would be built on land of the country’s indigenous people and, according to environmentalists, threaten the wellbeing of the Great Barrier Reef.

When the Four Corners team went to investigate Adani in India they were questioned for hours by the crime branch of police, their cameras shut down and footage deleted. The promo of the programme says, ‘This investigation examines whether, in the rush to secure jobs and shore up the mining industry, Australian politicians have failed to properly scrutinise the company that’s now hoping to receive a taxpayer funded loan of up to $1 billion for its project.’

This itself would be news in normal circumstances. ABC went ahead and broadcast the programme – exactly what a public broadcaster ought to do. It was reported in Australian media, people watched it and continued their protest.

Big story? Isn’t this the stuff the Indian media would love to show and talk about? Social media in India was active with discussions about the programme, sharing it and commenting. Mainstream media (MSM), particularly the television news channels, looked the other way. ‘Digging into Adani’ was not a news item, nor was it discussed in any way by the majority of channels. Instead they discussed, interviewed, shouted and screamed about a spat between two Bollywood movie stars. Killing a story by ignoring it would have worked but for social media. Most mainstream newspapers also chose to ignore the story.

Why? Are they in favour of crony capitalism? Afraid of backlash from Adani and the Indian government? The industrialist accompanies the Prime Minister on his foreign tours. Maybe their news sense has gone awry? Yes, there appears to be a journalistic death wish among the MSMs in India. Big stories, if investigative and critical of government, the ruling party and its allies, are not touched upon or pushed down to insignificance. Trivia and manufactured debate reign supreme while most channels appear to have become propaganda tools. Not a good sign for a vibrant democracy or media. Where have the bravehearts of Indian media gone?

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