The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Press right to pry is right

Jamshedpur, Sept. 28: Anything goes, as long as it is justified. That was the verdict pronounced by Jamshedpur as it resoundingly defeated the motion “This house believes investigative journalism is an unethical intrusion of privacy” after a nearly two-hour verbal duel between eight speakers at the XLRI auditorium.

Tata Steel managing director B. Muthuraman, who started the proceedings, defended the motion by describing Princess Diana’s death as “murder by journalists and photographers”. Claiming that the freedom of press now overshadowed everything, he asked: “Who is going to distinguish between a public figure and a private one'”

Some in the packed-to-capacity auditorium seemed to agree when he claimed that news is often sensationalised with an eye on generating more income.

Opposing the motion, celebrity and novelist Shobhaa De said investigative journalism is like surgery, where a body has to be cut open to get to the root of the malaise. “I belong to the school of journalism where anything goes,” she said, sending the audience into raptures.

De stressed that truth hurts but it is the duty of journalists to unravel it as they are the “watchdogs” of society. “Nobody in public life is beyond accountability. The press should have the teeth to bite into reality,” she said.

Amitabh Choudhury, DIG, Palamau range, in his defence of the motion, took recourse to the law, saying the press should not cross the lakshmanrekha.

Choudhury pointed to a case where wells were apparently dug in a village in such a manner that “as time passed, there were so many of them that one visualised that they exceeded the entire area of the village with the danger of people falling into them at every step”. “I accept the state machinery failed to detect this flaw, but where were the investigative journalists'”

Rebutting Choudhury, columnist Jayabrato Chatterjee compared the investigative scribes to Alice who fell into a well and then proceeded to unravel one scam after another. Throwing a question at his opposite team that why should anyone investigate someone if the person has nothing to hide, he said the media never had to probe into the lives of personalities like Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa.

Journalists today are risking their lives to expose corruption. But for the media, Chatterjee asserted, scams would have remained buried deep in dust.

Countering the arguments of the opposition with gusto, industrialist Gautam Mukherjee equated investigative journalism with “gutter press and pimping”. Negating De, Mukherjee wondered who will watch over the watchdog. That prompted a thunderous applause.

CPM politburo member Sitaram Yechuri, the third member opposing the motion, said investigative journalism had done a lot to improve the plight of the common man. “Many laws in the country have been framed after members of the fourth estate highlighted them, like treatment of prisoners in jails.”

But for West Bengal Trinamul Congress leader Saugata Roy, investigative journalism is nothing but “peep-hole reporting”. “Investigations,” he said, “are not done in a scientific way and stories are being made out of gossip and hearsay.” He wondered why the Rajdhani mishap and the deaths of 14 children in a Bengal hospital were not being properly probed, while the Shivani murder got wide coverage.

Ending the debate, disinvestment minister Arun Shourie stated investigative journalism was necessary for salvaging public life and it was the duty of the journalist to awaken the public.

“There is no privacy for persons holding public offices. If any person holding public office can cheat in private life, they can do the same in the offices that they hold. Those in public life forfeit their privacy the moment they enter it,” Shourie said.

The event was sponsored by National Insurance, Tata Steel and McDowell.

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