The Byline is Dead

How Indian newsrooms became morgues for investigative journalism

01 December, 2018

The word “byline” first appeared about a century ago in Ernest Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Over time, for idealists among us, the byline came to represent the power of journalism—the courage it provided an ordinary reporter to challenge the high and mighty. As a young journalist, this was the sort of byline I aspired for, whose sanctity, I believed, was to be doggedly protected by editors. Over my career, I have watched the byline die a slow and violent death. It has been killed not only by power-hungry politicians and corporate barons, but also by media owners and their servile editors.

More than a decade ago, I opened a folder in my email called “Morgue.” I began saving in it stories I had written that met journalistic standards but still failed to see the light of the day. Stories have continued to pile up in that folder even as I have changed jobs—from working for a big start-up newspaper, to a giant media house known for its crass profit hunt, to a media house with great moral reputation. In the mortuary of these dead stories, I have a collection of reporting on some of our biggest political leaders and corporate giants that, in a country with a robust media, would have been celebrated, and in a law-abiding society, would have triggered major criminal investigations. But in India, these stories have found few takers. There have been times when I have seen individual editors stand up for journalism, but they have been rare exceptions. The culture of the newsroom has degenerated slowly, and self-censorship has become second nature to young journalists.

I became acquainted with the realities of the newsroom within a few years of starting my career. One evening about a decade ago, I received a call from a promoter of the newspaper I was working for. A member of my team had dug up a sensational story about a mysterious fire that had destroyed income-tax files pertaining to a large fine imposed upon a major real-estate company. The promoter asked me to hold the story for a couple of days, because someone from that company had reached out to him to provide their version. Two days later, the newspaper was wrapped in a jacket advertisement of the tax-evading real estate firm. The story never appeared in the newspaper.

Over the past few decades, Indian media is increasingly being driven by profits, and has all but abandoned its role as the fourth pillar of democracy. In this landscape, far from being appreciated, good reporting is actively censored. Editors play brokers, trying to balance various interests while maintaining a veneer of professionalism. And owners have pawned their brands for political and commercial glory. The fastest promotions and the fattest salary packages are reserved mostly for middlemen, who masquerade as journalists but primarily fix deals and manage the sundry troublemakers for the media baron—politicians, tax authorities and the police, among others.

The worst effect has been on reporters who have been baptised into this profession in these miserable times. A reporter’s job today is to find enough material to fill up the pages. Taught to self-censor at every step, she would not even dare pitch a story that might endanger her safe existence in a prestigious newsroom.

Thus, most reporters simply report on stories coming out in the newswires, which churn out public-relations material for the establishment. The reporters mildly modify these stories, insert their names, and file their drafts. The editors are, in turn, happy that there is no difficult copy to edit, no corporate giant to pacify, no government bullies to be dealt with. These phony bylines are all these reporters can hope for in big newsrooms.

As a result, most newspapers look and read identical to each other. Most front pages are dominated by celebratory messages about the government’s programmes. When the high and mighty are fighting—as in the recent cases of disputes within the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Reserve Bank of India—leaks start appearing in the newspapers. The rest of the daily carries corporate announcements, a few offbeat human-interest stories, and some data-based articles. There is no investigative journalism.

While these processes were set in motion long back, the present government’s defanging of the media remains unprecedented. Narendra Modi was the first politician to spot the huge potential of social media. On these platforms, Modi and his government are free to put out information that would not have survived journalistic scrutiny, and unleash their army of trolls on anyone who tries to hold them accountable.

In fact, the establishment’s social media has become the primary source of information for even reporters. On most days, tweets from Modi or a government minister are lead stories for newspapers. Reporters spend their time scouring social media, as they are mostly frozen out from the government’s inner workings.

Modi seems equally adept at managing traditional media. Ever since he first started roaming the television studios in the early 1990s, Modi has refused to leave the frame.

The national bureaus of most newspapers are overrun with reporters who aim for access instead of journalism. Even some fellow journalists, who would congratulate us on good stories before the 2014 elections, and whose eloquence about investigative journalism felt sincere then, are now bending over backwards for the government to secure their salaries, reduced to court jesters and crude propagandists. After a few exemplary sackings of editors who questioned this state of affairs, there is no dissent in big newsrooms.

This atmosphere of self-preservation and fear has extended beyond the media as well. In this attempt to convert us into an illiberal democracy, every institution is under attack. A key ingredient in great reporting has always been the whistle-blower. But in India, whistle-blowing can land you in jail, probably get you killed, and open you up to ideology-drunk, trigger-happy social-media armies. Governments over the years, with clever bureaucratic advice, have watered down whatever protection was available to whistle-blowers. The credibility of the office of the Central Vigilance Commission—a body created to address corruption in the higher levels of government—is itself in doubt. The Prevention of Corruption Act was modified earlier this year, narrowing down the definition of “criminal misconduct,” and making new sanctions necessary to prosecute government officials. The government has been hostile to the Right to Information Act, refusing to appoint information commissioners and looking for ways to dilute the Act itself.

It is now hard to find officials such as those who played a key role in passing on documents about the UPA government’s scandals, and even harder to make them talk. Fear of those in power has been injected into every vein of governance. Under the present government’s watchful eyes, even when one manages to meet old contacts, their behaviour seems bizarre. In their own office space, they glance at the walls as if they have ears. In coffee shops, they scan their surroundings to see if any spooks are around. On the phone, they prefer encrypted messaging systems. In public, they profusely praise those in power. Interactions with senior officials, who once upon a time readily parted with information, have now become absurd. One sends around videos of himself singing karaoke to suggestive songs, another prefers to discuss profound international books, while a third, who used to be seen chatting up journalists in Delhi’s Khan Market during the previous government, is now nowhere to be found. It is only when they are dead sure no one is listening that they can be seen frothing about the government’s many failures.

Anyone who started reporting in recent years has only known this side of reporting—bureaucrats who will not meet, sources who are unavailable, and a one-way flow of information. A generation of reporters has not even had the chance to learn how government and corporate reporting works. The list of those silently suffering is endless—freelancers without legal support to fight cases, small-town reporters who are murdered for taking on the local mafia, senior reporters in metros who have surrendered their idealism for the sake of a monthly salary.

Not all the stories in my “Morgue” folder have gone unread. Some of the stories from my folder, besides a lot of fresh reporting, found their way into my 2016 book, A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India. A major media house wanted to carry exclusive extracts from it. After sitting on the material for a month, they told my publishers they did not want to take on any of the corporates named in it. Most mainstream media ignored the book.

In June 2016, a leading English magazine carried an extract from my book, which had mentioned alleged criminal links of the Jet Airways promoter Naresh Goyal. Jet Airways slapped a defamation case against the magazine and me, seeking Rs 1,000 crore in damages. The editor of the magazine was sacked soon after the case was filed. The new editor filed the magazine’s response in court, offering to publish any rejoinder that Jet would provide if it withdrew the case. The new editor did not even care to share the response with me, and ordered his colleagues not to communicate with me. The trial is yet to begin.

This cocktail of sycophancy and propaganda being passed for journalism angers a new generation of young journalists. They have been brought up in newsrooms completely devoid of journalistic integrity and dissent. Soon, when the anger of these reporters boils over, a new byline will arise.