Bellary ground report

On a visit to Bellary in 2011, I saw some very stark realities. One was the fact that the law of the land did not seem to matter much to those in power. Second is the amount of wealth accumulated by those who rule the roost. These are two stories culled out of a half-hour documentary that I worked on during that trip.

Reddy brothers defy SC, continue mining

Reddy brothers unaffected by Lokayukta’s report, busy in renovating family mansion


Aero India 2011

I had taken these photographs during the 2011 Aero India show held in February in Bangalore. Had taken a couple of photographs but completely forgot about them especially when actor Shahid Kapoor and his father came down for the former’s F-16 cruise. Here are some of those photos. You can also see my interview with Shahid Kapoor here


The Anti-Corruption Press

The Anti-corruption press

I was at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Chest Diseases a few weeks back when Kannada actor Darshan Togudeepa was admitted there while in judicial custody. At that time, there was a gentleman there who was hanging around near the hospital claiming to belong to a television channel that is association with anti-corruption. He said the channel was headquartered in Delhi and even produced his ID card as shown above.

Attempts to contact the numbers provided on his ID card proved futile. Those who answered the phone seemed to be unaware. I am not even sure if the address provided is a fake one.

On the whole, it seemed quite weird. Not sure if there are many such claimants walking around in the country.

Mission Amma

Friday the 13th. I was destined to spend it at No 81, Veda Nilayam, Poes Garden, Chennai. J Jayalalithaa was my assignment. I got there at about 6.15 in the morning, way ahead of time for my 7 AM live. The OB and cameraperson were nowhere in sight. I saw most of the other national channels already set up, walkthroughs underway. Security was strict. Barricades were already up. All for Amma.

The first two hours outside the AIADMK supremo’s residence passed by uneventfully. I was like, wow not bad this is actually easy. I got a couple of phone calls asking me if there was a crowd. There were just policemen and us media persons. The scene was calm and quiet. Amma also must have been meditating inside.

At about 9 AM was when the first bomb was dropped. Not quite literally. But a hefty, dark-skinned man, in vella veshti and vella satta (white dhoti and white shirt) brought an entourage with him. One holding a couple of boxes of sweets, another holding a couple of boxes of crackers. And he himself holding a massive garland with tulsi leaves and pink flowers.

The celebrations started.

As I did live after live, the crackers only got louder. There was a point where I had inhaled most of the smoke and coughed my lungs out, with watery eyes. There were women lunging for me, trying to make the most of being on television. The men too wanted their five seconds of fame. They were dancing, singing, shouting slogans. It was utter chaos. I don’t know what was happening.

The typical Tamizh thapangoothu (tapori) was on. The supporters broke into song and lyric about Stalin and Azhagari. All negative of course. And similar lyrics in praise of their Puzhaichi Thalaivi (revolutionary leader).

There was no place to stand. Every cracker that came out was not less than a 5000 wala. They were lit right at your feet. It was c..r..a..z..y. I almost had my hair, clothes and myself burnt. The results so far showed Jaya leading. It was a surprise for all. Security was beefed some more outside Veda Nilayam. Body guards and some more body guards. It was a fortress with a lot of people.

Tamizh film personalities started coming in. One of the first was Gundu Kalyanam. Then came others like Senthil, a film villain whose name I don’t recall, and other on screen supporting actors. Bouquets and bouquets of flowers went inside Jaya’s house. She had clearly already won in their minds. For us in the media, there was no place to even stand. Even the walls were all filled up.

At about half past noon, we were told we could get inside Veda Nilayam – a possible peek at the lady herself and maybe even a sound byte. As exciting as it was to be able to get in finally, it was the getting in that was tough. The security guards had their own rules. No tripod, no cable, blah blah. The scorching Chennai heat didn’t do any good either. It was a stampede at the gate. We were pulled and pushed. Pulled and pushed. And finally managed to find our way into the house. In the melee however, I quite unsurprisingly managed to lose the mircrophone. The logo was easy to find. The mic was gone. But some Good Samaritan handed it to me about 30 seconds later, to my surprise. How he managed to get hold of it in that madness, I don’t know!

A few minutes later Amma came out of her palatial abode, out on to her balcony on the first floor. She strutted her stuff and waved to the cheering crowds. Maroon saree, covering her entire frame. She was smiling as she flashed the victory sign.

It only added to the madness! The crowds went berserk. I didn’t manage to give the live output as the cable didn’t reach inside her residence. Got into a bit of a fight because of that, but manageable.

The point is – sitting in air-conditioned studios, one would not even be able to fathom the enormity of what was happening on ground. I mean, I had never seen anything like it until that day. It was worse than a mob. Everyone wanted to have their two minutes of fame, everyone wanted to scream and shout in joy, everyone wanted to get a glance of Amma. It was survival of the fittest in the literal sense.

We managed to get out of the house in a bit and were told that she would address the media a little later. We dreaded trying to go outside. It was again a task in itself.

At about 3 in the afternoon, we had get back inside. This time, the live cables had to come in with us. I asked the OB van engineer to pass it on to me from under the gates. That’s what most ended up doing. The press conference happened at the door entrance to her house. Mics in place, cameras rolling, J Jayalaithaa came out and spoke to the media for about 15 minutes.

It was over and we handed up hanging around the house for the next few hours. The cops and security guys didn’t seem to mind. We sat on the lawn, each one silently hoping to get an ‘exclusive’ with the new Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

Managed to see a few more actors in the process – Vijay and his dad, Kasthuri, and many more. There were even bureaucrats who were lining up to meet the madam with bouquets in hand. Everyone was hoping to save their skin with this power transfer I guess.

While my colleague told me that it was close to impossible to get a byte from Amma, I was given strict orders from Delhi to keep trying. So I sat on J Jayalalithaa’s lawn and waited. There were no signs of it happening, but everyone stayed back. For many, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to do walkthroughs and piece to cameras (TV jargon) right inside her residence. So they made the most of it.

I hadn’t eaten a morsel after my breakfast that morning. And there was no water either. One of the body guards told me to go to the water pipe in the garden and drink from it. Which I did! After it was filled into bottles.

Close to 7 pm, they had had enough of us. We were finally asked to leave and we did.

I ended up waiting outside till close to 10 pm, what with the insane lives (many of which didn’t end up happening).

All in all, it is an experience I will never forget. Even if I want to! It all started off as a one-day thing. But it was the longest day ever! With phone battery failing, live cables not reaching, losing the mic, burning hair with crackers, choking because of the smoke – it was adventurous no doubt!

As they say, if you can cover TN elections, any other job in the life of a scribe is a cakewalk. This one day proved it to me!

Reporting on Sai Baba’s health

It was my first major assignment on work and my first time on an outdoor shoot. All thanks to Sri Sathya Sai Baba. My visit to Puttaparthi on work saw a number of things – the scorching Andhra sun, greeting people with ‘Sai Ram’ instead of a regular ‘Hello’, lives where I ended up saying pretty much the same thing since the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Medical Sciences chose to despatch only two medical bulletins a day, one resembling the other, and finally, breaking the news of the godman’s death on national television.

It was a week of a lot of learning, making mistakes, patience, and quite a bit of yelling and screaming. All in all – I survived!

Reporting: Blaming a rape victim is not justified

The New York Times, till not so long ago, was considered to be a Bible of sorts in the circles of journalism. Alas, James C McKinley Jr changed it all. With a simple crime story. I say ‘simple’ with reason. Here in India, the media has highlighted and campaigned against khap panchayats and honour killings. But The New York Times, in a surprising move, published a story about the rape of an 11-year-old girl, with what many are calling, ‘a lack of balance and objectivity’.

On March 8, the report Vicious Assault shakes Texas Town was published in The New York Times, about an 11-year-old who was gang-raped by “18 young men and teenage boys”. The report goes on to briefly describe the crime and then quote, out-of-the-blue, a hospital worker, saying, “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives”.

While the report does state that details of the attack are yet unclear, it then goes on to make a summation of what some people in the community say about the young victim.

They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

The reporter also quotes a neighbor who questions the victim’s mother.

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

These particular portions which formed the first report on this crime by The New York Times, have received a lot of flak. Readers across the country have been outraged at the way in which the story was pitched and written, in a way to sympathise with the perpetrators.

On March 11, The New York Times went on to publish a blog post, authored by Arthur S Brisbane, and titled Gang Rape Story lacked balance.

Brisbane says “…creating an impression of concern for the perpetrators and an impression of a provocative victim, led many readers to interpret the subtext of the story to be: she had it coming.”

Incidentally, Brisbane is the Readers’ Representative and The New York Times says that the author “responds to complaints and comments from the public and monitors the paper’s journalistic practices. His opinions and conclusions are his own”, a clear indicator of the fact that Brisbane’s views don’t necessarily mean that the paper will in fact go ahead and change.

The New York Times has since gone on to issue a statement saying that the report only mentioned what the members of the community felt, and are in no way the personal views of the reporter. No apology or retraction has been made.

The report has in fact sparked off a war online, questioning journalistic standards especially in such a sensitive matter.

The New York Times argument, while valid, is not appropriate. Stating the facts may not be considered biased reporting. Still the, at the end of day, journalists need to have a sense of responsibility. When we gather information for a report, we don’t necessarily include it all in our final piece. One’s judgement is used to leave out the rhetoric, irrelevant, unnecessary and in this case sensitive portions out.

For a first report of a crime, where a reader would ideally be looking for the basic facts – 5Ws and 1H. While the community members did help give information that could string the story together, the reporter decided to use information that may not necessarily be directly relevant to the story. A case in point is about the members’ perception about how the victim used to dress. This is not in any way directly relevant to the story. The New York Times may argue that the reporter was merely stating facts. Agreed. But isn’t it left to the judgement of a reporter to use only what is necessary for the report. In the process of news gathering we are always told a lot of things. We have to use our discretion to use what is important. It looks like McKinley didn’t think that was necessary.

It’s always important to be responsible and sensitive while reporting on such matters. McKinley simply chose not to think twice about it. And if and whether the copy was edited, the copy editor also seems to have felt that it was ok.

If the community members really felt that the girl’s dressing sense invited trouble that could have actually been a different kind of story. As many have suggested, quoting psychiatrists and other community experts may have made sense. But if you are going to go ahead and quote someone judging the victim, it would also be important to get a sense of who the perpetrators were. Did none of the community members have anything judgemental to say about the 18 young boys and men?

Then again the community members also felt the need to say “…how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?”

And who are we to judge either the victim or the alleged wrong-doers? This will be done in a court of law. McKinley’s job was to report the crime. He tried doing a little more than that.

As much as The New York Times tries to defend itself, the copy says what it says. Reporting crimes are not as easy as it may seem. The New York Times article has most certainly put before us lessons to be learnt.