The Immorality Of Truth: Journalism And The Confederacy Of Commerce

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The armies of righteousness have woken and are goose-stepping up and down the margins of their broadsheets, gingerly skirting the loud advertisements that squat their news space. One particularly old lady – more than 150 years old we are told – has leapt shrieking out of her beauty saloon, pancake and all, revealing the sag beneath the skin, the brittleness in the bone, the bloodlessness in the veins. It is not a pretty sight. Vanity and envy – especially in the old – make for an ugly combination. One would imagine those who deal in the beauty business would display an understanding of aesthetics, if not investigations.

The bogey of match-fixing did not spring up with tehelka.com’s recent revelations. It first emerged in 1997 when Aniruddha Bahal returned from India’s tour of South Africa, and refused to write the routine match reports. He came to my room at Outlook, and declared, “Forget cricket stories. The big story is that everyone – players, administrators, commentators, journalists, everybody – is betting. All the time.” Editors are promised shattering scoops by their reporters on a daily basis; I did not jump out of my chair; I gave an indifferent go-ahead. In the next two months, Bahal and another stellar young journalist, Krishna Prasad, painstakingly pieced together enough circumstantial evidence to merit the magazine’s cover. Vinod Mehta, fine editor that he is, went with the story. We knew we were throwing open a cupboard that rattled with a few skeletons; we had no idea we were throwing open the door to a sprawling dungeon that teemed with ghouls and greed.

Over three years, the investigation has gone places no one then would have dared imagine. Now there are feet of clay everywhere, once altars at which a nation genuflected. Recently, someone wrote that keeping in mind his sporting achievements he was willing to forgive Kapil Dev his cheating. The generosity is touching, but it doesn’t take into account what the people – we – gave back. Our time. Our adulation. Our money. For knocking a ball about, we lavishly bestowed fame and fortune. In all sport there is only one important covenant between the sportsman and the spectator – the man who pays and praises – that the player will play fair and with every sinew in his body. That in the most idealized and stirring mock-up of life, the best man will finally win. The covenant has been broken; and some kind of reckoning has to be made.

On the eve of that first cover story in 1997, Manoj Prabhakar dropped into our office. It was the first time I was meeting him. In conversation he inadvertently dropped a bombshell. I cornered him. If it was true that he had been offered Rs. 25 lakh to throw a match against Pakistan, he should come out with it. We were willing to blow the whistle, but someone had to undo the latch from inside. Else, this was a closed casino in which everyone within was profiteering too much to ever let on.

Prabhakar did not agree readily. He wrestled with himself, and only at the eleventh hour, sent us that fateful column. But he never named the man. Not then, not for the three years that followed. Each time I corralled him to tell me who it was, he would say, “Tarun, main naam le doonga to desh hil jaayega.”

Tehelka.com was announced around the time the Hansie Cronje story broke. For three years the issue had simmered as the BCCI went through the charade of the Chandrachud inquiry, swiftly exonerating the players and itself. The money in the game by now was so blinding that the cricket board could see nothing else. Not the swirling allegations, not the circumstantial evidence. Nor did it feel any need to clear itself. The frontyard was so aglitter with chrome and silver that it couldn’t be bothered about the rotting backyard. Uninspired, unaccountable, highhanded, the Board was a strokeless wonder, but it was stonewalling everything and you just couldn’t get it out.

Inevitably, the corruption of the Board – and the game – was one of the first stories we planned to do. We had a strong sense that many of the players had lied to the Chandrachud committee, and to the public. We had a strong sense that the first round of revelations three years ago had not stemmed the rot at all. Thus germinated the idea of a wide-ranging sting, something that would expose the lies of the players and administrators, and put beyond doubt the widespread prevalence of match-fixing. To make it effective, we needed an insider, in whose presence people would speak the truth. Prabhakar was not the only player we touched; there was another. He soon fell by the wayside; Prabhakar, on the other hand, proved amazingly redoubtable. Of course, he is a loose cannon, mercurial and temperamental, mostly to his own detriment. But with every meeting we became more and more convinced of the veracity of his story. The details never wavered; no shadow of doubt ever ran across his face. We found ourselves unearthing a classic confrontation: one man telling the truth arrayed against a large network of vested interests determined to give the lie to the truth.

For nearly two months, a core Tehelka team worked very hard. Bahal and Prabhakar traveled relentlessly, investigating; Minty Tejpal held base, coordinating and collating. As the findings rolled in, we were staggered. It was all worse than we had imagined. Tehelka.com was not ready to go online, but the moment the story was ready with us, we went with it driven by nothing but the news impulse. Two crowded press conferences, four hectic days later, the web of deceit, doublespeak and corruption lay vivisected for public scrutiny. For us at Tehelka, the moment was singular. At the screening, which lasted six hours because the tapes were delayed coming off the edit machines, journalists watched in loaded silence, and shook our hands after. Phone calls and e-mails – mostly of overwhelming support – flooded our offices.

And yet there was a hiccup of disappointment. Instead of acting on the evidence of the films and clamouring for answers from the Board and the indicted players, a sliver of the bloated mainline press, in a display of the most parochial envy, began to harangue us about the ethics of the investigation.

The truth is, we exposed the deceit in the only way it could have been done. This is an issue that has been convulsing the nation for the last three years. This is a sport that is a national religion. And these are people who have been lying to the public day after day; these are people who have lied to an official committee. These are people who operate in the public domain, and annex large chunks of public time and space. These are people who have cheated, and they owe an explanation to the public. Unorthodox situations demand unorthodox responses. In a time-honoured journalistic method, we stung them to unveil the truth. There is no way, we could have written them applications – in triplicate – and got the information we did.

I first heard these stories from my father; who had heard them from his. Of how Drona died because Yudhishtra – the truthful – lied about the death of Drona’s son Ashwathama. Of how Karna died because Arjuna – the righteous – slew him against the rules of combat as he struggled to free the sunken wheel of his chariot. Of how Krishna – the godhead – in the heat of duel covertly signaled Bhima the secret code for slaying Jarasandha. Indians know truth is relative. It is defined by context. And sometimes motive.

Virtually every lawyer on television has said that the evidence is most likely admissible in court; and that, given the context, there is no violation of the law of privacy. Shanti Bhushan, outstandingly, exhorted in fact that in a democracy it was the right of every citizen to pursue and investigate public affairs, and to put pressure on institutions to perform. Tehelka.com did not sting Karishma Kapoor talking about Raveena Tandon; nor did it sting Azhar talking about his wife. What we did concerned only the public domain, and public figures who were cheating on public sentiment and money.

Surely the heart of journalism should be about asking uncomfortable questions, about revealing what someone is trying to conceal, about pushing the envelope of inquiry. It cannot possibly be only profiles of Hrithik Roshan and the celebration of half-assed beauty contests.

The problem with the armies of righteousness is that they stumble at every pothole of commerce. They flee in disarray at the first sign of money. The old lady – more than 150 years, remember – was the only one in the entire country to not credit tehelka.com with the story when it first broke. The particular editor, calling me next day for some follow-up information, said it was company policy. The facts didn’t matter; commerce did: the lady wanted to only talk about her own website (unfortunately, there was no beauty contest angle to this story). More recently, the old lady carried an editorial page piece full of schoolboyish psychoanalysis which mentioned tehelka.com nine time without naming it once. The journalism of commerce.

Yet, that too is palatable. Don’t credit us, but at least take up the cry for accountability we have raised. The Board and the players, despite all the evidence, continue to brazen it out, refusing to explain themselves. And the press, the only one capable of forcing them to come clean, are wasting their time navel-gazing. The truth is, the story is much bigger than tehelka.com, Star TV, or any of the papers and magazines. The armies of righteousness should forget who broke it, and just demand some action out of somewhere. Prime ministerial intervention perhaps. After all, this is not a club team, a Mohan Bagan or Mohammedan Sporting team we are talking about; this is the national cricket team. It wears all our colours.

Of course, the moment the money is right, the armies of righteousness come to a tumbling halt, and scurry off the front pages. A mere website can do that. Yes, a mere website. Not by breaking the biggest story in the last 10 years. But by putting up the biggest bag of silver. Sweep more than 150 years – and the goose-stepping armies – clean off the front page, and the back page. For the right price India can become Indya. There is no real ignominy in being in the beauty business. Just that old ladies running beauty parlours should not get themselves into a hollow moral rage about truth and investigations that have nothing to do with advertisement revenues. They really should not clamber on to their gleaming counters and make a spectacle of themselves. The sag beneath the skin. The brittleness of bone. The bloodlessness in the veins.

Toothless old crones really should not grudge the young their teeth. Just make the effort and get themselves a new set of dentures.

(This article was published originally in the Hindustan Times)

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Editor

In a 28-year career as a journalist, Tarun has been an editor with the India Today and The Indian Express groups, and the Managing Editor of Outlook. He is the founder of Tehelka—which has garnered international fame for its aggressive public interest journalism. In 2001, Asia Week listed Tarun as one of Asia’s 50 most powerful communicators, and Business Week declared him among 50 leaders at the forefront of change in Asia. Tarun’s debut novel, The Alchemy of Desire, was hailed by The Sunday Times as ‘an impressive and memorable debut’, and by Le Figaro as a ‘masterpiece’. In 2007, The Guardian, UK, named him among the 20 who constitute India’s new elite.

Tarun’s second novel, The Story of My Assassins was published in 2009 to rave reviews. Pankaj Mishra has said, ‘It sets new and dauntingly high standards for Indian writing in English’, while Altaf Tyrewala has called it ‘an instant classic’. The book’s website is www.taruntejpal.com.

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