An interview with N. Ram, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu

What is it that you learnt at Columbia that helped shape your journalism?

I went to Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism in 1967 and took an M.S. in Comparative Journalism, with honours, in 1968. This was a totally new experience for me — because in India, as in Britain, the conventional wisdom at that time was that journalism was not something to be ‘studied' in a classroom, it was to be ‘picked up' on the job.

But Columbia changed everything for me as a 22-year-old start-up reporter. The M.S. course was demanding in terms of pace, having you on the go all the time, chasing stories through the week to tough deadlines, few breaks, then the pace and pressure became quite easy to handle. In terms of content, it was interesting enough, although some academics considered the content superficial, a ‘trade school': reporting, writing, editing, a bit of radio and television journalism for me, learning something about the history of American journalism, media law and society, the First Amendment, investigative reporting, a smattering of communication theory...You also did a dissertation: mine was, believe it or not, ‘Does the English language have a future in India?' My investigative reporting project was on the chequered story of ‘bleeding Madras' in the United States in the 1960s: I think I titled it ‘The rise and fall of an alien fabric'.

The Columbia course emphasised values and professional and ethical principles for journalism. You see, there is a cynical way of approaching journalism. It features the hard-drinking, ruthless, unscrupulous journalist who will stop at nothing, who grins when you talk about the principles of journalism, to whom deceit, superficiality, and dilettantism are second nature, the herd mentality that is wonderfully caricatured in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, and so on. At Columbia, certainly at the time, you were tutored, in the belief that journalism was something of a higher calling, built on values and principles and a disciplined pursuit of truth as well as of the public interest. You were taught to investigate in a factual, tough-minded way, verify everything, take nothing for granted. You were encouraged to strike a balance between practising media freedom and social responsibility. This somewhat high-minded, idealistic approach made a lasting impression on me. By the way, I am on the Board of Visitors of the Columbia J-School and am very pleased that, while a great many things have changed since 1967-68, the same, somewhat high-minded, approach endures.

We had some splendid — wise and inspiring — teachers: for me Professors Larry Pinkham, who influenced me personally with his progressive, pro-people beliefs and approach at Columbia and whom we were able to pull out of retirement and bring to Chennai to shape the Asian College of Journalism nearly a decade ago, and Fred Friendly, a brilliant, larger-than-life comrade of Ed Murrow, the iconic television journalist, were special. I also had some talented, generous-spirited classmates, close friends with whom I have been able to keep in touch till today — Wayne Barrett, a great investigative reporter, Robin Reisig, a wonderful journalism teacher, Josh Friedman, who won a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1985, I could name some others as well.

Most important of all, 1967-68 was a great time to be at Columbia, in New York, in the United States of America. The anti-Vietnam War mass upsurge; and the ‘Black Power' movement — these were heady, powerful influences, my eyes were opened, and I was radicalised — for life, I am pleased to say. For many of us, the spirit of the times, the overwhelming uplifting feeling, is captured in these lines of Wordsworth, recalling the ‘commencement' of the French Revolution: Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven! — Oh! Times… There is no need to say more, as this chapter in contemporary world history is well known.

How difficult or challenging was the Bofors story?

Challenging, obviously, but in an energising, ‘in-the-zone' way most of the time after the first year of investigation, 1987.

The investigation went on for more than two years and we published our Bofors stories in several instalments. The ruling party, the Congress, smelt a conspiracy, a plot, and many of its senior functionaries often reacted in a jumpy and highly insecure, if not paranoid, fashion. For us, it was decidedly a team effort, with many people, notably Chitra Subramaniam, Manoj Joshi, Malini Parthasarathy, and V.K. Ramachandran, making good, solid contributions that helped put various pieces of the puzzle together. Swedish Public Radio fired the opening shot in April 1987, alleging kickbacks and hinting at names before switching off; other newspapers, notably The Indian Express, were competing actively to get at the truth. Arun Shourie, a formidable journalist, and Ram Jethmalani, the ace criminal lawyer with his many interrogative questions hurled at Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, were in hot pursuit.

I think what worked for us at The Hindu was a methodical approach, an investigative discipline, a way of journalism that was factual, persistent, patient — and fair and just. We relied almost exclusively on documents, more documents, hundreds of documents, in fact, all of them laid out across pages and published in facsimile form in The Hindu (in the pre-digital age). We played the devil's advocate on key story angles, verifying every detail.

I remember one occasion when we had made a significant factual error, misconstruing something Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had said in a closed meeting. We immediately published a correction, with an apology, on the front page and some people outside our newspaper believed the prominence given to the correction and apology was quite unnecessary. But we highly valued our credibility, our reputation, the trust readers placed in us. We believed in fairness and justice and scrupulously avoided throwing dirt on people against whom there was nothing like evidence (Amitabh Bachchan, famously). We did not practise anything that would be recognised as deceit in this era of hidden mikes and spy cameras. We had our own data security methods, which, surprisingly, worked. We got lucky, repeatedly, with our sources.

Our team was bold and confident in linking pieces of evidence, in establishing factual ‘concordances', in making inferences from sensitive and complex data. Thus, we were able to offer this assessment in a prominent story in The Hindu of October 9, 1989, which the Columbia J-School has chosen to highlight in its centennial ‘50 Great Stories' site (http://centennial.journalism.columbia.

edu/1989-scandal-in-india/): “If the whole interaction from June 1987 between Bofors and the Government of India can be understood by the public in terms of a ‘fixed' football match in which all the goals scored against India have been ‘own' or ‘self' goals (scored into the Indian goal by Indian boots or heads), it is now established that the Swedish official referee, Mr. Ingvar Carlsson, has been an accomplice in the ‘fixing' of the game.”

At times, it seemed to be an unsolvable puzzle. After a full year's slog, we made a breakthrough in April 1988 when Chitra Subramaniam struck gold with a privileged, authoritative source (whom I met and checked out) and who never let us down. And then we were on a roll, you might say.

I did most of the writing through our Bofors investigation, many thousands of words, but others contributed handsomely as well. We had our internal differences, which did turn dramatic in 1989, but what stands out today for me is how well everyone on our team, from the Editor down, pulled together to shape an unforgettable experience. And it was not as though this was the first or last investigative effort by our 133-year-old newspaper!

Analytically, I have proposed in several articles, the Bofors-India kickback affair can be understood in terms of five modes of action. The first was the decision-making on the choice of howitzer. The second comprised the arrangements for the payoffs. The third was the prolonged cover-up and crisis management. The fourth was the journalistic investigation and expose. The fifth was the CBI's criminal investigation, assisted by the Swiss Federal Police and the Swiss courts, and prosecution before a Special Court for CBI cases.

What came of it all?

This is a legitimate question we have been asked. Some of the key accused died before the matter came up in court. Others, including Ottavio Quattrocchi, got away from the law. There was also the challenge of reconciling, or rather bridging the gap between, standards of evidence in journalism and under the Indian Evidence Act. But Bofors became a byword for top-level, political corruption, even entering the vocabulary of some Indian languages as a synonym for sleaze and skulduggery. Bofors, I believe, was a game-changer, politically and for Indian journalism. I won't say more, except that it was eminently worth it.