60 Minutes: With Aniruddha Bahal | Society

‘The polity has changed and so has judicial temperament’: Aniruddha Bahal

Aniruddha Bahal   | Photo Credit: Illustration: R. Rajesh

Aniruddha Bahal, the co-founder of Tehelka magazine and editor-in-chief of Cobrapost.com, is best known for his investigative journalism, especially the kind that carries a ‘sting’. He is, however, a man of many facets and his career has straddled different realms, spanning journalism, fiction (his novel Bunker 13 won the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award), and television comedy (he created and enacted the idiot persona of ‘Tony B.’ to annoy celebrities with infuriatingly inane questions). With his memoir, A Taste for Trouble: Memories from Another Time, hitting bookshops this month, he fields some straight questions on the ethics of sting journalism, juggling fiction and journalism, and why he never pursued a career as a stand-up comedian. Edited excerpts:

Journalists generally write their memoirs when they are done with journalism. Does this book mean you too are moving on?

I am not. Once a journalist you always remain one in your thought process.

As someone who broke the cricket match-fixing story, do you think this unsavoury chapter is fully closed? Or is there scope to dig up dirt even today?

Human nature is not something you can wish away. Greed doesn’t disappear. It becomes clever. As regards the past, I personally have been told many anecdotes and been played many tapes that sources refused to share. So, there are many stories that have not come out.

Is it fair to say that the ethics of ‘sting journalism’ are dodgy at best?

No, that is very unfair. Cobrapost’s undercover stories are invariably driven by prior information. It is middlemen in the know leading us to the main characters. In fact, when the Rajya Sabha Parliamentary panel was examining our investigation into MPs taking money to ask questions in Parliament, one of the panel members, I think Bimal Jalan, wanted to know how we chose our “targets”. I had to explain that we don’t target anybody, and that the middlemen of the MPs themselves led us to whoever was indulging in such behaviour. I think, for many, this [sting journalism] is something to diss because of the attention the stories get.

Though it might be harder, and take longer, isn’t it better for investigative journalists to take the traditional route of getting documents, sources, etc. rather than doing a ‘sting’?

At Cobrapost, we have done all types of investigations — document-based, RTI-based, undercover work, using drones. Sometimes the truth is hard to get. We did an investigation on the Ranvir Sena where they [members of the militia] confessed to the murders they had committed. Our investigation into the Ram Janmbhoomi case revealed the conspiracy that was years in the making to demolish Babri Masjid. These historical cases, where the accused themselves are confessing to their crimes, don’t happen because the accused have a change of heart. Ashish Khetan’s great exposé on the 2002 Gujarat riots, which led to the conviction of many people in Gujarat, didn’t happen because the accused confessed out of great guilt and a need for absolution.

How did Operation West End change your life?

We didn’t anticipate the backlash that the ruling party would unleash. So, countering and facing up to that legal assault through multiple agencies was a huge drain on time and resources. It gave me a front-seat view of what a government in power could do to you and how easily the bureaucracy could be used to malign, harass, and go after you with malicious intent and fabricated charges.

How did your family react to your penchant for inviting heat from the establishment with dangerous exposés?

They were always worried, but they never dissuaded me. I have been lucky.

Could you have done an Operation West End in, say, 2019?

I don’t think so. But I won’t be absolute about it. The polity has changed and so has judicial temperament. There is a sea change. I don’t think journalists will have the courage to take on the system in that way now. Many of us will be fearful of the extent to which the judiciary would protect us from a rampaging executive.

Can a journalist in India today count on the judiciary to offer him the basic minimum protections if he does an exposé on the state?

Our Constitution does not confer any extra protections on journalists. We need a rethink on this. With the state getting increasingly aggressive and using even sedition charges to target journalists, there is a need for the judiciary to be more proactive in protecting freedom of expression. Recent examples are certainly not giving journalists that confidence.

Do you think your high-risk stories have made any difference? For instance, Cobrapost did a robust exposé on how love jihad is a complete fraud, and yet, here we are, in 2021. How do you reconcile the danger and effort involved in such investigative reportage with the disappointing outcome in terms of impact?

Sometimes, stories have a visible impact. Sometimes, the impact is not so visible. A lot depends on the news environment and also on whether other institutions kick in and take the story forward. For instance, many journalists wrote about the 2G scam, but nothing really happened until Vinod Rai came up with his report and there was an institution’s stamp on it.

Your ‘Tony B. Show’ for Channel V had some of the funniest moments in Indian television. Why didn’t it continue longer than it did?

I think the show happened before the audience was ready for it. The Star network was also very cautious, legally speaking. It didn’t run any of the political ones [featuring politicians] which were an absolute riot.

Have you considered doing stand-up?

I don’t think I have the skill for that. I would be more adept in an Ali G kind of way or Borat. Stand-up is a different kettle of fish. I don’t think Sacha Baron would be successful as a stand-up comedian either.

What has been the biggest challenge in running Cobrapost?

Resources have always been a challenge. We receive multiple story ideas every day from citizens but lack the resources to pursue them. India needs a whole army of non-profits pursuing investigative journalism as in the West. As a society we will never have an economic model to pursue investigative journalism in a commercial way. And a big portion of the mainstream media is happy being a megaphone for those in power.

You write in your book about having made many enemies. Did you worry about being isolated from your peers because of the kind of stories you were putting out?

The ‘paid news’ story we did in 2018 [‘Big Media Houses Say Yes to Hindutva, Black Money, Paid News’] certainly made us lose a lot of friends. It was a worry, and a lot of pressure came on us to abandon the story.

How do you divide your time between novel-writing and journalism?

I have a novel set in Iraq that is being readied. And I am researching a novel set in Europe. Cobrapost is always organic. Something or the other will happen.

What are you reading these days?

These days it’s almost always non-fiction. At the moment, I’m reading Hidden Hand: Exposing How the Chinese Communist Party is Reshaping the World by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork by Reeves Wiedeman and Apocalypse How?: Technology and the Threat of Disaster by Oliver Letwin.

How do you see the future of investigative journalism in India?

I am very pessimistic about its immediate future. There’s nobody pursuing it. There are many middle-level journalists who feel disheartened and powerless in their media platforms. The skills are dying out as nobody seems to need those skills.

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 2:07:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-polity-has-changed-and-so-has-judicial-temperament-aniruddha-bahal/article33632781.ece

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