Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Comment is Free, But...

Even though I am inured to large swathes of mediocrity in the popular press, every now and then, there comes a gem that really tests tolerance.

My daily fix is a cocktail of Indian Express (slightly right-of-center), Hindu (more than slightly left-of-center), and The Telegraph (excellent guest writers, and by itself fair and balanced—truly, not in the Fox News sense).

But just look at one of the editorials (Facing the Music) in today’s Indian Express.

First, blatant massaging of facts – “…after his 15-member troupe was found to have over $100,000 in their possession, undeclared to customs authorities…” No, all reports specified that the money was found in his carry-on and checked-in luggage, not that of the entire troupe.

Second, and this is the gem that got me hooked, the editor labels the episode “…a garden-variety civil law infringement…”, when it is an indictable, criminal offence. Garden-variety? Must be the same garden where the editorial staff grows the stuff they smoke.

Next, hyperbolic description of routine investigative procedure “…was grilled for over 20 hours by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, his manager’s and relatives’ homes were raided, and his passport has been impounded…” In actual course, most of the 20 hours would’ve been vexing and, yes, unnecessary sitting around; the raids on related parties likely originated in his answers; and impounding of passport seems logical when the incident is at the departure gates of the international air terminal.

Another howler – “…while the law does give the authorities the option to detain the offender, must it be used as a matter of course, even when there is little chance of the offender fleeing the law…” For God’s sake, the man was at the international airport on his way back home, where our law has no currency. What would you have the authorities do?

Fifth, the editor makes a sweeping generalization “…a longstanding pattern at our airports…”, referencing incidents involving other high-profile accused persons – Mr. Anil Nanda, Mr. Avinash Bhosale and Ms Sheetal Mafatlal. This is the cardinal sin in any macro commentary: generalizing from isolated and cherry-picked anecdotesand to top it all, they pick examples that are incompatible with the conclusion being advocated (probably depending on the fickle and short public memory; to have forgotten the facts). Ms Mafatlal’s case, as chronicled here and here, shows that there was a prima-facie case against her, and the law took its course thereafter. No more, no less.

And finally, the editorial laments “…incidents of this kind are accompanied by the harsh possibility of humiliation (compounded when the individual is famous or visible in some way, so that the customs authorities have a chance to grab the headlines) when simply allowing the law to take its course should suffice…” Well, if you’d let them, Dear Editor, the law will simply take its course; the media circus is not of the customs authorities’ making.

p.s. A newspaper has two sides to it. It is a business, like any other, and has to pay in the material sense in order to live. But it is much more than a business; it is an institution; it reflects and it influences the life of a whole community; it may affect even wider destinies. It is, in its way, an instrument of government. It plays on the minds and consciences of men. It may educate, stimulate, assist, or it may do the opposite. It has, therefore, a moral as well as a material existence, and its character and influence are in the main determined by the balance of these two forces. It may make profit or power its first object, or it may conceive itself as fulfilling a higher and more exacting function.
C P Scott; A Hundred Years (Comment is free, but facts are sacred); 1921