Guest post by MALARVIZHI JAYANTH
Once upon an election, the ruling party was bullying and booth-capturing recklessly. I was there. I saw it. Outside one booth, three Tata Sumos drove away at mad speeds, their screeching, spinning wheels blowing dust into my eyes in a scene straight out of the Tamil movies. I walked into the booth to find it had been ransacked minutes earlier. I saw weeping government officials and ballots with the stamp over the rising sun scattered everywhere. Other reporters saw similar scenes. Reporters received complaints of cash and biriyani(!) being distributed to voters.The management of the newspaper I worked for chose to run the Election Commission’s claims that the elections had been without incident, rather than accounts from several reporters who had seen the captured booths and heard from voters who had been offered bribes. Two days later, when almost all other media (barring the usual suspects) had run outraged stories about the brazenness of the booth capturing, hesitantly, The Hindu followed suit. Today, they announce to us that cash for votes is a way of political life in Tamil Nadu. Yeah, thanks, we know that already. Too bad you couldn’t believe your lowly brown-skinned reporters who told you all about it. A white man sends off a cable about it to his masters and then it becomes news? Really? The ways of power are mysterious. Now, The Hindu is releasing the WikiLeaks India cables to the world. Now, we know what many people in Tamil Nadu had been yelling about – that the Government of India was in cahoots with the Government of Sri Lanka to turn attention away from the bloodbath to wipe out the LTTE – was true. Now, in fact, we know that our worst fears and suspicions about institutions are often true. And now, I write about how I grew disenchanted with the newspaper I grew up with, the paper that framed my worldview, ruined my prose and beat any interest in journalism out of me.
Once I discovered that bottled water could have cyanide or shit or worse in it. This was when the Chennai Corporation was on a spree of taking water samples and blacklisting bottled water brands because they claimed the samples were unfit for consumption. So. I visited several private water-bottling facilities in the outer suburbs of the city. Several brands can get their water bottled from the same plant. I saw workers on the same premises segregating bottles after they had been sealed and pasting the stickers of different brands on them. All these plants had laboratories to test samples of the water they are bottling, to comply with regulations. Samples had tested positive for everything from cyanide compounds to faecal matter. They have recorded these cheerfully, I have no clue why – possibly because inspection officials can be bribed – and shown them to me equally cheerfully – possibly confident that a stupid woman would not understand what these record notebooks had to say.
I started drinking tap water from that day. I’m still alive.
I went to the government Bureau of Indian Standards lab to understand the process of water testing. They walked me through the steps involved in testing water samples.
I visited the Chennai Corporation lab where they claimed to be testing the water. My school’s chemistry lab was better equipped. This place did not have a functioning refrigerator to store samples at low temperatures (a crucial part of the testing process). They showed me some grimy test tubes when I asked to see samples of the water that were being tested. The claims about testing water were clearly false. The moral of the story: None of them are clean – neither the bottlers nor the people claiming to be testing it. The article I wrote shuttled between the internal censors for more than a week. Then it was quietly rewritten for unreadability and published.
The Hindu is a good employer. They take care of their employees – practically free healthcare, heavily subsidised canteen food and all that jazz. I was a bad journalist. I did not know how to stay in the good books of the powers-that-be. I did not know how to impress the right people. Most of my stories about civic problems in the suburbs, the rites of the transgendered, the farmers markets in Thiruvallur and such-like trivia did not make the first three pages of the paper. Most importantly, I did not know how to cosy up to government officials – vital if I want to be able to milk them for stories later. I treated all of them like they had some communicable terminal illness. The Chennai Corporation Commissioner is a smooth operator who knows how to keep journalists and politicians happy. I pride myself on the fact that he yelled at me once when I was working on the water purification story. That is among the few moments in my journalistic career when I felt I was doing something right.
I wish I could say that I walked out of office in rage over some incident of internal censorship and never went back. The reason I actually quit was far more trivial. A few months later, salaries were raised across the board since the management wanted to hire ACJ graduates, who were all being offered much higher starting pay by other organisations. My salary raise still did not equal the pay that freshers were being offered, though I had been working for this newspaper for three years. I am an ACJ graduate myself (oh, the exquisite irony of it all) I fought to get the raise. Then I quit. There was high drama and exchange of memos and self-righteous letters because I refused to serve the notice period for resignation. Each time I cross that office I feel a thrill of joy that I no longer work there.
Cue next flashback: The first story I wrote for The Hindu was about the idle Braille press at the Government School for the Blind, Poonmallee. With the only government Braille press in Tamil Nadu out of action, none of the high school visually challenged students in the state would have individual textbooks for their board exams. The internal censor who decided which stories should be run from the city sat on this article for a week. He finally reluctantly allowed it to be published in one of the inside pages, buried between two ads. The headline was a quote from a government official. This was my first intimation that my employer (or his intermediaries) did not like stories that rocked the Establishment’s boat. I thought this only applied to the government. I was wrong.
The students of an engineering college were up in arms when it became clear that their sprouted-overnight college did not have AICTE approval or any of the infrastructure that a college should have. I wrote an article quoting some of their claims. The next morning I was stunned to see an article replete with smooth-talking quotes from the management of the same college without a single student voice. I had only written an article about the students’ accusations (biased supporter of the oppressed that I am). The above-mentioned censor had done the re-writing and run the story. It was whispered that he could get anybody a seat in any engineering college because he was friendly with most of their managements. No-one made these accusations in public. We did not rock the Establishment. No, sir.
I don’t know if any of the work I did as a journalist ever helped ‘change the world’. I know I made things worse for the wrong people once. I went to a village on the banks of Cooum upstream – two hours away from Chennai. The magnificent river bed of this seasonal river is a sight to be seen. Comparing it with the sewer that runs through the city is heartbreak. The women in this village were protesting against arrack being sold on the banks of the river. They posed hesitantly for a picture after I told them that it would add power to their claims. The next day I heard from a panchayat official that the women had been threatened with violence by the police for having dared to complain to the press. No, they didn’t want to complain about the coercion. Resistance can be beaten out of us very simply in a day. Or it could take a little longer. For me, at The Hindu, it took about three years.
I continue to be perplexed about why a newspaper that will publish Sainath should choose to dance over a tightrope when it came to the Tamil Nadu government. In spite of everything, I still read The Hindu and am happy they have published the WikiLeaks India cables. But I have been inside once. And seen that chess games are in progress all the time. Who the sacrificial pawns and who the knights are this time, and this close to the elections, is difficult to tell. The ways of power are truly mysterious.
20 thoughts on “The Hindu, WikiLeaks and Me: Malarvizhi Jayanth”
Thank you for the article. Similar thoughts are running in my head too. Growing up in a small town, reading the editorials of The Hindu, i thought The Hindu was newspaper equivalent of superman, voice for the voiceless. Last two years in Chennai I have wondered at their double standards. Perhaps N Ram should reply to this article..
After the 2G scam broke was the first time I think Hindu published anything anti-DMK. Until then all the govt was doing was above suspicion, the same with the Srilankan govt. I have come to realize that printing fiery, analytical editorials in one thing and writing on the same issues happening in your backyard is quite another. For Hindu this doesn’t go hand in hand.
Most Indian newspapers are garbage. They employ few journalists for the local crime scene, articles on movies and the sports page. The rest, they take from wire services, or employ bloggers as columnists. Their marketing departments dwarf the editorial departments.
The Hindu is a standout among Indian newspapers – it has a lot of journalists, it has a lot of original news, and is the only newspaper which can take on something like 5000 wikileaks cables. It also has the best web page of any indian newspaper, that does not poison your browser with cookies and pop-up ads.
The censor that you speak of is probably the marketing department. Why anger most of your local advertising community (drinking water, fraud universities) who help keep the price of the newspaper at Rs 2, and help you to publish people like Praveen Swami and Siddharth Varadarajan and Hassan Suroor who are writing good articles?
In any newspaper, a balance has to be struck between the fights the editors want to fight, and the fights they´d rather not fight. I am sorry the Hindu decided not to fight your fights, but that does not mean that they are not doing a good job. If you want to be in a newspaper that wants to fight all your fights, you should join the Tehelka.
Admittedly, their reluctance in publishing the article on booth capturing is worrying. Maybe the ruling family in tamil nadu is more powerful than all of us think.
this is a highly irresponsible thing to say that newspapers choose their fights. I think thats the complete blindening of people by the very easy excuse of corporate compulsions. If things keep going this way, soon enough all media (which is increasingly so) will be a sell out. A newspaper doesnt work on the whims and fancies of the managament, it has a social responsibility too. I hope the erroneous perspectives change.
Do you expect Hindu Mgm to be critical of DMK? Impossible. Today’s Hindu is not Kasthuri Iyengar’s Hindu. For Ram, China cannot do any wrong. I learn that Hindu Family and MK’s family are related to each other through matrimonial alliances (Not sure whether this is true). If true, you can understand why Hindu will not take any anti DMK stand.
Thank You. That is all i can say. You have inspired me, a former ACJian and ex-Hindu ite to come out and say things in open. And I hope The Hindu hears this-the voices of the oppressed in their own organisation and takes action. Because otherwise, they truly have no right to speak for and about the ‘oppressed’ and ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’.
the link to Malarvizhi’s story in the hindu doesn’t work. I think The Hindu pulled that page off the internet.
here is a link to a version of the page cached by Google: http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:udb3oAzwHjoJ:www.hindu.com/2007/08/18/stories/2007081859430300.htm+the+hindu+chennai+water+test&cd=5&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=in&client=opera&source=www.google.co.in
Hello everyone. Glad to see such a vibrant discussion.
@Sreejith Yes, The Hindu had an extremely cosy relationship with the ruling party until signs of trouble appeared with the 2G scam.
@James I differ with you on your evaluation of Indian newspapers. But I agree that The Hindu is a stand-out. That’s why I lasted three years there. No, the internal censors were not marketing, they are editors who were either following the dictates from above or assuming this is what ‘people above’ would want. In the engineering college example, it was not even that. It was just plain opportunism on the part of an individual editor. I agree that I have been indiscriminate in picking my battles – I blame it on my being perpetually angry. The ruling family is very, very powerful but that does not excuse The Hindu’s willingness to cosy up to them till very recently.
@Ravi Yes, there is a matrimonial alliance, I don’t remember the details though. But I would put that alliance down to a strategic consolidation of their ties, rather than the reason why they do not like to take stances critical of the government.
@Padma Priya I hope they do:)
@Nag The link seems to be working for me…
Fantastic!! What a great piece of political writing, Malarvizhi! Grateful for your wit, your pluck and your eye. And how I wish you were the editor-in-chief of something!
You wrote a piece that quoted only one side, and were surprised it was held? Wow. I agree with Sunalini, you could be an editor-in-chief.
There seems to be a fundamental journalistic problem right at the beginning of this article. The author emphatically states that :” I saw weeping government officials and ballots with the stamp over the rising sun scattered everywhere. Other reporters saw similar scenes. ” But over the last decade the state has not witnessed any paper ballots. The opposition has been talking about the rigged electronic machine. And now a reporter claims that she has indeed seen ballots with stamp over the rising sun. I am really at a loss to understand this…
Ah, the discussion heats up:)
@Sunalini Thank you. I hope that I will never, ever be an editor-in-chief though.
@MS :) Totally. Also, I knew that the internal censor in question was going to do major rewriting anyway in favour of the management and decided to give him a tough time. I had also quoted the Students’ Federation of India to place this protest in the larger context of other protests that were taking place. But our censor checked that one at the gates too.
@Panneerselvan Welcome to the rest of India. These were the local body polls. For reference: http://www.thehindu.com/news/states/tamil-nadu/article20546.ece
When emotions run high, facts are like spices;
Use them as you please to cook what you want
An introduction is in order. My name is Karthik Subramanian and I was a former colleague of the author. I worked with her for the Chennai City Reporting Team, and I remember her a lot different from the fire and brimstone personality she now comes across as.
I wont call her my friend. She was a colleague. My recollection of interactions with her were mostly cordial. She was junior to me in the newsroom by a few years. There was a very brief period when she had to report to me. I did sense some insubordination then but any elaboration on that would make this seem like mud-slinging. I wont get into that.
BTW I am certainly not one of the so-called ‘internal censors’.
My journalism career started in 1998, and I started where few journalists start today. As a cub reporter with News Today, an evening daily in Chennai, and worked my to get to The Hindu, after stints with ANI, TV news agency, and the New Indian Express. It was a long and arduous journey and I did not take any ACJ crash course to brilliance.
First up, the reason for this response here. It is by no means to steal Ms.Malarvizhi’s thunder. Just to set some records straight, because by raising hell here, she has also shown absolute disdain to a few good people, and crassly misrepresented them in the process. She has, also, smartly extrapolated her own personal experiences to connect with what all is deemed wrong with The Hindu. Though there is the oblique reference to The Hindu’s editorial stand on Sri Lanka, the author’s post is hardly about that. It is more about how the ‘internal censors’ snuffed out the life of an idealistic young journalist.
I see no excuse for sullying the name of her former colleagues, bosses here because this is a public forum. And a very respected one at that.
She has some owning up to do. And yes, I would not have bothered to respond if it did not involve blatant references to people.
The author is trying hard to stand tall by stamping on their heads.
First up, let us see what are the facts that the author is presenting here.
The tipping point, it seems is the article in The Hindu’s article based on Wikileaks’ US cables on “Cash for Votes is a way of Life”. Ms. Malarvizhi says that the ‘internal censors’ would not allow such articles. Dramatic? Yes, absolutely. What a lead … “Once upon an election”. Brilliant writing.
But is it factual to say that ‘internal censors’ snub every negative article there can be, even if factual? Not really. How would I know?
Here is The Hindu’s coverage of the Chennai Corporation elections in the year 2006.
I remember this well because it was one of my last articles to appear on the front page of The Hindu before I moved out of active reporting.
Please check the photo. It is a description of everything the author has explained in her dramatic first paragraph. It made it to The Hindu as a front page lead. I wrote that.
This was not some one-off story I had filed during that time. In fact, I had a series of articles, some of which were eventually attached by the Madras High Court while calling for a re-election to a record number of wards that year. This btw was a big blow to the ruling DMK.
I don’t remember if Ms.Malarvizhi was with The Hindu then, but surely the two ‘internal censors’ who she dismisses off like they are some minions executing some masterplan, were in the mix as decision makers.
Surely, it is possible to write anti-establishment reports for The Hindu. I know it too well in fact as people who have seen me during my active reporting days would vouch for.
If it was possible for me to get this report published just a year ahead of the by-elections that Ms.Malarvizhi covered, did the entire world change within The Hindu reporting within a short span of time? Not really.
Which brings me to another interesting episode mentioned in this article.
Ms. Malarvizhi is very disturbed about how her article on packaged water was ostensibly delayed by the ‘internal censors’.
Now, is she the first to take up this issue within The Hindu? Has The Hindu ever reported about impurities in packaged water before? Has The Hindu reported about the Chennai Corporation being ill-equipped to handle the testing of water?
Yes, Sir. It has. How would I know? I have reported on this actively for quite a few years, and have filed reports about this for The Hindu, some even when Ms.Malarvizhi was probably a school student.
In fact, packaged water was one of the subjects I actively reported on during my initial years – 1998 to 2004. Some it was with The Hindu.
I really don’t get what the fuss is all about. That her story got delayed? Well, that happens. Sorry. If you are the junior-most in the department, be prepared to grit it out. Don’t expect glory otherwise. Even if you bear the ACJ emblem.
Did she really think she was writing something never before written? Something that warranted immediate attention?
Did the ‘internal censors’ not understand the gravity of the terrorising report she filed – people would die drinking packaged water, after all, even by her claims. But then these ‘internal censors’ are people with a lots of experience – and as I can prove several times over, they have cleared the very kind of reports Ms.Malarvizhi claims have been killed in the desk. Because I have filed those exact kinds of reports for The Hindu.
Which brings me to another “fact” in her post, and within it belittling a person I respect for being a good person. Let us forget good journalism or professional behaviour for a while now. This man, she has not named him – more out of cowardice because she has seriously mocked at him – is one of the few people most people in Chennai’s journalism circles would concur to be a “good person”.
Now I don’t know the exact details of what happened and why her college protest report was “modified,” and if it was indeed done so with malicious intent as the author alleges. But then again, this person is no longer even a journalist, and reserves at least the right to know that his reputation is being sullied here.
In fact, I suspect this is exactly how Ms. Malarvizhi’s report would have been – a ranting account of just one person or one side, without properly balancing it with views from the person she is accusing. This sort of writing is fit only for blogs not newspapers. Surely not The Hindu. I will explain that later.
Like every one else in The Hindu, I know who she is talking about. It is quite disgraceful that she would do it to her former boss, three years on, in a public forum.
Which takes me to a pertinent question. Was this man, the ‘internal censor,’ hell bent on censoring every dissent-filled article that came his way? Was he just doing his duty in balancing that article? I can’t answer that for sure because I was not involved.
But one thing I do know. He supported me when it came to writing articles critical of the DMK government. Whoa! Hard to believe?
Take a look at these links
This was over the DMK government’s plan to acquire dry and waste land from villagers on the Kelambakkam-Vandalur Road in Chennai’s outskirts.
And what was the government response the very next day at the Tamil Nadu Assembly?
How is that for The Hindu impact?
Yes, Malar, We did rock the Establishment. Did you see? I took the side of the underdogs.
It is possible for a lowly brown-skinned reporter to do that.
I know I am posting most of my links from mid to late 2006. But I am doing this for two reasons. One, because they coincide with my last few days of active reporting. Two, also because this was around the same time Ms.Malarvizhi joined The Hindu.
Is it very possible that Ms.Malarvizhi was just a bad journalist who could not get her reports through because of her inability to present a balance? Or was she a journalist, who was still learning the ropes … one who must have steeled it out instead of thinking the world she hoped for did not exist? Of course, the ultimate reason for her quitting has nothing to do with her idealism.
Maybe she believes that good language is enough to put out a really imbalanced article.
I am not here to make a case for The Hindu or its editorial policies. That is a subject open to discussion and criticism. There are things I don’t agree with when it comes to The Hindu’s editorial stands. Of course, that is natural.
But what rankles me is the manner in which she has dismissed some good people, presenting just her side of the facts.
One thing for certain. It is possible to write anti-establishment reports for The Hindu. I have done it for quite a few years, under different regimes, different bosses, different ‘internal censors’.
Unlike the author, I have the experience of having worked in different organisations. Yes, it is a lot more easier to file anti-establishment reports in a few other newspapers in the country. With The Hindu, it is not impossible just very tough. Because The Hindu does not publish articles based on just claims. During my initial years with The Hindu, I found this tough. But I understood later that it is just a different beast altogether. And things got easier when I accepted the fact that it just requires a bit more effort.
I stand to risk making one generalisation now. But like all generalisations, there are surely exceptions to this too. I see that a lot of young journalism pass-outs, high on octane and hunger to do something fantastic, unwilling to steel out the first few years as a cub reporter. The first few years are always the most testing. But if you bother to stick it out when the going gets tough, the tough in you will get going later on. Three years is hardly any time.
I have reported to a few bosses in the last 13 years, some of those years have been tough. I have had my own team in the due course of my journey, and now I am back reporting to a senior journalist. In all these years, I have had run-ins with my bosses, authorities and many others. Not always have I come out looking the best or even right. I have taken things on my chin and moved on.
But like they say in cricket, what happens in the dressing room stays there.
If you are out of The Hindu for so long, question what you read. Rip it apart if you can based on facts. But if you are going to take on people – which is pretty sad after such a long time because it looks like you are nurturing hatred and anger – at least do it with dignity.
Your reputation as a media watchdog is sound with journalists, senior, junior and intermediates like me alike.
While this post makes for good reading, did not occur to you even one bit that it is a bit abrasive, given the very personal nature of this rant?
Did it not occur to you that the author is not really delivering a commentary, substantiated with facts, about media neutrality or the lack of it with The Hindu – which btw would make a very compulsive reading. She is making some damning claims about what happened nearly three years back.
So are all disgruntled press employees welcome to present just their views here on Kafila? Will all of it pass as good media critique? Is radical always rational?
Karthik, thank you for your serious and thoughtful response. Kafila is an open forum and we are happy to host critical commentary on the media among other things, especially from journalists writing from their experience. There are almost always several accounts of the same experience, and we welcome an open debate. But we cannot in advance decide that particular critical voices are merely “disgruntled” and should not be given space at all – that would make us very much like the big media.
Thank you again for coming in on this post, and we hope you continue to read kafila.
I find it strange that AS Panneerselvam, veteran journalist and ostensibly a proud journalist, chooses to pick nits with Malarvizhi and questions the fundamentals of her journalism. And then when he is corrected, he keeps quiet. What is also odd is ASP chooses to remain silent on the practices within The Hindu: he seems to have no comment to make on it. What Malarvizhi has perhaps left unsaid in this post is that she was perhaps one of the few nonbrahmins (clear from her name) in The Hindu; and unlike Mr Karthik (presumably brahmin) may have had lesser success for her zealous stories. I wish Malarvizhi also wrote a bit about the 90 percent brahmin staff of The Hindu–packed at the top with members of the core family and distant relatives all over.
I bet 100 to 1 that this Mr.S.Karthik is a brahmin.
@S. Karthik Hey there, Kat-man! Long time, no hear. I still remember you looking at my water article and saying, “Flower-eye, this is the best piece of journalism you have produced but I doubt if it will be carried as-is.” *wipes away a fond tear*
I was not mud-slinging – I was pointing to the ways in which certain kinds of censorship function. All the articles I mentioned were published – including the fracas during the elections – delayed, mutilated or otherwise. No, I was not a good journalist – we are totally in agreement here.
You remember ‘an element of insubordination’ – let me jog your memory – was it the time you looked at me and said, “Flower-eye! You can’t take your off tomorrow! Namita is coming and we have to show her the assets of the office!” !?! (for the Northies – Namita is, like me, spectacularly well-endowed and, unlike me, is a Tamil film starlet) I turned on my heel and walked out. I blame the womens-libbers – making women insubordinate at sexist remarks since 1969. Or whenever.
@Sohail What a masterfully dignified comment. I should learn from you.
@Raja M I have already written about the caste composition of The Hindu on Facebook. But it might be a bit too strongly worded for Kafila. Ok, I’m writing like Sohail here. That piece has more than a few swear-words. D*mn my filthy mouth:)
Hi Malar: I quite expected you to come up with something new thought I would have never guessed you would stoop even lower. I am no longer going to dignify your emotional rabble-rousing with well-thought out responses.
For you to pull that out of your hat, in a manner to taint my character and thereby nullify my comment without addressing the issues I have raised, is still in tone with the brain explosion you are having. This is actually classic Right Wing tactics, I am afraid. If you cant reply to the substance of the comment, attack the character of the person making it. Some dignity you have shown, Comrade. Have a good life.
BTW do you wear heels? Or was it just a good turn of phrase? Cause I honestly don’t remember anything half as dramatic as you have mentioned.
Regarding the allegation of me being sexist, well, let those closest to me be the judge of that.
Your insubordination – whether it was over my Namitha remark or not I don’t even remember – is very clear even otherwise. You are unable to take it that your stories are subject to revisions/ edits by the heads of the departments.
@To all else: Am I a Tam Bram? ROTFL. Guys, get a life.
@Sohail: I agree with you that you cannot, in advance, decide whether contributions are from disgruntled employees or not.
But what about the author’s insinuation in her reply here that I made a sexist joke? What does it even have to do with the post you published for the author or my reply? Is that not to belittle whatever other arguments I have constructed?
And I guilty of being a sexist, Tam Bram right winger even before trial? How ridiculous is that? Are we even discussing journalism here? Is that not the near impossible charge to dignify with with a response? So what are you moderating, Kafila, if at all you are moderating comments?
I rest my case. Good luck to you, Kafila. I hope some young journalists seem light here and this forum throws up opportunities for sensible discussions in the future. Though I doubt if I would participate in them.
This is no longer a discussion on journalism but has become about personal issues. Since we feel that this is not the forum for resolving them, and both sides have had their say, we are closing this thread to further comments.
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