Thursday, March 5, 2015

India's Daughter: A Review

The documentary India’s daughter looks straight in the eye and then slaps right across the face!

While India’s daughter is banned in India, it aired on BBC 4 on Wednesday evening to UK audiences four days before it was originally scheduled. It's also available on YouTube now. I didn’t know what I was expecting from the documentary that has divided the nation once again. 

Over the past few days there were too many opinions, too many objections on the way the documentary was conducted and the content it teased to air. I have not read a single article or watched a single piece of news item on this and stayed miles away from interviews and panel debates. Of course it’s impossible to stay in a vacuum with news and social media flooded by it. But I wanted the documentary to speak for itself and I sat before my TV set with absolutely no opinion on the issue.

It ran for 60 minutes without a break. Yet at the end of the hour, I was left even more baffled. The documentary is neither a beacon of freedom of expression nor is it a conspiracy to tarnish India’s image in the world. And frankly it’s not worth the fuss.

India’s daughter is a story of the December 2012 Delhi gang rape victim Jyoti Singh who everyone knows better as Nirbhaya – the fearless one. Yet the ones that spoke without any fear, dominating the entire documentary, were firstly the accused Mukesh Singh who was convicted of rape, unnatural sex and murder of Nirbhaya and secondly the defence lawyers who justified it.

‘You can’t clap with one hand, it takes two hands to clap,’ was the very first thing you hear Mukesh say and then he goes on to slander the girl putting the blame of the rape squarely on her. 

Sitting calmly in an empty white room, Mukesh also had the opportunity for a dress change and the other accused were also seen in footage shot on the jail premises highlighting the unprecedented access the documentary makers had in Tihar jail. Mukesh introduced his partners in crime and gave the gory details of the rape in a calm and composed voice. Details that you already knew but hearing them like this would again rip your soul apart.

The documentary also spoke extensively to Jyoti’s parents and a friend cum tutor who spoke the victim’s life and her aspirations in great detail. I must admit, they come off as quite progressive and open minded and your heart would cringe ever so often to hear them speak of the tragedy and their beloved daughter.

There are other voices - police, judiciary, historian and varied experts but there is nothing in this documentary we didn’t know before. Sure it’s the first time the accused has spoken on camera. But do we want to hear him?

Banning the film is wrong. It has just catapulted a mediocre documentary in to unnecessary limelight giving it a sort of martyrdom. But for the proponents of freedom of expression, I ask you, whose freedom of expression are you defending. The makers or the viewers are inconsequential here, its the accused and his camp who have the complete liberty to express their contrived views. 

Did you expect the accused or his dim witted, chauvinistic lawyers to look you in the eye and say they were sorry? No, right. So did you really want to hear them give their worthless opinions on the place of women in society or why the protests and conviction have ensured that the women will be the only ones suffering further? 

‘Earlier they would rape and let their victims go because the victims and families did not say anything for fear of societal pressure but with this sentencing, why will the rapists let victims live to testify against them. They will have to kill them,’ says Mukesh in a matter-of- fact way with perhaps a hint of a smile.

Then you have M.L Sharma, defense lawyer justifying the brutality of sexual assault like it’s as natural for a man as shaving his beard. His animated voice and hand gestures adding the dramatic effect to his highly offensive opinions. I will not quote him because it doesn’t merit to be reproduced. Neither thus A K Singh his buddy on the bench who openly said that if his daughter went out with a guy late evening, he would throw petrol on her and burn her alive!

These men are not representative of India’s male mentality. Of course there are more men who share similar opinion in a patriarchal country as vast and diverse as India and they would find many sympathisers across the world but there are plenty more who think otherwise and they had no voice in this documentary. This is quite typical with foreign filmmaker who look at India through tinted lenses and come with their own stereotypes.

For a paper presented at an academic conference in London in 2013, I had researched rape cases in India over a 40 year period to understand why most rape cases slip through the cracks in the media while a rare few turn into national campaigns. While the focus was on media framing, it required reading through many gruelling details of the rape cases including the attitudes of the accused and society at large. The motivation and mentality of almost every rape is eerily similar.

Rapist are not victims of circumstances. Rapes cannot be justified. There is no other motivation for a rape than pure evil and sadistic pleasure. I don’t understand what Leslee Udwin, who made this documentary, wanted us to see and hear through the interview with the accused. Mukesh spoke the language of every other rapist across the world where they show no remorse, where rape is used by them to assert their power often with the intention to put the victim in ‘her place’.

But by letting the accused and his crony lawyers air their vile views to a global audience, the documentary makers have not tarnished India’s image, as the government claims, but have insulted India’s daughter herself and the millions that stand with her shoulder to shoulder. 

They have let the rapist look at India's daughter straight in the eye and slap her right across the face! 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

POLIS: Can TRUST in journalism be restored?

‘Trust’ the most important keyword in journalism was discussed in all its manifestations at the POLIS conferences at the London School of Journalism on Friday April 5, 2013. Organised by POLIS director Charlie Beckett, it had an impressive array of speakers and panels.

The choice of the theme is not surprising as today journalism is probably going through its darkest phase in recent times in gaining public trust. The hacking scandal and the shout out loud tabloid journalism has led to a low public confidence in journalists and post Leveson journalists are struggling to gain trust of not just the public but also sources. My top 3 panel discussions:

1.      Nick Davies Panel

He is accused of single handedly exposing the hacking scandal; shutting down Murdoch’s News of the World last year; of sending many journalists into prison and for bringing about a ‘draconian’ Leveson enquiry that threatens to curb press freedom; yet this man in jeans and a cool leather jacket bats away every accusation thrown his way with humour and honesty.

Nick Davies, perhaps the journalist of 2012, spend over an hour in an intellectual combat with Ben Fenton, of the Financial Times. Fenton boldly asks Davies, whose investigations into the hacking scandal put several journalists in the dock, why he hates journalists?  “I don’t hate journalists, I love journalism,” came the crisp reply.

Nick spoke about who young reporters enter the profession high on ethics and with stars in their eyes only to get disillusioned by the profession once they settle in. He particularly didn’t seem fond of the tabloid culture. Tabloid journalism using unethical practises to create news that sells their papers and then justifying it, “is like a rapist sayings its free love,” added Davies.

He refused to accept the responsibility of “closing down” NoTW saying, that some involved with the paper were pushing for its closer “months before his story was published” and “to aid the company’s bid for BSkyB.”

On the “false hope” claim made by the guardian, which later the paper had to refute, Nick said he was “absolutely certain at the time of publication that it was true.” He however added, that they did get a “good kicking” by Fleet Street for it later.

However while Davies did not sympathise with journalists using unethical practises; he also had no love for the police using the hacking scandal to their benefit. “It is sickening to see how an authoritative and bullying police office has used the hacking scandal to gag officers. It is both distressing and wrong,” said Davies.  

2.      Media Policy

The LSE Media policy project panel discussed this deteriorating relationship of trust between a journalist and source.

In fact Barry Fitzpatrick, of the National Union of Journalists called this a “worrying development for just media but society and democracy.” Fitzpatrick believes that News of the World arrests have sent alarm bells ringing among journalists especially in tabloid press and damaged relationship of trust between source and journalists. “Unless common sense is applied it will have far reaching consequences,” warned Fitzpatrick.

Andrew Bousfield , an investigative reporter with Private Eye who broke several stories through his investigations in the health sector highlighted how difficult the non-disclosure agreements made it for doctors to be whistle blowers.  “These no-disclose agreements are scary,” says Bousfield.

According to him such non-disclosure agreements existed mainly in hospitals that were fearful. “During our investigations we found that people (health care professionals) were being silenced where care was going wrong.”

European law protects journalists not whistle blowers, said Gavin Miller QC, who suggested the establishment of a commission to bring proceedings to protect whistle blowers. “Law protects whistle blowers if they move towards government, MPs, court but NOT the press,” he said.

3.      Public Service Broadcasting: Trust in Journalism

In UK, BBC probably hit its lowest in public trust when the Newsnight cover-up of the Jimmy Savile scandal broke out. As one skeleton after another came out of the closet exposing the crimes on the BBC premises, BBC used the fact that Panorama programme belonged to its “family” to hail its ethics in investigating itself. This may have restored some confidence in the public broadcaster but left several question on trust unanswered nevertheless.  Earlier in the day Mary Hockaday, Head of BBC News Room said that “public trust in BBC was back to where it was pre-Savile crisis.”

Hence a panel discussed on trust esp in public service broadcasting was perhaps the need of the hour. But it wasn’t about giving audience “ethical news” but also about how audiences can be engaged in finding the “truth” and contributing their opinions to what makes news.

On other news verification, Trushar Barot, assistant editor of the BBC News UGC and social media hub believes that in the end journalist’s instincts are a better judge in helping separating the grain from the chaff. He gave an example of an extremely popular video on the internet which showed a Syrian activist “buried alive” by Assad’s men and the BBC dilemma to broadcast it or not. Barot spoke about how he used twitter to express his doubts on the video and soon citizen journalists investigated the video themselves and came up with more loopholes that collectively helped discredit the video. According to him the factors that build trust in journalism are the diversity of sources, speed of editorial judgements and ability to reach your content out. “Trust is a growth industry in journalism... great value in the ocean of chatter is journalistic judgement,” adds Barot.

One of the most interesting concepts came from Cilla Benko, Director General of Swedish Radio. She spoke about Journalism 3.0 - a two way street that uses both the traditional reporting (Journalism 1.0) and the social media journalism (Journalism 2.0). “In my news room everyone has to be on twitter, it is not an option,” she said highlighting how twitter helps find news and develop sources.

Her four important ways to connect with the audience and in turn find fodder for news stories include: creating a sort of public network where you invite contributions from people. This PublicNetwork now has 300 members signed up to contribute news and ideas expanding in multitude its reportage from just 4 reporters on the team.

They also launched a blog called ‘The Earth’ where in people discuss issues that they find pertinent and the reporter then goes on to make a radio programme about it. Using twitter to see what what “news” is.

She emphasised that twitter does not have to be marketing tool to promote your stories, it could also be a good source to get stories. Lastly she insisted that the public debate could also be a good source of generating stories. A debate on appropriate language to prevent racist overtones was one of the important issues that the public were debating. The radio team decided to approach the public for opinions. They put up a video on the website and created a hashtag of the issue. Over 600 potential stories were generated through public feedback. This provided a huge impetus to Swedish Radio as “many people didn’t know Swedish Radio existed before the project," adds Benko.

Also on the panel was Ruurd Bierman, former director Dutch public service broadcaster NOS now associated with Vision 2020 which looks at Trust in 2020 and gives a roadmap for PSB to be indispensable. He gave an example of Altijd Wat Monitor in Holland which has opened its newsroom to the public. Here people can monitor progress of research live, leak documents, comment on content and provide opinions.