Alien vs Predator: Why Khurshid won his battle with the media

Salman Khurshid lost his "cool". He got into a "slanging match" with reporters. He was variously "livid", "furious" and "angry" as he "yelled", "shouted", and "sparred" with all that would question him. Anyone who missed the press conference, and read today's newspapers -- and saw the near-comical images of an irate Khurshid -- would think our Law Minister fell apart under pressure, crumbled in the face of heated media interrogation.

It's a nice story, but also a self-serving one.

The headline-making event was more Alien vs Predator than All the President's Men. It marked the clash of the government vs the media, two compromised institutions with poor credibility, now brawling openly and without restraint. The reporters yelled every bit as much as Khurshid, and just often at each other. Questions were screamed out at random, often with monotonous repetition, without any interest or expectation of an answer. The Fourth Estate was more mad dog than watchdog, frothing at the mouth for a taste of political blood.

Salman Khurshid at the press conference. PTI.

Messy as it may have been, this is the battle Khurshid was looking for. At the very outset, he was careful to name his adversary: "The battle is between me and Aroon Purie [Owner-Editor-in-Chief of India Today Group]." His "ground rules" for the press conference also included a outright refusal to address Arvind Kejriwal. When a reporter brought up his name, Khurshid promptly replied, "You are forgetting the rules of the game." And it was a cleverly chosen rule, indeed. Given the credibility challenge faced by some sections of the media, a media outlet is a far easier enemy to take on than an activist with a well-established reputation for probity.

Over and again, Khurshid made references to the kind of bad journalism that is often seen. The most incendiary was the suggestion that he had a "counter-sting" evidence to suggest that Aaj Tak had bribed its sources to fabricate the scandal. When the channel's reporter started shouting in outrage, "Are you raising questions about our character?" Khurshid gleefully replied, "Absolutely."

He reiterated the insinuation when he informed reporters that they were free to interview camp attendees who were ready to testify that they had indeed received their devices. "You can offer them more cycles if you like, and they may give you what you want to hear," he added.

It made for a bizarre pot-and-kettle spectacle, politician and reporter, trading charges of corruption. A spectacle that nevertheless worked to Khurshid's advantage. The very same aam aadmi who readily believes that a politician would steal Rs 71 lakh from disabled kids is also convinced that most of the news on his TV is manufactured -- for either political or financial reasons.

More importantly, the charges against Khurshid rang all the more hollow when hurled by a lynch mob of journalists, mindlessly shouting the same 3-4 questions over and over again -- even as he waved around documents, photos, press clippings, armed with dates and details. The lack of preparation on the part of the interrogators was painfully clear. "Clearly it's their homework, it is their story. Rest of you have followed the story," suggested a cheeky Khurshid.

To rebut the accusation that the Eta disability camp was never held, Khurshid waved an article on that camp from the very same paper that ran the allegation. The publication, he suggested, "did not bother to check its own archives". And then he slyly suggested that the reporters were free to disregard the clipping since they too know, "Newspaper stories are not always honest."

The day after, most media outlets repaid Khurshid's presumption with derisive headlines and images of a politician gone wild. But their failure to name either Poorie or India Today -- despite Khurshid's repeated references to them in a public press conference - spoke volumes, and unwittingly underlined his case.

It is too early to comment on the merits of the case against Khurshid or his defamation suit against the India Today group. But what is indisputably clear is that the Indian media are in the midst of a crisis of purpose and identity. The rise of Arvind Kejriwal as the Indian Julian Assange  is a measure of their loss of credibility, and the erosion of their traditional role as the watchdog of democracy. In this era of sting journalism, media outlets have ratcheted up TRPs and newsstand sales by pointing their fingers at politicians. Today, that accusatory finger is pointing right back at them.