The new Ram and Ravan

And on this Dussehra, let’s celebrate the new Ram, who destroys the new Ravans.

For decades, there’s been a cosy, easy, mutually profitable relationship between politicians, corporate India and the media.

That’s more or less finished.

Because media itself has been redefined. Media is no longer limited to newspapers, magazines, radio, television and websites. Every single individual on the internet today has the power to become a journalist, every single one of them has the power to ‘become’ media; the power to make opinions known, publish the opinions on one’s own with no cost – and broadcast the opinion.

 The new Ram and Ravan

A screen grab of the Hindustan Times newspaper. Image courtesy HT

In such an environment, news cannot, as was so easy to do even a decade ago, be controlled by those seeking to control it. In an earlier era, bad news could stay hidden – all it took was a few telephone calls from those in power to media owners.

Thankfully, that's no longer the case.

News media could get away with their biases and positions earlier – but that’s a luxury today’s environment just won’t allow them to get away with.

Take the case of Hindustan Times and the Robert Vadra-DLF allegations made by Arvind Kejriwal and team.

The allegations were made on 5 October at a press conference. Within minutes, Twitter was abuzz, as was news television. By the evening, every news channel had multiple format shows (interviews, panel discussions, etc.) on the issue.

There was, quite obviously, no bigger story available.

Yet, the next morning, the Mumbai edition of Hindustan Times saw the auto and taxi fare hike being viewed by the HT editors as more important than the Vadra story. Astonishingly, there’s a boxed item within the Vadra story which says "Activist faces flak".

Click here to see the 6 October, Hindustan Times, Page:1, Mumbai edition

In comparison, Firstpost went to town within minutes of the press conference on 5 October. Firstpost's entire coverage can be seen here.

The point is not about Firstpost coverage, but that anyone could have done this. Most media outlets gave Vadra top billing. Once it is clear that media owners and editors no longer have the power to kill a story for which there is widespread interest, it is futile to try and presume you can control news.

Yet, HT carried on pussyfooting on Robert Vadra. Their 7 October front page again relegated the Vadra story below the story of the hike in LPG prices. A boxed item highlights Finance Minister P Chidambaram virtually issuing Vadra a clean chit.

Click here to see the 7 October, Hindustan Times, Page: 3, Mumbai edition

And so it went, even as the rest of the media delved deeper and deeper into the Vadra-DLF links. More details emerged on the unsecured loans made by DLF to Vadra, more details on the various companies Vadra had started, more details on the DLF flats bought and sold by various Vadra-owned companies.

HT continued giving the story short shrift. On 8 October, the DLF-Vadra story was ranked below a story on NRI inflows and the West Indies ICC T20 win, with the headline saying, "Vadra says charges are false, defamatory." Maybe they were, and are, but it's the lack of importance that HT gave to the story which was baffling.

Click here to see the 8 October, Hindustan Times, Page: 1, Mumbai edition

By this time, there was little being discussed in news media and social media other than l’affaire Vadra. Vadragate had become commonly used and the story led prime time news on TV and was the lead story in almost every newspaper. How long could HT ignore the attention that the story was getting – and the appetite of readers for more details of the story?

By 9 October, HT succumbed. Their front page lead read: "Vadra row fallout: DLF shares tank." The strapline was equally strong: "More to come? Kejriwal says will reveal fresh details today."

Click here to see the 9 October, Hindustan Times, Page: 1, Mumbai edition

Hindustan Times’ treatment and focus on the Vadra story is but an illustration of the change in Indian media – and it is a change that those in power will have to get used to. A particular news outlet might be pressured (or even be a party to) into ignoring or downplaying a particular story, but, in today’s environment, it’s going to be short-lived, or you stand the risk of losing readers or viewers.

That’s the difference between the old Ram and the new Ram. The new Ram is the one with many heads. The new Ram is assisted by all the new journalists, new opinion makers, new 'publishers'. The new Ram is forced to fight against evil, even if there is intense pressure not to do so. And, as has been proven by recent developments in the Vadra and Nitin Gadkari incidents, Ravan is fighting an unfair battle – and is on the losing side.

(Disclosure: Firstpost is published by Network18, and competes with Hindustan Times in the digital news space)

Updated Date: Oct 24, 2012 13:09:33 IST