Op-Ed: In the age of social media, truth finds its way into public domain

The year was 1986. One fine evening, Muna Patnaik, my good friend who shared a room with me at the time, came rushing into the room in a highly excited state. When I asked him the reason for his excitement, he handed me a bunch of papers instead of answering my question. As I curiously looked at the papers, I could barely believe my eyes. “The Strange Escapades of JB Patnaik”, the headline screamed in mighty enormous fonts. The papers were Xerox copies of the story that had appeared in the now defunct’ The Illustrated Weekly of India’, then a highly influential magazine from the Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd stable.

I spent the next half hour or so reading (‘devouring’ perhaps would be more appropriate) the story, all six pages of it, in one go. It was not that this was the first I came to know about JB’s ‘strange escapades’ though this was certainly the first time I had seen it in black and white. By then, I had lived long enough in Bhubaneswar, had heard enough juicy details of the Odisha Chief Minister’s nocturnal ‘expeditions’ from friends who were regular visitors to his residence and cross checked the veracity of the stories from a Congress leader with whom I had struck a very personal and intimate relationship. Hence, nothing that the story said came as a big revelation to me. But what I found strange about the ‘strange escapades’ story was the fact that such things could actually be published in a highly respected publication like The Illustrated Weekly.

The story behind the story was even more interesting. I got a blow-by-blow account of what had happened at the Bhubaneswar railway station a few hours earlier from an excited Muna, who happened to be there to receive a friend who was coming on a train from Kolkata (then called Calcutta). Cops were apparently swarming all over the place on Platform No. 1 where the train from Calcutta was scheduled to arrive. The moment it arrived, they pounced on the cargo van, seized a large bunch of magazines in bundles and vanished from the scene in no time. Little did the curious onlookers realise that they were copies of “The Weekly” containing the offensive article!

Unknown to the cops, however, a packet containing 25 copies of the magazine marked ‘complimentary copies’ had managed to escape the attention of the cops. And one of them had made its way to a nearby photocopy centre. The person who had managed to lay his hand on the copy spent the next few hours selling copies of it like hot cakes (or ‘garam baraas’, if you like) at the exorbitant rate of Rs 18-20 a bunch at a time when photo copies cost no more than 50 paise a page and made a minor fortune by the end of the day! Muna was one of those who were ‘lucky’ enough to land his hands on one.

Now cut to early 1999. The Delhi bureau of a leading multi-edition English daily had scooped a story on the resignation of the then Chief Minister. While 18 of the newspaper’s 19 editions published the scoop, complete with the text of the resignation letter, the 19th, the Bhubaneswar edition, did not. As a result, people in the state that really mattered did not know what the rest of the county already knew about: that their Chief Minister had resigned (made to resign, to be more accurate)! That they did come to know about it a day late is a different matter. But the very fact that the all-important piece of news was kept away from the people of the state for a full day was no mean achievement, though I am yet to figure out what exact purpose it really served.

As I was scouring the coverage of the day-long violence at the KIIT campus on Saturday, I remembered these two anecdotes from the past and wondered how far things have come since those pre-internet days! Large sections of the local media either buried the news of the violence altogether or pushed it to an insignificant corner where it had little chance of drawing the attention of anyone but a reader who reads every word in a newspaper from the mast head on the front page to the printer’s line on the last or a viewer who is glued to the TV screen all day without batting an eyelid ! In the age of social media, you just can’t keep anything hidden from the public eye for a minute, forget a whole day or all time to come.

KIIT clash

One does not have to be a media person to understand why the KIIT authorities were so desperate to hide it from the public eye or – at the very least – ensure that it didn’t get the kind of coverage it deserved – in the mainstream media. It would give a bad name to the institution that has been sold to the world as a model of quality higher and technical education set up by a philanthrope whose heart beats 24X7 for the poor tribal boys and girls of the state deprived of education. And it was not very difficult for a man who has the Who’s Who of the world eating out of his hands to do that, particularly since he has the state government on its side (He is an honourable member of the Rajya Sabha from the ruling party, after all!)

But as someone who has straddled the media scene on either side of the internet revolution, I pity the wisdom of those who think they can suppress a news altogether or underplay it by using their power, influence and money. They don’t realise that the world has moved on to newer, faster and more dependable ways of getting their news while they are still stuck in the 1980s and 1990s mindset, which leads them to focus their attention on newspapers and TV channels. Little do they realise that no matter how hard you try, hiding the truth is not an option anymore. In their desperate and pathetic attempt to hide the news, they end up focusing the world’s attention even more on what they are trying to hide.

KIIT-unrest

But as a media person myself, the real tragedy for me in this case was the way our media bosses played into the hands of the KIIT authorities by choosing to underplay the incident or black it out altogether. They forgot that the new age news ‘consumer’ doesn’t depend on their newspapers or TV channels for accurate, unbiased and updated-to-the-minute report on an incident. What is more; they get it free on the net (which is either free or dirt cheap these days), unlike consumers still immersed in their newspapers or glued to their television screens all day, who have to pay a fairly tidy sum to get their fill. Unwittingly, these wise heads end up making fools of themselves by focusing greater attention on the absence or underplay of the incident! [It is possible though that they know it very well but still don’t want to lose such a heaven-sent opportunity to rake in the moolah. So what if it raises serious questions about their own credibility? Maybe they already know they don’t have any credibility left and just want to be on the right side of the powers that be – and earn a tidy sum in the process as well!!]

As news rooms across Bhubaneswar were looking for ways to black the news out about the violence or to underplay it at the very least, Twitter was aflutter with minute-to-minute info from the battleground, complete with pictures and videos. Even The Quint thought it worthy enough to give the incident a fairly exhaustive coverage even as most mainstream media houses in Odisha were busy suppressing it. Similar efforts to hide the truth about how rules have been bent, people have been threatened and vast stretches of land, some of it categorised forest land, have been encroached to build the ‘empire’ known as the premier educational institution of the state have come a cropper in the past. JB Patnaik couldn’t hide the report about his escapades in 1986 nor his resignation in 1999 when the internet was still a largely unknown commodity in Odisha. It is laughable that people are still taking a leaf out of his book and trying to sweep things under the carpet!

Here is a piece of unsolicited advice from someone who has been in the business of news for over three decades now for Dr. Achyuta Samanta, founder of KIIT, and all those who think they can still keep their murky goings-on away from the eyes of the public: “Just forget it.” In the age of Twitter and Facebook, the truth has a way of finding its way into the public domain.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)