Saturday, May 04, 2013

Journalists and the economics of truth

By Swapan Dasgupta

The collapse of the Saradha Group, said to be a ‘Ponzi’ scheme, has created political ripples in West Bengal. Accusations have been levelled against MPs and other functionaries of the Trinamool Congress for both patronising and providing political cover to a flamboyant entrepreneur who ended up either short-changing or cheating many thousands of people of modest means their limited life savings. The West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, unaccustomed to handling charges of financial impropriety, has reacted in the only way she knows: by levelling shrill and sometimes outlandish charges against her political opponents, particularly the CPI(M) and Congress. She has also raised hackles by suggesting that “what is lost is lost.”

That the Chief Minister and the TMC would bear the brunt of the outrage over the Saradha collapse was only to be expected. The so-called “suicide note” that Saradha’s founder chairman Sudipta Sen sent to the CBI before his arrest in a Kashmir resort make it quite clear that he indulged some people close to the TMC because it provided him a measure of protection. He also said that that he paid a whopping Rs 40 crores to two Marwari businessmen and the office-bearer of a prominent football club for the sole purpose of “managing the SEBI” officers in Mumbai. These businessmen claimed proximity to a Congress politician who has risen to a very high Constitutional post. In addition, he paid consultancy fees of approximately Rs one crore and took care of the hotel bills of the wife of a senior Cabinet minister because he was told that “if this…family slightly stand by me then I will be (sic) great clout in India.”

Since a man who is charged with grave offences may well level grave charges against prominent individuals to deflect attention and, indeed, politicise a straight-forward financial scam, it may well be improper to repeat the names of prominent people whose palms Sen claims to have generously greased. In any event, most of these names are now in the public domain and their identities are no longer a well-guarded secret or a subject of speculation. However, since the moral credentials of a man who presents himself as a sincere entrepreneur who was ignorant of SEBI guidelines on accepting deposits from the public and who in turn was both blackmailed and duped by others more unscrupulous than him, hasn’t yet been fully established, it is best to view the contents of his “suicide note” with a large measure of caution.

Yet, while the political aspects of Sen’s defence of his misconduct have got full play in the media, there is another facet of his protestations of innocence that have been glossed over. In the concluding part of his 18-page dying declaration, Sen wrote: “My over all business fall down is due to the media entry, extortion from the above named persons and blackmailed by my own staffs and executives.”

Since the CBI, it has now emerged in the course of the Coalgate controversy that threatens to destroy the Mammohan Singh Government, is accustomed to consulting the executive to check the grammar of its depositions, it may not be too hard for them to have Sen’s “last statement” translated into English.

In a nutshell, Sen’s accusation is startling. Once people got wind of the fact that what the Saradha bosses and their agents were doing all over eastern India, they started viewing him as the proverbial milch cow. Leading this pack of predators were not politicians, but people who ostensibly claimed to be from the media. Thus, in order to save himself from attacks in the media, Sen decided to invest in the very people who were either conducting so-called investigative journalism or threatening to expose him. He bought Channel 10, a Bengali news channel, for some Rs 30 crore and engaged his erstwhile tormentors to provide him content for Rs 60 lakhs each month. The erstwhile tormentors gave him “assurance that (on) execution of this agreement they will protect my business from the government i.e. State Government and also Central Government and I will be able to get a smooth passage…” Blessed with this assurance, Sen sunk in Rs 50 crore into the channel and started three dailies.

Ironically, Sen’s entry into the media resulted in all the media hyenas rushing to his door with the same threats and blandishments. The estranged wife of a former Congress minister at the Centre used her political clout to pay Rs 25 crore to establish a channel for the North-east. Another Rs 28 crore was paid to the former minister himself for 50 per cent share of another channel beamed at the North-east. A Congress MLA from Assam sold him a printing press and a newspaper for Rs 6 crore. And one enterprising freelancer extracted Rs 50 lakh and more from Saradha to set up an English channel.

What emerges from these revelations is a very disturbing phenomenon: instead of being a watchdog against evil and wrong-doing, as it claims to be, a large section of the media has become a part of the problem itself. Just as Bollywood became criminalised from the proceeds of the Mumbai underworld, a large part of the media has become a cover for criminal enterprise. From chit fund scamsters to real estate sharks, the media has become a tool for buying influence. To me, that is the most disturbing lesson from the Saradha scandal. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, May 3, 2013

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