Barkhagate: what drives the lynch mob?
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Understanding the motivation behind the activism on Barkhagate and its “unfair” nomenclature..

The Rs. 1,76,000 crore figure is only one feature of the 2G scam. In truth, it is made of a vast array of characters, plots, subplots and flashbacks like a Quentin Tarantino movie. There is Radiagate, Virgate, Tatagate, Prafulgate and so on, and then there is Barkhagate, which also is just one subplot. There is also overlap, captured by Outlook here: graphic. Even then, bloggers have focussed much of their attention on Barkhagate, subsuming within it all the other ‘-gates’. Some would say at the expense of missing the “larger picture”. Others would say unfairly singling out one individual out of many others involved. But those who have been observing the troubled relationship between bloggers and the mainstream media through the years are rewarded with a perspective that makes the furious activism behind Barkhagate easy to understand and even sympathize with.

For many, Barkhagate began with the leak of the Radia tapes. She turned out to be the same kind of bad guy that she would beat up in her talk shows on behalf of an enraged public. In reality, Barkhagate is an old story and only took a new name after the leak. Barkhagate is only a point on a continuum representing a certain behavioural complex among sections of the mainstream media that bloggers have been regularly exposing and complaining about for years now – low ethics, intolerance of criticism, sensationalism, hyperventilation, political bias, rude and insensitive behaviour, middle class gossip dressed up as serious analysis, biased poll predictions, TV talk shows and debates that more often than not give the impression that they are scripted and biased in favour of one side, positioning oneself as the voice of the public, sanctimony, trial by media, personality cult, distorted and dishonest reporting, paid news, and so on. To list a few!

There was a time when there was no way of expressing one’s criticism and frustration at the media’s behaviour, except for the 18th century device “Letters to the Editor.” Newspapers would have the entire paper for themselves but leave only some insignificant corner deep inside for readers’ opinions. Freedom of the press, as someone put it, truly belonged to those who possessed one. Most of the letters sent to the editor are never published and the ones that are published are mostly those that support the paper’s editorial bias. There are instances where letters have been published years after they were sent. The lone Readers’ Editor at The Hindu, appointed with much fanfare, turned out to be a sophisticated joker.

The blog came across as a liberating tool for critics of the media. Encouraged by the ease and potential of the medium, bloggers put under microscopic scrutiny every article, headline, opinion, debate or soundbyte appearing in the media. Initially, while they made waves in the virtual world, in the real world their criticisms amounted to little more than 1s and 0s in some distant server. Blogs could never compete with the reach and power of the mainstream media in influencing public perception. Members of the mainstream media met the criticism mostly with amusement and ignored it. But once in a while, the simmering frustration among the “watchdogs” at being watched burst forth in public in ugly episodes of abuse, name calling and even blackmail.

Cut back to 2005, when the first major instance of the friction between the mainstream media and bloggers was witnessed. Pradyuman Maheshwari, who maintained the blog Mediaah!, which was highly critical of the media’s behaviour, was threatened with a legal notice by the Times Of India. Specifically, Maheshwari wrote about the corrupt practice of “advertorials” that was being brazenly promoted and practised by the Times Of India. Maheshwari, himself a journalist, had a career ahead and lacked the legal or financial resources to take on a media behemoth like the Times, and took down the site.

Times Of India’s behaviour was shocking as its own existence is based upon the protection of free speech and was roundly condemned by bloggers. An incipient “us and them” mentality got solidified with this episode and intensified over the years as the magnitude and frequency of incidents between bloggers and the mainstream media increased. During 26/11, for instance, when the most high profile case occured. Blogger Chyetanya Kunte, who wrote a blogspot highly critical of Barkha Dutt’s sensationalist coverage of 26/11, was subjected to legal blackmail by NDTV on behalf of Barkha Dutt. Chyetanya Kunte wrote nothing in that blogpost that was not common knowledge or did not find agreement among a large number of people. Yet one innocent blogger was picked up by NDTV and Barkha Dutt and blackmailed in a display of cowardliness of the lowest order. Their disgraceful behaviour infuriated bloggers who rallied behind Kunte and showed support with a flurry of posts condemning NDTV and Barkha Dutt [1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5]. Kunte, for the same reasons as Maheshwari, retracted his post and published an apology as was demanded by the legal notice sent by NDTV. Barkha Dutt, who already had a poor reputation among bloggers, cemented her place as Blogger Enemy No. 1.

Meanwhile, the new medium Twitter brought bloggers and mainstream media into ever closer contact. It provided for instant, “in your face” feedback against members of mainstream media for their writings, or sayings on TV. While positive feedback was gleefully accepted, feedback that was critical was mostly met with abuse and name calling. Though the feedback was often abusive, there were numerous cases when even those who offered considered criticism were called gutter snipes, losers, sad losers with pathetic little lives, low level losers and morons, and so on. Sagarika Ghose coined the term Internet Hindus as a pejorative to refer to all nationalist bloggers and tweeple critical of mainstream media behaviour (the “Internet Hindus”, however, began to wear it proudly but that’s another story.) Media watcher and fellow CRI commentator Sudhir Kumar has done a wonderful job of chronicling his run-ins with famous media personalities in his Tryst with MSM series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13.

Used to being ignored, ridiculed and abused whenever they offered criticism, the leaking of the Radia tapes came as a shot in the arm for critics of the media in general and personalities such as Barkha Dutt in particular. It is significant that the news of the tapes was not met with surprise among bloggers. It was received with a sense of vindication. It is easy to detect a “we told you so!” feeling behind the feverish activism on Barkhagate. They honestly believed that Barkha Dutt and the others in the tapes were capable of such behaviour. The tapes confirmed their worst suspicions. Bloggers now had concrete evidence to ‘prove’ their dark theories about the unholy nexus between media persons and political parties, and the way in which that nexus influences news and public opinion in the country for narrow and selfish gains at the expense of the public (to put it mildly.)

It is this long story that provides the most appropriate context in which to evaluate the activism behind Barkhagate and its nomenclature. It must be noted that it is not a saintly concern about probity in public life that drives bloggers on Barkhagate but rage against a mainstream media that is perceived to be venal and hypocritical, especially in its treatment of criticism. When rage becomes the motivating force, minor details like benefit of doubt become insignificant. Barkha Dutt is probably right in feeling that she is unfairly being singled out. With increase in the penetration of the Internet and rise in the number of “Internet Hindus”, things are bound to become more ugly and unfair. Unfortunately – or fortunately – that is how it’s likely to be from now on. Barkha Dutt and her friends have two options: strive to remove the complex of feelings that drive Barkhagate by becoming what they are supposed to be – honest journalists. Or continue to face the mad fury of the Internet lynch mob.