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Chitra Subramaniam | The News Minute | February 23, 2015 | 4.38 PM IST The defining edge is a cutting one with a preposition doing the policing. In and for public interest is not the same thing as of public interest. The first is action, like writing laws and protecting national boundaries and the second is to make that information public. It is of public interest to know that the government of India has a nuclear submarine called INS Arihant and in the service of that limited interest sharing an image of the vessel per sewith the media is not a breach of security. However, if sensitive information is involved in the process – as has been suggested - the leak has to be plugged swiftly after the mission is over. Mission, what mission? The brouhaha in the media is about a letter that the National Security Adviser (NSA) wrote to the Cabinet Secretary in October 2014 drawing attention to the leaked images of the Arhant and associated communication in particular and the chronic nature of leaks from many ministries in general.One theory has it that the NSA leaked the letter himself while another version is that it was leaked from his office or elsewhere in order to embarrass him –how can a man who cannot control his office advice the rest goes that refrain. The NSA is a very seasoned officer, the best sleuth the country has had in a long time. It is difficult for me to imagine that he was unaware of the trajectory of his confidential letter. It is standard practice to throw information out which like a heat sensing device gets all the radars going providing more information in the process. It is also a way of placing things on record. I don’t give much credence to the second theory. Leaks in government But more important is the role of leaks in a democracy. Democratic governments around the world try to prevent any information they deem confidential from making its way to the public domain. It can be defence secrets, financial decisions, public health reports or religious data. It is the job of the journalist to ferret out this information with one caveat. There has to be an editorial assessment about the sensitivity of the information. The compass here is a simple one – does the information help or hurt, advance or scuttle the story. News rooms are responsible to their readers the same people that governments are responsible to – hence the complementarity of their roles. Take Watergate for instance, one of the finest pieces of journalism that exists for the unique reason that not only did it profile stellar reporting and unflinching editorial backing but it also underlined the unequivocal requirement of institutions in a democracy to secure the basic tenets of that freedom. Following that work, the President of the United States (US) Richard Nixon had to resign in 1974 and remains till date to be the only US president t have done so. Sixty nine people were indicted with trial pleas resulting in 48 people being found guilty and imprisoned. Many of them were officials in the Nixon administration. In comparison, while the documentary evidence produced by journalists in l’affaireBofors was significantly substantive, the results of the three-country, ten-year journalistic investigations did not lead to imprisonment. Middlemen and junior officials were punished while the big fish got away. In other words, India’s institutions failed to punish corrupt leaders and restore faith in democracy. I have a file on you This is a favourite line in New Delhi for some sections of the media to tell ministers and businesspeople as a means of blackmailing for money and material benefits. It used to ration cards and phone connections. That has now been replaced by farm houses and international speaking assignments. This method of extortion is not new with the result that there is now a pecking order of moles – small mole, mid-level mole, final mole etc. The opposite is also true – politicians routinely threaten and bribe pliable journalists with promise of the same. If the reporter is incorruptible and after a good story, politicians and businesspeople tell them “I will speak to your boss, their boss and the owner if necessary.”Like fish which rots first at the top, lack of integrity in the leadership makes many unwilling people complicit to acts they would otherwise not agree with. A few years of this and everybody has a file on the next person or access to information to compromise journalists, politicians, lawyers NGOs, private and public sector officials et al. A journalist boasted to me that at any given time of day or night papers from any ministry could be hand delivered anywhere. The rot is deep. In this merry-go-round any government in New Delhi that attempts the slightest change will per force meet resistance. What the government needs is not to plug one or two leaks. It is looking at a system a system which has more holes than a broken sieve. If the government does its job well, the others will have no choice but to follow. That will also help reporters get back to work instead of ringing moles – small, medium and large - to bring the pizza home. Tweet Follow @thenewsminute
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