Sunday, May 17, 2015

What a Ten Year Old Can Teach Us About Salman Khan


“Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.”
Leo Tolstoy


Salman Khan gestures to fans from the balcony of his home, flanked by his mother Sushila Charak and father Salim Khan in Mumbai. (Source: Zee News India) 

There has been much ink spilled over Salman Khan’s recent conviction for drunk driving. Mr. Khan is one of Bollywood’s biggest, most bankable stars and as a result this news has dominated the Indian media landscape for the last few days. Mr. Khan’s recent sentencing to five years in prison has usurped coverage from Narendra Modi, the Indian Premier League and the Nepal earthquake, all subjects that now seem a distant memory in the daily Indian psyche. 

It seems there was an expectation amongst the wealthy elite of the country that this trial would result in a suspended sentence, or perhaps a few years of community service along with a large fine. Much like nothing happened to Sanjeev Nanda, the son of a wealthy industrialist, who killed six people (including three police officers). Or Puru Raj Kumar, the son of a big Bollywood star, who ran over and killed several pavement dwellers, and was never charged. Like the rest of the third world, India too has a rich and un-illustrious history of a dual justice system, one for those who have the means to buy it and the other for the rest of us, who must languish and suffer within it. 

The outrage in India was two-fold. The powerful elite were clearly outraged that a lowly session’s court judge had the audacity to sentence one of theirs. The entire Bollywood fraternity came out unabashedly in support of a man who has blood on his hands, the same fraternity that has stayed notoriously silent on virtually every other important social issue from defending free speech to violence against women. A younger, less erudite and less PR savvy Bollywood group even took to social media blaming the pavement dwellers for putting themselves in harm’s way. One famous Bollywood singer even equated pavement dwellers with dogs.

There was an unsurprising wave of sympathy from die-hard fans of Mr. Khan, a group that would no doubt proclaim his innocence even if any of them had been sitting in the passenger car seat next to Mr. Khan on that fateful night thirteen years ago. One fan drank poison in front of the courthouse in a suicide bid, unable to handle the news of his idol's upcoming rigorous imprisonment. None of this was surprising; one expected both constituencies to play out their scripts and public dialogue in the manner that they did. However, what was surprising is the reaction of a number of educated, middle class people in India. Many of these people came out in support of Mr. Khan, vehemently protesting his conviction.

Their arguments ranged from saying it was grossly unfair to single out Mr. Khan, since no other rich person has had to serve time for the same offence. Some simply said that he was a good man who had done a great deal of charity work, helping many people over the years, and therefore should not be treated like a common criminal. Yet others argued that he was being convicted merely based on his celebrity status and not on the value of the irrefutable evidence against him. This despite the fact that the judge stated in his ruling that “the prosecution had established beyond doubt that the accused was driving the vehicle at the time of mishap.” (Source: Livemint article).

What is frightening about this middle class defence is that it supports and reinforces the notion that it is fine to have two distinct rules of law - one for the haves, and one for the have not’s. Importantly, it also ignores the fact that had Mr. Khan been an ordinary citizen, like you or me, he would not have been able to avoid being in police custody or to drag out his trial over thirteen years. During this time his people were able to buy off and coerce witnesses, turning them hostile and getting them to change or withdraw testimony. One key witness who refused to acquiesce was a police constable who was in the car with Mr. Khan at the time of the accident. Instead of being provided witness protection, he was fired from the police force and thrown into prison after he claimed that he was frightened for his life for refusing to change his statement. His family was most likely also paid off, as they proceeded to also disown him. The man was driven to living on the streets and finally died a pauper, of tuberculosis, in some nameless government hospital.

What is at issue here is not making an example of Mr. Khan, but allowing people like him to make a mockery of our judicial system. My heart goes out to Mr. Khan, his family and to all the other families involved in this tragic and avoidable accident. I don't doubt that Mr. Khan has done a lot of good with his charity work and has a large heart but none of this changes the fact that, according to our laws, he committed a crime. If we want to be a global power, the rule of law must be sacrosanct and justice must be blind. This is a fundamental bedrock of any a civilised democracy.

My mother’s friend has a ten year old grandson who is a self-confessed Salman Khan super fan. He knows all his movies, song lyrics and even dance sequences (much like I used to with Amitabh Bachchan growing up). She was recently chatting with the boy and decided she would broach this subject gently, and with empathy, so as not to hurt the young boy’s feelings. She started to say how bad she felt about the fact that his hero, a good man by all accounts, had been convicted of a crime, but before she could finish her thought, the boy jumped in and said “Daadi, he (Salman Khan) made a mistake and he has to pay for it.”
 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Rolling Stones Rape of Reportage & Journalistic Ethics

Image credit: KFOR.com
"In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work."
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Last year, Rolling Stone published a sensational cover story about a brutal gang rape on the University of Virginia campus. The details of the crime itself were horrific and inhuman but what made it more alarming was the magazine’s claim that university authorities, even friends and family of the rape victim, had all turned a blind eye to her claim. The article resulted in a public apology from the University, a closing down of the fraternity where the gang rape transpired and a police investigation into the crime. The only problem with Rolling Stone’s “A Rape on Campus“is that it turns out to be largely a fabrication. The police investigation found no evidence that the events described by Jackie, the victim, actually occurred.

The Washington Post and CNN were the first to cast serious doubts about the story, based not on their own investigating, but on noticing that the most simple and basic tenants of journalism seemed to have been ignored in the reportage. They quickly concluded that major parts of Jackie’s account of the horrific events did not add up. For example, the fraternity in question did not host a party on the evening the alleged gang rape took place. Also, Jackie’s friends, who helped her that evening, were never interviewed and told the Washington Post that they doubted most of the story because while Jackie had appeared visibly shaken there were no signs of the serious physical injuries (as Jackie has stated in the article). Finally, it turns out the reporter had made no attempt to speak to any of the alleged perpetrators; if she had, she would have found that one prime accused, Jackie had named, did not even belong to the fraternity in question. (Source: Washington Post article).

This whole thing goes far beyond a simple lapse in judgement and incompetence. Based on the available facts it is pretty clear that Rolling Stone’s editorial staff made a conscious decision to run with the story purely for the “sensational” aspects; and to fit a narrative that they were trying to create about sexual abuse on US college campuses. In doing so they chose to forgo the most basic tenets of journalism: fact checking, investigating, and corroborating to ensure the integrity of the storyteller, all with a healthy dose of skepticism that every journalist is meant to have. None of this is about disrespecting a rape victim or doubting her story – it is simply about being thorough and finding the truth. Frankly, Rolling Stone's reaction and lack of action after the fact is even more egregious and shocking; rather than take serious action, change processes, procedure and fire all those involved, they have instead tried to absolve themselves of blame at every juncture.

First, as the story began to unravel, Rolling Stone Editor Will Dana’s reaction was to immediately blame the victim. He said “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” (Source: Daily Beast article). The reporter who penned the story also seems to apportion blame to some warped notion of political correctness of not questioning a rape victim. She recently told the New York Times that “I allowed my concern for Jackie’s well-being, my fear of re-traumatizing her, and my confidence in her credibility to take the place of more questioning and more facts…” (Source: The Wrap article). Now, after the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism published a scathing investigative report (Read report: ‘A failure that was avoidable’) citing a complete failure of journalism; Rolling Stone has decided that not only will nobody be fired, but that “Rolling Stone’s senior editors are unanimous in the belief that the story’s failure does not require them to change their editorial systems” (Source: Daily Beast article). The magazine’s publisher, Jann S. Wenner, while acknowledging “flaws” in the piece, also told the New York Times that “it represented an isolated and unusual episode". He went on to blame Jackie when he added that “The problems with the article started with its source, Mr. Wenner said. He described her as “a really expert fabulist storyteller” who managed to manipulate the magazine’s journalism process.” (Source: Al Jazeera America article).

“The journalist places the public good above all else and uses certain methods – the foundation of which is a discipline of verification…” Journalism attempts to be fair and accurate. It does this through objective methods and managing bias” (Source: API website). As a blogger, which the American Press Institute states are not considered journalists, I take great pains to check my facts and always look for credible sources to verify them because the internet is full of “facts” that can be found to fit any narrative. A free and independent press is considered one of the fundamentals of a successful and strong democracy. Journalists are meant to hold a mirror to society, and in doing so, make us accountable for our actions. They are meant to do this without bias or prejudice and by reporting the facts. Conversely, credibility and trust are the bedrocks of a free press and something that each publication must strive to earn from readers, not take for granted.

I have always maintained that it is not so much the fact that human beings make mistakes, but how they behave after they have been caught that counts more. People and organisation’s actions after the fact are a better gauge of their integrity and depth of character. Rolling Stone has failed miserably on all counts because an apology is meaningless without the accountability of those involved facing consequences for their actions. It is clear that Rolling Stone believes that the people tasked with holding society accountable are not themselves accountable to the society they serve.
 

Monday, April 13, 2015

America Should Not Settle for Hillary Clinton

(Image credit: Bloomberg) 

"Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Lord Acton 

Before people start jumping to conclusions that this article is driven by the fact that Hillary Clinton is a woman, let me be very clear; her gender has nothing to do with it. I do not consider ethnicity or gender a factor when evaluating people for office; I prefer to judge them on the merits of their record, on their integrity and most importantly their character. That said, I would love nothing more than for America to follow in the footsteps of India, Great Britain, Germany, Brazil and Liberia, and elect a woman to the highest office in the land. But it should be based on the best possible candidate for the job, rather than an attempt to make history, as tempting at that may be.

There is no question that Ms. Clinton has both the experience and the smarts to be President. She has served as first lady, been a senator from New York, and a well-respected Secretary of State. Her professional pedigree is not in question. In fact, on this front she is probably better qualified than most of the Republican field put together. However, arrogance from having been in the public eye and on a pedestal for so long should be a question. This is where we should have our first concern with Ms. Clinton. It has to do with a sense of entitlement and a complete disregard for the rules applying to her. The recent email hoopla is the most recent case in point. In what world does a government servant have the gumption to decide, unilaterally, to not only use personal email while in office but also set-up a private server in their home, a server that nobody in government can access? 

I understand that we must respect the privacy of public officials, but we are talking about a government work email account that is meant to be preserved for the public record. Ms. Clinton had no business making this decision. Even more frightening to us should be the sheer arrogance with which she dismissed the issue; it smacked of the old adage of ‘absolute power.’ She had the audacity to suggest that we should all be grateful because she “took the unprecedented step of asking that the State Department make all my work-related emails public for everyone to see.”(Source: Time article). Forgive me if I am not feeling thankful.

Even if she was within the rules, the email example and her handling of it pose fundamental and intractable questions about her clear lack of judgement. More worryingly, it begs the question of what she is hiding. She said at the same press conference that she “turned over some 30,490 emails to the State Department in December”, nearly two years after leaving office. But she also said she “deleted nearly 32,000 others.” (New York Times article).  As a NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) employee told the New Yorker “Anytime a government official takes it upon themselves to edit their own communications, good government ceases to exist.” Any public servant who is deluded enough to believe that they are responsible enough to ‘police’ themselves surely cannot be trusted with the highest office in the land.

The second concern we should have with Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is her age (same goes for male candidates). She will be in her seventieth year when assumes office, not exactly in the prime of her life. Age is part of a bigger issue we should consider in politics. Why is this, the only profession where we routinely elect people who would otherwise be retired? Would you trust a surgeon or hire a defence lawyer in their seventies? The point is that no matter how fit or healthy a person might be, we all slow down physically and mentally as we get older. These days the only way many senators and congressmen vacate their offices is when they die. Strom Thurmond was eighty-four years old when he was briefly and absurdly second in line for the Presidency in the nineteen-eighties. He went on to serve in the senate until the age of 100, still firmly holding onto his pro-segregation views when he died in 2003. Senator Robert Byrd continued to serve despite years of declining health and routine hospital visits, and finally died in office at the age of ninety-two. It is one thing to serve as a congressman or senator, but the US President’s job is without doubt the toughest in America.

We all saw how quickly and visibly both George W. Bush and Barack H. Obama aged, after taking the oath of office. Based on his behaviour and actions I always suspected Mr. Reagan was senile during most of his second term; we now know that his Alzheimer’s started three years into his first term (Source: The Guardian article). Frankly, the world is a far more complex and fragile place today than it ever was during the cold war. We need fresh thinking, new solutions and bold ideas. We need someone who is hungry and daring, not tired and expecting a coronation. Ask yourself if you really want to put a person who in every other profession would be retiring to take on the most mentally gruelling, emotionally draining and physically challenging job in the world?

Then there are the ethics violations and open hypocrisy that should concern us. When Ms. Clinton accepted the position of Secretary of State, the White House was rightly concerned about the millions foreign governments had donated to the Clinton Foundation, and how they might try to use it as leverage to curry favour with the Secretary of State. For this reason Ms. Clinton agreed to sign an ethics agreement which we now know she violated at least one time during her tenure (Source: WashingtonPost article).

There is good reason why it is illegal for a foreign government to give money to a US political candidate (but Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is unprecedented in this respect, since her husband was President and after leaving office they started a foundation). I have no doubt the Clintons will stop accepting money now that she has decided to run, but it does not change the fact that nations who donated generously over the years will still want collect their dues. It would be naïve to think otherwise. 

The Wall Street Journal found in its investigation that “At least 60 companies that lobbied the State Department during her tenure donated a total of more than $26 million to the Clinton Foundation…” (Source: New Yorker article). The Clinton Foundation does an amazing amount of good in the world, and I support and laud their initiatives. But this is not about the foundation's efforts, but rather about the undue influence and sway donors have over recipients of their largesse and about the dangers of these recipients now occupying the White House; burdened with these obligations. 

There is also a great hypocrisy with regards to an issue Ms. Clinton claims to champion: empowering women. It is a great cause and while it is fair to say she has been a great champion, it is equally fair to question her acceptance of money from countries like Saudi Arabia and Brunei that openly abuse and deny women the most basic freedom and rights. I would have greater respect for Ms. Clinton if, on principle, she had refused to accept donations from this small handful of countries where women are less than second class citizens. One other point to consider is that she has also stood by a serial cheater and alleged abuser of women. While her marriage is her personal business, by calling herself a champion for women, it begs the question of whether she is more preach than practice.

We are at a critical and complex time in history. America has never been more divided, and the world is a far more complex place, one where it is hard to distinguish friend from foe. We need someone hungry and energetic enough to grab these challenges by the collar and take them on, not someone who feels the job is their due, and looks more tired than hungry; as Peggy Noonan recently wrote in a Wall Street Journal article. The world needs new ideas and fresh perspectives, not the same old same old.

My first great disappointment with Obama (among a long series that have followed) was that the moment he was elected, on the promise of “change,” he went and appointed a group of washed out Clinton-era advisers and Bush One and Two bureaucrats. This has shown in his administration’s lack of imagination and inability to change the status quo. While Jeb Bush is much younger than Ms. Clinton, there are many of the same issues with him pertaining to dynastic politics (incidentally, he also used private email as Governor of Florida, but did not set up his own server).

We know that Hollywood with its deep pool of talent, resources and money has never managed to deliver a sequel that lives up to the original; so rather than settling for a Clinton or Bush sequel that will never change the narrative, let’s use the vote to script a bold and original story in 2016.