The biggest known dot com scoop is arguably the Monica Lewinsky scandal first reported by Matt Drudge's drudgereport.com. It made a folk hero out of Drudge and brought respectability to Net magazines, although President Bill Clinton eventually survived impeachment. The two dot com scoops last week suggest that the new medium is coming of age in India too.
The two alone do not confirm a trend, but they signal that Web magazines, which are ideally suited to a different style of reporting, can grab the initiative for serious investigative journalism from the traditional print and television media.
On Friday, Indiainfoline.com reported that Satyam Computer, one of the more popular IT companies in the country had failed to be entirely transparent about its disclosures. Nearly two years ago, in the course of putting through a set of complex mergers, the management had allotted a large number of shares at par to the brother-in-law of Satyam's main promoter, Ramalinga Raju. The benefit to him is estimated at over Rs 1500 million and had he sold the shares at their peak value of over Rs 7000 just over a month ago, the benefit could have been as high as over Rs 5000 million.
The report was picked up by television channels and led to a pandemonium at the company's annual general meeting at Hyderabad on Friday when angry shareholders demanded an explanation. The share price dropped 12 per cent on Friday and continued to fall on Monday when the management failed to come out with a credible explanation for its actions.
The more sensational story has been the secret taping of cricketers and officials by the Web Magazine Tehelka.com, which, true to its name, electrified the nation on Sunday morning with its disclosures.
The taping by former test cricketer Manoj Prabhakar and a Tehelka.com reporter have added a fascinating new dimension to the match fixing controversy and has set off a debate on the ethics of its investigation.
Personally, I think that the Tehelka.com team has pulled off a groundbreaking coup. Their clandestine taping of cricketers and officials has to be seen in context. First, that an entire nation of cricket lovers deserves to know the truth behind various charges and that the game needs to be cleaned up. Second, that allegations about match fixing have been making the rounds for nearly three years and the Board of Cricket Control of India has made no serious attempts to get to the truth.
Third, inquiry report by former Chief Justice Chandrachud only seemed to provide a vehicle for present and former cricketers and officials to paper over the problem. Fourth, the Hansie Cronje confession indicates that there are no idols anymore and almost everybody is a potential suspect. And finally, it was done against the backdrop of frequent news reports such as the penchant of one cricket captain to collect expensive cars and watches; cash running into several hundreds of thousand rupees tumbling out of the locker of another former captain at an elite club in South Bombay; and the voluntary disclosure of Rs 160 million made by a cricketer at Kanpur under the tax amnesty scheme.
Curiously, instead of following the story, some journalists seem more interested in making a big deal about fairness and ethics of the clandestine tapes. What is fair and ethical when the system, instead of investigating these charges of corruption and match fixing and worse, seems to close ranks to protect each other? And how does a cricketer provide proof of a verbal offer of money than to get his reluctant teammates to admit things on tape?
Those who suggest that the Tehelka.com tapes have publicised private suspicions and tarnished reputations seem to ignore some crucial details. That several of those interviewed have already lied to the Chandrachud committee, that the police know what is going on but seem unwilling/unable to act, and that the dice is so loaded against cricketers who dare to speak up that public admissions are almost impossible to obtain.
The situation clearly warranted drastic measures. As various experts have confirmed, the tapes are not only admissible as evidence but could form the basis of further investigation and the filing of a First Information Report.
The goings-on in cricket beg a comparison with what is happening in the capital market. It is the betting class that make match fixing such a lucrative business, which is probably of the same size as the investors who throng the stock market. Though the hysteria and hero worship generated by cricket cannot compare with the speculative frenzy which grips the capital market from time to time - both provide opportunities for windfall profits when turned into a gamble. The money is large enough to attract the attention of the ruling class, bureaucrats and the enforcement machinery and make it completely reluctant to conduct any investigations.
In the stock market too, most insiders know of the exact political linkages of operators, their deals with industrialists to ramp up share prices and the manner in which a stock is rigged up and later dumped on to mutual funds to give the operators a huge profit. But unless regulators are open to receiving market intelligence and willing to follow it up with swift investigation and penalties, the system will remain a mess.
The media reaction to the Tehelka.com disclosures is also interesting. After having reported the sensational disclosures, they seem quite willing to participate in a cover up. Some papers and television channels were quick to point out, quite wrongly that the tapes are not admissible in court.
But do these disclosures herald a trend of a more aggressive brand of journalism? Hopefully yes. The medium is ideally suited for intensive investigation. It is not bound by the 500-800 word limits of print or the short sound bites of TV. In fact, a reader can choose how much of information he/she wants to read.
There are no printing and distribution costs and that would make viability independent of the largesse and goodwill of advertisers. Also, as the Tehelka.com gang has shown, a sensational scoop can bring in several millions worth of publicity and corresponding savings in marketing costs. Lastly, venture capitalists who have been financing these sites are less likely to have the same vested interests as companies who break new publications by withholding advertisements.
If dot coms do grab the opportunity, it will only help cleanse corruption in the country.