Of Fifth Column Filth and the Fourth Estate

For a journalist with over thirty years of experience, Tavleen Singh’s latest column titled ‘ Who will monitor the NGO monitors?’ betrays a remarkable lack of journalistic skill and an even more remarkable degree of ruthlessness and ethics conspicuous by their absence. Tavleen Singh’s column on the 27th of March deserves wide applause and more. Not only has it successfully turned Indian Express into a tabloid, fifth column now seems to fit snugly at page three!

Unlike any opinion piece of any standard Tavleen’s article skirts the real issue, is testimony to personal favours to friends of repute and at best is an outrageous insult to the Indian Express tag– ‘journalism of courage’. Lean, mean gossip machine Tavleen, eloquently couches a personal diatribe against Parth J. Shah co-author of Law, Liberty and Livelihood and president of Centre for Civil Society in the pretext of an amorphous amalgamation of issues.

What is Ms. Taveleen’s concern? That allegedly plagiarism took place? That street hawkers are licensed? That the licence-quota Raj exists? That NGO’s and voluntary institutions of civil society are flourishing? That a little think-tank stole some limelight from dear friend Madhu?

If Ms. Singh truly believes that plagiarism took place, why was there not a single reference to a line, paragraph or ‘whole chunks’ as she so eruditely puts it? To make matters worse, Ms. Singh does not mention the name of the book even once through her fifteen hundred words long unsubstantiated monologue.

If Madhu and Ms. Singh’s complaint is that the idea of urban livelihood has been plagiarised, think again! Any good research bases itself on fact. You investigate a similar issue you arrive at similar facts. How is that for logic, Ms. Singh?

For someone who claims to be the proud sidekick of the champion of freedom for street-hawkers, Ms. Singh’s suggestion of replacing licences with regulation is remarkably naïve and glaring unaware of economic fundamentals. Is not licensing just another form of regulation? Do you want to regulate or deregulate?

In her four-lined brave attempt at disguising this masterful literary achievement, which at any rate bears the faintest semblance to a distinguished journalist’s column– Ms. Singh flounders further when she suggests that NGO’s ought to be regulated by a body like the Indian Press Council (sic).

The Indian Press Council, of course, according to Ms. Singh is the upholder of all that is virtuous, especially given its quasi-government structure, majority funding by the state and well known political alliances—with over seventy% of ‘nominated’ members. This is the future that Ms. Singh will have us all believe in.

At Centre for Civil Society, people believe in primary research, the interns are taught about data integrity till their ears hurt—most importantly CCS believes in property rights. Ideologically, this is the last place where any plagiarism would take place. Resorting to cheap tactics via friends is not a new attribute. Manushi editor Madhu Kishwar is well known in NGO circles for reasons aside of her work.

Ms. Singh too has a delicious legacy. Her coverage of the LTTE in 1992 suffered from massive exaggeration as evaluated by journalist and teacher Samanta Banerjee, her recent article defaming communalism combat (one of the finest anti-fundamentalist journals of the country) dated 21st November last year reeked of not-so-subtle fascist overtones.

Perhaps then we have reason to celebrate. If nothing else Ms. Singh’s article betrays a deep fear to yield place by Madhu and worse still a pathetic attempt to pat an old friend’s ego for Ms. Singh’s part.

My favourite reason is this: Tavleen’s Column is a textbook piece of ‘how-not-to-write-a-column.’ Here’s why. Ms. Tavleen rather eruditely brushes past any sense of objectivity or fact in a tirade of accusations. An assumption on her part that all her readers are fools.

The blurb of the article outlines an issue, which the title couldn’t be more different from– and if that wasn’t enough, close to half of the article is a personal grudge. Quite obviously an authoritarian manner to tell others you are displeased.

The article fails all three benchmarks of ‘publishable quality’’. The single issue (and yes! I tried hard to find one) in question is a cultured version of Ms Madhu Kishwar’s research. No-one of any consequence is involved which would at the very least make the article in question newsworthy—the target here is a little known think-tank and finally the solutions—Ms Taveleen’s article devotes all of four lines in the article’s entirety to this!

There is also a desperate need to question Ms. Singh’s intelligence. In the first paragraph she writes “…got me into trouble and I recount what happened not just because I….?. I have a question, are your readers your shoulder to cry on? Should column space be used to ‘recount’ personal tales and fuel feuds? Does Ms. Singh not owe it to her profession to at least preserve the integrity of publicly read space?

Ms. Singh then says that “the NGO sector is nearly as corrupt as the government…? a blanket statement supported by no facts whatsoever. Ms. Singh then almost innocuously uses sentences like “… who pleaded with me…?, “… he made it sound as if….?, and
“ … particularly nauseating…? with reference to Parth J Shah with regard to the preface of the book in question. Ms. Singh, you have every right to express your opinions no matter how flawed they might be, but insinuations do not have and ought not to have voice in a newspaper.

It is all very well Ms. Singh, to selectively choose to portray facts that make CCS sound dubious, spurious and even fake—yet to do so defeats your very purpose. If even an iota your or Ms. Madhu’s commitment had been towards the urban livelihood cause, then nothing could’ve hurt that cause more than your article. Not only does it paint Ms Madhu in startlingly poor light, as a woman whose obvious object of envy is the Templeton freedom award, but also questions her intentions—“ Not one street-vendor or rickshaw puller or small shop-owner in India would endorse CCS’s claim to be a champion of their rights? Let me remind you, Ms. Singh, that CCS made and makes no such claim.

Such self-awarded glory suits the likes of pseudo activists. CCS is a libertarian organisation dedicated to the cause of freedom, unlike Ms. Kishwar it is an institution and aims to carry its work on into the future to deliver substantial change. CCS works on several distinct areas including education, environment, globalisation and urban livelihood; its commitment is towards genuine research that helps further the cause of economic freedom. The chapter, which Madhu and now Ms. Singh claim is plagiarised, consists of independent studies of over thirteen cities by interns. Ms. Madhu’s work, if I may be allowed a recollection is solely on Delhi.

Ms. Singh also says that Madhu is the only person she knows who understands the meaning of economic freedom. Ms. Singh, if CCS didn’t understand how vital the issue was why would it be working in that areas? If Ratan Tata didn’t understand how vital economic growth is for India why would he fund CCS? Are you madam also in utter ignorance of economists like Swaminathan Iyer and Gurucharan Das?

As is characteristic of all poorly written prose, Ms. Singh launches into an emotional overdrive, where she goes on to say “… had not bothered to slip in a single word of acknowledgement…? no one with the intention to plagiarise ever acknowledges!

As far the unfair accusation of no acknowledgement to Madhu Kishwar’s work, CCs did not undertake any help from Madhu Kishwar, throughout the book wherever her work has been referred to it has been cited. What more acknowledgement? CCS is an academic institution, research is not about acknowledgement, nor should it be.

Unlike Madhu’s work, which treats the subject of urban livelihood like a story to be told, shed tears over and then forgotten—CCS’s work does not base itself on acknowledgement. CCS only reward is the gradual arrival of economic freedom in this country—as such is hard to find such a dedicated group of genuine reformers amongst the hundreds of Madhu Kishwars’ who only want an audience.

Finally in a last attempt at sleaze, Ms Singh writes, “… So where does the money go…? Ms. Singh, I am appalled at the rampant accusations. This one really has no basis; I can personally vouch for every penny at CCS is carefully accounted for.

People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with the news and that is essentially thanks to columnists like Ms. Singh. Once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever—perhaps the only truth left to newspapers are the advertisements in them! The fifth column this week is a sad reflection of what journalism has come to.

Columns aren’t personal battlegrounds Ms. Singh, and more importantly objectivity is not a frill and ethics are not passé. “…If this isn’t evil, then it is hard to imagine what is…? you said in the same preface which you now choose to disassociate yourself with. Ms. Singh, if there is one thing that reflects the truth of your statement it is with reference to your column this week. I must say I agree!