Archive for category Media

The Browser Bruisers


The Rupert Murdoch owned WSJ recently came out with an article alleging that Google had been violating the privacy of millions of users using Apple’s browser, Safari. The full article can be read here.

WSJ: Google’s iPhone Tracking

Even before the dust had settled on this one, Microsoft came out swinging, alleging that Google may have been doing the same for their browser, Internet Explorer also. Dean Hachamovitch, Corporate VP, IE, came out with this blog post.

Google Bypassing User Privacy Settings

The hard facts, as so well compiled & expressed by Anthony Fawcett  are as follows:

Safari doesn’t provide an interface to set a site by site exception for cookies, you’re faced with either having a broken service because cookies required for operation cannot be set, or completely turning off all cookie restrictions. Those are the two options for users. Google cleverly came up with a legitimate way to get the necessary cookies stored, but as a result some other cookies were also getting transmitted. Google altered the implementation to only send the necessary cookies for the opt-in cross domain services to operate.

For a start, no, they didn’t violate privacy law. None of what they did has any effect for users that do not opt in for the cross domain services, which require cookies to operate – which is what this is all about. The cookies expire in 24 hours or when the browser is closed. The cookies contain no personal identifiable data, nothing more than an authentication state and a session ID. So let’s stop with the whole “privacy abuse” thing. Let’s also stop with the whole “tracking me” thing, a 24 hour/session cookie cannot be used for any kind of effective tracking – which was never the intent.

The only browser in the world that still cares about P3P policies is IE. Every other browser manufacturer dropped support for this years ago. It’s buggy, badly designed,  poorly implemented, and does nothing to provide actual privacy protection but like “affiliate signing” allows sites to lie about the purposes of cookies and to bypass your regular cookie settings and get special treatment. No one uses P3P except where you need cross domain services and you need to support IE6 with them (since literally, it’s pretty much the only way to get IE6 to consistently store cookies when working cross domain).

Google services give IE a compact P3P policy header which tells the browser to ignore P3P settings for cookie restriction. This lets Google do cross domain services on Microsoft’s broken and bug ridden browser suite.

If Google didn’t do this you would not be able to use cross domain G+ services without lowering your overall privacy setting or adding a cookie rule exception for every service.

IE – as the only browser that implements P3P – is the only browser that requires a doctored P3P policy to do this. Even Facebook does exactly the same thing!

MS Edge BrowserNow if you want to talk Safari, it’s the same situation – only there isn’t even the option to use a P3P policy. Safari’s cookie settings are a joke and a usability/privacy protection nightmare.

Do you know that Facebook does EXACTLY the same thing so that people can “Like” other sites? The only real difference is that for Google you OPT-IN to having these features on, whereas Facebook just does it anyway.

So you want to know exactly what data they collected? NONE.  Because they weren’t trying to collect data. They were trying to establish a cross domain authentication check so when you like something on the web it registers on your profile. That’s it. No big conspiracy theory. No stealing of the datas. No rifling your private information and transferring it behind your back. Simply working with broken browser implementations to accomplish what the USER actually ASKED them to do.

At what point does one conflate security and privacy? The two are entirely separate and dealt with by entirely separate bodies of law.

P3P is not a security technology, it is not even a privacy technology.

Did you know that no browser other than IE implements support for P3P and that it was actively removed from Mozilla, and never added to Opera, Chrome, Firefox, or Safari (no Safari does not support P3P either). In fact, it’s been recognized as a bad, privacy breaking technology since IE6 first debuted support and broke a slew of web-sites.  EPIC calls it “Pretty Poor Policy” ; that’s right the Electronic Privacy Information Centre calls it a really bad policy.

Do you know what it is and why it was invented? It’s a technology that inverts the “trusted network” paradigm to allow affiliate advertises for Microsoft’s networks to place cookies on your computer for tracking purposes even though you’ve disabled 3rd party cookies as a general rule. That’s why it was invented, and why it was implemented in IE. The same reason Microsoft gave priority passage to your inbox for spam email from their marketing affiliates in Hotmail.

A cookie is not a program that uploads datas on you, it is not like Path transmitting your entire iPhone address book to remote servers without your knowledge and beyond your control. It’s a text file. It contains text. It usually contains less than 50 characters of text. It’s used to persist information on your computer, not take it away. For instance, it allows application developers to record the fact that you are logged in, and an id to reference your session, which is what Google uses it for. This is necessary because HTTP itself is what we call a “stateless” protocol. It has no memory between requests. To get around this and make applications, developers use a server side construct called a ‘session’ that acts as a bag to hold information in between requests. The ‘bags’ are labelled with securely (on good implementations) generated IDs, so they can be told apart. Only, because HTTP itself is stateless, the server cannot tell which ‘bag’ is yours, it needs to know your ID. The HTTP protocol provides a mechanism to send a cookie with each request, and developers store the needed ID in just such a cookie. When the server receives it, it can identify your bag.  Bingo, session-based activities are now possible such as playing games, shopping with a shopping cart and so on.

There is only one problem though. The security implementation around cookies to prevent people stealing them and using them for impersonation and session hijacking (getting access to your ‘bag’) means that only cookies from the same server you are visiting can be read and written. This throws a spanner in the works when two services hosted on different domains need to work together. The server you are accessing gets what is called “first party” permissions. It can read and write cookies at will provided you don’t have cookies disabled completely. The second server though cannot write cookies unless you allow third party cookies in your browser settings. Without that permission, the script that runs on the page that provides Facebook’s ‘Like’ button let’s Facebook know that you liked the page. Without that, they can’t update their opengraph records without which they can’t tell Facebook who you are when you click that link.

Nothing Google has done has stolen or has the potential to steal any information from you.

Do YOU have “allow me to +1 sites on the Internet” turned on in your G+ profile (it’s off by default)?

If not, then NO, you were completely unaffected by this.  If yes, then YOU EXPLICITLY TOLD Google to do this

If you turned that feature on, in Safari, you have 2 ways for it to work,

1. You disable all cookie protection

This may be a bad option if you believe that cookie restriction is a measure for enhancing privacy?

2. You open a new frame and send the information you need directly to your own server. Since you are first party where your own server is concerned, this is how it is INTENDED to work. Google can still only read Google’s own cookies containing nothing but what Google wrote there. Google didn’t break anything in the HTTP protocol or any standard to do this.

So why the concern over tracking? Because people don’t understand how this works. If you have 3rd party cookies turned off in Safari you should not have any other Google cookies, so nothing extra would have been sent. The only way you could even have sent your Ad Sense cookie ID is if you had one to start with. And even if you did, and it did get sent, the code that handles the G+ +1 action would not have the slightest interest in it, and would simply discard it. Ad Sense IDs are only any use to the Ad Sense network. And even if it made it as far as the Ad Sense network, it contributes no information because there is no page view information associated with it.

So nothing was stolen, you were not violated, your privacy was not breached. Google simply changed the way they did something to comply with the browser security requirements.

Not doing so, and requiring users to disable all cookie protection to Like or +1 or do any of the plethora of cross domain activities you do without even realizing it when you utilise any of the most popular web applications, would be the only real wrong that could have been perpetrated here.

Here’s a simpler, easier-to-understand explanation for what has been stated above.

Safari as a browser isn’t buggy. However their policy choices are flawed and specifically bad from a security and privacy standpoint.

Someone compared this ‘intrusion’ to a burglar entering your home because he finds the lock to your front door broken. This is a flawed analogy.  P3P is optional, and is something the web server elects to participate in or not as the case may be. Very few do at all.  However, this isn’t at all like entering someone’s home and making away with his stuff.

It’s more akin  to someone coming to my business and saying “Hello, yes, I’d like to make use of your custom service”. I say “Sure, just sign here, okay, I’ll give you a special ID card that will enable you to access the service, but you’ll need to show it to the agent who will be doing the work for you so that he knows you are authorized for it.” Only, your wallet is shut and latched in such a way that you can’t actually add cards to it, so you have to go to Microsoft and have them add the card for you.  Being helpful, I am giving you a new card and putting it in your shirt pocket for you and reminding you to show it to the agent whenever you ask for the service.

For Safari it’s slightly different. The lock on your wallet is enchanted so that you can only put and take out ID cards for the address you are currently standing at.  You don’t have any control over the wallet except to bust the lock on it and let any and all cards be put in by everyone.  So, instead I say “Tell you what, instead of putting the card in your wallet, I’ll make an exception and when you get there just give me a call and I’ll give the number to the agent over the phone, and he can write it on a card for you there and then.

[ Hat tip: Anthony Fawcett  for the explanatory content ]

Why do you think the WSJ & Microsoft launched on the finger-pointings and the muttered accusations? I am sure you would be able to come up with a couple of good guesses at least.

(Note: Neither I nor the person whose explanatory content figures here has any professional association with or happens to be an employee of Microsoft, Google, Apple or Wall Street Journal )


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Game over, Facebook? (or How Facebook Keeps Shooting Itself In The Foot)

Why Facebook Is The New Yahoo – Datamation

This blog piece really supplements the points made in this article (link above ). The points below are essentially to further amplify and expand on the contentions in this piece.

Facebook logo

Image via Wikipedia

Early adopters will recall Facebook as a rickety, buggy apps which had very few people who had gotten on to the bandwagon and a whole lot more of bugs together with a  generally pretty crappy UI. While after the bust at the beginning of this century, clueless commentators & hapless analysts have been desperate to hype any emerging trend to the skies, Facebook progressed & grew beyond its wildest dreams more because it happened to be in the right place at the right time & owing to the many errors of omission & commission by its forerunners & contemporaries.

Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...

Image via CrunchBase

All through this spectacular growth story, Facebook kept on playing fast & footloose with the privacy & the needs of some of its serious users. It kept on playing around with its UI, which, despite several makeover attempts, remained crappy & reminded many people of Web 0.5 rather than Web 2.0.  It was a hacker’s delight and it put up a brave front  every time someone demonstrated the relative ease with which it could be hacked into. It kept on experimenting with the length of texts for posts & comments for posts without so much as a by-your-leave or even a warning to most unsuspecting users. It merrily downgraded photographs uploaded for display, a fact unknown to most of the hordes for whom uploading to Facebook pics of your latest vacation or your dog became a status symbol of sorts.

While Facebook has of late been demonstrating a zeal for real names (because Google+ is a real name network from the time the beta was launched? ) for much of its existence, it didn’t give a damn about who registered on the network, beyond the cursory reminder that pre-teens were not allowed. I know of several people who promptly proceeded to have Facebook accounts for their dogs & cats & even proudly proclaimed the ‘fact’ to their friends. Many others opened multiple accounts on Facebook, under a host of pseudonyms & assumed names and let their ‘special’ friends know which account they used for which purpose (for a hint think Farmville & Cityville and the need to conceal from a certain ‘set’ of friends the fact that one was incurably addicted to it). In any case Facebook didn’t care two hoots about what got on to your Stream from numerous Farmville posts for example, auto-generated when your friends got on to it.  Messages & pokes from perfect strangers followed the same pattern. Anybody could write anything on your wall or read your comments to others’ posts in many cases, without you either knowing or being able to do anything about it. Your friends could add you on to any groups they happened to be a part of, without bothering to think whether you may actually be reluctant or unwilling to join a particular group they happen to be part of.

When serious users & geeks raised howls of protest about this, Facebook embarked on the first of its many hamhanded attempts to appease the unhappy & outraged users & introduce controls for users’ accounts & privacy. At times deliberately and, on other occasions, unintentionally, patching & taking care of a particular area of concern seemed to open up new cracks & areas of unhappiness.

Amidst all this, Facebook’s numbers kept growing because for the vast majority of people, privacy, security or poor user UIs & unannounced, ad-hoc restrictions mattered little. Aside from registering one’s dog & cat, it became an online rolodex for many and once its numbers grew beyond a certain threshold, peer pressure ensured that most people felt compelled to open an account on Facebook at least to prove to their friends that they weren’t anti-social in the least and kept themselves abreast of new developments in this ‘digital age’. Some proceeded to ‘befriend’ just about any Johnny who could be found on FB & was willing to be added, thus growing their no. of friends relatively quickly into the high 3-digits category, assuming that this fact alone gave them some kind of a bragging right over their friends whose ‘friend counts’ were nowhere near that. If you have seen posts or comments from anything more than 10% – 15% of your ‘friends’ on Facebook, you must belong to an exceptional minority indeed!

Facebook has from time to time quoted the total no. of people who have registered. Information regarding what percentage or numbers out of these have been dormant and for how long, hasn’t been forthcoming. Whereas e-mail clients knock off users who haven’t had any activity on their account for say 6 months or one year, Facebook never ever knocks off anyone and makes it virtually impossible for anyone to leave even if he or she wants to. It has always been designed to be a one-way street.

There are many who suffered through all the twists & turns of a badly designed & executed app like Facebook simply because by the time they decided it was decidedly crappy and were planning to leave, most of their ‘friends’ had gotten on to it. Added to it was the fact that it was the most visible and high-profile social media platform in most parts of the world and hence there was peer pressure to at least stay on nominally, irrespective of whether one liked or hated the experience. Along the way of course there were the added attractions of games, pages for organizations & businesses and e-commerce among others. Facebook also managed its marketing & media efforts quite well, aside from the misfortune of getting caught out in its efforts to deliberately and, in a sustained way, slander Google.

Quel ricco sfondato di Mark Zuckerberg, founde...

Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook

To use an analogy which will be quite understandable to Indian readers, you don’t start with an Ambassador car and then try to make it into a Honda City say, by periodically tinkering with the carburretor, steering wheel or spark plugs. Despite any tweaks to these subsystems the overall experience would still remain a distinctly unsatisfactory one. Of course from time to time groups of people just switched off & turned to various alternatives and though that outflow has gotten stronger in recent months, overall, it didn’t really matter much. There were always newer markets to conquer & newer people to sucker and, as a result, the total numbers kept growing, albeit at a much slower pace than what had been experienced sometime earlier.

All through this process, Facebook copied bits & pieces from here & there and then once it grew big and attracted major funds, went on a spree acquiring smaller, promising start-ups. It kept tweaking privacy settings, UIs & groups but never ever came up with the big idea or a really innovative one. Copying others has always been its forte which was amply evident when it revamped Groups and made it as close as possible to popular e-groups which had been in existence for ages, with a few more bells & whistles added.

Ergo, its desperate strategy of copying Google+ & Twitter now & remaining relevant & hopefully ahead in the race is nothing surprising.  Given its near-total bankruptcy of big ideas & innovative ones, one would in fact have been quite surprised if it hadn’t done so.

In doing so however it has given short shrift to much of its loyal user base. Most of Facebook’s active users aren’t too bothered about privacy & possibly quite like the idea of broadcasting to the world what they had that morning for breakfast and taking a peek at comments made by their ‘friends’ for posts which should not concern them normally. Much like Twitter, Facebook possibly owed its growth & success to the fact that it managed to adhere largely to the KISS (Keep It Simple & Stupid ) principle which would have been comforting to most of its users. It had a great opportunity to distinguish itself from johnnies-come-lately like Google+ which quite a few people might find somewhat complicated & confusing to test-drive & muster. Alas, in its desperation, it is trying its best to become another Google+ by churning out poor versions & pale imitations of G+’s major features without realizing that, in the medium & long-term, it can’t win the battle with Google because Google, in addition to being the big honchos of Search, has its fingers in over half -a-dozen apps like YouTube, Picasa, Documents, Reader, Calendar, Talk & Maps, in addition to having control over cloud computing, browsers, operating systems & even mobile hardware companies now. And, end of the day, content and its easy shareability & deliverability rules above all else, doesn’t it?

Jerry Yang and his co-founders were the Internet big honchos in the late 90s, having their fingers in everything from Searches to E-mails, E-groups, News portals & Blogs among others. It took less than a decade for it to be reduced to the status of an also-ran in virtually each of these areas. Given the fact that upward spiral & downward plunge cycles have gotten shorter in the Internet era, one finds it hard to visualize Facebook & Zuckerberg five years from now as anything other than an also-ran, still bent on mindlessly copying from the newer games in town what they perceive as ‘killer-features’, to regain lost glory. Didn’t someone tell them that mere imitation is not only the best form of flattery but also the first big steps towards ceding a position of leadership?


A couple of instances of how patchy Facebook’s hasty makeover is:

1. Facebook now allows you to choose from among lists. Unlike g+ though which allows you to select one or more circles, just an individual even or all circles, extended circles & public, Facebook gives you the choice of choosing a particular list, a predefined category like Friends or Public generally which is far more restrictive in addition to not being intuitive at all.

Facebook appears to be forming Smart-lists of friends by primarily selecting those among your friends who post or comment much more frequently than others. Sadly, this can hardly be the basis for your default choice of ‘good friends’. While one can manage & tweak the list as desired, the default  option seems downright hazardous. Remember when Buzz tried to do something similar and it blew up in their face (possibly helped along by Facebook, its media managers & ‘friendly’ blogs & publications).

Facebook now lets you follow folks who opt to be Subscribed to. How is that any different from Pages that one may have elected to follow earlier? Extending the page functionality to individuals & making it an opt-in feature can hardly be called a major innovation or upgrade, isn’t it?

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The Fall of The Print Media and The Rise of Digital Media, Including Social Media

An archived article from the New York Times about the steady decline of the print media in recent years. This appeared towards the end of 2008. The situation, if anything, has considerably worsened since in the markets that this report refers to.

Facebook logo

NY Times article on print media Nov. 2008

The precipitate fall of conventional print media at the hands of digital media, including social media, continues as this archived piece from the NY Times states. The trend hasn’t been reversed in the last 3 years at least as this archived article from CNN will show . Recent studies point to a consolidation among print media. Thus large national & international groups like the NY Times or the Washington Post will survive this onslaught and possibly even gain temporarily owing to the decline and closure of smaller print media. Some recent data & metrics suggest that social media may actually be helping to cushion & stall the decline of players in the print media to an extent.

The situation is no different for print magazines as this archived study from as far back as 2009 will show

The big print media players are now heavily leveraging on social media to remain relevant and alive. Here’s a recent article that describes the various ways that this is happening.

Twitter logo

In India the situation is somewhat different owing to the following factors
1.The low penetration & reach of land broadband networks (ref. piece from the Economist on this issue, shared earlier in this group ) together with the relatively low availability of relevant hardware to access broadband networks, specially in semi-urban and rural areas.

2. The grossly delayed introduction of 3G mobile services which has also helped to stunt the growth of digital and social media together with other content available digitally.

These don’t seem to be by design but rather owing to the lack of focus and inefficient implementation by the national and several state govts. This situation will hopefully reverse and resolve itself in the coming months and years and hence the trends mentioned above will become very evident in the Indian market too in the foreseeable future. Its not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Finally a word about Twitter, one of the major planks in the social media universe currently. It is amazing how the twitter platform, whose initial usage was largely restricted to people tweeting their friends about where they were planning to have lunch or go shopping or holidaying has expanded in scope with brand extension & usage diversification largely being defined and driven by its ever-growing numbers of users globally. Twitter today is getting to represent more of a news network than being merely a social network as this article so appropriately details .

Masthead - New York Times

In fact this ever expanding usage of Twitter is making the organization seriously contemplate launch its own news network as mentioned by one of its co-founders recently. . While by default much of this is already in place and operative what is left to Twitter is to enter into the necessary tie-ups & partnerships formally and find ways to monetize the whole idea.

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Of Japan’s handling of one of the biggest natural disasters they have faced, doomsday prognosticators & lobbies which have single-minded agendas, often irrational


Protesters against nuclear plants


The catastrophic events in Japan, after the double whammy of a quake and a tsunami  which wrought havoc, widespread destruction & death in its wake, typically illustrated the fact how bad news is extremely newsworthy and grabs attention & eyeballs much better than any strictly factual, objective reporting. It also illustrated how self-professed or media created analysts & experts tend to come out of the woodwork and circulate around all kinds of views & scenarios which often have little factual grounding & basis and tend to emphasize and amplify the ‘bad news’ as best as possible. And seizing on all this bad news & bleak doomsday scenarios, lobbyists and various faux liberal activists & ‘jholawallas’ with fixed, often highly prejudiced & inflexible agendas start screaming their heads off about their favoured point-of-view, such breast-beating & screaming often having very little objective or factual basis. By way of illustration, relevant links with brief comments follow.

Bill Durodie, writing in TODAY summed up this scenario rather well. His piece can be read [ here ]

Yukio Edano

Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano


The way the political leadership in Japan responded to the crisis & the hands-on approach of the Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano & also the PM Naoto Kan, both fairly new to their jobs, was exemplary. Even then, some people expressed their disappointment & unhappiness at the situation despite the fact that these men were on top of the rapidly developing situation for most of the time and were taking decisions needed to be taken quickly, working in tandem and by rotation, tirelessly & spending sleepless nights. An idea can be got from the piece [ here ]

The exemplary sense of duty, courage and the great sense of sacrifice demonstrated by both the employees and the contract workers of the TEPCO Fukushima nuclear power plants has been written about fairly in detail and the Fukushima 50 (actually that’s a misnomer dreamt up by someone looking to create an eye-catching byline for the story, since apparently the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant had about 180 people working in batches of 50 for short periods because of the extremely risky & hazardous conditions) are possibly on their way to becoming an integral part of Japanese folklore. Some of the pieces about this group of brave, selfless men & women can be read [ here ], [ here ] & [ here ].

The blog of Michiko Otsuki, a young female employee of the Fukushima Dai-ini plant which quickly and efficiently achieved a cold shutdown can be read [here]. While this is translated from the original in Japanese, the original blog had to be taken down by her, because all kinds of people started misconstruing it and deliberately giving it all kinds of slant.

The way the Japanese people in general have reacted to the disaster and the crisis has been exemplary and there are lessons to be learnt here for much of the rest of the world. Nicholas Kristof of the NYT, who was the bureau chief in Japan some years back and who witnessed the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in ’95 writes about that experience [ here ] & about the lessons that can be learnt from the present disaster [ here ]. The lessons the British could draw from the way the Japanese have handled this whole episode till now can be read  [ here ]. One wonders what lessons the Indian politicians, bureaucracy and even the people may have drawn from this. Given the severe administrative & governance deficits presently plaguing the country as well as the serial scams which come to light virtually every week, one doubts of course whether either the politicians or the bureaucracy is even in a frame of mind to learn any lessons from any such event or episode.

The most dismaying, perplexing or amusing, depending on the way one looks at it, has been the coverage of the potential nuclear meltdown situation, following the earthquake and the tsunami at TEPCO’s Fukushima Daiichi plant. While the basic source of information was principally from TEPCO personnel on the ground, Japanese officials & bodies like the IAEA, mediapersons, homegrown experts & instant analysts who came out of the woodwork by the dozens revelled in painting all kinds of scenarios, mostly bleak, and giving their armchair interpretations of what the reality is possibly like, implying in the process that the information frequently being shared by the concerned Japanese personnel & officials was not possibly reliable or even believable. Since there is no point in even providing the links to some of these works of fantasy, here are some links from industry bodies & sources with some integrity about the situation [ here ], [ here ] & [ here ].
An informed, objective presentation about the modus operandi of nuclear power plants like Fukushima can be viewed [ here ]

Now that the heroic band of men & women, generally getting to be known as the Fukushima 50, have succeeded in stabilising the situation and reattaching the power cables which would enable water to be pumped in again to cool the reactors (check this link here), I presume that the media will soon lose interest in the whole business since hopefully not much bad news will be forthcoming from here onwards. The current situation in Libya will of course dominate the news cycle for a few days at least.

Timeline Graphics of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant problems


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Random musings about the loud & largely unprofessional Indian mainstream media


Barkha Dutt

I believe when the uprising in Egypt started attracting major headlines internationally, some members of the Indian mainstream media rushed to Egypt to provide on-the-spot coverage. Why this was necessary in the first place was a mystery since the Mid-East in general, including Egypt & several other countries would not quite be high-up on the typical domestic mass-market audience or viewer’s list of interesting places in any case and since that is typically the market most national & regional news-channels in India

Christiane Amanpour

Christiane Amanpour

cater to, the move still remains largely inexplicable. Maybe this constituted a pioneering attempt to broaden the horizons of the target audience, as it were. One also wondered what was the typical Indian angle, if any, that they were planning to cover since there weren’t a large number of Indian expats based in Egypt in any case and also since the Indian govt., generally clueless & not knowing which way to turn, as is fairly typical of the way it conducts its foreign policy, continued maintaining a studied silence on the whole affair. In any case several major international publications & channels like Al-Jazeera, NYT, Guardian & CNN to name a few were already doing an excellent job of covering the developments extensively & timely. Also, this being Revolution 2.0, as many have suggested since, constant updates on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube & Google were available to those who had access to such channels and cared to check periodically about what exactly was happening.Soon these gentlemen & ladies made a sorry spectacle of themselves after landing up in Cairo. Instead of reporting about developments on the ground they became the news themselves and ended up whining,

Sagarika Ghose

screaming & tweeting about how they were being harassed, followed, arrested, threatened etc., etc.,. Ostensibly the only one to have been spared such treatment was the outrageous Ms. Barkha Dutt, who soldiers on thanks to the UPA & Prannoy James Roy. She then busied herself going sight-seeing all over Cairo, filing dispatches by selectively cutting & pasting the

considerable volume of material already available on the Egypt affair & pretending that she was arranging to get an exclusive interview of Uncle Hosni as soon as Christiane Amanpour had finished with him. Unfortunately, despite her vocal championing of the Revolutionary Kashmir Stone-Pelters’ Association, she couldn’t get any of the folks in Tahrir Square to chuck even a couple of such ‘missiles’ generally her way which could then lead to dramatic coverage about the ‘brave & intrepid Barkha Dutt reporting from the scene of action despite grave threats to her life (i.e. mortal danger)’.

Having lost a great deal of face vis-a-vis her competitors who could triumphantly talk about being followed, harassed and even imprisoned, she & her boss planned to best them the next time around. Soon Libya happened & despite NDTV‘s target audience apparently having even less interest in Libyan affairs than in that of Egypt, she landed up with a team in Egypt again and decided, apparently on the spur-of-the-moment, to venture forth into ‘liberated’ Libya. This became all the more necessary to upstage the competition which had landed up too, in an effort to beam live reports from the ‘scene of action’.


Arnab Goswami

She then apparently set forth in vehicles hired in Egypt across the Egypt – Libya border, which is long & largely porous at the best of times. Thousands of Libyans & Egyptians, apparently go across it daily, mostly to earn their daily bread in a neighbouring country, without bothering in the least about niceties like checkpoints, entry permits or Visas. However when Ms. Dutt went across this virtually unmanned border, it was projected as an extremely brave & hazardous move to the target audience, generally clueless about what the ground realities at that point in that part of the world were (if they were aware, they wouldn’t have been tuning into NDTV’s dispatches anyway for regular updates). Soon, this became a full-blown story about Ms. Dutt’s adventures in ‘extremely dangerous’ territory, while she prattled & tweeted her way across miles & miles of largely deserted countryside. The hordes of folks who follow her on Twitter apparently got into paroxysms of anxiety & delight alternately, exhorting her through tweets to take care, stay in touch & even come back to keep ‘life & limbs intact’. Any stragglers she may have come across in the largely deserted countryside became ‘fighters & revolutionaries of a liberated Libya’ who were egged on to voice their ‘views’ about the ‘momentous change’ happening and about Gaddafi’s repressive regime among other things.

NDTV apparently fashioned a full-length feature out of the ‘Adventures of Barkha Dutt’ which played out to their prime-time audience. The competition was thus upstaged and in a paradigm shift, the correspondent became the centre of attraction and the news herself. The synergies between championship cricket, soap, Bollywood & ‘breaking news’ which are the four pillars on which most news channels in India survive and even thrive on thus got greatly reinforced and the target audience went to bed happy after being riveted by this latest edition of ‘news soap’, Bollywood style.

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The Case Against Barkha Dutt and the Management of NDTV India

I am beginning to get quite amused by the stream of ‘pieces’ in the mainstream media and in certain blogs which, while acknowledging the media-power broker-politician-businesspersons links indirectly, try to assure the reader that no impropriety has been committed and no quid-pro-quo has been established.

Barkha Dutt - Inclusive Growth - World Economi...

Image by World Economic Forum via Flickr

This, after mainstream Indian media ganged up and shut out the ‘news’ about some of its high-profile personalities playing around with notorious lobbyists & power-brokers, politicians and businesspersons initially and then was forced to backtrack when the news spread on the net and several international publications and their online editions [ Indian journalists accused of secretly helping politicians, businesses ( ] started carrying them  [ Link to TOI article on the topic ].

Aren’t these early days to even talk about whether any impropriety has been established or any quid-pro-quo was there? There have been unconfirmed news reports about big payoffs to two journalists through Radia [ Link : The rise and rise of Niira Radia ] for services rendered (no names mentioned yet). Radia herself is said to have fled to London earlier this year when the news of her meddling around and batting for A. Raja broke. However, she apparently reached out to her vast network of powerful contacts, arranged that she won’t be unduly hassled or arrested on this account and returned to India about two months later. Apparently, recently she has been interrogated at length by the ED [ ED grills Niira Radia for 8 hours in 2G scam ]  but it will be many months before any conclusions or follow-up action as a result of the info gleaned from these interrogations may happen, if at all.

After several days of silence, hoping that a collective blackout by the self-proclaimed mainstream media will ‘kill’ the story, Barkha Dutt first came out and tweeted a rebuttal. This singular fact alone should make many wonder about her level of maturity and her standing as a credible, balanced and ethical journalist, leave alone a News Editor. Subsequently, ND TV & Barkha Dutt have also threatened to initiate legal action against OPEN magazine    [ Link ] for carrying the leaked ‘audio’ clips. One wonders why OUTLOOK, which also carried them, has not been threatened similarly. Would it be right to assume that taking on OUTLOOK would be rather beyond Barkha Dutt’s and NDTV‘s weight class whereas browbeating & silencing ‘OPEN’ magazine would be a lot easier?

During 26/11, Barkha Dutt and some of her colleagues were thought to have endangered the lives of some of the victims through their thoughtless, insensitive and unprofessional ways, all for the sake of sensationalism and a jump in TRPs apparently. When this was blogged about by an individual [ Link about Cheytanya Kunte’s blog piece after 26/11 ], he was threatened similarly with a defamation lawsuit, forcing him to issue an apology on his site and withdraw the ‘piece’ (naturally he must have felt that it was way beyond him to take on NDTV and its news editor Barkha Dutt singlehandedly). There were hardly any murmurs from the rest of the mainstream media about this episode.

Contrast this with the fact that Barkha Dutt and NDTV have, time and time again, mounted sting operations and let loose volleys of innuendoes and allegations against various personalities, based on hearsay and little tidbits of information, often without detailed corroboration and ratification, merely to spice up their news, sensationalize the item and as a result achieve consistently high TRP ratings. News Channels on Indian TV are generally packaged commercial products, surviving and thriving on ad revenues and attracting mass viewership nationally by playing to the lowest common denominators of political gossip, Bollywood and cricket.

Are instances like frantically asking a lobbyist and middleperson what she should convey to certain interested parties and  running around to various Congress leaders, conveying messages on behalf of A. Raja & his lobbyist Niira Radia, mere acts of an intrepid journalist talking to various sources for information? Does this not sound like manufacturing news at the behest of certain people and helping middlepersons achieve certain desired outcomes for their clients? Check out the audio clips and the partial relevant transcripts below.

[ Audio clip & transcript of conversation between Niira Radia and Barkha Dutt ]

[ Audio clip & transcript of conversation between A. Raja & Niira Radia where Barkha Dutt is mentioned ]

BARKHA: Oh God. So now what? What should I tell them? Tell me what should I tell them?  (check out link 1 above for the clip & the full transcript)


RADIA: Barkha Dutt

RAJA: What does she say?

RADIA: She says… that she has been following up the story with Prime Minister’s Office tonight. In fact, she was the one who told me that Sonia Gandhi went there. She says that he [the PM, presumably] has no problem with you, but he has a problem with Baalu.


RADIA: That’s right. That’s right. I told her to get Congress… (her here refers to Barkha Dutt)

RADIA: Okay, I’ll tell her. She is talking to Ahmed Patel, so I will talk to him. (her here again logically refers to Barkha Dutt) (check out link 2 above for the audio clip & full transcript)

Clearly, Barkha Dutt had, at the very least, official sanction for what she did and may even have been instructed by the management to work closely with Ms. Radia. As is evident from her threats and tweets, the boss of NDTV is firmly behind her, till the time of writing this. Neither she, nor her boss seem fazed in the least by the outcry by large numbers of netizens about her questionable conduct in this whole episode [ Facebook Group : Can you please take Barkha off air ].

As a logical next step, could one expect some investigative journalists to check out ND TV boss Prannoy Roy’s past business dealings, various known personal and professional links and associations and possible alignments? After all he does figure in several of the tapes – Radia refers to him as a ‘nice man’, the need to brief him on some issues and about a meeting planned in his office during the course of various conversations whose tapes have now been ‘leaked’. (the links and transcripts, for those who may be interested in checking out, are contained in the two blog pieces by Girish Nikam below)

Nikam’s blog piece on the affair – Part I

Nikam’s blog piece on the affair – Part II

Some last thoughts. As per a profile of Barkha Dutt, her mother used to be a veteran journalist for the Hindustan Times and her sister is currently a journalist with CNN-IBN. Vir Sanghvi, who has been squarely implicated in the leaked tapes [ Link to Vir Sanghvi – Niira Radia audio clip & transcript ] also and is clearly heard boasting about his ability to make things happen (acknowledged by Ms. Radia, who, at one stage, thanks him for making ‘it’ happen)  is currently the Editorial Director of HT. Ms. Dutt herself writes a weekly column for the HT. There is of course nothing wrong with all this. The somewhat uncanny sequence of coincidences does make one wonder though. Taking into account the generally known alignment of the HT group and the profiles and backgrounds of quite a few of  HT’s selected and appointed editors over the last couple of decades, one can’t help but wonder about likely linkages and alignments across the entire spectrum.  Also, one is forced to wonder why journalism in India, like in the case of politics and Bollywood, turns out to have a strong dynastic streak?

An Update:

Since I wrote this piece, soon after the news first broke on the internet and on blogs, there have been several attempts by Vir Sanghvi and particularly Barkha Dutt to ‘spin’ what is amply evident from the leaked tapes and offer various explanations about what they were up to during the conversations. All of these have tried to obfuscate facts and counter-attack at times. Particularly odious and obnoxious was a staged ‘discussion’ by NDTV to apparently give Barkha Dutt a chance to explain herself. It was shocking to watch Barkha Dutt on this programme. She was loud, evasive, aggressive, finger-pointing and had clearly decided that offence was the best form of defence, particularly directing her fire and her petty accusations and unbecoming digs  at Manu Joseph of Open Magazine, which was one of the two publications which carried the tapes. If you watch Barkha Dutt’s body language during this discussion, she appeared tense and nervous and behaved much like a cat caught carrying the canary in its mouth and cornered, would behave. She projected herself as petty, vindictive, dishonest and falling far short of the standards of  maturity and basic human courtesy that would at least be expected of a News Editor. She either evaded or chose not to answer the key questions put to her by some of the panellists. Watch the clip below to judge for yourself:

NDTV Discussion about Barkha Dutt’s conversation with Niira Radia

In another discussion, moderated by Karan Thapar, both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi refused to turn up despite being invited to do so and present their side of the story. One of the most pertinent and telling points made during this discussion by N. Ram of the Hindu was that any major newspaper group in the Western hemisphere like the BBC, New York Times or Financial Times would not have even bothered to listen to the patently fabricated explanations by Barkha Dutt that she was ‘stringing the lobbyist along for news’ and both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi would have been summarily terminated by their employers for revelations of this nature. He also pointed out that once the tapes were established to be authentic, there was no need for either Open Magazine or Outlook to get in touch with Barkha Dutt or Vir Sanghvi for corroboration before publishing the tapes. In the case of similar instances in the past, heads of state and powerful persons like Richard Nixon (Watergate) or Win Chaddha (Bofors) were not contacted or asked for corroboration before the media carried the leaked information.

It is a sad commentary on sections of the compromised, unethical and unprincipled Indian media that both Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi not only continue in their roles but are going around ‘spinning’ or screaming about what they were actually up to, in all likelihood with the support and sanction of their bosses and employers. It is now up to the viewers and advertisers to decide whether channels and publications like NDTV and HT remain widely viewed or read in the future.

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Is India Largely Bereft of Social Capital and Closer to Being A Banana Republic?

The thought or musing rather, expressed in the title of this post was occasioned by several loosely related events and triggers. While it may appear to be a rather staccato style of compiling them, here, without a lot of additional verbiage, are the triggers, issues and musings.

The Prime Minister Won’t Give In; Snap Polls Being Talked of As An Option

As briefly mentioned in the news report that the link above refers to, this was the response of the ruling party’s minions to the Supreme Court’s censure and query about why the PM has been silent & inactive about what is arguably the biggest heist ever pulled off by a Minister of the Union Cabinet. Andimuthu Raja, the Telecom Minister, had just handed in his resignation a couple of days earlier, after the Opposition had raised an uproar about a scam which, according to the CAG report, approximately led to a loss of USD 40 billion for the exchequer. [ Summary of the CAG report on the 2G Spectrum allocation by the Ministry of Telecom ]

If you are wondering why A. Raja is so important and how he could perpetrate a scam of such proportions, here’s a nice little piece about him.

Raja, the Spectrum Scamster and why he is important

The news item (link right at the beginning of this piece) and the associated chain of events, raised a host of issues and queries in my mind. Here they are, in no particular order:

Is it for his chosen minions or for Rahul Gandhi to judge whether Blue Turban is in an ‘embarrassing

Manmohan Singh, current prime minister of India.

Image via Wikipedia

position’ or not or is it up to the people of India to judge that? How can this wimp of a man, who has been ‘appointed’ by the Royal Family of India and who serves as a ‘rubber-stamp’ at their pleasure, be expected to hold his own in any discussion or negotiation, internally or externally, when it is widely perceived that he doesn’t have either the spine or the needed authority to act on any important issue independently? As the PM under whose watch humongous corruption, on a scale unheard of before, has been taking place, time & time again, is he not answerable for it all? Why does the media allow him to maintain a Sphinx like silence on such issues and how can he and his minders decide that filing a response, ‘in camera’, to the Supreme Court’s query about his continued silence & inaction is good enough? Why is he not forced to answer that and several other related queries in Parliament? If Manmohan Singh is the best that a country of 1.2 billion people can put up as its leader, is India really the largest democracy, as its leaders are fond of stating at every possible opportunity, or the biggest third-world banana republic?

Some of the reasons why the media doesn’t quite function like it ought to, if it was truly a vibrant media operating in a well-defined democratic set-up are possibly the following:

As part of a seminar which I attended recently, there was an informed panel discussion on the state of India’s media, backed up by an array of facts & statistics (the only convincing way points can be made and conclusions drawn). A few excerpts and selective sound bytes should serve to give you a good enough idea of the details that were laid bare and the conclusions that emerged. To a large extent, they also vindicated my feelings about the Indian media based on my exposure to two major Indian publication groups during the eighties and nineties, in a professional capacity. I had blogged about my observations based on those experiences in a piece sometime back ( link below ). Following that link are a series of sound bytes from the seminar and the ‘attached’ link which is ‘revealing’ of the way Indian media frequently functions.A 'Telecom' Raja
Why The Free Indian Media is a Myth – A Blog Piece by Me

  1. ‘Other countries have think-tanks to analyze major issues. India makes do with prime-time chat shows.’
  2. ‘In most developed TV markets, roughly 70% of TV earnings come from subscriptions & 30% from advertising. In India it is quite the opposite, possibly as a result of the ‘illegal’ origins of satellite broadcasting in India which meant that channels lost out on large chunks of subscription revenues.’
  3. ‘Given the utter dependence on ad revenues, news as such is a commercial product packaged to suit commercial targets and the lowest common denominators, cutting across all socio-economic & regional classifications that have emerged as boosters of viewership, are Bollywood & Cricket.’
  4. ‘By 2008, numerous regional channels started were openly owned by or aligned with political parties while Doordarshan continued to be a lumbering, state-controlled enterprise.’
  5. ‘Three 24-hr. news networks operate in Bengali out of Kolkata and the heads of all three agree that their biggest viewership is in Bangladesh. Their predominant concern continues to be how to find a way to tap effectively into Bangladeshi advertising.’
  6. ‘Indian television has continued to operate in a somewhat murky legal framework that is more akin to that utterly untranslatable N. Indian word – ‘jugaad’ ‘

Barkha Dutt
[The attached clip documents conversations between Niira Radia, a paid lobbyist in Delhi for Karunanidhi, his daughter Kanimozhi & A.Raja, the erstwhile Telecom Minister on the one hand & Barkha Dutt, NDTV News Editor on the other. Listen to the audio or read the transcripts]

‘Oh God! So Now What? What Should I Tell Them’ – Barkha Dutt, NDTV News Editor

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