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45 years of Watergate: Why this holds lessons for today’s media
Saikat Datta
Scroll.In
 
Post reporters Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation
On June 17, 1972, burglars owing allegiance to the Republican Party broke into the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington DC and tried to steal secrets that could embarrass their rivals in the Democratic Party. What could have been passed off as an innocuous burglary became one of the biggest stories in journalism globally, and reshaped the way reporters could hold establishments accountable. The story started in 1972 and nearly two years of courageous reporting led to the resignation of the then United States President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.
Full Story
Saikat Datta
Scroll.In
 
Post reporters Carl Bernstein (left) and Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation
On June 17, 1972, burglars owing allegiance to the Republican Party broke into the office of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Hotel complex in Washington DC and tried to steal secrets that could embarrass their rivals in the Democratic Party. What could have been passed off as an innocuous burglary became one of the biggest stories in journalism globally, and reshaped the way reporters could hold establishments accountable. The story started in 1972 and nearly two years of courageous reporting led to the resignation of the then United States President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.
That was 45 years ago. Ideally, the episode should have set higher standards for journalism globally. It did not.
 
Brothers in arms
On May 19 this year, the New York Times tweeted a column by James Stewart praising The Washington Post for its stellar work in exposing links between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians.  Stewart was referring to the Post’s latest break on how Trump may have revealed highly classified intelligence that had come to the Central Intelligence Agency through the Israelis during a chat at the White House. The story was astounding and Stewart went on to describe how important the reporting by the Post was.
The story was tweeted by the official handle of The New York Times, followed immediately by a second tweet asking their followers to follow The Washington Post’s Twitter handle. The Washington Post replied within minutes, posting a GIF image of the two main characters from the TV series The X-Files. It was an acknowledgement that they were partners in a national narrative to use journalism to expose the truth.
To those not familiar with the two newspapers, their relationship goes back decades, embodying a healthy competitive spirit that has defined journalism in many ways. This is beautifully captured by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their book on the Watergate scandal, All The President’s Men.
The Watergate investigation was a very difficult one. As the two reporters stumbled from one scrap of information to the other, their editors often expressed frustration. A scene from the now famous 1976 film based on the book has Jason Robards, portraying the then Post editor Ben Bradlee, burst out saying: “When the f#*k is someone going on record on this story?” Those are the dilemmas an editor faces in the newsroom every day.
 
Press freedom was upheld
At another point in the investigation, the two reporters are hunched over the fax machine, waiting for The New York Times to send across a facsimile of its front page. The papers had started a tradition of exchanging front pages before they went into print. For the two Post reporters, it was a low point in their investigation with sources drying up, and they were keen to see if The New York Times had broken new ground. As expected, it had broken a big story that would push the investigation forward. And not only was The New York Times expressing support for The Washington Post, it was actively helping push the investigation. While the reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, hunted as a pair, so did the two newspapers.
But this was not the first instance, or the last one, of the two newspapers thus partnering up. In 1971, when The New York Times scooped the secret Pentagon Papers, exposing the United States government’s lies about the Vietnam war, The Washington Post immediately gave chase, getting their own copy of the papers. The Nixon administration immediately moved court to shut down the publication. It was left to these two newspapers to go to court and push it to the Supreme Court, which ruled with a majority of 6-3 that freedom of the press was supreme and outweighed all other concerns, including national security.
 
Journalism in the Trump era
Once again, after the election of President Donald Trump, who assumed office in January, we see the two newspapers combine their journalistic skills to push the expose, doggedly following every lead.  They have received active support from their colleagues in other media organisations, be it CNN or the Los Angeles Times or the online media.  Largely together, the media has acted as a bulwark against Trump, pushing back on his claims and fact-checking everything to reveal the truth.
This is not easy in a post-truth or alternative-facts world. Facts have stopped mattering, as belief has taken over. Tweets by Trump labelling inconvenient reports as “fake news” has sought to delegitimise the one institution that has refused to toe his line –the media. So, a familiar campaign has started where Trump and his online followers target the media by quietly shutting out facts and uncomfortable questions that could undermine his presidency. But the papers and the media have not given up, and continue to use the first amendment of the United States Constitution, which guarantees them their freedom to report.
What has encouraged this counter-narrative is the willingness of media houses to continue to fund reporting. Journalism can be expensive business: salaries have to be paid and technology upgraded to survive the competition. For media owners, the return on investment can get frustrating as balance sheets refuse to justify the costs.
But that has not been the case here. Despite major cutbacks and layoffs, major media houses have continued to fund investigations and journalists so that they can go about doing their reportage. This, in turn, as both The New York Times and The Washington Post are realising, has helped them find new audiences and new revenue streams to support their work.
 
Journalism in the Modi era
There is a fallacy that the media in India has become more subservient than it was earlier. Clearly, this is not the case. The role of the media in India, just after the Watergate scandal was winding down, is well documented and shameful. Bharatiya Janata Party leader LK Advani’s famous quote – “Some crawled when asked to bend” – will be forever immortalised as a damning indictment of the media in India during the Emergency, a 21-month-long period in the 1970s when civil liberties were curbed and the press censored.
At no time has India witnessed a partnership like that between The New York Times and The Washington Post, hunting as a pair, except perhaps in the investigation into the Bofors scandal – which implicated the Rajiv Gandhi government in allegations of receiving kickbacks from Swedish defence firm Bofors AB for the supply of Howitzer guns – when The Indian Express and The Hindu chased the story with help from The Statesman. But it was not really a partnership.
As pressures have increased and bottom lines have shrunk, media houses have cut down on reporting: the key ingredient that differentiated the media from other publications. Today, opinions rule the market. This is not because the Indian audience has evolved significantly to grow on an exclusive diet of opinions. This is because opinions are cheap.  Everyone has them and they can be churned out quickly. Panel discussions on television news channels are the electronic version of opinion in print.
A TV panel shouts, provokes and fights, with a screaming anchor thrown in the mix, while reportage and facts are shelved. This is convenient and cheap. A guest on a panel discussion costs Rs 4,000 or less, and the topic is the outrage of the day. This means the channel has no need to spend money on supporting reporters who can get stories. The visuals come from a single agency, further cutting costs, while the outrage of the day not only makes for a good bottom line but also decent viewership, all translating into revenue.
 
Fate of democracy
So, we are now witness to a phenomenon where TV channels focus on the Opposition rather than the government. Take the delay in extraditing Vijay Mallya, whose now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines owes banks several thousand crores in unpaid loans, from the United Kingdom. Instead of talking about the inordinate delay by the Central Bureau of Investigation in filing the necessary papers in the British court, a TV channel instead asks if India should break off diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom. The fact that the courts are independent of the British government is cast aside. The fact that the Central Bureau of Investigation, which reports to a ministry headed by the prime minister, has delayed submitting its papers is ignored as well. Facts can be inconvenient and impede efforts to manufacture consent.
The same abuse of those in the media who question the establishment in the United States has been prevalent in India since 2014, when the BJP government took over. This is not to say the insidious relationship between media owners and the establishment did not exist earlier. It existed, and was brought out in great detail by the Radia tapes in 2008-2009, which saw hundreds of conversations between lobbyist Nira Radia and senior editors trying to fix everything from newspaper coverage to ministerial berths.
Those compromises weakened Indian journalists to such an extent that they have had to either hold on to their contracts or report the story. Clearly, the former pays the bills while the latter only earns new enemies.
In the 45th year of the Watergate scandal and the investigative journalism that defined it, these are important thoughts to ponder.  The fate of a democracy depends on it.

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AN INDIAN VIEW
The complexities of South Asian geopolitics reduces stability
Shivshankar Menon
The Wire
 
As in other parts of the world, the geopolitics of Southern Asia is a result of its geography and history – and of its international context and domestic politics.
Interestingly, the southern Asian sub-region has a bounded geography only to the north, where the high Himalayas mark a clear geographic, cultural and political boundary between what lies north and south of the mountains — a barrier or boundary that has lasted over history and is only now being pierced as a result of modern technology.
To the east, west and south, whether through Afghanistan and Iran, or Myanmar, or the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent has been open to influence, immigration and economic contact throughout its history.  This is why the term southern Asia is better than the more limiting and artificial South Asia and when I use the term ‘South Asia’ I always do so in that larger sense.
Full Story
Shivshankar Menon
The Wire
 
As in other parts of the world, the geopolitics of Southern Asia is a result of its geography and history – and of its international context and domestic politics.
Interestingly, the southern Asian sub-region has a bounded geography only to the north, where the high Himalayas mark a clear geographic, cultural and political boundary between what lies north and south of the mountains — a barrier or boundary that has lasted over history and is only now being pierced as a result of modern technology.
To the east, west and south, whether through Afghanistan and Iran, or Myanmar, or the Indian Ocean, the subcontinent has been open to influence, immigration and economic contact throughout its history.  This is why the term southern Asia is better than the more limiting and artificial South Asia and when I use the term ‘South Asia’ I always do so in that larger sense.
Concentric, overlapping circles
South Asia has been most open through the Indian Ocean. For the greater part of its history, the prosperity and security of the sub-continent has been as dependent, maybe more so, on its maritime dimensions as on the continental order. The Indian Ocean is not a closed ocean, not landlocked like the Mediterranean, the Aegean, the Black Sea, or the seas near China around which other civilisations grew. Thanks to the predictable monsoons, the Indian Ocean did not have to wait for the age of steam to be united, unlike other oceans.  Deep water sailing probably developed here first. The maritime domain, by definition, is a positive-sum one, and water transport has historically been easier and cheaper than that by land. For a great part, therefore, southern Asia is maritime.
As a consequence of this geography, throughout history, southern Asia has been an autonomous strategic unit that was also part of a larger multiverse – connected but separate from the universes of the Levant and Persian Gulf, Central Asia and Persia, the Southeast Asian maritime kingdoms and East Asia. And throughout history, southern Asia was most prosperous and stable when its external connections to these regions flourished alongside its internal strength. This is very different from North-East Asia or northern Europe or North America, which were relatively isolated in history and unconnected to other regions for their security and prosperity for most of their past.
This geography means that the security of southern Asia is better thought of as a series of concentric but overlapping circles. What happens in Southeast Asia or East Asia or West Asia directly affects the security of southern Asia. And given the open geography of the Indian Ocean maritime domain, what happens in southern Asia affects the rest of Asia as well.
 
Nationalism is high
The other geopolitical consequence of our open geography is linked fates and open societies within the region. Every southern Asian country has cross-border ethnicities, and shares deep religious and strong cultural affinities across state boundaries. The state boundaries are new and recently defined; the ethnicities, languages, religions and cultures are ancient. There is a shared history of openness to each other within southern Asia that is stronger than in many other regions of the world. Our affinities far outweigh our differences. You find languages, foods, religions and ethnicities crossing all the state boundaries in southern Asia.
Paradoxically, this affinity across formal state boundaries is one reason why nationalism is high but nationhood everywhere in south Asia is still a work in progress. Bhutan and the Maldives are the exceptions in southern Asia in their relative homogeneity in ethnic, religious and linguistic terms. India and Afghanistan are the other extreme, where every group is a minority in terms of language, region, ethnicity, or religion, if one considers schisms like sects and castes.
India, exceptionally, chose to base her nationalism not on a common religion, ethnicity, language or enemy, but on an idea of India. Given the plural and diverse nature of its society, India chose after independence to be a democracy, where every social segment has a say.  This idea of Indian nationhood is under some political attack now, but it seems likely to hold firm as it objectively serves the interest of most of the population, and is seen to do so by most Indians. The short geopolitical point is that the very high degree of cultural and other affinities across state boundaries in the old nations but new states of South Asia, make for sensitive and touchy nationalist reactions and strong defences of sovereignty by states.
 
The changing global context
A third major determinant of southern Asian geopolitics is the international context within which we operate and seek to develop and transform our societies. This has naturally changed over time.
During the Cold War and its bipolar world, most of us were happy to opt out of the world’s quarrels and alliances and to concentrate on our own development. Every southern Asian country was non-aligned in practice, except Pakistan. For a Pakistan with an identity deficit, and which saw itself as gaining its independence from India, joining a great power or an alliance and seeking outside support was a way of seeking parity with a much larger India. This remains a Pakistani imperative despite fundamental changes in the international situation since the end of the Cold War.
For the rest of southern Asia, however, changes in the international situation meant that the decades after 1990 have been the best in history for their economic development, for the growth of the middle class, and for their increasing integration into the world economy.  India, for instance, has steadily grown her GDP at over 6% a year for over 30 years. India is now the world’s sixth largest economy in nominal GDP and third largest in PPP terms, and her society and economy have been changed fundamentally by reform since 1991. In the two decades of open trade and investment that followed the end of the Cold War, the acceleration of growth has been broad-based among the South Asian economies, with Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Bangladesh and others experiencing unprecedented rates of growth. Indeed southern Asia is today the fastest growing region in the world.
 
A less supportive world
Combined with the simultaneous re-emergence of powers like China, Korea, Indonesia and others, and with Japan now behaving as a more normal power, geopolitics around southern Asia has become much more complex. Power is much more evenly distributed in the world than it was during the Cold War and immediately thereafter. The centre of gravity of the world economy and politics is now the Asia-Pacific. As a result, outside great power interest in southern Asia, which was limited in the 1980s to Afghanistan as an arena of US-Soviet rivalry, has broadened to include its potential as a market, as a source of military power, and extends to an interest in its stability. For instance, when piracy became a problem off the Malacca straits in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was local powers, led by Singapore, with India, Malaysia and others, who dealt with the problem. When piracy off the Horn of Africa became a problem in the mid 2000s, NATO, the EU, the US and regional and local powers like India, China and others all deployed their naval assets.
Today’s world is less supportive of our region’s economic growth and offers more difficult choices than the binary ones of the Cold War.  Nor does it offer the economic opportunities of the years before the world economic crisis of 2008. Both world politics and the world economy are fragmenting and becoming increasingly regional.  Protectionism has risen around the world. The rise of China, and her quest for primacy, first in Asia and then globally, and her hierarchical view of an international order centred on herself, epitomised by the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), pose a new set of questions and challenges to the established order and to western supremacy. China is now using economic means, such as the BRI infrastructure programme, to pursue geopolitical outcomes. In effect, economics and politics are no longer separate in today’s world, and indeed politics may now be driving economics.
 
Authoritarian centralisers
Since 2008, the world has seen the rise to power of authoritarian centralisers in several large countries, including China, Japan, India, Russia, Turkey, the UK, the US and elsewhere, who base their legitimacy on a heightened appeal to nationalism or nativism. In a slowing global economy, and at a time when the capacity of their governments to deliver growth is diminishing, they promise more and more, and rely on nativist appeals – like “America first” or “the Great Rejuvenation of China”.
In southern Asia, this phenomenon takes local forms: India is no exception to the global trend; in Pakistan, the power, influence and role of the army has been considerably enhanced at the expense of civilian governments nominally in power; in Bangladesh, the centralisation of power has proved useful in fighting terrorism and extremism and delivering high economic growth. Sri Lanka has gone one step further and reacted to authoritarian centralisation after the end of the civil war by putting in place an alternative government.
The general result of the coming to power of centralising authoritarians is that the fragmentation and regionalisation of world politics is accentuated. It also means that the capacity for compromise and negotiation between powers is diminished, making relations between competitive powers much more fraught than in the past. Some of this dynamic is visible in India-Pakistan relations and in India-China relations over the last year or so. Neither relationship is as smooth or predictable as it was a few years ago.
 
Less predictability
The 2003 ceasefire along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan has broken down, and political communication between the two states is minimal. As a consequence, the SAARC summit has been postponed and cooperation in SAARC has been driven down to sub-regional levels that exclude Pakistan. Even if there were to be a warming of India-Pakistan relations, the underlying causes of the tension – cross-border terrorism from Pakistan, and Pakistan’s quest for “strategic parity” with India and for strategic depth in Afghanistan – are rooted in Pakistan’s internal condition. Therefore, they are likely to repeatedly assert themselves, and any warming is likely to be temporary. The prospect of difficult India-Pakistan relations is a geopolitical fact that affects and will continue to affect the geopolitical choices of other southern Asian countries.
India-China relations, on the other hand, which have always had elements of both cooperation and competition, are also undergoing a shift, but the prospect is more positive. The older modus vivendi from the 1980s is no longer sufficient. Under that modus vivendi, India and China discussed their differences, like the boundary question, but did not allow the absence of a settlement to inhibit other cooperation such as trade. Several signs of stress in the relationship have surfaced in the last two years, such as China’s attitude to India’s quest for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (in contrast to her attitude in 2008 to the special exemption by the NSG for India), the listing of Masood Azhar as a terrorist in the UN, India’s attitude to the BRI and so on.
As India and China have grown, and their definitions of their own interests have expanded, they increasingly rub up against one another in the periphery that they share, whether on the southern Asian landmass, in archipelagic and mainland Southeast Asia, in the Indian Ocean, or in the seas near China like the South China Sea. I sense, however, that a new strategic framework for this relationship will probably be worked out by the two countries. Since both countries have other domestic and international priorities, their core interests are not in fundamental conflict and their differences can be managed.
 
A mixed future
All in all, therefore, the geopolitics of southern Asia has become more complex of late, and has become now more unpredictable. Both these evolutions – of increasing outside great power involvement and interest, and of rising competitive dynamics between India on the one hand and Pakistan and China on the other – change the context in which southern Asian countries seek economic development, regional and sub-regional cooperation, and security. They leave our children to face a much more uncertain and much less supportive world than my generation knew.
But the future is not all gloomy. One effect of the economic growth spurt in South Asia and elsewhere in the last three decades is that we and our successors have tools and abilities that we never had before –we may have new problems but we also have new ways of dealing with them.
 
Shivshankar Menon is India’s former national security advisor.

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