As a resident of Kerala and a student of computer science, I was curious to know about the recent incident in my state, especially with regard to few media houses leading a direct personality attack on one of the most respected humanitarian leaders of our times, Amma. Here is how the whole incident panned out. A person named Gail Tredwell released a self-published book called Holy Hell. As you know a self-published book is a one which has not undergone the fact-check process that is done by other credible publishing houses. In this book, Gail alleged irregularities and sexual abuse against monastic disciples, residents and others. The book was released in October 2013, while Gail was in Hawaii. The book did not generate much interest in US, Europe and India. Though there are hundreds of thousands of people who have directly met Amma in all these countries, the book failed to generate any interest even among those who met her. Their sales data from Amazon points to this fact.
In the meanwhile, many of the persons that Gail had referred to in her book, came out in open to set the facts right. For e.g., in the book, she alleges that she had to escape from the ashram. But the two people who helped her to “escape”, has since the release of the book, stated that the case was different. Another person referred to in her book has written a letter saying that he had even dropped her in the airport. These and many other factual errors were present in her book. Many other people whom she has referred to in her book have come out in open, to set the facts right. A compilation of all these are presented for the readers here.
Apart from this, Jay Cumming, Senior Research Attorney for the California Supreme Court, reviewed the contents of the book in terms of the facts presented in the book for it’s validity. A detailed review is presented here. In an objective analysis of the book, he concludes that Gail used the tool of mixing truth with lies to present a case for herself. Also, he points out many convenient omissions in her book, which has been used a drape to cover her own wrong doings. A detailed review of the book was then compiled and is available for the readers here.
After 4 months, in February 2014, there appeared a translated version of the same book in Malayalam, which is the language spoken in Kerala. On the same day, few social media users, especially in Facebook, published posters depicting the statements in the book, and linking it to the alleged organization. A news channel, that came up recently, MediaOne and another news channel, IndiaVision, on the same day published posters on their Facebook pages carrying the same allegations. The posters contained heading which read “Spirituality or Mafia” and many more. These and other posters are available for record, but I would not want to reproduce it here, since some of these contain graphic depiction. Also, for the next two days, these two media channels, along with Reporter Channel carried the news of allegations. There were interviews with various personalities, and talking heads. The topic of discussions included, “what’s going on in the ashram?”, “Spirituality for sale” and many others. On an objective analysis of these news, one could notice that the headings used in the topic of the discussion were copy pasted from the book. Also, no effort was made to fact check these allegations, and these news channels continued telecasting news about the allegations, mixed with ghostly background sound, as if the whole organization was a ghost house. The editor of the channel, who is responsible for the contents carried on air, neither bothered to check the facts nor put the effort to present a balanced view.
On the second day, many of the eminent personalities expressed their shock at the way media had irresponsibly sensationalized the issue. Since then, the Chief Minister of Kerala, Home Minister, Retd. Supreme Court Judge, civil servants and many others have openly expressed their views on the matter, concluding that the book contained false allegations. One of the lawyers approached the police to register a case against the ashram, based on the allegations in the book. The police, after getting legal opinion, stated that a case can’t be registered in this matter due to lack of any factual evidence.
But, the four media channels continued their barrage of using the statement from the book to defame the organization and people related to the organization.
The following is an analysis of the media ethics, that the channels and newspapers are expected to follow. These are excerpts taken from Eye On Ethics (an organization started by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility). Below is an analysis of the ethics that are fundamental for a free press and how these four media groups have failed in each of them.
Ethic: 1. Accuracy & Fairness
1. “The Press shall eschew publication of inaccurate, baseless, graceless, misleading or distorted material. All sides of the core issue or subject should be reported. Unjustified rumours and surmises should not be set forth as facts.”
Analysis: These four media houses have prima-facie broken the fundamental principle of carrying accurate and fair news. Over the 2 days, the report only concentrated on the “allegations” though many persons had come out in the public domain pointing out the falsehood in these accusations.
Ethic: 2. Pre-publication Verification
“On receipt of a report or article of public interest and benefit containing imputations or comments against a citizen, the editor should check with due care and attention its factual accuracy apart from other authentic sources with the person or the organisation concerned to elicit his/her or its version comments or reaction and publish the same with due amendments in the report where necessary. In the event of lack or absence of response, a footnote to that effect should be appended to the report.”
Analysis: All the reports carried in the newspaper Madhyamam, and telecast in the other three channels failed to check the factual accuracy. Also, the book Holy Hell is a self-published book, which in itself point to the lack of rigor in checking the facts, which was not considered by the editors of these media channels. Also, no effort was made to get the official reply from the persons concerned in these allegations till the second day. They also failed to mention that a balanced view can be obtained from other sources, for e.g., http://ammascandal.wordpress.com contains responses from people who knew Gail and lived in the ashram during the same time as she had. But the reports never carried this side of the story.
Ethic: Newspaper should not publish anything which is manifestly defamatory or libellous against any individual or organisation unless after due care and checking, they have sufficient reason to believe that it is true and its publication will be for public good.
Analysis: The book contains abusive and derogatory comments against people and organizations. In the face of public statements made by various people denying the facts, apart from the release of the analysis by a famous attorney, the allegations leveled in this book must have been looked at with a word of caution. A fact check of the book and the background of the author (who has lied to the US Immigration on multiple occasions) stands testimony to intentions of the author. But, in spite of such strong evidence for doing a thorough fact check, these media houses leveled allegations.
One of the famous High Court Advocates in Kerala, had released a public notice to media houses to desist from propagating falsehood in the name of news. But even after such a warning, these media houses continued their news telecast, not showing both sides of the story.
Why are they doing this?
In spite of overwhelming evidence that has come out in the public domain, since the release of the book in October 2013, these media houses constantly pushed these allegations through print and visual media over and over again. Why would any newspaper or a news channel, even after knowing the truth indulge in a vilification campaign. The news items, by itself became libellous in nature, in the past week.
So, the big question is, why are these four media houses interested in spreading falsehood? To answer this question, it would be logical to look at the owners and editors of the newspaper and the 3 news channels.
Madhyamam and MediaOne are owned by members of an organization with fundamentalist undertones [source]. The stated objective of this organization (which was banned twice by Govt. of India) can be found here [source]. In a democratic secular country like our’s it is a sad fact that there are organizations which are intolerant towards other religions, caste and creed. But, this also points to the reason why Madhyamam and MediaOne may be interested in spreading lies. It is to be noted with extreme caution that this is not a generalization of any community, but in the present scenario where tolerance and love should be the foundation stone for a secular country, these organizations are using news media as a pawn to spread the ideas of intolerance. It is also a grave danger for other news channels, since their credibility would be doubted.
IndiaVision [source], is another media channel that has always been criticized for airing anti-secular content, right from it’s inception. Earlier owned by members of political outfit, now this channel is owned by TV9 group, which has landed up in greater controversies, especially telecasting explicit contents to increase their TRP rating in their early days, and to more recent sting operations on gay activists [source].
The Reporter TV is lead by M V Nikeesh Kumar, who hosts one of the most viewed new hours in Kerala. Even in the face of such evident truth, the editor failed to report both the sides of the story. Moreover, what was seen was a propaganda like telecast against the organization.
These new channels have never carried any report regarding the extensive humanitarian work carried out by the ashram. The reason behind such an evident bias is a matter for the readers to analyse. But, the earlier bias has now taken the form of an unlawful activity with the intention of spreading the ideas of intolerance. I feel that, as responsible citizen, each one of us have the duty to express our opinion in matters that would effect the foundations of our secular and democratic country. With great care, we should in no way encourage the onset of fundamental and intolerant ideologies.
In this context, it is also interesting to note that the communal fabric of Kerala has been knit tightly due to influence of many social leaders and their organizations, including Amma’s ashram and it’s volunteer network EmbracingTheWorld. There were peaceful rallies and events [report] all across Kerala, in which eminent citizenry joined in voicing their support for Amma’s vast humanitarian activities.
It is in the light of these evidences, that it appears that these news channels have violated all the fundamental ethics in journalism to spread the seeds of violence. It becomes the duty of learned and intelligent citizens of India and elsewhere to analyse these incidents and speak out in open their views based on sound facts, to protect peace and communal harmony. Also, this may be used as a lesson to keep strict vigil on media houses, who use their influence and reach to spread biased and factually incorrect news, with the aim of spreading the ideology of intolerance.
Update: Recently, John Brittas, Managing Editor of Kairali TV interviewed Gail Tredwell. I felt that the interview was done without any bias, and many of the questions asked by him were very relevant in the wake of many of the counter views expressed by the affected people. It is interesting to note that though the interview seemed to be unbiased, the channel carried derogatory remarks without verifying the facts. Also, in all the discussions, only one person was present to counter question, while three (including the anchor) were present to push the argument. In an analysis it was found that only 30% time was given for this lone speaker to support his views, and 4 times his arguments were muted before he finished. Any person who viewed the discussions that followed the interview would have notice this pattern. For readers who do not know about Kairali TV, it is owned and funded by Communist Party of India (Marxist) – an ideology that has always denied people the freedom to worship.
An analysis of this interview is given here: [https://sites.google.com/site/johnbrittasinterviewgail/ ]. This webpage lists the contradictions in Gail’s arguments that was evident during the interview.
[Amma’s humanitarian activities have received global acclaim, cutting across all religions, caste and country. The details of her activities are available here for the readers to see.]
Article written by Rahul Krishnan