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T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: National versus public interest

These are times of “polarisation” in India, and last week saw three new kinds of it. Two unrelated events precipitated it – the Pakistani boat that mysteriously burnt up in the Indian Ocean and the Charlie Hedbo killings in Paris, France.

The first new polarisation was between liberal sophisticates and the yobbos. The sophisticates pronounced Charlie as Sharlie while the yobbos stuck to plain old Charlie.

The second new polarisation was between the majority who said “Yes, but…” and the minority who didn’t. The “yes but” types opposed those who insisted that freedom of expression is absolute. (This is fine, except what if some people choose to express themselves by shooting you dead? Who is to decide which is okay – words or bullets)?

That, in context, is critical and must not be ignored. Culturally, this is the basic thought underlying the Indian approach, not just to the freedom of expression but almost all things.

The third polarisation

In an unexpected way, the Paris killings served the Government of India well. They took attention away from the Pakistan boat affair.

And that led to the third polarisation between those who speak for the national interest (and its narrow subset, national security) and those who speak for the public interest.

The distinction between national and public interest is a fine one. Governments have a non-negotiable need to keep some things secret in the national interest. Equally, the press has a pressing need to reveal some or all of those things in the public interest.

Everyone agrees that governments need not reveal genuine state secrets. But a problem arises when criminality and stupidity are sought to be covered up.

For example, what national interest is being served by, say, keeping the details of the Purulia arms drop case under wraps?

The same can be said of the press also. Paid news is certainly stupid because it is self-defeating. It is not criminal – yet. But it should be.

The context, silly

This tussle between governments and the press is not a new phenomenon but it took on a new avatar 43 years ago – on June 13, 1971 to be precise – when The New York Times published the secret Pentagon Papers.

These comprised a report prepared by the US defence department. It showed how at the end of the 1960s, the US government had secretly expanded the Vietnam War to Cambodia and Laos but had not told the US public about it.

Until then, the press had generally refrained from exposing whatever nastiness their governments had got up to, even if it knew about it. It just wasn’t done, not cricket, not kosher, not the proper thing to do.

There have been many such episodes since then, the latest being the Edward Snowden papers in the UK and, of course, Julian Assange’s Wikileaks.

In India, too, we have had many exposes, especially in the last few years leading to much discussion, spoken and written.

The issue in the ensuing debate is always the same, everywhere: if national and public interest are not the same, which of them is more important?

Remarkably, those who hold forth most on the subject – politicians, newspaper editors and TV news anchors – all use these terms interchangeably, depending on their immediate convenience.

Politicians have always ignored the difference. Those in the Opposition have ignored it in order to embarrass the government. Those in the government have ignored it to accuse the Opposition of being traitorous.

Newspaper editors have wrung their hands in anguish and waffled. This is because while they can’t be seen taking the government’s side, they nevertheless sympathise with it.

The most mischievous, and wilfully so, are the TV news anchors. They simply want to preside over cockfights at prime-time.

Historically, the national interest argument has always trumped the public interest one.

In spite of the huge liberal outcry, Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers was tried but not convicted. Assange is on the run from the US government. Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency data that the US government was spying on US nationals, is living in Russia.

There are other less celebrated cases all over the world.

The truth is that governments are entitled to hide whatever they want to. Equally, it is up to the press to expose whatever it can.

That said, it is wrong of governments to hound people who expose it. But it is also wrong of journalists to make allegations under the guise of “we are only raising questions”, which they know cannot, and will not, be answered.

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