By Dev Nadkarni

Just exercise some caution when you browse the next red hot, explosive website that claims to expose the evils of our country!

Got a whiff of something that’s hot, spicy and potentially explosive? Snoop around, booby trap your quarry with micro cameras and quick, go online! Don’t forget the accessories and adjuncts too: shady girls, sleazy locations, sleazier language and a great line like national betrayal that’ll have the public gasping for more. In a few mouse clicks, you’ve ensured your fifteen minutes of fame at fibre optic speeds. And with some luck you could laugh all the way to the bank! That’s the Net age mantra for anyone who has any interest in stirring up a hornet’s nest by using that old-fashioned journalistic staple –the investigative expose.

In the new, instant media, the traditional rules of publishing have been rewritten. The Internet has brought a boundary-less, global mass medium within reach of anyone who has access to a computer and an Internet connection. Hitherto, the media was institutionalized. The Net has individualized it.

Who are these scoop-a-day enterprises? Our saviours in shining armour? Or mere pamphleteers with their private agendas –as murky and ulterior as the ones they set out to expose? It would be too simplistic to conclude either way. But given these times, it will be difficult to know the real intentions –whether the exposes are honorably and old-fashionedly in aid of the greatest good of the greatest number or for the very private cause of a not-so-hidden axe to grind: eye-popping valuations.

In the recent instance of the defencegate expose, the men behind the website were almost immediately negotiating mega investment deals from potential investors. How come we have never seen this happen in the case of good ol’ newspapers that have been at the same job for over a century now!

The very individualized nature of publishing on the Net ever blurs the thin line between freedom and license. Terms and ideas like editorial caution, public decorum and decency simply don’t seem to matter (text is reproduced uncensored with all expletives intact). There seems to be consummate awareness on the part of the publisher that there is no authority that can enforce any sort of curbs or even set a standard of decency. Nor is there the fear of reprimand.

Most of all, the widespread disillusionment with public life and the government feeds the individualistic righteous indignation of the publisher, justifying almost any means to the end, all traditional tenets of morality and decency notwithstanding. What’s more, an axe to grind, quite naturally encourages the individual to throw all self-restraint to the winds.

It is the total absence of an institutional structure behind the publishing of such websites and a complete focus on the individual who is behind the stories that undermines their credibility. Explosive content in the online media, unless provable offline and in the real world, will therefore always suffer from a great crisis of credibility. In the long term, the credibility of websites publishing potentially damaging content in the online media will depend on the seriousness, dispassionate tone and provability of such investigative exposes.

The famous adage about Caesar’s wife and suspicion will always be a guiding principle for the publisher and a potent yardstick in the hands of the public. And it is only the complete absence of any axes to grind –both obvious and hidden– that will separate the serious contenders from the soapy, slippery purveyors of dirtylinen.com.

In the meantime, the gullible public, whose disillusionment with public life being exploited so very well by the purveyors of dirtylinen.com will continue to applaud such enterprises, not seeing the well-concealed axes to grind and their own hidden agendas.