Tuesday, June 17, 2008

It would be both irresponsible and biased broadcasting to deny Auroville's extraordinary pioneering achievements

Home > Response to BBC broadcast - Alan Sasha Lithman U.S.A

Dear BBC Newsnight Editors & Producers,

Greetings. I write this to you from America , having seen and read your recent "investigative" documentary video and article on Auroville, India.

As a trained professional writer and published author here in America , I found your willingness to air such a piece of poorly-researched "shot-gun" reportage both appalling and frankly libelous. For not only was I shocked and troubled by the dismal quality of the journalism and the broad-brush use of unverified allegations, but by the fact that it was produced and cleared for broadcast by the BBC, a media network that I have always held in high regard, turning to the BBC as a genuine source of real news in contrast to the tabloid-trending, commercialized, superficial or trivial material that often passes off as news here in the American mainstream media marketplace where lowest common denominator rules.

Establishing a bit further my own credentials, I was a 21-year resident in Auroville (1969-1990). So I do not just speak from the perspective of an outsider reacting and drawing conclusions from surface impressions or biases; but rather as one who understands Auroville Community realities through decades of experience, recognizing the extraordinary challenges it has faced and still faces. At the same time, I do not just speak from the experience of a long-time former resident; but as someone who, since relocating to the States in 1990, filters information through the critical eye of a trained professional in the field of communications.

In this light, I am neither prone to pre-judgment as a naive visitor to Auroville, nor am I a blindly loyal cheerleader trying to cover up egregious behavior and actions that the parent in me would deplore. For I am also the father of a 15-year old son as well as a children's advocate here who has worked as a volunteer with abused and at-risk youth.

With this background, I offer this critique of your "coverage" of Auroville; and, in particular, the distorted angle and lens through which your reporter Rachel Wright chose to portray the Community, its work, dedication, development and positive impact on the bio-region it shares in common destiny with a dozen local Tamil villages.

To begin with, my understanding was that Ms. Wright approached the Community of Auroville with the intention of doing a piece on its 40-year development in the light of its founding ideals and visions. Surely, no one expected such a BBC documentary to air as an uncritical pr info-mercial on behalf of Auroville. But one certainly was justified in assuming it would be a fair and balanced report focussed, as Ms. Wright led residents to believe, on the Community's actual development as a model for future human habitats, particularly in the light of pressing global and regional crises in energy, economics, climate change, food supply etc. After all, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Government of India, Auroville has emerged as a social, environmental and educational laboratory, bringing together citizens from scores of nations -- East and West, North and South, rich and poor, youth and elder -- to work together in common cause as one humanity.

Certainly one would expect to find flaws in such an unprecedented and complex human undertaking. But it would be both irresponsible and biased broadcasting to deny Auroville's extraordinary pioneering achievements: i.e., the reforesting of over two million trees, effectively reviving a once-barren plateau with multi-species indigenous forests filled with wildlife that had not been seen in more than half-a-century; the establishment of schools and campuses for hundreds of children and youth from creche through high school; the establishment of a living multicultural economy and social organization; the ongoing process of bridging cultures and working through the cultural misunderstandings and baggage we bring with us from our past conditionings in order to reach a deeper human unity; the application of generations of alternative energy devices, alternative building materials, organic agricultural practices etc. etc. in the quest for a viable integrated model for urban living in balance with Nature.

So you can understand my shock and that of others when Ms. Wright pulled what we call here in the States a "bait and switch". In other words, she entered Auroville under one pretext and pretense -- that of shooting a general documentary on Auroville -- effectively "baiting" residents to gain their trust, cooperation and access; then she "switched" the scenario, exclusively focussing the piece on alleged pedophilia in Auroville, implying such reckless and unsubstantiated allegations as: pedophilia and child abuse with village youth is rampant in Auroville, Auroville tolerates and harbors pedophiles, villagers and victims don't come forward because they fear violent reprisals or worse from Auroville residents, etc. etc.

Aside from your reporter's complete lack of ethics in this classic "bait and switch", effectively blind-siding the Community that took her in under a completely different pretext, how could you then clear such a potentially damaging broadcast without making sure Ms. Wright actually got it right ? How could you run such a damaging, dangerous and destructive piece, relying on biased sources such as Raj Batra without bothering to check his bona fides before presenting him as some witness for the prosecution? For as you must surely know, the stigma and stain of pedophilia -- even if it is only accusation, but especially if that accusation has the brand name of BBC behind it -- can ruin reputations and a life-time of hard work, cultural bridge-building and trust in an instant.

Which is why when you release a broadcast with such sweeping accusations about such a charged and dangerous subject, you must be quite sure, not just cavalier, before pulling the trigger . Because the collateral damage is enormous -- not only to an entire Community of 2000 people, but to its relations with its village neighbors, with its host country India, with the International Community and its friends, allies, donors and supporters around the world.

Yet in this case, you fast-tracked the story through, neglecting to even check or cross-check with the most obvious sources. For as you must know by now and should have known then, Auroville is not just some privately-run experiment but rather a unique project recognized by India through an Act of Parliament in 1988 -- the Auroville Foundation Act -- which established an Auroville Foundation Governing Board, Chairman, Secretary and International Advisory Council, all of whose members are appointed to these oversight bodies by the Government of India.

In this light, it is inconceivable to me that a BBC reporter who was researching such a volatile and scandalous issue would not interview the Auroville Foundation Secretary, who is himself an IAS officer as well as a Tamilian living on-site in Auroville. For wouldn't his access to verifiable information as well as his knowledge of local Tamil affairs be far more reliable in such delicate matters than unvetted sources free to air their over-generalized judgments and unsubstantiated allegations? Or at the very least, shouldn't the Foundation Secretary's p.o.v. have been included along with other representatives that could have offered a more fair and balanced perspective?

In reflection, I not only find the BBC and its Newsnight team irresponsible for the manner and choice in which it has presented and passed off raw allegations as information, but equally irresponsible for the apparent intentional omission and withholding of information (such as the Secretary's) which might have weakened or countered the biased argument your reporter Ms. Wright clearly chose to project.

In this light, I believe the fair and noble thing to do would be to 1.) immediately retract this BBC video and article from your website and from all future BBC media broadcasts; and 2.) issue a formal apology to the Community of Auroville, the Auroville Foundation, its Chairman, Secretary, Governing Board and International Advisory Council.

Thank you for your attention in this matter.

Yours sincerely,
Alan Sasha Lithman (Savitra)
May 28 th 2008
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