The Spotlight on Incest

Why it often takes an outsider to bring change and why everybody in leadership positions ought to put the movie ‘Spotlight’ on their list of mandatory viewing

Charles Assisi

[Image by Gerd Altmann under Creative Commons]

That the 2015 movie Spotlight, a taut thriller that recounts the story of an investigation by the reporters of the newspaper The Boston Globe into the sexual abuse of children by clerics of the Catholic Church is a front-runner for the Oscars is secondary. What is primary is the accompanying shame that hits viewers in the gut.

And that is because contrary to what you would imagine, this isn’t a movie about journalism in its finest traditions—but about looking at truth dispassionately, leadership against the odds, the gumption to question fondly held notions, acknowledging frailties and acquiring wisdom to set all of what is wrong, right. These are traits that aren’t acquired easily. That the setting is the newsroom of a popular newspaper is completely incidental. Think of it as a metaphor if you will of how countries, organizations and individuals behave instead.

The film is yet to be released in India but most cinema aficionados perhaps already know the plot. The Boston Globe is a hugely successful and widely respected newspaper in a predominantly Catholic community. The rolls of the newspaper include Spotlight, a team of four reporters who spend all of their time and energies on investigative journalism. They are hugely successful at what they do.

When the editor retires, everybody at the organization takes it for granted somebody from the system will be elevated to take his role. But the management in a moment of epiphany thinks it may just be appropriate to bring an outsider. Marty Baron, a man brought up in the Jewish faith and a rank outsider to Boston, finally gets into the system. Liev Schreiber powerfully and subtly etches the role.

As is the wont in most organizations, when a new leader takes charge, they look at what their predecessors have done, evaluate it, and try to figure if there are better ways to do things. In any which case, that is what good leaders intend to do. And as is often the case, their intent is met with hostility—overt at times, covert at others.

When the new editor gets down to the job on hand, a sparsely reported news item catches his eye. Buried in the pages of the newspaper, he sees sporadic reports of children being sexually abused by priests in the Catholic Church. Why, the “outsider” in the new system wonders, and asks that in as many words to the “insiders”.

The first response is that the newspaper has already reported on it, the concerned authorities at the Church have taken appropriate action—and that these are perhaps one off episodes that don’t need further investigation. He declines to buy the argument.

Some moments of debate and tension later, the argument resonates across the room and the team galvanizes into action. It is pertinent to pause here for a moment and ask why did the new editor turn to a small four-person team to lead change? Why didn’t he mount a frontal attack on the larger system that was in need of an even bigger overhaul?

When looked at from a thoughtful leader’s perspective, it makes sense in the longer term to go after potential areas where the chances of acquiring wins are higher. Most leaders, who come in from the outside, in desperate attempts to make their presence felt, go into slash and burn mode. This is the kind of thing that can backfire dramatically and is very often a point of no return.

That is why, with some convincing, a team most likely to buy into his ideas seemed the wisest thing to do. Months of meticulous investigation later, they blow the lid off one of the Catholic Church’s darkest secrets—that it actively connived to protect the worst kind of offenders.

The Boston Globe Building The Boston Globe's investigation into the sexual abuse of children by clerics of the Catholic Church got the newspaper many accolades, including the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism in 2003, and exposed a series of child abuse scandals in churches across the world. [Boston Globe by Tony Fischer under Creative Commons]

The story got The Boston Globe many accolades including the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism in 2003, exposed a series of child abuse scandals in churches across the world, and it eventually took a man like Pope Francis, the current head of the church and an outsider to the system that is the Vatican, to muster the courage to apologize. “Before God and his people I express my sorrow for the sins and grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse committed against you. And I humbly ask forgiveness,” he said at a private mass in Vatican City.

That is one among the many reasons why Spotlight is a movie not just every journalist, but everybody in leadership positions ought to put on their list of mandatory viewing. It begs that we ask of ourselves where our moral compass lies.

Let us consider a set of simple questions. Why does pretty much everybody believe Indian media houses are compromised entities? Why does everybody think Indian businesses get to where they are because they are inherently corrupt? Why does every Indian believe business cannot be a force for good?

Spotlight offers an answer: Incest.

When the team at The Boston Globe finally got down to investigating the scandal, what stunned them initially was that their findings weren’t new. The Church knew about it all along. A medieval code of honour though compelled its leaders to deny any wrongdoing. Instead, they went out of their way to not just eliminate traces of incriminating documents, but protect the perpetrators as well. From an editor’s perspective, this was as damning as it gets. It was an astonishing story to be told.

When the publisher got wind of what the editor had in mind, he paused. Perhaps, he was wondering what the consequences could be. After all, 53 percent of the newspaper’s readers were Catholic—just the kind of audience advertisers in the newspaper reached out to. If a story as damning as this were carried, it could antagonize readers and in turn advertisers on whom The Boston Globe depended for sustenance. Marty Baron, though, is one of the rare editors that holds his ground and insists on having his way.

And the only reason he can do that is because he is an outsider who has the advantage of distance to understand a story like this will not alienate the community it caters to. Instead, it addresses the reader’s unstated need that they know the underbelly of the system they blindly believe in.

Turn the gaze now to India. Speaking off-the-record, business tycoons of impeccable pedigree talk disdainfully of the media houses and journalists that feature them. They make no attempt to conceal the contempt they hold journalists in; who are grateful for having gotten a sound byte or an exclusive interview on a good day; and their counterparts on the business side for having wrangled some money in advertising spends. They speak disdainfully of people in the government as well. That said, they have the gall as well to believe they are demi-gods whom the masses worship because of the monies they control.

Those in government think of business people as obliged objects. Behind their backs, they speak disdainfully of their “ill-gotten” wealth that accrued to them on the back of pleas for favours.

As for Indian journalists, when the day’s job is done, often they congregate to exchange notes on how aware they are that they are being used as tools both by the publishers of the title they work in and the folks whom they deal with in desperate attempts to get stories that may please their editors.

Journalist Hartosh Singh Bal in the most recent issue of Caravan magazine brilliantly captures these incestuous relationships. Writing on the relationship between the current finance and information & broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley and journalist, he recounts an anecdote that sums it all up:

“I can still remember a story he related at one of the evenings I attended. Jaitley was explaining why he felt India Today, under its then editor Prabhu Chawla, was gunning for him. The story, that involved columnist Swapan Dasgupta and Chawla was scurrilous and unprintable. But I do recall being taken aback by the ease with which Jaitley could betray the confidences of even those such as Dasgupta—who continues to be considered close to him—to a complete stranger. Four years later, I met Jaitley again at the BJP office in Ahmedabad where I had gone to cover the 2007 Gujarat Assembly elections. As I spoke to Jaitley, Dasgupta sat at his feet taking dictation for a press release. By then I had spent a few years in Delhi, and nothing that Lutyens’ insiders put themselves through in their need to be close to power could surprise me.”

As much as all of these creatures think of each other as spineless, nobody has the spunk to rock the boat. Because at the end of the day, everybody needs the other. They are all insiders locked in with each other.

Kavi Arasu, a leadership and talent development professional and a professional certified coach with the International Coaching Federation has an interesting hypothesis on the insider versus outsider debate.

“There is a certain rhythm, or cadence, to how we think and how we behave,” he says. So long as the both of these are in synch with each other, it is a comfortable place to be in. For any individual or organization to develop though, this rhythm ought to be challenged. But development in any form is painful because the rhythm they are used to work in comes under scrutiny. The most convenient thing to do then is to turn a blind eye and imagine there is no problem.

But disturbing a rhythm is only one part of the problem.Pretty much everybody gets it that if they are to be better at what they do, they have to seek development out proactively. That explains the clamour to get into programmes that promise to change lives or how an entity works. Having gone through the programme and when the initial euphoria wears out, everybody settles back into the rhythm they are accustomed to.

This is because the psyche of every entity is such that after having gone through a development programme, it compels them to look at the past. When done honestly, often it repudiates all of what was in the past. Almost overnight, you begin to look silly. That becomes one more reason to go back to the familiar cadence.

Pope Benedict
Critics insist Pope Benedict XVI, the predecessor to Pope Francis, led the charge to protect those who ought to have been prosecuted. He was the classical insider—of European descent in a Church where all previous popes were Europeans.?[Pope Benedict by Rvin88 under Creative Commons]

Then there is wilful blindness. To understand this, consider Pope Benedict XVI, the predecessor to the current Pope Francis. He was the classical insider. Of European descent, when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger, he issued a secret edict in 2001 to all bishops in the Catholic Church, that the interests of the church be put ahead of child safety. When he finally resigned, many were relieved because he was accused of not doing enough to contain the damage. Instead, critics insist he led the charge to protect those who ought to have been prosecuted. As some people put it, “I see it, I know it, but I hope somebody else will manage it.”

This raises another question. If it was so blindingly obvious to everybody Pope Benedict was practicing wilful blindness, why didn’t anybody who believes in the Catholic faith raise a red flag? Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the four persons in the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe, summed it up succinctly: “When you have powerful, beloved institutions, it’s possible it can be too powerful or too beloved for people to want to ask them questions. And I think you have to.”

Into all of this, an insider is impeded by the fact that a large part of their actions are embedded in the past they come from. When challenged, they carry the burden of having to explain why they did things in a certain way. In Spotlight, the brilliant Michael Keaton essays the role of Walter "Robby" Robinson, who heads the Spotlight team. He was part of the system and knew it inside out.

Marty Baron, the outsider, does not have to carry the burden of history. He is inherently oriented to plant new flags and change things. This is not to suggest that insiders cannot do the job. There was this one instance at one of India’s most respected firm’s when a member of the senior team was elevated to the CEO’s role. It was met with much applause internally.

Overnight though his persona and actions changed. It was only a matter of time before all of the insiders in the system rebelled against him. They argued that they were doing things as he had envisioned it would be when he was part of the senior team. Why, then, was he compelling them to change? “Because my role as CEO demands that,” he shot back unapologetically. Such leaders who emerge from the inside are rare.

That said, it is not easy being an outsider either. This is because they see things differently. When insiders to a system see the kind of changes like Baron brings in to the newsroom, it has a bearing on the insider’s past as well. It makes sense to some people. In Spotlight, there are those like the intrepid reporter Michael Rezandes, played by Mark Ruffolo, to whom the changes make sense and are willing to transition.

But to others, like Michael Keaton in the movie, they are willing to play along because they see an end point to the change. They reckon it may last a year or two, the changes will be pointless, and the cadence at which they worked at in the past will come back to normal. So they’re willing to give it a shot.

But when people embedded in the system don’t see an endpoint to the changes on hand, the system they represent and the world they operate in, gets violent. To give but one more instance from an Indian context, a large Indian professional firm got in an American executive with a mandate to create a charter for change. It was made obvious to everybody in the organization that he is here to question assumptions and bring change. Almost immediately, he ran into hostility—not vociferous because everybody knew he had the management’s backing. So each time a meeting was called for, everybody in the room would confer in Hindi just so that they may make the new man in charge uncomfortable.

Manu Joseph, a novelist, columnist and the former editor of Open magazine is another case in point. Journalistic circles have it that his exit from Open was on the back of differences between him and the promoter Sanjiv Goenka, chairman of the RP Sanjiv Goenka Group. Apparently, Goenka insisted on having his way on a key hire in the editorial team who would report in to the editor Joseph.

Joseph thought it his prerogative to decide who stays on the team and who doesn’t. Goenka had his way eventually and Joseph chose to exit from the magazine. When contacted, Joseph said, “This, is true. This is why I quit. It is an episode I have not spoken about to anybody in detail. Sanjiv and I continue to be friends.”

But Joseph is seen as the consummate outsider in Delhi. “To be fair Delhi was very welcoming, Delhi did reach out. But I could not respond as graciously as I wanted to because I wished to spend all the time I could on my novel, and often chose to miss late nights to wake up early for a run. Also, I wished to have the freedom to write whatever I wanted to, to get involved in toxic stories that are taboo if you wish to be co-opted into Delhi’s networks.”

When probed on why, by way of example he brings up the curious case of Tarun Tejpal. Tejpal has been accused of raping a former colleague in an elevator in Goa.

“The general opinion in Delhi’s media circle was that Tejpal was guilty. I got access to the footage of CCTV cameras in the hotel where the incident occurred. And I believed it was a genuine journalistic story. The contents of the footage disputed some of the things that the young woman had said. Some people thought my story favoured Tejpal. By touching toxic stories like the one on Tarun Tejpal, I became the outsider. By looking at the CCTV footage, it embarrassed the campaign in the media and I became an outsider by doing what I did,” says Joseph.

But, Joseph wrote in his investigation on L’affaire Tejpal: “For most of his adult life, Tejpal was celebrated as a journalist and a writer by a network of Delhi’s influential cultural elite who transmitted that sentiment to the vast public.”

Does being an outsider extract a toll on you?

“Yes, a writer needs the goodwill of his peers and many times I feel I don’t have it,” says Joseph. “But most days I don’t care.”

Being an outsider takes its toll on the soul as well. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an outsider to Delhi. Barack Obama was an outsider when he was first elected to office. “But these men have something brazen about them. They couldn’t care less,” says Kavi Arasu. The moral then is that to be a successful outsider you need one of two things: Either a benign system that is willing to tolerate you or a thick skin.

In a benign system, if the outsider comes in and doesn’t do much to shake things up, the system will stay benign. If the system isn’t benign, a thick skin is essential. But above all else, outsiders have to take the effort to build an ecosystem around them that they can converse with. The headwinds that come with being an outsider isn’t easy to handle. It is only human then to feel fragile. The only way out is to turn to the ecosystem and draw from internal resilience.

Pope Francis
It eventually took a man like Pope Francis, the current head of the Catholic Church and an outsider to the system that is the Vatican, to muster the courage to apologize. [Pope Francis by Alfredo Borba under Creative Commons]?

And that brings us back to the Vatican and what is it about the incumbent Pope Francis that makes him different from his predecessors. He comes across as a gentle soul who perhaps doesn’t have it in him to take on a powerful system.

“There has to be means of self-renewal,” offers Arasu by way of explanation. “For renewal to happen, you need a certain degree of self-awareness.”

Pope Francis perhaps doesn’t have a thick skin. But he can do things differently because he is an outsider in more ways than one. All of his predecessors were European. He comes from a South American background and grew up in the slums of Argentina.

Has he encountered opposition? He has.

Among the first things he did was to start work on a complete overhaul of a long-standing hierarchy. He asked that bishops be pastors “who smell of the sheep and not be airport bishops that buzz around the world padding their resumes and develop the psychology of princes.”

He has demanded “A poor church, for the poor!” That also means a huge clean up of the Vatican Bank, the machinations of which are shrouded in mystery to most people. But he wants to overhaul the place and make it accountable. It’s a slog. But somebody’s got to do it.

And if all this weren’t enough, he is the first pope to have taken the issue of climate change head on. “We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental change we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all,” he said in a speech in the US. Conservative Republicans and devout Catholics were horrified. Why is the head of the Catholic Church getting into things he ought not to be meddling in? Isn’t his mandate a spiritual one?

Jeb Bush, a runner in the race to be American President in 2016, dismissed it with: “Put aside Pope Francis on the subject of any political conversation.” But there is nothing the system can do either to keep him out because systems have their own sets of challenges. The machinations of the Vatican can only be speculated upon. But it is entirely possible that after Pope Benedict XVI resigned, there were a few cardinals who wanted to be the pope. It is entirely possible as well that they could not arrive at a consensus on who takes over. The only palatable option then was to settle for an outsider like Pope Francis and wait it out until the stalemate lasts.

That pretty much explains the sequence in Spotlight when the cardinal at Boston calls on Baron to suggest he stay away from the story for the damage it can inflict on believers. Baron goes back to his office and recounts the encounter to the team at work on the investigation. When they vocalize their concerns around the potential fallouts, Baron quietly shoots back: “I am not asking you to do this. I am telling you to do this.” 

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Pankaj Sharma on Apr 27, 2016 5:37 a.m. said

Hello Charles, I am not a journalist or a professional writer. But, I would like to send some articles to you to see if I can join your platform. If this sounds OK, please share your contact details. thanks

About me:
I have ~15 years of work experience including 12+ years with leading investment banks after engineering (IIT Kharagpur, 1999) and MBA (FMS Delhi, 2003).

Pankaj currently heads the Institutional Equities business at Equirus. Equirus Securities is one of the leading domestic institutional brokerage firms in India with more than 100 companies under coverage. In a short span of time, It has become one of the most respected brokerages in mid cap space and is empaneled with almost all domestic institutions and many leading FIIs. Equirus is backed by a team of 30+ professionals including deep domain experts in several key verticals including Industrials, Pharma, Metals & Mining, Power & Infrastructure, IT Services, Real Estate, Oil & Gas, Consumer Durables, Auto & Auto Ancillaries, Chemicals, Cement and Mid Caps. Equirus has also been consistently ranked for its stock picking externally e.g. by Thomson Reuters and by Wall Street Journal.

Before joining Equirus, Pankaj worked at UBS, Citigroup and JP Morgan and have total 15 years of work experience. He has been Ranked ‘No.1 Utilities Analyst’ by Asia Money and ‘Runner Up’ in Institutional Investor Survey. He also received Thomson Reuters’ Starmine Analyst award for ‘Best Earning Estimates’ and ‘Best Stock Picker’. He completed his B.Tech from IIT Kharagpur and MBA from FMS, University of Delhi.

Charles Assisi on Jan 04, 2016 4:34 a.m. said

Thank you for the pointer to the error Nitin. My bad. It has been corrected. And glad you enjoyed the article. Please do stay connected with the all of us at Team Founding Fuel.

Nitin Malik on Jan 03, 2016 3:33 p.m. said

Otherwise a brilliant article !!

Nitin Malik on Jan 03, 2016 3:32 p.m. said

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This statement as made by the lawyer Mr Ruffallo was chasing not by the Editor Liev Shrieber. This error changes the whole para.

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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