Pseudonymous author spells finis to Mint editor?

28 December 2008

avataraspxPRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: Journalists at Mint, the business daily launched by the Hindustan Times group as “an unbiased and clear-minded chronicler of the Indian dream”, are in a state of shock after the dramatic weekend announcement of the resignation of its founding editor, Raju Narisetti (in picture), less than two years after its February 2007 launch.

For the record, the well-regarded Narisetti, 42, maintains there is nothing more to the move than what an internal HT memo stated last week: that it is part of a “leadership transition that is aimed at leading the next phase of Mint” (which has an ongoing editorial arrangement with The Wall Street Journal).

Rajiv Verma, the CEO of HT Media, which publishes Mint, and in whose name the HT internal memo went out, told the media website, exchange4media:

“Raju had come from the US and he has been here with us ever since the paper was announced in 2006. He now wants to move back. However, as Advisory Editorial Director, his association with HT Media would continue.”

Senior HT staffers too claim that Narisetti was on “exit mode” for a while now, and Ranganathan Sukumar had been named as his deputy some months ago with precisely this possibility in mind. (The buzz is Narisetti is headed back to The Wall Street Journal, where he worked in its pre-Rupert Murdoch days, serving as its editorial head in Europe.)

However, the suddenness of the announcement has set journalistic tongues wagging, and there are quite a few within and outside the organisation who believe the exit may have had something to do with the publication of an opinion page article 19 days ago, by a serving IAS officer writing under the pseudonym Athreya (an inference subsequently refuted by Raju Narisetti on 4 January 2009, and termed as “irresponsible…lies”.)

***

In the article “An open letter to the PM,” published on December 10, the pseudonymous IAS officer wrote, among other things:

# “Mr Prime Minister, you were selected, not elected by the people, for just one reason, that you posed no threat to anyone in the Congress party. You were not selected for your excellent PhD or for your integrity; not even for your competence as a civil servant. You were considered the least of all evils…”

# “[Y]our government has lost all credibility with the people, and the buck stops with you…. at least now, when India is under attack on its own soil, please act. And if you can’t act, please get out of the way and allow someone more effective to run the country.”

# “As PM, can you not sack or transfer your national security adviser, the Intelligence Bureau chief, the Coast Guard director general, the navy chief—can you or can you not get rid of your entire top brass and send a signal down the line?”

# “Are you telling us you don’t know that your telecom, environment and shipping ministries are the home of organized mafias looting the exchequer?”

Eight days later, the tone and tenor of the article clearly proved juicy enough for the BJP’s member of Parliament from Bangalore South, H.N. Ananth Kumar, to raise it in a Lok Sabha discussion on the economic slowdown to needle the government.

In response, the new Union home minister P. Chidambaram, went for the jugular:

“He (Kumar) cited an article allegedly written by an IAS officer. I have read the article. I do not know whether the name of that author given in that article is a true name or a pseudo name. I do not know whether he is an IAS officer.

“All I know is either he is a disloyal officer or a coward or both. If he had the courage, he should write the letter, sign in his own name and send it to the Prime Minister. But I hope they (BJP) do not encourage such officers; they did not encourage them when they were in power. So what is the point of citing a pseudonymous or anonymous author’s article taking shelter under it and running away when the reply is to be delivered?”

Mint, which has made its editorial integrity its USP, did not let matters rest there. The paper carried “An open clarification on an open letter” on December 22 with the declaration “Mint does not lie to its readers or knowingly mislead them. Period.”

And then Raju Narisetti himself joined issue the following day with an item on his Mint blog “A Romantic Realist”, with a piece entitled “On open letters and media ethics“.

The essence of the clarification and the blog post was identical. That while Mint‘s code of journalistic conduct doesn’t allow the use of “pseudonyms, composite characters or fictional names…” the said piece had been discussed internally and carried “because the author’s proposed article raised significant and valid questions to spur a national debate.”

Narisetti’s clarification and blog post didn’t stop at that. They reminded Chidambaram of the long tradition of anonymous articles, including a standout one, 71 years ago.

“In November 1937, the Modern Review, then India’s most well-regarded journal of opinion, published an article on Jawaharlal Nehru written by Chanakya, an obvious pseudonym. The author hit out at Nehru’s latent dictatorial tendencies and his “intolerance for others and a certain contempt for the weak and inefficient”. Its author warned: “Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar.” There were howls of protest from loyalists until it was revealed much later that Nehru himself was the author of this piece.”

Were all members of Parliament and bureaucrats who spoke anonymously to the media “disloyal” or “cowardly”, Narisetti asked.

As news of the resignation made the headlines over the weekend, reader Ganesh posted this comment to Narisetti’s blog post:

“It came as a shock to me that Mr Narisetti is leaving. But, we, Mint readers, need a proper explanation on why Mr Narisetti is leaving? Mint has done some good reporting on other media. Now it is a test for Mint to report on itself.”

Whether Mint will treat Narisetti’s resignation in the same professional way it has employed to report the rest of the media we will soon know.

The Hindustan Times, as a group, has had a number of editorial casualties at the top in the last few years. One editor (V.N. Narayanan) left after he plagiarised 1,240 words of his 1,400-word Sunday column from a Sunday Times, London, column. And one other editor is said to have had to leave because he took on a high government functionary, who has also been mentioned in the article by the pseudonymous IAS officer. The reasons behind the resignations have never been revealed to the reading public.

(An earlier version of this piece carried inferences which have been since excised following a belated clarification from Raju Narisetti.)

Photograph: courtesy LiveMint

Also read: Raju Narisetti: ’5 reasons to be optimistic of Indian journalism’

M.J. Akbar: ‘Never let your head stoop as a journalist’

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2 Responses to “Pseudonymous author spells finis to Mint editor?”

  1. Mysore Peshva Says:

    Excellent post — you ask two very important questions.

    On the IAS officer’s anonymous letter, home minister P. Chidambaram’s position — regardless of Mint’s code — is legally and ethically untenable.

    I enjoyed your amusing example of Pandit Nehru’s exercise of anonymous speech. May I remind Mr. Chidambaram that even the influential Federalist Papers authored by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay in the United States in the 1780s were published under a ghost name, “Publius.” Given the role the Federalist Papers played in America’s accepting the new Constitution, we may say that pseudonymous speech, in a way, midwifed the birth of the world’s first democracy.

    Pseudonymous speech is strongly protected in almost all democracies. The United States Supreme Court has, in several rulings, accorded it complete First Amendment protection, a case in point being McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995) in which Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court, cited no less than the 19th-century English philosopher John Stuart Mill to declare, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.”

    Mr. Chidambaram, doubtless, knows this history — he would do well to show some intellectual honesty.

    Your second point, about the Editor’s Guild of India, is fascinating because it is so troubling. Any corruption in the Editor’s Guild of India would be akin to appointing the proverbial fox to guard the coop. You note that “owners [are] now masquerading as editors and grabbing squatting rights on the guild and its committees.”

    The Guild, with well more than 200 influential members, has a unique position to protect/enhance the quality of journalism. But it can act as a bulwark — to pre-empt any government regulation — only if it is effective in guiding India’s press. With the consolidation of ownership, there has emerged a strong possibility of conflicts of interest among editors who are also owners. The Editors’ Guild must clearly articulate a position on admitting owners as members/officers. On that depends its effectiveness, perhaps even its credibility.

    In Raju Narisetti Mint has an editor who is, in many ways, a role model.

    Certainly, Ms. Shobhana Bhartiya owes Mint’s readers an explanation — unless she feels her chances to be adorned with a Padma Shri (in a tradition of the verbose trio of television, Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai and Vinod Dua) might increase if she shortchanges the readers!

    After all, there is still one Padma awards season to go before the general elections of 2010. The shenanigans suggest that anything can happen in India.


  2. [...] Pseudonymous author spells finis to Mint editor? [...]


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