PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: There were two “key takeaways”—as TV anchors remind us every night, two “key takeaways”—from the post-Niira Radia chintan baithak organised by the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, and the Indian Women’s Press Corps (IWPC) in New Delhi on Friday.
The first takeaway is what the mainstream media (MSM) will report happily. Which is that senior editors in India (as the BBC’s Sanjoy Majumder who attended the meeting reports) are “considering putting in place systems to ensure ethical practices in journalism”.
Meaning: aal iz well.
In other words, the grey hairs bowing before their Old Monk™ have fully grasped the import of the scandal that has enveloped the profession, following the publication of tapes and transcripts of conversations Radia had with Barkha Dut, Vir Sanghvi, Prabhu Chawla et al, and are poised to act.
The other takeaway is what only the tabloids would waste ink on (feel free to stop right here if your choice is broadsheet or berliner).
Which is that the president of the Editors’ Guild of India, Rajdeep Sardesai—whose favourite offline excuse for ethical concerns in the profession is “Hamaam mein sab nange hain (everybody is naked in the public bathroom)”—actually had to stand unprotected under a very heavy downpour on a winter afternoon in Delhi today, for an hour if not more.
A downpour of criticism, that is.
The joint EGI-PCI-IWPC meeting started off well, as most introspection meetings do, with Outlook* chief editor Vinod Mehta not taking the names of the accused (because the matter is now in court and also because “my wife told me to be careful”) and striking the right balance of common sense and pragmatism, two commodities that have generally been in short supply.
“I keep hearing that this issue is sensitive and complicated, that it is not a black and white issue. I can’t understand what is so complex here. It doesn’t require an Albert Einstein or a rocket scientist.
“If you are talking to a hotel PRO and he tells you, ‘our hotel is the no.1 hotel in Asia’, it doesn’t mean you come and write that his hotel is the no.1 hotel in Asia. You check and verify before you report.
“The claim that they [Barkha and Vir] were stringing along their sources is complete bullshit. Do you think somebody like Radia would keep on giving information knowing that her instructions weren’t being followed?”
Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief of CNN-IBN, who took the mike next, rightly spoke of the dichotomous times we live in—when the media which has been behind some of the most impactful stories this year stands accused in the public eye of betraying their trust, a point he had made in his HT column earlier in the day.
Sardesai’s sage wisdom would have earned a few plaudits had he stopped right there.
But, as the cameras rolled, he launched into what seemed like a set piece, enlightening the captive audience comprising largely of journalists of his “problems” with the Outlook* expose—not contacting Barkha and Vir and giving them a chance to reply; running raw footage on the website (which also incidentally features his name a couple of times); the use of pictures of journalists not connected with the 2G scam on the cover and so on.
“This is shock and awe journalism… This is bad journalism inverting the principles of basic journalism…. This rot is not new, it has been around for three decades…. In this competitive age, access is information….”
“There is no proven quid pro quo…. The concerned journalists are guilty of professional misjudgement not professional misconduct… Reputations have been damaged…,” said Sardesai in a thinly disguised defence of his former NDTV colleague Barkha Dutt.
“I think what Outlook and Open have done is completely unethical…. A lot of criticism, let us admit, is also because of a certain envy.”
Hardly had Sardesai placed the mike on the table than Poornima Joshi of Mail Today was on her belligerent feet, urging him to spare the audience his pontification.
“I find it absolutely disturbing and disheartening that the president of editors’ guild is not only condoning but also justifying carrying of messages from a corporate to Congress,” Joshi, a former Outlook staffer, said.
Radhika Ramaseshan of The Telegraph [where Sardesai worked before he joined NDTV], took objection to Sardesai’s claim that this was all old hat, that there was nothing new in what was happening, that this has been happening, so why bother.
“Neena Vyas [of The Hindu] has been covering BJP for 30 years. Nobody ever accused her of misusing her access. Likewise, there are a number of journalists who have never succumbed,” she said to applause.
Vyas, daughter of former Times of India editor Sham Lal, contradicted Sardesai in his face of a statement he attributed to her of a BJP politician’s tacit condition that he would go soft on him in exchange for information.
When Vyas regaled the audience of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi “blackmailing” BJP bosses to throw RSS leader Sanjay Joshi out—after a sting operation of Joshi in a sexual act was shown on India TV (which Vyas alleged was owned by Narendra Modi),—CNN-IBN cameras telecast her allegation “live”.
“If Rajdeep Sardesai is so concerned about the raw footage of the Radia conversations being shown or reported, without giving the other side the chance to reply, how come he is showing this,” hissed a member of the audience audibly.
Vidya Subrahmaniam, also of The Hindu, contested Sardesai’s claim that there was no quid pro quo. The tapes, she said, carried enough evidence of quid pro quo since the journalists appeared to be doing exactly what they promised.
From that point on, it was downhill at top speed all the way for Sardesai, in front of several of his senior colleagues, including Bhupendra Chaubey, Vivian Fernandes and Ashutosh who had assembled in the front rows for what they had presumed would be a champagne show by their boss.
# One unidentified voice from the back rows asked, “How can you hold forth on ethics after CNN-IBN’s dubious role in the infamous cash-for-votes scandal [when it reportedly went back on a promise to telecast a sting operation commissioned by the BJP during the vote on the civilian nuclear bill].”
# Another demanded mandatory declaration of assets and liabilities by editors. “How do journalists manage to become owners of channels,” shouted the young voice, echoing former Hindustan Times‘ editor and Prasar Bharati chief Mrinal Pande‘s call for greater transparency in ownership.
# “Amitabh Bachchan read the news on your channel when he was trying to promote his film Rann, without CNN-IBN ever revealing that it was a promo for his film. You should have just said no, if you want to take the high moral ground on ethics,” said Akshay Mukul of The Times of India.
The restive audience wanted more time to question Sardesai but he beat a hasty exit before the meeting ended, citing lack of time and a prior engagement. And as he left, another voice shouted, within earshot of his wife Sagarika Ghose, “Did we just hear the president of the editors guild of India, or the editors’ guilt of India?”
Inside, at the bar, as the old residents reassembled, a young reporter chipped in: “Twitter and Facebook and all the social media have been delivering a simple message to old media in India: look within. Looks like someone’s just too happy listening to his own loud voice.”
Also read: Rajdeep Sardesai heckled over defending Vir, Barkha
The Hindu coverage of the Editors’ Guild debate
The New Indian Express: Heated debate