This plaintive plea of anupama airy, a senior editor of Hindustan times, who was sacked for taking “favors” from a corporate entity could well stir a hornet’s nest. it also shows double standards as journos and politicians indulge in the big, gold rush
By Shantanu Guha Ray
INDIAN media’s stoic silence over the sacking of three journalists for taking free cars from a conglomerate is as surprising as the leaked e-mails. A former cop’s leak of internal mails—there are a little over 20,000 of them—of the Essar group favoring politicians and journalists with jobs, high-end cellular handsets, car rentals, cocktail lunches and free yacht rides has triggered a debate that many have conveniently brushed under the carpet in the Indian capital: How much of bad is bad?
There are rumors that this former cop, who once worked with Essar, was trying hard to blackmail big bosses of the conglomerate, threatening to share the mails with journalists. He even encouraged a few journalists to—brazenly—walk up the stairs of Essar House to demand ransom cash on his behalf. When it failed, the former Essar employee found new avenues to tar the company. Essar officials, it is reliably learnt, have filed an FIR about their missing e-mails, worried more dirt will hit the ceiling soon.
In a country where even the courts have not yet decided the contours of what constitutes a “confidential mail”—the incident raked up by an incensed Fali Nariman on seeing a Sahara letter to SEBI being leaked in the media—the last is still not being heard in this case.
Ground zero- The Essar office from where the confidential emails got leaked
But the Indian media’s John Wayne gun-slinging moment has got its second jolt, disrupting the big gold rush that journalists enjoyed in Delhi for ages but halted temporarily when the Radia tapes went public a few years ago.
So where is the problem?
The problem is with the silence of news organizations and media bodies on action against the three journalists. They all lost their jobs for seeking free car rides from Essar and many are on tenterhooks after a New Delhi-based daily reported details of a PIL filed by Prashant Bhushan, India’s biggest crusader against corruption. Also embarrassed was top BJP leader Nitin Gadkari who had availed a free vacation on a yacht owned by the Ruia brothers—promoters of Essar—in the high seas of Europe.
Gadkari has calmly defended his right to vacation at the cost of a family friend, but the debate on what a journalist should do or not do rages on. At the center of it were those who lost their jobs—Sandeep Bamzai, editor of Mail Today, Anupama Airy, energy editor of Hindustan Times and Meetu Jain, a senior reporter with Times Now—for seeking vehicles for personal use.
In a letter to editor, Airy asked if she could raise cash for events organized by HT, help editors with book sales and jobs for friends, couldn’t she seek a vehicle for a friend?
In all probability, the Essar mail leak was a case of selective outrage and a knee-jerk reaction. It is a moot question whether the favor to the three actually transcended into writing “soft articles” about the group that has interests in steel, coal and shipping across India and the world.
The issue was further stoked by a passionate letter written by Airy to her editor, Sanjoy Narayan. She is a top energy writer, who recently signed a deal to write a book on the slugfest between Ambani brothers over sharing of gas from the Krishna-Godavari basin.
Airy, who was seen walking out of the editor’s office weeping inconsolably, wanted to know, probably for the first and last time: “What is my crime?” She claimed in the note that she had asked for a vehicle to help a family friend who couldn’t find a cab during a busy marriage season in Delhi.
The editors did not respond; they had issued a note to reporters in Delhi about Airy’s sacking. Now, pained and frustrated, Airy shot off a long letter (see box) that—actually—set the cat among the pigeons and shook up many in the city, where many—in private conversations—agreed that her termination was hasty and unfortunate.
Airy is out of her job. She told a few friends that she intends finishing her book and then return to a profession she loved like her children.
Slowly, yet steadily, Airy is finding support in Delhi where many are siding with her, arguing she should not have been sacked overnight without a proper investigation that would have conclusively proved a quid-pro-quo. There were, of course, other editors who uploaded the e-mails on their websites to offer examples of what they would call as tainted reporters. But somewhere, many were missing the right picture.
“It is a pity that Indian media does not have a system to check flaws, check if reporters are doing biased news reports for favors. Till that happens, these incidents will continue to filter through,” said Ajay Upadhayay, a veteran journalist and a member of the Editors Guild.
Upadhyay should know. He raised the issue of The New York Times that printed a three-page apology for its readers in the wake of the 2003 Jayson Blair incident when the reporter was charged with plagiarism and fabrication. “But even then, with evidence on hand, The New York Times probed the case for long before firing the reporter and printing an apology. I don’t see that happening in India,” argued Upadhyay.
Savyasaachi Jain and Sanjoy Narayan, Editor-in-Chief Hindustan Times
Savyasaachi Jain, senior lecturer, Swansea University, UK, said these revelations are minor infractions when compared to the deeply embedded, institutionalized dishonest practices. “Individual journalists in India have always taken advantage of the relatively lavish hospitality offered by their sources and the widely prevalent stereotype of ‘you can buy a journalist for a bottle of whisky’ has a ring of truth to it. In Indian journalism, we tend to get too close to our sources, and the exchange of favors runs both ways, with journalists massaging the reputations of sources in return for hospitality. So, it is shameful and unethical and an indicator of a very deep and disturbing rot in our journalism.”
He said the firing of journalists over these issues is usually a case of the pot calling the kettle black. “There are relatively few editors in India who insist on high ethical standards, and who back up this demand with a newsgathering budget that can eliminate the temptation to accept hospitality from sources,” he added.
Jain was scathing in his indictment of this industry, and said: “We tend to bury our heads in the sand and to believe that these ethical problems are an acceptable state of affairs. This is rubbish. I’ve worked with editors who set high standards and empower their colleagues to do so as well. It can be done. It requires more spine, some imaginative thinking and a jettisoning of intellectual and ethical laziness.”
Many say the line between editorial and non-editorial is blurred. Last year’s incident of Zee channel’s editors being caught on camera allegedly demanding cash for providing “friendly coverage” was one such example of editors overstepping their jurisdiction to raise cash for the owners. There is also an argument that the lines are blurred because newspapers are heavily subsidized, offered—mostly at rates lower than `10 a copy despite high printing costs ranging from `18-35 a copy. A recent analysis on media expenses done by students of a private college in India showed that salaries constitute only 17-22 percent of the average revenue of the newspapers. Nearly 70 percent is spent towards buying newsprint.
“These heavily subsidized papers—that do not have enough capital or intellect to pursue the truth—demand a high price from journalists,” remarked a senior journalist. He said that if editors and owners were the biggest financial beneficiaries of corporate interplay with the media, how would gullible reporters know where to draw the line?
Airy is not talking. She messaged to her friends: “When our phone hangs or slows down, we delete all unwanted pictures, files and videos. One should treat one’s life in a similar manner.” Who will re-draw the Thin Red Line and end Indian journalism’s second sleepless night?
I have already submitted my resignation and the same would have reached you by now. However, I would like to put things in
perspective and understand how what I have done for a friend has amounted to taking a favour while what I have been doing for my bosses and asked to do for the organisation doesn’t amount to taking a favour.
One, after having worked for so many years, none of you held my hands despite my being truly working for the interest of the organisation. If my asking for a help from a friend who I know for years for a vehicle for a third person amounts to a favour what amounts to the following..
1. Arnab asking most of us for helping him sell copies of his book. He called me to seek help from corporates. Essar helped him by buying 250 copies and Reliance was also contacted to push sales amidst other cos. Then tweets on his book from a few others following a request from him.
2. Arnab asked me for a vehicle support for his trip to Mumbai and I had even organised the same. However he didn’t take it later.
3. Sanjoy how many times have I been told to help for sponsorships from most energy firms for HT’s leadership summit. More than 1 cr worth of sponsorships every year. I have been used but I considered it my duty to do things for my organisation and my bosses.
4. Sanjoy you asked for a lady’s transfer..known to you.. from NTPC Chairman. I spoke to him. That was certainly not a favour as i tried balancing all my duties and respect for you all none of you could take a stand for me.
My fault…I came and spoke to you that yes I requested for providing a vehicle to a frnd that to from a personal friend in Essar and not as a company executive. If I was guilty of a wrong doing I wouldn’t have come to you.
Arnab asked me to speak to Anjali Bansal of Spencer and Stuart and other headhunters for his wife’s job and the head hunter dealing with Oracle account. I spoke to them and tried to help him. That was certainly not a favour.
But what I have done to help a third person is a favour.Gaurav Chodhury takes all corporate gifts including I-tab, gold coin and other expensive gifts and PR guys are there to disclose that…none of this is favour. He asks them to leave these things home and not in office.
Why am I then being made to plead guilty by be believing a email which the company had said is fabricated. Just that I came and told you. This is the price I have to pay for being honest. I could hv also easily dismissed it. Why then none of you stood by me.
I am deeply hurt sir.