Tuesday, July 01, 2014
That R word again!
Every day, reporters routinely file thousands of words of copy and only a fraction of this sees the light of day. It is part of the ‘collateral damage’ of the news world – only news that’s fit to print, we are told, survives. Or is it news that fits the emerging definition of what is “news”?
Those who have been in the print media for the last three decades will be familiar with how this definition has changed over time. Yet, every time an ostensibly ‘newsy’ development is covered, but not printed, one needs to ask why.
I can distinctly remember at least three press conferences where the media was present in full strength but the next day, there was practically no report.
The first was some time in 1989 when workers from Hindustan Lever had been locked out from its Sewri plant. In protest, they had begun manufacturing a soap called Lockout, which they sold to raise funds for the workers. The newspapers reported such developments even if the space given to the workers’ point of view was perfunctory. In response to a request from the union, a fact-finding committee was constituted to look at whether the lockout was legal, and also at the conditions of the workers who had lost wages during the lockout. Krishna Raj, the well-respected editor of Economic and Political Weekly, headed this committee.
When the report of the committee was ready, a press conference was called at the Press Club to release the report. At that time, I was a Senior Assistant Editor at The Times of India (TOI). I went to the press conference as I was interested in the report. Reporters from my paper and practically every other newspaper in the city crowded into the room and asked many questions of the committee. One expected that the result of such a lively press conference would be reports in the newspapers the next day. But no, there were no reports, or practically none. Certainly, TOI did not carry anything although I do know that a report was filed. I gathered that the company’s representatives had managed to speak to the newspaper’s senior management and ensure that nothing appeared.
After I joined The Hindu, something similar happened. A woman reporter from the TV channel Sahara Samay went public with a sexual harassment charge against the person in-charge of the channel. She named him and gave detailed instances of the way she had been harassed. She also reported how the company had responded by first transferring her and then dismissing her rather than looking into her charges. Once again, the press conference was packed, this time with many television channels also recording her statement and speaking to her afterwards. Yet, the next day, none of the Mumbai papers reported this. I filed a story that appeared in The Hindu, but the paper does not have a Mumbai edition.
I was reminded of both these instances last week when I saw a virtual repeat of them unfold. The Mumbai Press Club must be commended for taking a risk to organise a release of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s controversial book “Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis”. Apart from the author, the club had assembled a panel consisting of former Petroleum Minister Mani Shankar Aiyar and senior journalists Kumar Ketkar and Govindraj Ethiraj. It was a lively discussion. Press Club President Gurbir Singh spoke of how they had tried to get a representative from the Ambanis to join the panel but the company declined because the book contained matter that they considered defamatory and for which a legal notice had been sent to the author.
While Guha Thakurta spoke about the book and also the legal notice he and others had received from the Ambanis, Aiyar, in his inimitable style, provided several quotable quotes as he spoke about his stint as minister. He also gave his opinion on gas pricing, an issue that is currently in the news because the Modi government has decided to defer any decision on this until September. Even if the book has already been in the news since its release in Delhi, Aiyar’s comments were worthy of at least a few column inches.
Yet, the next day, there was almost nothing on this discussion in any of the Mumbai papers; not even the financial papers, although representatives of these papers asked several pointed questions of the panelists. Only Mumbai Mirror carried something because its columnist, Ajit Ranade (who is not a journalist), used his column to write about the event and the issue of gas pricing. Asian Age had a short item, and a PTI item focused only on Mani Shankar Aiyar’s comments on gas pricing was picked up by the Economic Times.
If this had been a big news day, one would have understood that newspapers had no space. But nothing earth-shattering happened in the city, except a fire in the administrative building of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST), a stone’s throw away from the Press Club.
Significantly, Ethiraj stated that he had received a “friendly” call from a representative of the Ambanis informing him that the author of the book had been slapped a defamation notice!
So one wonders, how many other “friendly” calls were made before and after this event to ensure that nothing of it was reported the next day. Even if they were not, has the media decided to be ultra cautious about reporting on the Ambanis to pre-empt any legal action? Is this not a kind of self-censorship that should have no place in a democracy? And are we going to see more of this in the future?
These are questions that we in the media need to discuss and ask ourselves. How have we come to this stage where 39 years after Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship during the Emergency, the Indian media has decided to censor itself?