SEEMA MUSTAFA | 21 JULY, 2017
Adani Has the Last Laugh: Public Intellectuals Deal a Body Blow to Free Journalism
NEW DELHI: This article is not personal, nor is it about personalities. But it is important to clarify this at the very beginning as persons involved are historian Romila Thapar, someone I admire ardently, economist Deepak Nayar, an invaluable friend and of course other renowned and well respected trustees of the Sameeksha Trust. On the other side, as it were, is editor and colleague Paranjoy Guha Thakurta -- who has been a visible journalist known for his meticulous research and bold writings.
Last year the Trust that runs the prestigious Economic and Political Weekly appointed Thakurta as its editor. This seemed to be a meeting of minds, a relationship all expected to be long lived, as the Trustees and the Editor all seemed to come from the same side of the fence. In that EPW stood for rights and justice, and through the choice of articles by respected writers pushed through a point of view mired in the best tenets of the Indian Constitution. And this to my mind, includes freedom of speech and expression that is coming increasingly under attack.
The story till now can be read here.
And the Sameeksha Trust statement here.
The Trust has shown an arrogance and intolerance that one expects from corporate managements.
That he hired a lawyer to frame a response to the legal notice sent by the Adani group for an article that wrote in detail of their windfall gains. And that the response stated that it was on behalf of the Sameeksha Trust that has said it was not informed about the move. When this was pointed out Thakurta apologised, admitted it was a mistake but as he told The Citizen, he did not think it was a “misdemeanour” that warranted such a strong reaction from the Trustees. More so, as it was just a legal notice -- that come a dime a dozen to news offices -- and the Editor usually does have the right to speak for the publication. At least in my experience in most news organisations -- far larger than EPW -- responses to such legal notices have always been framed by the Editors in consultation with the reporter concerned. And sent through the lawyers. This is a preliminary stage really as in our experience most legal notices are dropped by those who file them at this stage itself. However, as the EPW Trust seems to have slightly different rules that Thakurta was not aware of, he did apologise. He was given a chance to speak it seems only after everyone else had had their say. An editor on trial?
2. What should have the Trust done?
A) To my mind it should have first reposed trust in the Editor -- who in this case had written the article. The backing should have been solid, and firm. It should have then had the meeting against this background where he should have been as one of them, and not as the man in the dock who had to prove his innocence. This has been one of the major reasons why the quality of journalism has eroded to the point of channels like the Republic, as the professional editors who have views coming from their experience and the field are not given the space and the freedom to handle news as they know best. Let me add here that NOT a single person outside the field knows what news is -- although the country is full of wannabe journalists today -- how to tackle it, how to prove it, how to write it.
If Thakurta had been approached as ‘one of us, our Editor’ by the management, the outcome would have been entirely different. As both sides could have discussed the issue in the spirit of what we readers feel EPW represents and stands for -- against corporate monopolies and corruption as well as freedom of speech and expression -- and a way out of what’s not a major imbroglio really (by journalistic standards anyways) could have been found. This did not happen and judging from the statement by the Trust and Thakurta’s earlier comments, the Editor was the outsider.
B) The Trust should have then appointed a panel of lawyers to study Thakurta’s article formally and present a report to the Trust about its legal standing as it were. The Editor -- who has long experience of chasing corporates like the Ambanis and the Adanis, and fielding notices from them even as a free lancer -- had assured the Board that he had documents to substantiate every claim. The Trustees should have believed him over Adani, asked for the proof and subjected it to legal scrutiny within the EPW parameters before even moving on this. The Editor should have been part of the trusted team, not the man looking in from the outside, with handcuffs dangling.
C) For the record let me recount a small little incident, amongst many others in my years as a journalist, that really demonstrated to me what good journalism is. It comes not just from the reporter or the writer, but from the support that is given to him or her by the editors and the management. It is only in such an environment that journalism can flourish and prosper, and the death of professional journalism that we are witnessing today is because of the control of the management and the government is so tight that it has strangulated independence and the freedoms with it.
I was a cub reporter in the Indian Express and amongst other things was writing on the Gandhi film, where for the first time the government had given money for a foreign venture. Everyone was opposing it, and I as a reporter had made it a mission to puncture the secrecy surrounding the contracts and the shooting with a series of exposes, that often had us jumping walls, taking pictures and scooting. Arun Shourie was one of the editors, and enjoying every bit of this. I started receiving calls from a top notch in the Gandhi film production, threatening me, telling me to stop writing or else she would speak to Ramnath Goenka, the owner of the Indian Express whom she claimed to know very well. I would close the phone on her, until one morning -- when after a particularly devastating report -- Shourie came into the reporters room to say, “I think this will bring her here”, jokingly of course. Well it did. And Shourie came in saying that Goenka wanted to see me. There was stunned silence, as Goenka rarely called a reporter, and when he did, it usually ended with a termination of services. Shourie said he would be going with me so we went into the big man’s chambers to find the woman sitting beside him. He started with “you are a very mischievous girl” and when Shourie moved as if to defend me, Goenka told him, “let me talk to her.”
To cut a long, very encouraging and nice story, short -- Goenka told me in front of her not to ever disclose my sources to anyone (as she had been demanding) as then I would be out of a job. And then, as we were leaving, told me, “young girl many people will come to you saying they know me... if you are sure of your facts go ahead, just ignore them.”
The point here is that once Goenka ascertained I knew what I was writing about, he came out in strong support of me against the woman who knew him well enough to gain entry into his private chambers. And did so threatening legal action as well.
One would have expected to see this spirit from the Sameeksha Trust composed of people with high ethics, who have stood up to right wing assault in the past, but today backed off from what passes for free and fair in journalism. Namely, back the editor until proven otherwise; investigate; and then take remedial measures. Legal notices, as I said earlier, have to be expected when corporates are tackled. The business houses have to send these notices out in a bid to prove that they are innocent. To cave in on the issue without even giving the legal process a chance is certainly not expected from scholars such as the Sameeksha trustees.
Thakurta has been in the field for years, enough for every cynical journalist to know him and his writings. He has been courageous in attacking men in high offices, but has always done so with documents and meticulous investigation. During his stint in EPW at least 20 stories attacking high level interests were carried, some under his name and mLegal notices in the past have not developed into cases as a result of this. He was hired by the Board on the basis of this background. He brought what he is known for to the EPW table. That is investigation. He challenged the top corporate of today. Of course there would be a legal notice. One would have expected EPW to back him, and to fight the case, after having verified the legal viability of the article from a publicised panel of senior lawyers.
Journalists are particularly upset. Why? Because of the manner in which professional scribes -- which means independent, bold, courageous journalists -- are being fired, thrown out, sidelined in favour of people whose claim to fame is conformity laced with ‘yes sir’ and ineptitude that covers itself in following instructions to please the ruling dispensation and of course, the corporate interests as well. And we had all expected different from the trustees of EPW whose first response to the missive from Adani should not have been of panic, but to back the Editor instead of pulling him up for -- what in our news fraternity -- is little more than a small mistake, rectified by the apology.
How can a Trust suddenly accost an Editor for little more than a response to a legal notice with the decision to appoint a co-editor? If, for some reason, Thakurta had extended his brief, this should have been explained to him over the weeks -- after all he has been there for a year -- and he should have been urged not to investigate corrupt corporates. He is a reporter too with wide experience and naturally would bring that to the table as the Editor. We all do, and it is part of the reason why we are hired. Or not hired! You cannot hire an independent journalist like Thakurta and then tell him to conform to the roost. Impossible, besides being completely wrong. And going against the role of Public Intellectuals completely.
Worse, why did the Trust, without public legal verification, pull down the article on Adani?
And worse still, how could the Trust tell an editor of Thakurta’s seniority that his byline would not be used? This smacks of authoritarianism, of the kind I spent years resisting in the Asian Age when the editor- in chief would insist that a poor reporter’s byline be scrapped for some small mistake, easily rectified.
We all, each one of us who speak of freedom, owe it to journalism to create an atmosphere where it thrives. We have to develop in ourselves a healthy respect for journalists, who might not have the money that it takes today to rub shoulders with the powerful (as television has long since learnt to do) but who come with an experience and commitment and professionalism that needs to be venerated. Scholars, of course ,write books, but journalists record history every single day. They are the communicators, the skilled men and women of news who stand as the fourth pillar of a democracy.
They have been the worst hit amongst professionals in recent years, the most exploited, the most attacked, with just a few standing in this sea of crawling humanity. Thakurta is one of those few. And it is sad and unacceptable to see him hit by not the right but by those who we admire, and have great respect for as well.
The reason as per the Trust statement is not more than the Editor’s decision to send the legal notice without informing it. The sledgehammer response is clearly far disproportionate to this. In particular, the decision to drop the article on Adani; to appoint a co-editor; and to stop the Editor from using his byline. Significantly, the Trust response does not even mention the article that provoked this reaction, with Adani missing from the communication entirely.
Sad, as in the end it is the journalism struggling valiantly to remain alive that is hit, and hit hard by those it always counted on as supporters and friends. And in the process, Adani has the last laugh! For even he could not have thought that a miserable legal notice would have this impact.