Express Trouble For VK Singh
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Express Trouble For VK Singh

What does the Indian Express vs VK Singh face-off reveal about media neutrality? Answer: A lot.

By Somi Das

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Is it a Bharatiya Janata Party vs Congress battle? Is it a Shekhar Gupta vs V K Singh war? Is it The Indian Express vs Times Now finale? Or is it an NDTV vs V K Singh match? The teams seem to have been divided.  Except that no one is openly declaring who is against whom. However, if you piece together the developments on our news channels and Twitter, which followed the publication of Indian Express’ article on the leaked report of a “secret Board of Officers inquiry” on September 20, 2013, it would not be difficult to separate milk from water.

Fireworks were visible the day Ritu Sarin of IE broke the story. The report made a string of damning allegations against V K Singh such as Rs. 1.19 Crore being given to Ghulam Hasan Mir, currently Agriculture Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, to destabilise the Omar Abdullah-government, and trying to change the line of succession by paying an NGO. The report was given top priority on the front page of the newspaper and the reporter also mentioned VK Singh’s alleged threat to the newspaper.

Sarin meticulously described how she was unable to get a quote from VK Singh, while he did give one to Press Trust of India.  Not surprising at all. Not after the IE article on April 4, 2012 with the headline – “The January night Raisina Hill was spooked: Two key Army units moved towards Delhi without notifying Govt”.

VK Singh can choose whom he speaks to and, it has become clear after watching TV over the past few days, he chooses carefully.

Was Singh being defensive or offensive when he threatened IE? Singh used the current weapons of the day to fight his battle – Twitter.

He joined Twitter on September 12, 2013 and made a series of online “revelations” about IE Editor-in-Chief, Shekhar Gupta. Predictably, this got the twitterati buzzing with re-tweets and comments, after which clear battle lines were drawn.

Singh continued the tirade against Gupta on news channels as well. In an interview to CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai on India at 9 on September 23, 2013, V K Singh made the following statement:

“I don’t know if it is a personal battle for him. If a person comes to my house, has a meal, understands the situation, then goes and does a banner headline on spooking the government, and a coup, based on two units that moved, what was the agenda?”

While Singh was hurling allegations at Shekhar Gupta, NDTV 24X7 was the first to get IE point of view across. Nidhi Razdan included Vandita Mishra, Opinion Page Editor – IE in her panel discussion on September 20, 2013. Razdan gave her ample time to defend IE’s report after it had been termed “highly motivated” for being printed within days of VK Singh’s sharing the dais with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Mishra made the following point:

“The timing of the report depends on when we get the facts and the moment we got the facts we came out with the report. If other people are going to raise questions about appearance of VK Singh in Modi’s rally or question on the motive and the timing of the report, those are irrelevant to the story. For a newspaper, timing is when we have the facts. There was no reason why we should have been sitting on a story as big as this.”

Mishra made IE’s stand clear on NDTV. VK Singh wasn’t to be seen on the channel on the day the story broke and Razdan’s show Left, Right and Centre took it up – although his legal counsel did appear on the 9pm news bulletin. The General did not appear on NDTV even a couple of days later, when he did appear on Times Now and CNN-IBN. We spoke to both Sonia Singh, the Editorial Director of NDTV and Razdan asking them why they didn’t interview VK Singh after the IE report. This is what they had to say:

Nidhi Razdan: We did try to contact General VK Singh on the day of the panel discussion. He refused to give any statement to the media that day. However, we did  try and contact his lawyer, who couldn’t come on my show as he was busy for the 8 pm slot on IBN7. The lawyer appeared on our 9 pm show. 

Sonia Singh: We had already interviewed him a week before the IE report appeared. We will interview him if we feel the need to. But just because other channels are interviewing him, we don’t have to do the same and why should we follow somebody else’s story?

If you were to watch Razdan’s show on September 20, it wouldn’t be difficult to guess why VK Singh stayed away from NDTV.

A vociferous Razdan questioned and stated in various combinations whether there should be a probe against Singh almost half a dozen times during the course of her half-hour discussion. At the end of the show, she asked Brigadier V Mahalingam, who was defending Singh – “Do you think it is fine for army chiefs to retire and join politics?”. When the guest replied “absolutely”, Razdan emphasised the question adding, “Whichever party it may be?”

The General has not yet joined any party. Then what explains Razdan’s ire? She also asked Ajai Shukla, Consulting Editor, Business Standard if the string of controversies around Singh made him look like a “nightmare general”. Team NDTV, certainly doesn’t appear to be on the General’s side. The former Army Chief didn’t appear on the channel himself. His legal counsel was present on the channel’s 9 pm programme.

This brings us to the next set of face-offs and allegations. Times Now joined the party a little late. Nevertheless, it did and how. On September 23, 2013, Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Times Now declared on News Hour during a debate on the VK Singh issue that the purpose of the IE story was to hijack a report on a secret nuclear deal note  by Times Now, which the channel had done a week ago.  Without taking IE’s name, Goswami said:

“A newspaper report comes out strategically a day after Times Now reports on a secret nuclear deal. An excellent diversionary tactic possibly and comes within a week of VK Singh sharing the dais with Modi.”

Arnab Goswami being Arnab Goswami was neither on the General’s side nor on IE’s side. He was making a case for himself and his channel. But his diatribe would have appeared more fair, if someone from IE was present to defend the publication. We contacted Times Now to ask if they had approached anyone from IE to appear on their channel. We also spoke to Vandita Mishra to seek a confirmation on whether Times Now had approached her. Neither gave us a response.

This intra-media division on the VK Singh issue has exposed the various camps.  There has been a buzz and gossip about cracks between IE’s Management and Shekhar Gupta, who last month stepped aside from his role as the managerial chief of Indian Express Group. Shekhar Gupta became a point of target online because of his “coup” story, which was dismissed by the Defence Minister A K Antony as rubbish. Much of the credibility of the current report is being questioned because of Gupta’s earlier story. The online venom against Gupta soon became vitriolic. Anant Goenka, head of New Media – Indian Express Group stepped in with tweets to defend the publication.

Anant Goenka made it clear that IE was not afraid of publishing sensitive stories. Goenka has made no statement on the allegations against Gupta. Is this a story which exposes the alliances of various news groups and their stand on the issue? There is no denying that some channels are pushing for a probe against Singh, while others think that the allegations against him are far from believable. NDTV questions Singh more than others, while Times Now has referred to some of the allegations against him as “incredulous”.

At the time of publishing this report, Gupta had not yet appeared on any channel or Twitter to defend the attacks on him by the combative General. On the specific issue of payments made by the army to politicians, no political party will like to confirm or deny that. It is in the interest of national security that covert aspects of the military not be discussed overtly. It may be too late for that stand to be taken by many in the news media space who believe it is the job of reporters to ask questions of the establishment, no matter what. We’re hoping this episode could end with Singh and Gupta doing a Walk the Talk on NDTV. Right! We wish.

Writer’s Note: It is distressing that many news organisations who demand answers from everyone, refuse to come “on record” when it comes to themselves. Except NDTV, who always answer our questions. 

This article has been updated on September 26, 2013 at 8.43am.

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