OPEN and Shut Up Case

Expressive journalists and the seemingly unending mother of all media battles.

ByRajyasree Sen
OPEN and Shut Up Case
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This is a story you would tell with extreme care and caution. But it so starkly characterises the current state of top-level media relations that it is a folly to keep it under wraps, as the entire establishment tried to do for a full 6 days now. But like the return of the evil dead, this story too is back – two years later. Okay, so we borrowed a few words here or there, but imitation is the best form of flattery. What am I talking about?

On April 1, 2014, Open carried a clarification on its homepage. This is what it said:

2012? If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the Clarification had got the year wrong and this was an April Fool’s joke. What could make a publication carry a clarification two years to the date of publishing an article? And why was Open apologising in the first place and what “hurt” had it caused The Indian Express?  Well, for that you have to backtrack two years.

On May 16, 2012 at midnight (The 16th again? A mere coincidence or were the ides aligned for fame and infamy once again), a new blog started making the rounds of the internet. A blog which was solely dedicated to publicising a legal notice sent by the much-wronged and “hurt” souls at The Indian Express to the quintet of evil slanderers – Vinod Mehta and Open’s Manu Joseph, Hartosh Bal, R Rajmohan and Hamendra Singh (who seemed to just be collateral damage since he was the IT head at Open and really had no say and most probably no interest in matters editorial).

Why were they being served?

Following IE’s investigative report (and we do use the words loosely) on the C that never was, Open had printed an interview of Vinod Mehta in conversation with Hartosh Bal. An interview in which Mehta had said that the IE story was the “mother of all mistakes” (a phrase which we have learnt has greatly disturbed and “hurt” IE) and that “a ‘mistake’ like this, and the failure to acknowledge it as one, ‘puts Indian media, still dragging its feet on self-regulation, at risk of losing its freedom’”.

This interview it seems had been the unkindest cut of all and signified malice and animus to IE.  The newspaper after spending a month reading the interview and deciphering it, sent a legal notice to the offending and offensive parties immediately. The bone of contention was that the entire interview was defamatory and cast aspersions on The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta, Ritu Sarin, Pranab Dal Samata and Ajmer Singh of the Express Group.

What made the notice fun reading at 1am that morning, when it made its appearance through the fog of the internet much like the army did on Jan 16th, was the thought and angst with which it was written. A lot of research it seemed had gone into this piece of literature.

Thanks to the notice, we no longer need to visit a library or Wikipedia to find out everything we need to know about either the Express Group or its editorial team. The first page of the notice sang paeans to the Group and its motto of “Journalism of Courage” and Shekhar Gupta’s “record of excellence and commitment to independence”. Then we were introduced to Ritu Sarin, who ‘IS’ an internationally known investigative reporter. Why the emphasis? Well if you’re an international woman of investigation, you might as well highlight it even if it’s just in a legal notice. Pranab Dhal Samata is one of India’s “most respected reporters” on foreign policy and strategic affairs. Last but not least, was Ajmer Singh – who was spared the superlatives and simply known for his investigative stories. I hope he had a word with the author of the notice for this slight.

The hurtful Open piece – when I checked today – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/nation/the-mother-of-all-mistakes has been removed and is what we call a dead link. But fret not. It has been faithfully published in toto in the notice. As the notice points out, the Open piece is not an interview. It is a cloak and dagger exercise by Open which has published an “article, in the guise of an interview”. But what’s in a name? After all, a coup by any other name is…. You get the drift.

Just so you don’t miss the cause for ire, offending phrases like “but since there is a crisis of credibility in the media” and “But really it is the mother of all mistakes” – a phrase which seems to have hurt more than any other simply by the number of times it is referred to – have been highlighted in the notice.  There is also Mehta’s statement that “it is the job of editors to detect the mischief and nip it in the bud.” And that “one assumes that the publication itself is going to exercise some rationality”. A shocking suggestion if ever there was one. Mehta himself has not been above reprobation, but as we all know and as he has repeated himself many a time, he has either been sacked or resigned because of errors of judgment.

The points of contention though sway from the misuse of the English language to misrepresentation of facts. The poor dears. We are taught the correct use of the phrase du jour, “mother of all mistakes” as given in Wren and Martin. “Mother of all mistakes” is “a stock phrase English-language public discourse and popular culture”. Disclaimer – the beautiful grammar and definition is not ours. The notice goes on to state that “it implies the largest or most significant example of a class, which completely overshadows all other cases in the class. For example, the mother of all battles would imply the largest, most destructive, most significant battle ever fought. Thus the innuendo is that the publication of the said news report was a very bad mistake and it completely overshadows all mistakes ever made in or by the Indian Press and Media”. Understatement to overstatement to absolution, all in one long badly-written paragraph. It is indeed the end of days.

“That the said news report is also referred to as ‘a mistake of Himalayan proportions’, again the innuendo is that the said report was a very great mistake”. Of course not. Why should anyone not cast baseless aspersions on the Army Chief’s intentions?

And of course that “the newspaper and it’s (sic) Editor are patsies”. How British we say, old chaps.

And then the C-word raises its ugly head again. “That the said news report is incorrectly referred to as the ‘story on the coup’ when in fact there is no suggestion in the news report that there was any coup or coup attempt.”

It’s not just the Open article which upset Gupta and friends. There was a cruel cartoon mentioned as well, which was published by Outlook. One which rephrased “Journalism of Courage as Journalism of Lies” (Shame shame). “This is accompanied with a visual of a thief holding the newspaper’s logo and registered mark (pen with flame of hope) insinuating that the newspaper and brand in criminal activities besides plagiarism.” So it’s fine as long as they’re accused of plagiarism? Say what?

Bottomline being that IE which is indeed the journalism of courage, courageously stood up to the “malicious” forces of Mehta and Open and co. Not just content with expressing their ire over these insinuations and allegations they, much like their literary guru Shakespeare, wanted their pound of flesh. Remove the offending article from the website forthwith, upload an apology immediately, print another in the next issue of Open, never republish false or defamatory statements against the offended, and most importantly cough up Rs 500 crore to the injured parties.

It seems if you spend enough time writing badly written prose, your wish will be granted. Two years too late, but granted nonetheless. So we come to the clarification published in Open.

Hartosh Bal and Manu Joseph are no longer with Open, but since the clarification follows a notice in which they were named, I called them to ask why it took Open two years to publish a clarification and were they even aware of it.

This is what Bal, now Political Editor of Caravan, had to say. “Vinod Mehta and I have sent a letter to Open. First, nobody at the Open knows what happened. None of us – Vinod, Manu or I – were contacted before the apology was issued. Both the substance and tenor of it is ridiculous. I fully endorse the interview we published and stand by it. I’d request people to go watch a few episodes of Walk The Talk, every third interview has someone saying something about someone who isn’t present there. Were any of these people contacted before Walk The Talk was telecast? Does IE contact everyone it carries a comment on in its editorials? This was Vinod’s opinion. Shekhar is simply being overly sensitive to the criticism because he couldn’t really back up his claims.”

Manu Joseph, former editor of Open, said – “I’m totally perplexed. I spent 5 minutes trying to understand the clarification and moved on. Till the last few months that I was there, there was no mention of this legal notice – at least to me or to my knowledge”.

I was unable to contact Rajmohan, who was the publisher of Open, despite repeated attempts.

Despite calling and smsing Unni Rajen Shanker, Managing Editor of Indian Express, I have received no response till now. If and when I do, the article shall be updated.

Since we believe in contacting all those we comment on, I called the Managing Editor of Open – PR Ramesh, who said the editor, S Prasannarajan was the person who would comment on this. When I spoke to him about the clarification, he said “I don’t think we need to clarify a clarification”. Fair enough.

So what explains this Clarification two years late? Will we ever know? This much I do know is that it says a lot for the media fraternity. As they say, who needs enemies with friends like this?

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