On November 23, when Mumbaiwalla, a Mumbai-based (if it wasn’t already obvious) website published a story about a bourse bullying media houses into not carrying negative stories about it, there was expectedly a flutter in media circles. In the aftermath of the Radia tapes, Indian journalism continues to deal with a serious credibility crisis, and stories that even hint towards a closer-than-called-for relationship between the media and corporations are enough to ring warning bells.
The Mumbaiwalla story, which quoted a National Stock Exchange (NSE) representative saying that she got Mint’s editor to drop a story about an accusation of NSE cooking its books, was scandalous in terms of its allegation and its possible implications. Taking it at face value, an editor of one of the country’s most respected business dailies had been accused of succumbing to corporate pressures and killing a story.
So was the story fair? Did Mumbaiwalla, owing to it niche status and the absence of a corporate-funded model, break a story the mainstream media had colluded to kill?
To address those questions, it is important to understand the story that Mint and other business publications supposedly buried. The story that Mumbaiwalla alleges was not carried by “pink papers” is essentially based on a letter that the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) wrote to the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) on July 25, 2014. In the letter, BSE points out (in extremely tedious business jargon) to SEBI that NSE had made a certain “appropriation” worth almost Rs 500 crore towards a fund that is meant to guarantee settlement of trades in case of default by a trader. According to the letter, the appropriation was premature and done on the basis of a set of guidelines that were not yet institutionalised as regulations by SEBI. In the last paragraph of the letter, BSE seems to be suggesting to the regulatory body that if NSE could do it, so could BSE. Incidentally, in its annual report of the year 2013-14, NSE does mention the appropriation, which, it claims, has been done as a “matter of prudence” in accordance with Securities Contracts (Regulations) (SECC) Regulations, 2012 (The Regulations) issued on June 20, 2012.
SEBI has since formed an expert committee to draft “long-term” regulations pertaining to a settlement guarantee fund that could deal with cases of default.
The story, therefore, is not half as open-and-shut as Mumbaiwalla would have you believe.
However, is a letter written by BSE to SEBI pointing out an “appropriation” amounting to almost Rs 500 crore, which was at least technically dubious, not a story for any of the business dailies? Also, more importantly, was Divya Malik Lahiri, head, Corporate Communications, NSE, responsible for Mint not carrying the story, as she reportedly said according to Mumbaiwalla?
Lahiri did not respond to our email query in spite of having committed to us verbally as well as over email that she would.
Mint Editor, R Sukumar gave us a detailed response to all of our questions. Sukumar said the story was dropped on the basis of its merit and not on the account of any pressure from anyone although “the exchange was quite unwilling to share information or respond”. Does he think the decision to drop it was flawed? “I don’t know. It seemed like the right one at the time,” he clarified. Sukumar also reiterated that NSE was wrong in claiming that “it succeeded in making us drop a story”. He said he’d write to NSE soon to the effect (which he has and Newslaundry has a copy of it). Sukumar said his sole problem with the Mumbaiwalla story was that they never bothered getting his version.
Sukumar’s contention is on firm journalistic ground. The author of the story, Saumit Singh, did not, by his own admission, get in touch with Mint before going ahead with the story. Singh, in fact, didn’t even contact NSE for a response. Singh claims his story was based on documentary evidence and hence he didn’t feel the need to get in touch with any of the parties. Singh also said that Lahiri, who contacted him within hours of the story going online, had gone to the extent of issuing threats to him. “I told them categorically that I’d publish their rejoinder, but instead they chose to bully me into taking the story down.”
It is important to note here that the telephonic conversation Singh quotes, wherein Lahiri apparently said she had got Mint to drop the story, was off-the-record.
The Mint-Mumbaiwalla affair points to larger questions of editorial judgment. According to Singh, he had enough “documentation” to go ahead without a reaction from the other sides and was on the basis of an off-the-record conversation. Sukumar’s editorial judgment told him it wasn’t a story at all – at least back in July when it happened.
Lahiri, on the other hand, was perhaps only doing her job, which is to convince editors to not carry negative stories about her company. It is strange though that Lahiri, as a designated spokesperson, insists on off-the-record conversations when she can set the record straight if NSE has indeed not indulged in any financial malpractice.