On Saturday, The News Minute reported on a war that’s been quite the highlight of the newspaper market in south of the Vindhyas. The Times Group and its direct competitor in Hyderabad, Deccan Chronicle, are fighting again.
While media houses quibbling with each other has become commonplace, this one, at least in the way it has played out so far, is slightly different. It is because unlike, say, The Hindu–The Times of India, TOI-Hindustan Times and NDTV-Times Now duels, much of it happened on the first page of the Deccan Chronicle –- and not through sly advertisements or promos.
Last year in December, Deccan Chronicle published a front-page story where it accused The Times of India of lifting “exclusive” ads from Deccan Chronicle and publishing them for free. “It publishes paid news, but ads are free,” the story commented acerbically. Six months later, the newspaper has published another front-page story that is critical of TOI, and this one involves another dramatis personae – the Andhra Pradesh state government.
The story headlined “Times Group wants to ‘manage’ event for Andhra Pradesh” is about the Andhra Pradesh government allegedly giving an event management company a Rs 70-crore contract under the “Swiss Challenge Method”. The “Swiss Challenge Method”, is a new system by which the government accepts unsolicited proposal (UNP) submitted to the government by a private sector company for a public project. The government then allows other companies to submit proposals, following which the best proposal is accepted.
The Central Vigilance Committee has expressed concerns over the transparency of such projects. The Deccan Chronicle story doesn’t make things any clearer either. As The News Minute story notes, there is no mention of the name of the company or what the proposal is. What the story did leave out in terms of facts, it compensated with copious amounts of causticity. The story suggested that the transaction amounted to conflict of interest since The Times of India and Times Now – Times Group’s news units – were actively reporting on the Andhra government. The report contended that Times Now “lambasted” the state government for “squandering Rs 45 crore on his [Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu] personal residence and another Rs 25 crore on his [Naidu] official residence as well as spending more money for trips within India and to Japan, Singapore etc”. At the same time, it wasn’t helping things by coming up with such a proposal.
“The nation now wants to know: Does an additional expenditure of Rs 70 crore to actually ‘manage’ an event, help the state come out of its financial distress?” reads the Deccan Chronicle report.
So, what is this Times Group company and what is the proposal? Or perhaps more pertinently, what/who was Deccan Chronicle’s source of this exclusive bit of information, considering no one else reported on it? According to a highly-placed source in the newspaper, the report was based on the minutes of a State Investment Promotion Board meeting held on June 22.
The minutes of the meeting (in Newslaundry’s possession) states that it is “suggested” that The Times Group “support” the state government in organising an “investment summit” in October, 2015. Some of the suggested responsibilities of The Times Group are “handling complete event organisation” and helping the government in “organising road shows in India and overseas”.
There is, however, no mention of the company’s name.
While it is not difficult to believe that the Times Group did, in fact, approach the government, the story may not be so open-and-shut. Note that this meeting was held on June 22 – and the Deccan Chronicle story was published almost a month later – on July 18. What transpired in between? Much actually. The most important being the stampede at the Godavari Maha Pushkaralu (considered the Mahakumbh of south India) in Rajahmundry district. The accident, which killed 27 people, was aggressively reported by The Times of India and Times Now.
Both organisations were vociferously critical of Naidu and the state machinery, with Times Now’s Arnab Goswami even holding a prime-time debate called “Is it time to end #VVIPRacism in religious places?” in the wake of the incident. The debate held Naidu’s appearance in Rajahmundry directly responsible for the stampede.
Was it then a leak by Naidu’s government itself to show Times its place? A senior Times executive, unwilling to be quoted, said it seemed bizarre that a Times Group company would approach the government with an event management proposal. “The Times Group’s event management company, 360 Degrees, shut down quite a few years ago. In fact, even the Times Group’s events are now outsourced to other agencies since there’s no in-house company,” the executive said.
What makes the episode even more curious is the complete absence of the company’s name anywhere. If a Times Group company did approach the government with the proposal, shouldn’t the minutes of the meeting have carried its name at least?
Speaking to Newslaundry, Parakala Prabhakar, Advisor (Communications) Government of Andhra Pradesh, said the story was not reported correctly in Deccan Chronicle. “At this stage, there is only a proposal, and in spite of me clarifying that to them, the story suggested that we’ve already given the contract,” he said. Prabhakar said his quote was buried somewhere towards the end of the report. “Who even has the patience to read till the end,” he stated.
But what is the name of this Times Group company? “Is there more than one event management company? I was under the impression there is only one,” said Prabhakar. When pointed out that the Times Group’s event management company shut down a while ago, he said someone by the name of Deepak Lamba had approached the government a few months ago. Deepak Lamba is President, Bennett Coleman and Company Limited and Chief Executive Officer, Worldwide Media – a fully-owned subsidiary of BCCL, which publishes Femina, Filmfare, Lonely Planet, Top Gear, Good Homes, Trends, Knowledge and six other B2B publications. There is, however, no mention of any event management activity on its website.
The Times Group didn’t answer queries from Newslaundry on whether the Times Group thought such a business transaction did amount to conflict of interest or whether it made a proposal like that.
Conflict of interest aside, none of the parties came out looking very good in the whole episode.