On November 23, 2015, the Mumbai edition of The Economic Times carried a story that revived memories of perhaps the most well-known corporate battles the country has witnessed – between the Wadias and the Ambanis.
The story details out how Reliance India Limited had allegedly planted a story against Bombay Dyeing Chairman Nusli Wadia in the now-defunct tabloid, Daily, in 1993. The ET story is based on the affidavit of Rajiv K Bajaj, the then editor of Daily, filed in the Bombay High Court last week.
The Daily story had accused Wadia of being a Pakistani spy, having links with Dawood Ibrahim, and being involved in smuggling drugs and laundering money. Wadia, unsurprisingly, was not impressed and filed civil and criminal defamation charges against Bajaj, among others. After seven years, in 2000, a trial court had dismissed the charges against Bajaj and co. citing Wadia’s absence in court.
Fifteen years later, in September this year, the Bombay High Court set aside the dismissal of the case, and asked for it to be reopened and settled within a year. It is then that Bajaj filed the said affidavit, where he contended the story was a hit job, emanating out of a deal between the newspaper’s owner and Reliance. Bajaj, in the affidavit, also claimed to have been personally congratulated by Dhirubhai Ambani for the story.
In all likelihood, you didn’t know about any of the above if you don’t read The Economic Times.
Every single mainstream news organisation – save ET – chose to completely ignore the story. Apart from scanning all major mainstream dailies from November 23 to 25, we also went through their websites. Likewise, we searched the websites of all leading news channels. Additionally, we also did an advanced Google news search with the keywords “Rajiv K Bajaj, Nusli Wadia, Reliance, affidavit”. There was not even a fleeting mention of the development. Not a ticker or a two-inch column or a web story.
To put it in perspective: a former editor has accused one of the biggest corporates houses in the country of paying a news organisation to do stories that would help settle its corporate wars.
Surely, it’s a story.
So why did editors across the board think otherwise? Does what applied 20 years ago still apply today? Don’t mess with Reliance? Even if we were to assume that the ET has reporters more intrepid and enterprising than anyone else in the business, why was there not a follow-up? The newsroom is littered with footage and newsprint of news organisations running with stories a rival broke and then claiming credit for “impact” or any spin-offs that result from the story. The story, one must remember, is based on a singular piece of document – an affidavit filed in the court – that any legal reporter covering the beat could have gotten hold of and without much valiance.
In an effort to understand the rationale behind this curious editorial decision, we sent emails to editors of some of the leading news organisations in the country. Did they think the story was not newsworthy?
The editors we sent emails to included Rajdeep Sardesai of India TV Today, Sonia Singh and Barkha Dutt of NDTV, Unni Rajen Shanker of The Indian Express, Sanjoy Narayan of Hindustan Times and R Sukumar of Mint.
The only response we have received at the time of this story going online is from Sukumar, who acknowledged that it was a miss on Mint’s part. He added that he was impressed that ET had reporters tracking the case. Would Mint have carried it? “Of course, but probably with more caveats on Bajaj. I am very wary of these he-said-she-said affidavits (clearly the fact that they are affidavits doesn’t necessarily mean they are true),” Sukumar said.
While editors may choose to not speak on it, it is difficult not to wonder if Reliance’s — both the groups’ as they stand now – overwhelming influence over media houses has something to do with the lack of coverage. The Mukesh Ambani-owned RIL has controlling stakes in Network 18 and ETV. The company in the past has also infused money into the holding company of NDTV. Besides, the Anil Ambani-owned Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group too has investments in HT Media (which publishes Hindustan Times and Mint) and the TV Today Group.
Hartosh Singh Bal, Political Editor of The Caravan puts it succinctly: It is easier to do a story against Narendra Modi or Sonia Gandhi than Mukesh Ambani today.
“Obviously the story merits more coverage, but Reliance has always enjoyed a free hand,” said Bal, when asked what he thought about the story being ignored.
It has been two days since The Economic Times carried the story. There hasn’t been a single follow-up as yet. It’s unlikely there will be any either. It is hard to believe that only concerns of authenticity of Bajaj’s account are holding back news organisations from reporting the story. The facts of the story could have easily been reported without taking sides with a comment from all involved parties, as ET has.
All said and done though, while the episode is perhaps exasperating at many levels, it is not surprising. As a Mumbai-based editor told me: “Boss, you don’t need a memo to be told you don’t fuck with bade bhai.”