Of Press Club, patrakaars and Prannoy Roy

Where was Barkha Dutt? Does one have to be over 60 to get a chance to speak? That and other unanswered questions from the sidelines of last week’s Press Club meet.

WrittenBy:Abhinandan Sekhri
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What is noisier than the sound of traffic and endless honking on Raisina Road and Rajendra Prasad Road, fifty yards from one of the busiest roundabouts of Lutyens’ Delhi? A gathering of journalists at the Press Club of India sandwiched between the two.

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The club has been appropriately positioned since no lot other than presswalahs can tolerate such a racket (and outdo it), especially on a Friday evening, with sarkari babus of Krishi Bhawan leaving from one side and Punjabi businessmen entering the Chelmsford Club from the other, both, at their raucous best.

The gathering of which you have, by now, heard and read many versions (here is ours) was that of media professionals making themselves heard, against attempts to intimidate and muzzle the news media. The Central Bureau of Investigation’s raids on NDTV’s Radhika and Prannoy Roy’s residence was the hook.

This was significant for many reasons. One, it is clear that there are distinct camps in the news media and who stands up for who is transparent, and the camps are not necessarily on ideological lines. Two, that there are also many journalists in India and (surprise, surprise) in Delhi who look at news freedom as a bipartisan issue and will stand up for colleagues even if they don’t agree with them. Three, that the clout English news has in shaping media narratives is still way greater than any other language news media. Four, that women are still way under-represented in this field, especially in power circles that call the shots. And five, that the news media is in the mood for a fight with an adversary who has the power and full intention of using it, which is a welcome change from doing stings on autowalas who overcharge passengers.

While it was no doubt an alien experience for many journalists to hang around sober at the Press Club for so long, the raunak ka mahaul was set with much socialising. Greeting each other were former colleagues who hadn’t met in a while, others who had recently become former colleagues — considering the job losses the news industry has gone through over the last few years — as well as soon-to-be-former colleagues if things remain as bad as they currently are.

Also, there were those who were hoping to secure a job — clearly oblivious to the miserable time the news industry has been going through — by striking conversations with familiar faces from prime-time dailies. I overheard a man telling Sreenivasan Jain, who had stepped outside the club gate for a breather, how he had a khabar that could shake the nation. The word used was kohraam or some such, “ye khabar desh mein kohraam macha degi”. Jain nodded and smiled indulgently. So, in case, Truth Vs Hype gets a devastating exposé anytime soon, I know where it came from.

Meanwhile, inside the Press Club, the gathering was being presided over by a panel of seven — six men and a woman. This included Shobhana Jain (President of Indian Women’s Press Corps), Arun Shourie (former editor of Indian Express and Union minister), Fali Nariman (eminent jurist), Prannoy Roy (Chairman, NDTV and the man who was raided by the CBI), HK Dua (Former editor of Hindustan Times and Indian Express and Rajya Sabha MP), Nihal Singh (former editor-in-chief of Indian Express) and Kuldeep Nayyar (former journalist and Rajya Sabha MP).

Why was it significant, you may ask? It was so because many media professionals from across organisations had put aside their personal and professional differences to show their support (not all, but more on that later). The ones who were not there, marked their presence via Twitter. Here is what Aroon Purie of India Today tweeted.

And this was Madhu Trehan, who was closely following the proceedings from Europe while constantly WhatsApping me for latest updates (which wasn’t really helping my attempts to live tweet the speeches from location).

I would have called it a protest but I’m not sure if it was one. I’ve been to protests before. And this did not really feel like one. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I must share this thought. A protest is a statement or an action expressing disapproval of or objection to something. Also, in my experience, it is with the hope of appealing to the better sense of the offending party that one protests. But this gathering was more like — you want to fight? Let’s fight!

The crowd, in my estimation, was almost twice the size of what I saw when I was last here, which was a protest against media bans. Even then, it was NDTV caught in the cross hairs.

There were many speakers so keeping up was hard, even though many of us were trying desperately to tweet out in real time. This was a struggle also because many others like us were doing the same or were conducting Facebook live shows, thus, using up all available bandwidth in the area.

Hey, Shastri Bhavan and Chelmsford Club folks, in case you’re busy fighting with your mobile company for miserable internet speed on Friday evening in Lutyens’ Delhi, don’t. It was the Press Club that sucked up all the juice.

As former journalists spoke one by one, it was clear that you had to be at least over sixty in order to get a speaking slot. Javed Ansari of the India Today Group was an exception, but then he was representing India Today’s Aroon Purie, so that counts as sixty plus as well. Rajdeep Sardesai, who has a show on India Today TV addressed the gathering via a recorded message.

The only other exception was Shekhar Gupta, who is not yet sixty (and to be fair looks much younger) but his ‘dadaji knows everything’ attitude helped him meet the age criterion. During his speech Gupta, predictably, advised everyone to develop a thick skin, including Prannoy, who’s skin incidentally is so delicate and pink that it would put a baby’s cheeks to shame. I found it hard to imagine him as The Thing.

Many including me were praying that Gupta sticks to the subject (raids on NDTV’s promoters as an attack on dissenting news media) without making it about himself and preferably not going into the dadaji mode — ‘I remember when I was XX talking to the PM of YY who used to call me Commando because of the time when I (and another segue into some other story) and then I said to him..etc’. You get the picture.

But to be fair, he almost managed to stay on task except that one time, when he teetered on the edge and spoke about the amount of abuse he faces on social media and how he has gotten used to it because he has — you guessed it — “a thick skin”.

When Prannoy spoke, he did so with a rare combination of combativeness and aggression. Cancel rare, it was more than what I have witnessed in the years that I have seen him in the public space. It was as close to this as he can get.

The bhadralok Bengali that everyone has known Roy to be — always polite, accommodative and agreeable — demonstrated that he has been in Delhi for long enough now. He said that if you comply, then they will come after you. But if you fight back, they won’t. It was Prannoy’s way of saying this.

Roy also displayed his casual humour and wit. He was the second last speaker and for almost everyone at NDTV it was the high point of that day. I doubt if there is a single media head out there who gets the kind of adulation his employees give him. Okay, maybe not all. Barkha Dutt was not there, more on that later.

Roy spoke about the importance of a free press and impressed upon the audience as to how lucky we all were to have it. He mentioned a time when he was on a panel in China and a barb was made about competing on growth parameters, where he had said that India has something that China didn’t, a free press. That was enough for them to not want him to speak again.

During his speech, Roy also thanked the stalwarts (sitting at the power table) who had been his support, almost all of whom, it appears, have been Indian Express’ editors-in-chief. The freedom of the press is something we must never lose, said Roy. The fact is that we in the media don’t test the limits of that freedom often enough but it’s never too late, thought I.

Also in a rare public display of emotion, he ended by saying that he and Radhika (his wife) have never dealt in black money and that theirs will be a happily-ever-after story and this, too, shall pass. You could almost hear a collective sigh of adoration from the NDTV staff.

Shobhana Jain, who had the lousy luck of being the speaker after Prannoy, was left with the job of delivering the vote of thanks and telling the gathering that tea and snacks would be served thereafter and this information was met with smiles and a renewed enthusiasm in the hot humid evening. I think the news media world would do well to have some more women representation on all panels that make important statements because the messaging matters.

But all said and done, the afternoon belonged to Arun Shourie, who is probably the most gifted storyteller Indian politics has seen so far. If he were a millennial, he would be an awesome stand-up comedian. He can tell the most profound and important stories with such wit and irreverence that it could put All India Bakchod to shame. And that is exactly what he did during his speech, which was liberally interspersed with applause and laughter from inside and loud horns from outside the premises.

Shourie started his speech by thanking Narendra Modi for bringing so many friends together and then went on with this line, “Tum se pehle woh jo ek shakhs yahan takht-nasheen tha, uss ko bhi apne khuda hone pe itna hi yaqeen tha.” He had said the same thing earlier as well, during an interview with NDTV. Since the poem is by Habib Jalib, a Pakistani poet, he also mocked the Pakistani tag that comes while muzzling of any sort of dissent. Another thing that stood out in his speech was his appeal to all those present at the gathering to become active on social media in order to fight back. He also urged those in attendance to not be intimidated since that happens often because of the troll armies at work.

Other speakers included Fali Nariman, who in my first tweet I identified as Soli Sorabjee. Oops! So Solly! (Bad joke, check.) In his speech, Nariman spoke about the merits of the case against NDTV’s holding company and whether a CBI raid made sense. He stressed also that the law should and must fairly decide upon a case irrespective of connections or affiliations with the media. Having said that he added that the CBI raids didn’t meet that aim and appeared to be agenda driven. Something Sambit Patra knows a thing or two about — “agenda”.

Sreenivasan Jain trying to look distinguished with a few wisps of grey in his black beard shook his head at my faux pas “Your generation I tell you. See an ageing Parsi lawyer and they’re all the same.” I suspect he placed himself in a generation above me in order to try and get a speaking slot. Alas, it didn’t work as he still didn’t make the minimum age.

An old but still enthusiastic Kuldeep Nayyar spoke briefly and was the only one whose voice was a little too soft to drown down the insane traffic outside. Nayyar, who was jailed during the Emergency, reminded the gathering of the challenges that news professionals have faced in the past and won.

Veteran journalist and editor, Om Thanvi, spoke for a very short duration. He was the only editor from a Hindi news platform. He kept his address very brief and to the point. His clarity was remarkable. He said, all that is to be said and had been said so, nuff said!

Chairman and editorial director of Business Standard, TN Ninan’s address, much like Business Standard’s style, was informative, precise and bland. He said that the CBI was in the dock to prove it was acting legitimately. He added a heft and legitimacy that comes from not really having the image of belonging to any political side.

So, who was missing? I saw no one from the coalition of Times Now, Republic and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Ha ha. Second bad joke, check. Oh, and Barkha Dutt. I overheard at least four people asking each other, “Is Barkha here?” One even asked me. So, naturally, I turned to Hartosh Bal, who was standing next to me and asked him. He laughed. It is worth noting that Bal is always first in line in criticising NDTV, which he did even while addressing a gathering that had come together to show support and speak up for media freedom, when NDTV was threatened with a ban in 2016. He laughed and quipped, “Mujhse kyun pooch raha hai?

Since I was trying hard to behave in a dignified and respectable way, I shook my head with that sad ironic – such-is-life, look in my eye. But in my head, this song was playing, which I am sure Bal will identify with.

Barkha has not tweeted on this yet.

Even though so many of those who showed up have been and continue to be critics of NDTV, for its aesthetics, politics, meekness or anything else, yet they still came together for something that was bigger than the intimidation of the Roys. They came together for something so precious that if it is taken away, it will spell doom for any society — media freedom and its independence.

A bigger test of those who attended would be to show up in case a Times Now or a Republic is intimidated (not happening under the current dispensation) in the future by another government. Would they pass the test of standing up for a cause and be able to demonstrate that media independence is truly a non-partisan issue?

The evening at the Press Club did show that a large chunk of news media is ready to fight for their independence, if not from advertisers, at least from the government (which is why you can help us by subscribing here and pay to keep news free).

And finally, my colleague, Shruti Menon, who was there shooting and reporting on this assembly tried to get an answer or two from Prannoy Roy after having spoken to several other news professionals there. He responded with, “I only ask questions, I don’t give interviews” at his smiling and charming best. Taking off from Arun Shourie’s advice, maybe he should start – because tweeting alone, will not be enough.

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