‘Bogus’ quotes and a 'misrepresented' meeting: Journalists disown govt report on ‘setting the narrative’

Newslaundry spoke to journalists named in a group of ministers’ report on ‘government communication’. Here’s what they have to say.

ByAyush Tiwari
‘Bogus’ quotes and a 'misrepresented' meeting: Journalists disown govt report on ‘setting the narrative’
Shambhavi Thakur
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In June 2020, the Narendra Modi government reached out to “prominent persons from the media field” to help identify strategies to effectively communicate “10 big narratives of the government”. The initiative, led by a group of union ministers who were “guided” by the prime minister, summarised recommendations in a report that was submitted to the cabinet secretariat later that year.

The report, parts of which have been accessed by Newslaundry, claimed that the Centre “consulted” with journalists and editors, including Shekhar Iyer, former political editor of Deccan Herald; Abhijit Majumdar, editor in chief of Earshot.in; Nitin Gokhale, editor in chief of Strategic News Global; and Anant Vijay, associate editor of Dainik Jagran.

It mentioned “observations” and “comments” purportedly given by former journalists such as Kanchan Gupta, Ashok Malik, Swapan Dasgupta, Surya Prakash, Sunil Raman, and Ashok Tandon.

Inputs collected from Prasar Bharati CEO Shashi Shekhar Vempati, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue S Gurumurthy, and Hindu nationalist propaganda website OpIndia’s editor Nupur Sharma were also included in the government report.

Sections of the report concerning media professionals were gathered over three meetings – one convened at minister of state Kiren Rijiju’s residence with minority affairs minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi in attendance, and two video conferences hosted respectively by Smriti Irani, minister of textiles and women and child development, and Prakash Javadekar, minister of information and broadcasting.

Hindustan Times first reported on this document in December 2020, listing some of these “narratives” that the Centre was keen on – schemes like Aatmanirbhar Bharat, Digital India, Skill India, and Swachh Bharat. The daily noted that it had “reviewed” a copy of the report and quoted two government officials, anonymously, who confirmed the deliberations.

The authenticity of the report, which does not carry signatures of the ministers or an official seal or stamp, has, so far, not been denied by the government. On Thursday, Naqvi told the Hindu that he did not know anything about the report.

On March 4, Caravan magazine published a detailed piece on the quotes attributed by the report to various journalists, editors and public personalities.

Newslaundry spoke to some of those mentioned in the report about their supposed comments. While those who attended the Rijiju-Naqvi meeting refuted the suggestions attributed to them, the participants in Javadekar and Irani’s conferences hinted that the report’s language is twisted and exaggerated.

‘We were there for Galwan’

The Rijiju-Naqvi meeting hosted 12 journalists, the report claimed. They were “Alok Mehta, Jayant Ghoshal, Shishir Gupta, Praful Ketkar, Mahua Chatterjee, Nistula Haibar, Amitabh Sinha, Ashutosh, Ram Narain, Ravish Tiwari, Himanshu Mishra and Ravindra”.

The report attributed 12 “observations” to this collective – some intriguing, others mundane.

Here’s one: “Around 75% of media persons are impressed by the leadership of Shri Narendra Modi and are ideologically with the party.”

Another said: “The differences between the government and the media have increased and it should be taken care of.”

The journalists allegedly suggested that interactions with “foreign media should stop as it is turning out to be counter-productive”.

Two journalists quoted anonymously in this section are employed with media organisations that bar them from making official comments. So, they spoke on the condition of anonymity.

One journalist who attended the meeting said that more than 12 journalists were in attendance in a conference room at Rijiju’s home.

“We were told to go to Rijiju’s house the day before because it was just after Galwan,” the journalist said, referring to the border clash at Galwan Valley between Indian and Chinese forces. “We were supposed to meet Mr Jaishankar, expecting a debriefing on the clashes. I had informed my bureau accordingly. But he did not turn up.”

S Jaishankar, the external affairs minister, is part of this group of ministers tasked with formulating narratives. So is Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of law and justice, communications and information technology, and ministers of state Babul Supriyo, Hardeep Singh Puri and Anurag Thakur.

The journalist said that their group was not aware about any interactions on the government’s communications and doubted the accuracy of the observations in the report. “I don’t remember anyone saying these things,” the journalist said, reacting to the pointer on foreign journalists. “It is not the government that interviews the media in such interactions, but the other way around.”

Another journalist told Newslaundry that given Jaishankar’s absence, Rijiju and Naqvi pressed the corps about the government's media strategy over tea.

“We told them that there is no point calling media organisations to rescind stories when the government does not respond to queries,” the journalist said, adding that no journalist observed that “75 percent of the media” supports the prime minister or his party.

“I have never paid so heavily for going to a meeting as I have done for this one,” sighed the journalist, nettled by the public reaction to the Caravan report. “It’s just not done.”

Jayanta Ghosal, political editor at India TV at the time, also said that he accepted the invitation to the meeting to get information on the border clashes. “I don’t know how an off-record discussion on Galwan with two ministers turned into a group of ministers exercise,” Ghosal said. “Any discussion on media coverage in that meeting was in the context of the India-China tensions.”

Ghosal maintained that neither he nor any other journalist recommended that the government should not entertain foreign journalists, or observed that 75 percent of journalists are aligned with the BJP and Narendra Modi.

N Ram, director of the Hindu Publishing Group, told Newslaundry that the report does not show that all journalists mentioned in it “were party to or complicit in this toxic disinformation project”. According to the document, Nistula Hebbar, political editor at the Hindu, was present at Rijiju’s residence.

Ram added: “The project was done behind their backs. Some may have been privy to it, some may have been party to it and some may have been complicit in it, and others not.”

Ram said that ideally, journalists should respond to the GoM report on the record. “That will push the government to respond,” he said. “But it is up to them and how they see their professional roles and obligations.”

The report also names Shishir Gupta, the executive editor of Hindustan Times, and Mohua Chatterjee, a journalist at the Times of India. Sukumar Ranganathan, HT’s editor in chief, told Newslaundry that the publication has no official comment on the matter. Diwakar Asthana, executive editor at TOI, also said that the daily would not like to comment on the report.

Indian Express editor Ravish Tiwari is also named in the report. In an Express report on the GoM document on Friday, Tiwari echoed Ghosal, saying that the meeting was supposed to be “a background briefing” by Jaishankar on the border stand-off.

“No one mentioned anything about a GoM. When I reached, we were told that the External Affairs Minister was caught up and couldn’t make it,” Tiwari said, adding that he was “surprised how an off-the-record briefing on LAC has been presented as part of a GoM meeting.”

‘God knows who has produced this report and what it is about’

Unlike the Rijiju-Naqvi meeting, for the video conferences hosted by Javadekar and Irani, the report clearly attributed comments to “prominent personalities” about how the government should manage the media, amplify accomplishments, and control criticism.

According to the report, the discussion with Javadekar on June 23, 2020, featured Swapan Dasgupta, S Gurumurthy, Nitin Gokhale, Shekhar Iyer, Surya Prakash, Ashok Tandon, Ashok Malik, and Shashi Shekhar Vempati. The next day, Irani spoke to Nupur Sharma, Abhijit Majumdar, Anant Vijay, former BBC journalist Sunil Raman, and scientist and TV panelist Anand Ranganathan.

Malik and Majumdar declined to comment for this story.

A journalist who featured in the report said that the context of Javadekar’s meeting was the media's concerns about paucity of information about the Galwan clash, not a meeting to formulate the Centre’s communication strategy.

We contacted Kanchan Gupta and read out a few of his suggestions to him to gauge the report’s accuracy. One of them was: “Digital media and online media generate much heat and that usually gets transferred to main national media and international media. Media has also become tech-savvy. The Communist Party of China’s donation to Rajiv Gandhi Foundation can be used to build a story.”

”Whatever I told the government was privileged communication,” Gupta told Newslaundry. “I will not comment on what you are asking me to comment on.”

A report in the Wire states that Gupta’s suggestion regarding the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation did lead to a report in OpIndia, and later in national dailies.

A person who was quoted in the Javadekar and Irani meetings laughed when we read out a recommendation jotted under his name. “God knows who has produced this report and what it is about,” he said. “It does not make any sense at all.”

Another person told Newslaundry that the suggestions ascribed to him in the GoM report were ludicrous and that he had “no fucking clue who in the government was writing what”. He added: “Unless you have stated a view on record, how can you prevent anybody from assigning any particular view to you?”

A third person mentioned in the document said that its contents shouldn’t be viewed as a verbatim transcript of the meetings: “Somebody taking notes during the meeting has used their imagination and put down things very colourfully.”

Neither of the three people who spoke with Newslaundry said that the meetings with Javadekar and Irani did not take place. However, casting doubts on the GoM off the record is a weak-kneed way of calling out the government’s exercise. Given the gravity of what is contained in the report and how it reflects on their professional credibility, one would expect media professionals to refute it on record.

The GoM report claimed that Nitin Gokhale, a former security editor at NDTV, told the government the following: “Journalists can be colour coded: Green – fence sitters; Black – against; and White – who support. We should support and promote favourable journalists.”

This was carried in the Caravan report on Thursday.

“The Caravan report is a lie,” Gokhale said, denying that he had used the language attributed to him in the magazine. “They did not even reach out to me for a comment. I have not seen this GoM report, but I’m going by what has been attributed to me in the Caravan.”

Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor at Caravan and the author of the magazine’s piece on the government report, told Newslaundry that if the Centre’s report is a lie, then so is Caravan’s.

“We have simply quoted exactly what the GoM attributed to Nitin Gokhale, and have not added anything that’s not in that document,” Bal said. The Caravan reached out to Jayanta Ghosal for a comment on the suggestions in the Rijiju-Naqvi meeting. So why did it not reach out to Gokhale?

Bal said, “The meeting with Ghosal attributed a collective set of recommendations to a collective set of people without naming them individually, and we wanted to check whether this was indeed against their names.”

He added, “In Gokhale’s case, there is no such collective confusion. The report individually attributes him the recommendation.”

Newslaundry sent a set of questions to the offices of ministers Smriti Irani, Prakash Javadekar, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi and Kiren Rijiju. We’ll update the piece when we receive a response.

Update: This piece has been updated with an Indian Express quote from Ravish Tiwari.

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