How Hindustan Times ‘killed’ a report on Modi’s new cabinet

The run-of-the-mill story pointed out that 42 percent of union ministers faced criminal cases.

BySupriti David
How Hindustan Times ‘killed’ a report on Modi’s new cabinet
Shambhavi Thakur
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At 8.45 am on July 10, Hindustan Times, one of India’s leading English newspapers, published an article on Narendra Modi’s reshuffled union cabinet. Citing a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms, it pointed out that 42 percent of Modi’s ministers faced criminal cases and 90 percent were crorepatis.

HT wasn’t the only news outlet to cover ADR’s findings, but it was alone in taking down the story. The link to the story now leads to a 404 error page.

Why would a leading paper take down a run-of-the-mill report?

Prasad Sanyal, chief content officer at HT, claimed the vanishing of the story was “likely” a technical glitch. He didn’t know what exactly had gone wrong with this particular story but since the link led to an error page it could be a glitch, he reiterated. “Not everything has a sinister motive,” he declared, laughing.

Yet, as of Saturday morning, the story was still missing from the HT website.

The newspaper’s editor Sukumar Ranganathan asked us to speak with its general counsel, Dinesh Mittal, when Newslaundry asked why the report had vanished. Mittal replied, “No comment.”

A source at HT, however, gave Newslaundry purported evidence showing the report didn’t disappear due to a “technical glitch”, as Sanyal claimed. It was pulled down at the direction of a top editor.

The kill order was apparently issued by Hussain Rahmani, editor, newsroom operations, on “HT Digital News” WhatsApp group, of which he’s one of seven admins along with Sanyal.

Sanyal made clear that deletion rights in the content management system, or CMS, used by the paper’s digital team were limited. And Rahmani is the only person who has the editorial authority to remove a report after it is published.

“Request for deletion has to be marked to me. In the scenario where he wants to get something deleted, I still have to be marked on all deletion mails,” Sanyal said, referring to Rahmani. “My approval is not required but I have the right to block it. But there has been nothing, zilch.”

Except the CMS shows the story was indeed “killed”.

“We use Blank Paper CMS to publish copies on HT website. Note the label ‘killed’ beside the title of the copy and the timestamp,” the source said. “The story was killed. There’s no technical glitch involved unlike what Prasad Sanyal told you.”

A former HT Digital News staffer confirmed this. “When a story is ‘killed’ the IT team removes it,” they explained. “It’s an active action and not a technical glitch.”

How to kill a report

Curiously for a legacy media house that prizes eyeballs, HT killeda story that had garnered wide attention. It was apparently the top story on the HT website on July 10 in terms of engagement.

At 5:52 pm, Rahmani informed the HT Digital News group that the report was being killed. Later in the evening, he held an “important edit meet” with about 10 reporters and editors.

Asked specifically about this meeting, Sanyal said, “There was no meeting called. I would have definitely been a part of it if there was. It is procedural that I am part of every edit meeting. I don't know what the issue with this specific story is. But I know for sure there was no big meeting called. If there was a meeting with editors in the digital space I would definitely know.”

Sanyal, however, was sent an invitation to this “important edit meet” to be held at 7 pm.

Did he not see or receive the invitation? It was not on his calendar, he replied. There was a monthly meeting planned for 11 am that day, though, which was moved to the evening because nobody turned up. “But I did not attend it, it is still not on my calendar,” Sanyal added.

Why then had he insisted that “there was no big meeting called” that day? “I said no because the 11 o'clock meeting was rescheduled and the title of that meeting is Monthly Meeting with CCO,” he said, adding that Rahmani could have retitled the rescheduled “important edit meet”.

“In the meeting when Hussain was asked why the report had been killed he could not give an answer,” the source claimed. “He said the protocol hadn’t been followed. When asked if there were any errors in the copy, he maintained that it was protocol that had not been followed. No other clear reason was given as to why the story was taken down.”

There was no flaw in the report, the source told Newslaundry. “We all went through it and consulted with other editors and seniors,” the source added. “There was no flaw in the copy, the way it was written.”

The criminal profile of Modi’s ministry is not the first article HT has killed in recent times. Last year the paper censored at least two pieces. In December, it withdrew a PTI report on Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant complaining that India had “too much democracy”. A few months earlier it had refused to carry Ramachandra Guha’s piece critical of Modi’s Central Vista project, prompting the historian to end his regular column with the paper. Guha had alleged that his editors at the paper were willing to publish the piece, but they were “overruled by their bosses and by the management”.

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