The Presstitute Files

Discussion in 'Politics & Society' started by sasi, Apr 15, 2015.

  1. sasi

    sasi Senior Member Senior Member

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    Study 1: Fuelling the Communal Cauldron
    One of my earliest encounters with presstitutes happened during the 2002 Gujarat riots. I was the chief copy editor at Hindustan Times, Delhi, and what you’re about to read is straight from the trenches.

    HT had a Gujarat bureau with an experienced and well-connected local reporter but for some inexplicable reason despatched a crime reporter based in New Delhi to cover such a major communal clash. From reporting on court matters, this 20-something reporter, whom I’ll call Vinod, suddenly found himself in the middle of a riot.
    One of the stories Vinod filed and which made it to HT’s front page was an incendiary – and unsubstantiated – piece about a “Muslim cyclist” who was “passing through a Hindu majority residential area” and got lynched by a “Gujarati mob”. The mob, he claimed, grabbed “loose concrete blocks from the footpath to crack open his skull, resulting in his brains spilling on the ground”.
    The shocking thing was that HT was just two hours from publishing this rabble-rousing report – not backed up by any official statement – on its front page. At a sensitive time when the media needed to be extremely cautious about what it published, the reporter and editors were dumping more fuel into the communal cauldron.
    Now at HT – which in 2002 had a print run of 900,000 copies – speed rather than accuracy was all that mattered. During a presentation before HT journalists, the printing division’s head had told us – perhaps with a bit of exaggeration – that each half hour delay meant HT would print 25,000 fewer copies. Minor errors therefore did not warrant delays. In fact, if there was a delay of more than 5 minutes past 11.00pm, the following morning we had to provide a pretty good reason why we overshot the deadline. Needless to say, the heart stopping deadlines caused frequent burnouts of journalists.
    Despite such pressures, I decided to call up the reporter and get the story sorted. Here’s how the phone call went:
    HT Delhi: Did you see the man being killed?
    Vinod: No. But I have reliable sources who did.
    HT: So who is your source?
    Vinod: There was a group of people outside this housing society who showed me the exact spot where the mob killed the man.
    HT Delhi: How do you know for sure the man was Muslim?
    Vinod: According to the same group of people the man had a long beard. In fact, these people wanted to kill me too because they thought I was Muslim.
    HT Delhi: What was a Muslim man doing, cycling through a Hindu majority area on the third day of a major Hindu-Muslim riot?
    Vinod: Maybe he was lost.
    HT Delhi: How do you know his brains spilled out?
    Vinod: The same group of people showed me bloodstains on the footpath.
    HT Delhi: And you believe they are telling the truth?
    Vinod: Yes.
    HT Delhi: So the group that you claim threatened to kill you is now your authentic source?
    Vinod: (Stammering) Look, all of them couldn’t lie.
    Despite the winter chill, I could sense Vinod Nair loosening his tie (he often wore ties, even in summer). In all those years at HT, he was not used to being questioned like this. However, being a glib operator, he thanked me for calling him and said he would try and clear all my doubts.
    My biggest worry at this point was that the following day the graphic details would inflame people in other parts of Gujarat and India and spark more violence.
    There was no point appealing to my line editor’s journalistic ethics or his concern – if any – for India’s image. The hole in the story that I had just discovered would not matter when deadline trumped everything. Plus, there was the possibility that Vinod was the management’s hitman, in which case I would be victimised too.
    There was only one way out. I told the line editor that such a gory piece could either spark riots in Delhi or would lead to a lawsuit. Personal safety and career being existential matters, he quickly asked me to find a replacement story. A couple of hard core communist journalists protested but were overruled.
    Unlike NDTV, which was deliberately inciting violence by broadcasting news from riot-affected areas in a slanted way, HT wasn’t doing it as official policy. It was just a bunch of leftists gone berserk. However, Vinod wasn’t wedded to any ideology. He was just a fake news manufacturer – a presstitute.
    Years later I mentioned the riot story to one of his former bosses, who told me Vinod “is a complete fraud and I would not doubt if he concocted” the Gujarat story. Once under pressure to do a major story for the Sunday magazine, “he just didn’t show up and sent a message, saying he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t come to the office”.
    Vinod is now a corporate consultant at a Mumbai-based headhunting firm. And no doubt peddling snake oil.
     
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  3. sasi

    sasi Senior Member Senior Member

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    Case Study 2: Taking stock

    The very first presstitute I encountered was at the business daily, Business Standard, which was a sister concern of BusinessWorld magazine where I worked as a sub-editor. Sometime in 1999, BW’s corporate bureau asked me to write about a Gurgaon-based IT firm (let’s call it LMH Systems) that was about to acquire a US-based software company. Here was a pocket-sized Indian company acquiring an American company that was four times bigger. Frankly, it was quite exciting to be able to write about the deal.
    Since I had zero experience writing a corporate story, the corporate bureau head suggested I contact Aruna (name changed) a seasoned corporate reporter who had written extensively about LMH Systems. Aruna had recently joined BW after quitting her job at BS. She was very nice to me and said I should speak directly to the owner of LMH Systems, who in her opinion was an extremely friendly guy and would provide me any information I wanted about the deal.
    Curiously, she revealed that she owned LMH stock and had made a profit of Rs 60,000, which in 1999 was a tidy amount. She made no effort to hide that it was inside information which allowed her to buy the shares as the company was on the upswing.
    But first, Aruna suggested, I read up older stories covered by Business Standard’s Mumbai bureau. So I walked to the daily’s office, which was next door, and after a couple of hours of manual search (not much on the internet those days) found a bunch of stories that had no bylines but were datelined Mumbai.
    I called Business Standard’s Mumbai office and asked them if they could identify the reporter who had written those stories. After a few minutes they came back and told me the stories were written by the Delhi bureau. It was all very confusing to me. If the story was written by the Delhi bureau, then why publish it under a Mumbai dateline?
    Having hit a roadblock, I called Aruna who insisted it was written by the Mumbai bureau. Not being a hard-boiled reporter, I was hesitant about bothering the Mumbai team again. So I called the newspaper’s Delhi office and told them the whole story. Plus, that I didn’t want to bother the Mumbai bureau again and would really appreciate if they could tell me who wrote the story from Delhi. This time the person at the other end consulted one of his colleagues and said, “It’s Aruna.”
    Not being completely stupid I now realised what it was all about. Since Aruna – or her husband – had acquired shares in the company against Business Standard’s policies that no reporter should have a conflict of interest, she had found a neat way of skirting the issue. She was writing stories in LMH’s favour but publishing them from Mumbai – as a hedge against any investigation.
    My suspicions were confirmed a few days later when I met LMH’s owner at his plush Gurgaon office. He told me that he had met Aruna in the US where she had a wonderful time travelling all around the country. Perhaps this disclosure about Aruna’s US trip – most likely a junket – was intended as a signal to me that if I cooperated like her, I too could join the ranks of the jet setters.

    Case Study 3: Ganging up against Rao

    This case study involves a Prime Minister. A year after P.V. Narasimha Rao died, one of his sons – I don’t remember which one – visited a close friend of mine at his Greater Kailash office in New Delhi. This friend was a former colleague who had started his own publishing company.
    After Rao’s death, the Congress – or rather the Gandhi dynasty – had started to airbrush out Rao’s key role in India’s economic reforms. It was Rao who had encouraged the unsure and wavering Manmohan Singh to go ahead with liberalisation. But as the first anniversary of Rao’s death approached, there was a complete blackout by the Congress. To borrow George Orwell’s term from the novel1984, Rao was now an ‘unperson’.
    To set right the record, Rao’s son tried to buy a full page ad in a couple of leading New Delhi papers, to showcase the late PM’s contributions to the nation. But for some reason, his cash wasn’t good enough and neither of the two newspapers would touch the ad.
    It was only after he was stonewalled by the media that Rao’s son came to my friend and sought his help in buying ad space. The point is not whether he succeeded in getting space. The point is the Indian media – in this case the owners – ganged up against a late prime minister.
    See how deep is the rot?
     
  4. sasi

    sasi Senior Member Senior Member

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    Case Study 4: The television salesman

    This happened during my stint at India Today (1999-2001) where I was an assistant copy editor. Every year, the magazine had a Diwali special which had a feelgood cover story on the mega deals available for the middle class.
    When the nearly 3,000-word story landed in my inbox, it didn’t take me long to edit as it was a well-written story by a senior writer. However, one paragraph struck me as rather odd as it mentioned the prices of two flat screen televisions being introduced by a leading company. Not only was the pesky para not germane to the story, it looked like a 200-word thumbs up to the stock market punters. It made the entire article look like a paid advertorial. I deleted the sentence and ran it past the writer who re-inserted it before sending me the approved copy.
    I yet again got rid of the para and sent it for production. When the layout proofs were sent to the writer, he called me up and asked me to add that sentence again. I said maybe he was just being helpful to the reader but some would look at it as a plug. He hung up and called my editor, demanding that he introduce the para.
    Finally a compromise was arrived at. The para was retained but with some of the more blatant plugs removed. I remember a senior colleague commenting: “Either a brand new TV or a large amount of cash has changed locations in Mumbai.”

    Presstitute spotting
    You get the picture.

    Arnab Goswami, Shobhaa De and Barkha Dutt can rail all they want, but they are no role models. Dutt was caught on tape scheming with Nira Radia on how she could help broker political deals. Shobhaa De is a soft porn writer; to call her a journalist would be a crime. Goswami believes journalism is all about high decibel repetitive yelling. Rajdeep Sardesai’s shameless provocation of a pro-Modi crowd should be a textbook study on how to get lynched on the sidewalks of New York.

    Now check out this list of eminent journalists – Dileep Padgaonkar, ex editor of Times of India; Harish Khare, the media adviser to the last prime minister; Ved Bhasin, editor, Kashmir Times; Harinder Baweja, former India Today writer; Praful Bidwai, experienced columnist with communist leanings.
    All of them were regular guests of Ghulam Nabi Fai, who was arrested in 2011 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the US for acting as the front man of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). The Pakistani spy was arrested in a suspected influence-peddling scheme to funnel millions of dollars from Pakistan to US lawmakers.

    According to the FBI, Fai “took dictation from his masters” in Pakistan. He received at least $4 million to manipulate the Kashmir debate in favour of Pakistan. These Indian liberals and media figures had been attending conclaves and meets organised by Fai, at the ISI’s instance, to oust India from Kashmir. You be the judge. What would you call them for acting against India’s interest?

    Don’t get me wrong. Most of us journalists are kosher and just want to do a good job, be acknowledged for our work, and hope that our work will make a difference to the country. Many of us routinely turn down bribes and won’t accept junkets or even a token gift.

    I know this senior editor at The Hindu who in my presence banged down the phone on Mulayam Singh Yadav because the UP chief minister had dared to invite him for a “cup of tea”. (Unfortunately, he has become a communist apologist today.) There is a Rediff writer who prefers to live in a one-bedroom apartment because that’s preferable to taking bribes from political parties. “Can you imagine how soundly I sleep,” he said with a wink.

    There is a close friend who doesn’t mind that all he has to show after 30 years of journalism is a two-bedroom flat in a DDA enclave in Delhi. He refused to be part of his editor’s plan to blackmail political leaders by using his amazing investigative skills.

    In 2002, I turned down a Rs 50,000 bribe from a builder uncle who said, “All you have to do is get a one column article published in HT’s business pages.” I kept my phone off the hook for a week.
    What I did was no big deal. Most of Indian media is honest and upright. However, there is a tiny co-opted minority of journalists who are in bed with politicians, foreign agents and corporates, and are a huge problem. When Gen V.K. Singh talks about presstitutes, he’s on the money.

    The Presstitute Files | Swarajya Blogs
     

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