Lots of curious things go on in the media. There is a new twist to an old tale every single day. Ditto for Air India and the Civil Aviation Ministry, which seem to be lurching from one crisis to another in recent times. In this theatre of the absurd, last week saw new depths being plumbed. More so, because the two got inexorably intertwined. A Times of India lead story set the cat amongst the pigeons. And how.
The ToI story detailed how the Finance Ministry had bunged in a monkey wrench in the Air India-Indian merger, saying that it was a mistake. Next stop, demerge the two entites to recreate Air India and Indian. The Times story went like this: "If you can't fix it, merge it. And if you still can't fix it, demerge it. This seems to the government's prescription for Air India and Indian Airlines, which were merged in August 2007 despite widespread criticism. Interestingly, the merger has actually not moved much beyond a common billboard and a holding company. With a rehab plan for Air India proving to be a fraught task, a proposal to undo the decision to forge Air India and Indian Airlines into a single entity has been mooted by the Finance Ministry. The Ministry, which has to foot the bill for any revival package, is understood to be increasingly nervous over the viability of bailout plans for the floundering carrier." So far so good. Or as the old saying in journalism goes - great story till it is denied.
The same morning I heard that Air India officials were calling the media and denying the story outright. The next morning ET actually carried the denial despite not carrying the story. Curious got curiouser. But the demolition derby began when Financial Chronicle front paged a signed piece by the editor fulminating against The Times of India. It was nothing short of a hit job. Aptly titled - AI demerger: A report, a rip off and a denial - it slammed the ToI for downright plagiarism. Now the problem is that Financial Chronicle is not a widely read paper in the Capital. So, one can understand ToI's urgency in ripping off FC's story.
But wait, let me first reproduce the story in FC. It is self explanatory: "The Civil Aviation Ministry on Wednesday came out with a statement that there was no demerger move afoot to undo the March 2007 marriage of the two erstwhile national carriers – Indian Airlines, that used to run domestic flights, and Air India, which operated only on international routes.
Though the statement did not say so, it was obviously in response to two reports in the print media that the Finance Ministry had moved a proposal to split the merged entity, National Aviation Company of India, and revive Air India and Indian Airlines as separate carriers. The combined company retained, for its brand, the Air India name.
The news was scooped by Financial Chronicle and carried as the day’s lead story on page one on Monday (January 25, 2009). It was later ripped off, point by point, by Times of India (TOI) and carried as their own bylined story two days later – on Wednesday.
Based on a proposal by Expenditure Secretary Sushma Nath, the Financial Chronicle report also quoted another Finance Ministry official, who explained the rationale of a demerger.
Here we reproduce the quote as it was published in our paper: “Domestic and international aviation markets behave differently. Their problems are specific and have to be different.” Oddly – or perhaps not – the TOI report too quoted “Finance Ministry officials” as saying: “International and domestic aviation markets behave differently. Their problems are specific and different.”
Sounds familiar? Exactly, except the transposition of a few words. We did not name the official in our report as he wanted to remain anonymous, but he did say a lot more to us. However, after distilling his comments taken on the phone, we retained only two sentences that succinctly summed up his views.
Two days later, TOI extracted much the same two sentences from “officials”! Coincidence? It is for you, dear reader, to judge. We gave details of a meeting of the empowered Group of Ministers last week, where several other decisions were taken. Is it any surprise that TOI gave the same details – full two days later?
Oh, yes, there was an original point in the TOI report. They managed to reach Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, who told them, “Aisa kuch nahin hain,” essentially implying that the news of a demerger move was bunkum.
We admit that we did try to reach him but failed, and this was mentioned in our report. Despite his Ministry’s statement denying the demerger proposal, Financial Chronicle stands by its report."
Curious just got bizarre. Did the writer of the ToI story – Mahendra Kumar Singh – filch the story? Or did the authors of the two disparate yet identical stories – Singh in ToI and K A Badarinath & Parul Chhaparia in FC – get their dictation from the same source? Did the ToI journo in his arrogance of being part of the largest newspaper in the land sneer down upon the almost invisible smaller paper and think – what the hell, who reads FC, let me go right ahead and write the story and for good measure rip off the FC story? Or did he honestly think that only he had the story, so it should be played up, not realising that the same story was also given to FC. Maybe not. Perhaps, the story was leaked to one and in all probability both journos by the same source. What is remarkable is that shockingly the same quote appeared in both stories. Which makes you sit up and take notice of the plagiarism charge seriously. No wonder the editor of FC lost his shirt. But what makes curious turn completely absurd is the strong denial put forth by the Civil Aviation Ministry.
Now it is well known in Delhi's political underbelly that the PMO is unhappy with Civil Aviation Ministry's handling of the Air India-Indian merger. And that there is pressure on the Civil Aviation Ministry given that the merged entity, Air India's, losses are mounting. All attempts to downsize have failed, pilot strikes have shown the airline management in poor light, the losses cannot be curtailed, the crisis simply deepens; but if Expenditure Secretary Sushma Nath has floated a written proposal to demerge Air India, then how can one deny that eventuality? The firmness with which the editor of FC has stood by his paper's story makes it even more strange.
So, curious just got ridiculous or is it incongruity... More like laughable.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)