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Guest Column Newsmanic: TOI and HT, and their journalism of jealousy

Guest Column Newsmanic: TOI and HT, and their journalism of jealousy

Author | BV Rao | Friday, Oct 23,2009 9:00 AM

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Guest Column Newsmanic: TOI and HT, and their journalism of jealousy

As a CNN regular, I have always marvelled at their readiness to not just pick important stories from rival channels, but also give them full credit and play on its own bulletins. That’s such a rarity in our own country.

Here, if one channel or publication comes up with a national scoop, the others will pretend as if nothing happened for as along as they can avoid it. When they can’t, they will simply pick the story and run with it like it is the fruit of their ‘exclusive’ labour (TV channels can do this with consummate ease) or simply jump into it without giving due credit to the publication/ channel that broke the story.

Hundreds of great stories have died a premature death in our country because media rivalry prevents one from picking up and following the other’s scoops.

This is about one such story in The Times of India: “Jairam (Ramesh) for major shift in climate; Writes to PM that India should junk Kyoto Pact, accept emission curbs” (Delhi edition lead, Monday, October 19). It quoted from the Environment Minister’s October 13 letter to make the point that Jairam was proposing a complete reversal of India’s position. Just two months ahead of the Copenhagen talks, this attempted reversal was like the Pokhran of India’s climate change with national and international reverberations.

This story needed to be followed up by everybody because if the shift happens, it could have long standing implications for India’s growth story. As it happened, all newspapers followed it (I did not track the channels on this), but only to dismiss it and deny TOI the credit for a rare scoop.

Honestly speaking, they were only paying back TOI in kind because it was TOI which started the trend of not naming any brand in its pages other than its own. Till about the late 80s or early 90s, all newspapers extended the journalistic courtesy of acknowledging each others’ scoops by naming the rival which scooped them, a sort of professional doffing of hat for a good job well done.

TOI threw the tradition to the winds because it did not want lesser papers to benefit from its unmatched and ever-expanding reach. It thus introduced us to such pathetic euphemisms as “reports in a newspaper”, “reports in a section of the press”, etc.

Over the next couple of years, one by one all papers started returning the favour to TOI. So, no sympathies for TOI; if anything, they deserve it. But this is not about TOI, this is about the readers of the other papers.

The allegiance of every media organisation is to the paying reader, who must get the correct picture on matters of national and international importance. The Jairam Ramesh story was one such. It talked about the crucial issue of climate change and India’s commitments to emission cuts that would impact our future for decades, if not centuries.

Any newspaper that claims to be a credible medium of information on serious national issues, had an obligation to its readers to join the story and examine if indeed India was on the cusp of a drastic change in stance on climate change, why it was changing, what factors had caused the shift and whether it would be in India’s interest or otherwise.

None of that happened. The Hindustan Times, TOI’s principal rival in Delhi, took it upon itself to rubbish the TOI’s report in four short paragraphs on page 1 the following day (Tuesday, October 20, Delhi edition). In a “we-would-rather-believe-a-minister-than-the-TOI” kind of tone, it dismissed TOI’s “major shift” claim by calling it just a “nuanced shift”. Of course, it cut out all references to the political uproar the TOI’s report caused in the Congress party and the Opposition and the extreme discomfiture to Jairam that caused him to issue feeble retractions.

The HT report neither named TOI nor referred to its previous day’s scoop. So there was absolutely no provocation, no context and no reason why it occupied costly real estate on page 1. But there it was, HT, appearing more eager than Jairam, to deny the TOI story.

I am not saying that it was HT’s job to validate TOI’s story. But once Jairam himself did not deny the existence of the letter or the contents of it as reported by TOI, it needed to quiz Jairam on his claim that TOI got it all wrong, that he was not laying the ground for a shift in India’s stand. For that it needed to interrogate Jairam and expose TOI’s poor skills at English comprehension. Instead, it chose to take Jairam at his word and that’s just not good enough.

That sad narrative repeated itself in The Hindu and The Indian Express, too. They also took the HT route to this story of tectonic shift in India’s position by simply parroting Jairam’s protestations without bothering to put him through the trouble of mandatory questioning. Both the papers, of course, did not name TOI.

Mail Today was one paper that showed it had a mind of its own. In a detailed report titled “New Delhi’s green policy gets fuzzy”, it quoted Jairam’s earlier letters and public utterances to show that something was definitely up. But though it was less believing of Jairam, it refrained from naming TOI, preferring to say “Jairam… was reported to have written to the PM”.

The best coverage of the political avalanche after the TOI story came from one of India’s most transparent and most ethical newspapers, Mint. There were many lessons for the big daddies from the way this baby of a newspaper covered the story. Firstly, it did not shy away from acknowledging TOI’s scoop. Secondly, it refused to buy Jairam’s version rubbishing TOI. Thirdly, it quoted extensively from its own earlier interviews with Jairam, wherein he had clearly articulated the same major shifts that TOI said he recommended to the PM. And lastly, it did such a detailed story in such simple terms that even a climate change ignoramus such as me understood the whole issue.

So, I just have this to tell HT. If you have to copy anything from any paper, copy the ethics, the efficiency, the transparency and the new spirit of journalism from your own Mint, not the opacity of The Times of India.

Time to change this journalism of jealousy. The reader deserves better.

(The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)

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