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Guest Column Retrofit: Reigning in the junket capers

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Guest Column Retrofit:  Reigning in the junket capers

There are puff jobs and puff daddy jobs. And I don’t mean Sean Combs aka Puff Daddy aka P Diddy, the American rapper and actor. Good old fashioned puff jobs have been around for as long as the newspaper business has been around. If you have been a journo for as long as I have, then surely you have been on a long catalogue of junkets. And I guess if they were business junkets, then one has tried to write something newsy on the company or the event in some form or the other. We are all guilty as charged. I remember a resident editor of mine losing it completely when he wrote a gushing piece on the A 380 junket. Wow, the size of the plane had blown him out of water and he poured his heart, soul and who knows what else into the report. Incidentally, this report appeared on page one of the paper. And, it wasn’t exactly as if he had suited up to go to the Moon Mission on one of the Apollo series craft.

So, everyone who has been there and done that has written a few puff jobs in his time. Worse things have happened – hotels and restaurants have been reviewed in the past, as have resorts and other objects of envy in the guise of stylised writing. In fact, travel and airline magazines have been thriving on this kind of journalism. The malaise may be deep, but just about everyone disregards it or simply turns a blind eye. If an auto manufacturer takes you to a motor show, do you focus more on his cars and bikes? There is a fine line. Personal sense and sensibility matter. Telly channels have dedicated car and bike/motoring shows. As they have awards. Is everyone on the make then? No, maybe it is compulsions of commerce, buttressed by an acute and active competitive set. Who knows? Quid pro quo goes on endlessly. Is it time for such things to be reined in? Perhaps a code of conduct on lines of some of the financial news wires in the West, who want their reporters to be open and transparent about their portfolios.

A North Korean missile may have just struck the fabled portals of Washington Post. An epic scandal has come to light. The New York Times in its edit has highlighted the Pay for Chat plan falls flat at Washington Post. Let me quote: “For generations, The Washington Post has been a scrupulous watchdog over the capital’s cozy world of power networking. For a short time, it almost became the network’s host.

“The Post decided Thursday to cancel plans to charge lobbyists and trade groups $25,000 or more to sponsor private, off-the-record dinner parties at the home of its publisher, Katharine Weymouth, events that would have brought together lobbyists, business leaders, Post journalists and officials from the Obama administration and Congress. The revelation of the parties early Thursday morning by appalled members of The Post newsroom and put the paper squarely in the cross hairs of journalism ethicists. In response, Ms Weymouth canceled the first dinner, scheduled for July 21.” What does that tell you? That one of the most scrupulous watchdogs of journalism has fallen prey to the exigencies of contemporary commerce. And a lesson for wannabes back home.

Oh, but wait a minute, let me go back to my narrative. I guess it is also an accepted norm. But in a brand new spanking avatar, which resembled the big daddy of puff jobs, I read something the other day, which bordered on the ludicrous. This new trick pony is performing on KG Marg in Delhi at the Hindustan Times. And for good measure, it has been going on for two successive weeks now. Offering new vistas and at the same time legitimacy to the concept of puff jobs. HT very sensibly started a column called ‘Urban Gypsy’ with honourable intentions. This way it ensured that people who went on a junket perhaps or traveled to a distant and novel place could write about the place they had visited, without writing about the people who had invited them and at the same without obligating themselves. Seemed like a good methodology to deal with a sticky problem. And I am sure when people went on a trip on their own volition, they too could write something about the sights and sounds.

So far, so good. Aptly titled ‘Urban Gypsy’, it seemed like decent weekend reading till it degenerated into something of a farce the other week. Check this out now. Journo travels to Agra, doesn’t write about the greatest love monument in the world – Taj Mahal – or Sikandra or Fatehpur Sikri or the Agra Fort or… He devotes an entire piece to a hotel in Agra and its hospitality. The senior editor writes, “The Taj was an anti climax… Given the experience at the Taj, we dropped the idea of visiting Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and the marble workshops…”

I wonder which part of Agra was visited by the senior editor, for his version of the city is exemplary, “It wasn’t the dingy, dirty city we had been told to expect. The neat, winding road from the station to the ITC Mughal, where we were staying, was broad and beautifully maintained, lined on both sides by large bungalows – mostly colonial, but some modern and a very few Islamic – malls, showrooms and hotels.” Antispetic, I must say. Most of Agra which I have been visiting since I was five years old is chaotic and typically small town India.

Most of the piece is devoted to a particular hotel where the butler kept ‘plying the couple with dry martinis’. The writer’s only contribution is a line about the guide who took them to the Taj mentioned how Agra got its name – it was originally called Arya Griha, or home of the Aryans.

There is some detail of a ride on an all terrain vehicle, again inside the ramparts of the hotel. And then the piece de resistance, “No stay at the ITC Mughal is complete without a visit to Kaya Kalp – The Royal Spa, which won the Tatler Award for Best City Spa – the only Indian spa to win that award. At 99,000 sq ft, it is reportedly India’s largest… My wife and I decided to get facials. Two very friendly Thai girls worked on our faces for about 70 minutes, sending us to sleep, to the accompaniment of soft music. We came out glowing – and feeling refreshed. Yes, we may not have seen much of Agra, or even of the Taj Mahal, but for three days, we were treated like royalty.” Even if you did pay for all this, must poor hapless captive readers be subjected to this monologue about a hotel and its hospitality? Does it serve the purpose of a travel piece by any stretch of imagination? Dang, no!

The Agra syndrome by Arnab Mitra saw resonance the following week, last Saturday actually. Someone called Lina Choudhary Mahajan had taken a trip to the Antipodes, New Zealand, and right below the Urban Gypsy, the legend inscribed stated – The writer’s trip was sponsored by New Zealand. And the last para was of particular interest to me. It went something like this – So, the next time you think of getting a face lift, buy a ticket to New Zealand instead. It will take years off you, give you an adrenaline rush and do the trick. Wonder why this obsession for facials and face lifts at HT? Are these guys so overworked? At least in Mahajan’s case, she was honest enough to write that she had gone on a junket and she was writing about it on a platform for the same – Urban Gypsy. The size of the bungee jump picture accompanying the piece will also make some wonder… Let me leave the rest unsaid. Methinks, somebody may have decided to slap in a code of conduct after the previous week’s exertions in Agra. And ruminations on the same.

(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


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