With Harish Khare’s unceremonious exit as Media Adviser to the Prime Minister, to the surprise apparently of very few, one who has been in the business of news for the past sixty five years wonders what, indeed, is expected of an Advisor. According to The Hitavada (29 January), it was no secret that Khare was no admirer of the political (as distinct from the administrative) wing of the UPA and that “he had even gone public with criticism of the way that the UPA was functioning, a year after joining the Prime Minister’s Office”. It would seem that his “disillusionment with the working of the Congress served to hasten his egress”.
According to a lead article in the Nagpur newspaper, “Khare had much less chemistry with fellow journalists, most of whom he knew personally (and, perhaps as a consequence) saw with a degree of thinly-veiled contempt”. According to the article “unlike those media persons who have made a lucrative career out of news and news makers, Khare has remained tethered to his salary, not venturing beyond his middle class origins into the world of the upper class that so many celebrity journalists in Delhi have reached”. What comes as a shock is to learn that some one purloined Khare’s car, mobile phone and laptop six months ago and the belief is that it was “not a random act of burglary but a well-thought and executed plan” to get details of his personal e-mail “that had not been monitored till then”. If that is true, it is not obviously enough to be a good advisor; one has to be totally and unquestionably loyal not only to the Prime Minister himself, but to the leader of the party and the entire party hierarchy. Fair enough. But why, in the first place, was he hired, if his supposed anti-Congress views were known? And what is even more intriguing, why should he have accepted the job of Adviser to the Prime Minister when he was heading the Delhi bureau of one of the most outstanding newspapers in India? In hiring a Media Adviser what should be considered more relevant: his personal views or his professional talent as an objective assessor who keeps his personal feelings aside (as a lawyer would) to tell his client what needs to be done in a given situation?
Never mind. There are other media issues that are commanding attention. Take the case of the Times Now television channel, reference to which has been made in a profound article in Bhavan’s Journal (January 31) written by N Ravi, Director, Kasturi & Sons, publishers of The Hindu. In its 6.30 pm news bulletin on September 10, 2008 the channel ran a story on a provident fund controversy involving some high court judges. While mentioning the name of a judge of the Calcutta High Court, PK Samantha, it inadvertently displayed the picture of a retired Supreme Court Judge and former chairman of the Press Council of India, PB Sawant, for just 15 seconds. The picture was not shown in the subsequent news bulletins. Times Now apologised to Justice Sawant and, according to Ravi, “ran an apology for five continuous days on the channel”. One would have imagined that that sufficed. But then in November 2008 Justice Sawant sued Times Now for defamation and a District Court awarded him Rs 100 crores in damages! Comment-in on that says Ravi: “This level of damages is so out of line with what Indian courts normally award that one would have expected the higher judiciary to correct the aberration immediately.” Instead, Times Now when it appealed to the Bombay High Court, found to its shock that it was required to deposit Rs 20 crore and provide a bank guarantee for the rest (Rs 80 crore) before its appeal would be heard”. Adds Ravi: “On November 14, 2011, the Supreme Court, to which this order of the High Court was taken in appeal, let the order stand, with the result that the channel is obliged to come up with the funds in the form of a deposit and a bank guarantee before its appeal is heard”. Let one thing be clear. When the channel mistook Sawant for Samantha, it was a human error and no malice was involved. The channel itself realised it and on its own offered an apology, not once, but for five continuous days. On a channel, time is precious and even the best among us could have erred unconsciously. To quote Ravi again: “The award of such damages is bound to have a chilling effect on the Indian media as a whole. Even more significantly it would encourage copycats plaintiffs and trial judges to move on to wholly new and higher levels of damage claims and awards in libel cases”. What Ravi says is significant for another reason. As he put it, “It is ironic that the case with such a chilling effect should have been initiated by a former Supreme Court judge who has been the Chairman of the Press Council of India”. Let it be conceded that in presenting individuals on the screen, television channels have to be extra careful. With the best of motives, and under severe pressure, even the most conscientious amongst us can make mistakes. Can’t a court understand that? One wonders whether in this instance public opinion must be sought. A penalty of Rs 100 crores is just unbelievable. One can’t agree more with Ravi when he hopes that “this aberration is only temporary and matters will be set right without much delay once the appeal is taken up”.
The Media is coming under attacks these days with the former Supreme Court judge and newly-appointed chairman of the Press Council, Markandey Katju leading the chorus. The latest in this field is Vice President of India Hamid Ansari. There are statements made both by Justice Katju and Vice President Ansari that one can agree with as when the latter said that “strong and independent-minded editors are today an endangered species”, which they are. But for anyone to question “the intellectual capabilities of journalists” is, may one add, going a step too far. Journalists today are living in hard times; quite a few newspapers, one understands, are employing them under contract which is one way of telling them that if they don’t listen to what the managements ask them to write, they may have to ook out for another job. One suspects, having known fellow journalists, that there are few in any other profession, including the legal and judicial, who can match journalists in intellectual standing. And that’s not being just modest. Shouldn’t journalists tell the truth, as Mr Katju wants them to?