Sue the Messenger
Subir Ghosh & Paranjoy Guha Thakurta
SUE THE Messenger is a grim depiction of how corporates are able to control the media in a ruthless manner. The extent of the manipulation is such that many stories appear that are completely one-sided. Further, any attempt at bringing out some of the truths on what goes on in these companies results in strong punitive action, which can be demoralising, as it involves time and money.
There are two aspects to this exercise of power. The first is to buy up the journalists and editors, which, as per authors Subir Ghosh and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Reliance Industries has epitomised. Free coupons and vouchers are a way of ensuring that the media is on your side, which is called ‘envelope journalism’. This has been done by other strong groups as well, as per the authors, including Essar, which was found to be funding travel bills of top journalists and editors to ensure that they were on their side.
The other way is to ‘teach a lesson’ to media persons in case they take any issue far enough to cause discomfort. This can be done by either withdrawing advertising support or filing cases of defamation against the person or publication house. This is used more in case of books than newspapers and magazines, as it is assumed that the former have a lasting impact.
An effective way of putting the media in a spot is to file charges of defamation in a location far from the home of the journalist or office of the publication. This has been done irrespective of whether it is a corporate baron or head of an educational institution, such as Arindam Chaudhury. The method used is to file a case in a distant court, so that you are harassed forever being summoned for testimonies, which can go on for years. Meanwhile, the issue becomes sub-judice and cannot be commented on, and hence all public discussion ends. The case almost never ends, carrying on for years, by which time public memory has completely spaced out the incident. This game is played by all companies, and, as per the authors, even reputed companies like Unilever have been known to take the media to task when issues of pollution or any other apparent misdeed come up.
The authors also convince you that most of the CSR work done by corporates is only for publicity and helps to deflect attention from other forms of environment degradation that they indulge in. This is called ‘brochure CSR’, where you write a lot in the annual report about the good that you are doing for society—this is done through photos of schools and children or a health facility. Often, paid media is fed these stories, which grab headlines in print or on channels.
Few media houses have the wealth or courage to expose this. The authors have, however, played safe, given that they can get slapped (pun intended) with SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation). They have, hence, not investigated themselves or tried to shame any corporate, but have extensively quoted other authors in the journalistic fraternity to narrate their experiences. So we have Hamish McDonald, who took on Reliance Group, but had the fortune of being an Australian, so Indian laws did not apply. While he was befriended by the group initially, he turned unfriendly as he went along. But his book could not be published in India, and a pirated version, The Polyester Prince, came out years after the original was written.
Interestingly, the authors talk a lot about the ‘Streisand’ effect, where an issue would not have been noticed had it not been for the controversy of a ban or legal recourse sought to prevent such literature from coming into the public domain. Tamal Bandyopadhyay’s Sahara: The Untold Story was of a different type, where a disclaimer had to be put at the end by the group, which said that all that was written was false, but the group wished all the best to the author.
An effective way to control the media is through advertisements. Given that the media requires money, any withdrawal of advertising would hit the publication hard. Outlook magazine, under Vinod Mehta, never recovered after the Radia tapes became public, and till date has lost out on advertising from Tata Group.
The authors also show that financial journalism has its own issues. The NSE-Sucheta Dalal story is well documented and the authors appear to be quite caustic of the exchange. The Veritas research reports and the reaction from India Bulls is another instance where the power of the corporate was evident. The question was whether or not a market researcher could be arrested based on a report that was written. Another eminent economist, Ajay Shah, faced the wrath of the MCX where a case was filed in Kolhapur of all places. A photo journalist, Shailendra Yashwant, got into trouble for writing on the import of a toxic chemical plant from Norway. His expose on Adani’s enterprise denuding the mangroves in Mundra got him into litigation again. And the biggest was The Times of India’s battle with Financial Times of London.
The title Sue the Messenger could just have been ‘Shoot the Messenger’. Whenever the truth has to be placed on the table by a journalist, he risks his freedom. This should not be the case. We keep reading about how such acts of courage result in murder when politicians or the mafia are taken on, but the clash with corporates is no less dangerous. Lives have not been lost, but the will is destroyed, as one realises that at the end of the day, one cannot take on this might.
Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, CARE Ratings