Media matters: The Kulbhushan Jadhav episode

Of the many noteworthy events that occurred while I was away following the cricket, the one that sticks to my mind like a burr is the case of Quint and its story on Kulbushan Jadhav.

Briefly, Quint under the byline of one Chandan Nandy published a story citing two former heads of the Research and Analysis Wing to the effect that they were opposed to the recruitment of Jadhav, a former Naval officer, as a spy for the RAW. The story led to an outcry following which Quint took down the story. “The Quint is rechecking the Kulbhushan Jadhav story”, ran the headline over the website’s statement.

Since then, the story remains down. The statement has also vanished. And it is like nothing happened, nothing to see here, folks, move on.

But something did happen, and it should leave a sorry aftertaste in the mouths of anyone who is invested in ensuring that we get the media we deserve. The Quint-Jadhav story is one of editorial failure at multiple levels, with potentially dangerous consequences. And the subsequent silence of the website only compounds its initial complicity.

Here is how it breaks down: When a journalist works on a potentially controversial story, his first duty is to clear it with his editor. Did that conversation happen? Did Nandy go to the Quint editor and say he was planning to talk to former RAW chiefs on this potentially sensitive topic? And crucially, how did the editor react?

“The public has a right to know,” is the oft-cited excuse for publishing any and everything. That is true enough as far as it goes — but it doesn’t go into the realm of covert operations. There is a reason intelligence gathering is called “covert” ops — lives depend on it, international relations depend on its being kept sub rosa. For god’s sake, what part of “covert” needs explication?

An editor who knew his job would at that point have asked the following questions, not necessarily in that order: (1) Are your sources willing to be named? (2) What is the purpose of doing this story? (3) How, here, does the public’s right to know supersede the state’s responsibility to keep intelligence-gathering operations covert? (4) Have you checked with the responsible government ministry on the sensitivities involved?

Such scrutiny was doubly essential because the reporter in question has a sorry history of faking stories. (Which begs the question: Why is he still in Quint’s employ? It also begs another question: Did the RAW check with its former chiefs about whether they did in fact make the claimed statements? If they did, they were in violation of the oath of secrecy, and action needs to be taken against them. Was it?)

Having asked these questions, a halfway decent editor would have spiked the story even before it was done — because there is no application, here, of the public’s overwhelming right to know. A savvy editor would, further, have taken note of the fact that Jadhav’s case is before the International Court of Justice; that India is arguing that while Jadhav was a former naval officer, he is not a spy and therefore should not be treated as one.

At this point, a story citing unnamed sources to the effect that Jadhav is a spy undercuts India’s claim in the international court, and thus it was inimical to the national interest to pursue the story, let alone to publish it.

And then the sorry saga gets worse. The story is done, and published. Did the editor cross-check the claims in Nandy’s story? Did he call the two former RAW chiefs to check whether they had, in fact, made the statements his reporter claims they did? Such verification is an essential step in any sensitive story. Was it done here? The evidence suggests it was not.

After the story is published and the damage is done (the Pakistan establishment has gone to town claiming it vindicates their stand that Jadhav is, in fact, a spy and should be treated as one) Quint then claims it is cross-checking the facts — which, to state the bleeding obvious, should have been done before publicationnot after the horse bolted.

But leave that lie. So Quint, by its own statement, cross-checked the facts. Then what? Did the editor find the facts were substantially correct? In that case, the story should have been re-uploaded, if the editorial view was that the story was in the public interest and the facts were correct.

On the other hand, did Quint find flaws in the story, as its remaining down suggests? In that case, what action did it take against the journalist — and where is that statement?

Quint’s actions suggest that it hopes, by taking down the original story and the mealy-mouthed retraction, that the whole issue will blow over. It should not, though — because, as pointed out earlier, the publishing of that story was clearly against the national interest, it has endangered a human being’s life, and put unneeded pressure on India’s external policy.

Such acts have — or should have — consequences. Much is made (rightly) of the government’s, and related agencies’, willingness to use the laws covering sedition, or of defamation, to shut up inconvenient voices. A case in point during this same period is that of the Tribune reporter Rachna Khaira, who now finds herself facing criminal charges for her story exposing a significant breach in the Aadhar firewall. Rachna’s story, unlike Nandy’s, IS in the public interest, and yet she is facing criminal action; Nandy and Quint, on the other hand, have engaged in an act that does attract various legitimate charges, and yet there is no fallout?

Not to take a button and weave a vest around it, but one unhappy consequence of the media’s incessant drive for clicks is that basic editorial processes are breaking down irreparably. Newsroom practice, not so long ago, was to question the merits of a story before publication. In that atmosphere, assuming Nandy had unilaterally worked on this story and submitted it, the news editor would have immediately flagged it for the attention of the editor and senior editorial staff, and a call would have been taken at that level on whether to publish or not (Not!).

Not anymore. Today, in the mad rush to have copy up quickly and in profuse quantities, that story channel has been broken; half-trained junior editors handle copy, run a cursory eye over each story and as long as it satisfies basic grammar and spelling (sometimes not even then), up it goes.

And then we wonder why the media is losing credibility.

On another note, the Editor’s Guild put out a statement “condemning” the filing of an FIR against Rachna Khaira, as did sundry other journalists’ bodies. But on this, not a yip?!

Remember the furor over the media coverage of 26/11? The vocal protests by the government and even lay citizens about the risk of covering an anti-terrorist operation live? Remember the calls, at the time, for an official body to regulate media functioning? Remember how various senior worthies from the media resisted such calls, and argued that the answer was not to have an external watchdog body, but for the media to police itself, to regulate itself, and for the Editors’ Guild to act as the umbrella policing body?

Then something like this happens, and there is silence on all those fronts. The media worthies have nothing to say, the Editors’ Guild goes AWOL. So now, if the government — any government — uses this example to argue the need for an external regulatory body, since the media is so clearly incapable of regulating itself, what possible argument can you make?

It all circles back to the central question: How does Quint get away with its silence, with pretending that nothing happened? Why is it that the media, so quick to criticize everyone from the head of state to a debutant cricketer, so backward when it comes to critiquing itself, and taking corrective measures?

In passing, a related thought: Just as there is now in the media a perceived need to find the most ‘sensational’ stories possible, there is in the public space a proliferation of people willing to leak ‘exclusives’ to them, often without any thought to consequences.

Back in 2014, the UPA2 government — specifically, then Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde — made public statements about the government’s “intention” to go after Dawood Ibrahim. At the time Narendra Modi, then campaigning for power, asked a question so pertinent, I saved it to my Evernote folder as worth preserving. It was this:

“Why is the Indian government not able to get Dawood? Do these things happen through the medium of newspapers? Did the U.S. issue a press note before they killed bin Laden? Did the U.S. government hold a press conference saying they will go on this particular date to get bin Laden? I am ashamed that that the Union Home Minister is giving such statements.”

And then came Myanmar. It was a covert operation, and yet within hours, its details were everywhere in the media, with each channel and website vying for “exclusive” details and, seemingly, finding sufficient loose mouths to provide those details — never mind what it does to a friendly neighbouring country to have news of its covert assistance splashed all over the front pages.

Earlier this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party tweeted this out, leading to frenzied talk shows and media reports replete with “details”:


This is one reason governments can’t really crack down on egregious reporting — it plants and propagates fake stories when it finds them convenient; it can therefore hardly turn around and accuse the media of doing something it is equally complicit in.