The Washington Post article on prime minister Manmohan Singh, by its India bureau chief Simon Denyer, has stirred up yet another media tsunami, after Time magazine’s “Underachiever” cover.
The government’s media handlers have gone into a tailspin, demanding an “apology” from the Post, even labelling it “yellow journalism”, while the government’s detractors are celebrating another ‘new low’ for a government that plumbs new depths on an hourly basis.
The 9pm TV shows went ballistic on Wednesday and Simon Denyer appeared on several of them, forcefully arguing his case.
But there is a developing sideshow as well. Many readers have suggested some similarities in the Post report with a long profile of Manmohan in the monthly magazine The Caravan in October 2011 written by the magazine’s editor, Vinod K. Jose.
Now, one of the people “quoted” in the story, former media advisor to the PM, Sanjaya Baru, has “protested” on his Facebook account (below) that the WaPo reporter had lifted his statement from Caravan.
“Simon Denyer quotes me in WashPo without talking to me. He has merely rehashed what I told Caravan last year,” wrote Baru.
The prime minister’s media advisor Pankaj Pachauri too has broached the issue of rehashing Baru’s quotes in a letter to the Post.
Simon Denyer offers this response on Twitter (top):
“I spoke to Dr Baru personally on the telephone during the reporting for the story. He confirmed that these sentiments were accurate.”
One other worthy quoted in the WaPo article apparently allowed the reporter to use his Caravan quotes, but there is no suggestion in the Post article that the quotes had appeared elsewhere.
So, are the Indian intellectuals protesting too much, post-facto?
Or, is there more to the WaPo piece than meets the eye?
The Caravan: The prominent historian Ramachandra Guha, who has described the current administration as “inept and incompetent beyond words”, told me that he now regards Singh “increasingly as a tragic figure”.
“He’s intelligent, upright, and possesses all this vast experience of working in the government for over four decades,” Guha said. “But the timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty will make him a tragic figure in our history.”
Washington Post: “More and more, he has become a tragic figure in our history,” said political historian Ramachandra Guha, describing a man fatally handicapped by his “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.”
The Caravan: “He is facing the worst situation in his life,” said Sanjaya Baru, a business journalist who served as Singh’s media adviser from 2004 to 2008. “In politics, it’s alright to be loved or hated, but you should never be ridiculed. And his problem today is that he has become an object of ridicule.”
Washington Post: “In the process, he transformed himself from an object of respect to one of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life, said Sanjaya Baru, Singh’s media adviser during his first term.”
The Caravan: “In a 2006 interview with the American talk-show host Charlie Rose, Manmohan Singh described himself, with ostentatious modesty, as a small person put in this big chair.”
Washington Post: “I’m a small person put in this big chair,” Singh told broadcaster Charlie Rose in 2006. “I have to do my duty, whatever task is allotted of me.”
So, lazy journalism, oversight, or is OK?
Update: The Washington Post has posted this correction after the sans serif piece:
Correction: An earlier version of this article failed to credit the Caravan, an Indian magazine, for two statements that it originally published in 2011. The assertion by Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser, that Singh had become an object of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life first appeared in the Caravan, as did an assertion by Ramachandra Guha, a political historian, that Singh was handicapped by his “timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty.” While both men told The Post that the assertions could accurately be attributed to them, the article should have credited the Caravan when it used or paraphrased the remarks. The article has been updated.
Also read: Is slamming govt “yellow journalism”?
External reading: Why is India so touchy?
It’s not lazy journalism but incompetent govt and dumb PM : here is the letter from PM and response from Simon :-
The following is a letter from the Prime Minister’s office:
We do not complain about criticism of the government which is a journalist’s right. But I am writing this letter for pointing out unethical and unprofessional conduct at your part.
I would like to put on record my complaint about your article which was published today on many counts:
— Despite all lines of conversations open, you never got in touch with us for our side of the story though you regularly talk to me about information from the PMO. This story thus becomes totally one sided.
— You have been telling the media here in India that your request for an interview was declined though the mail below says clearly that the interview was declined “till the Monsoon Session” of the Parliament which gets over in two days.
— When I rang you up to point this out, you said sorry twice though you tell the media here that you never apologised.
— Your website where we could have posted a reply is still not working, 11 hours after you said sorry the third time for its inaccessibility.
— The former Media Adviser to the PM Dr Sanjaya Baru has complained that you “rehashed and used” an 8 month old quote from an Indian Magazine.
We expected better from the correspondent of the Washington Post for fair and unbiased reporting.
Without going into your one sided assessment of the Prime Minister’s performance, as comment is free in journalism, I hope you will carry this communication in full in your paper and your website so your readers can judge for themselves what is the truth.
Communications Adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office
New Delhi – India
Below is a response to the letter from Simon Denyer, author of the article and our India bureau chief:
Thanks for your comments. I wanted to respond point-by-point:
— I requested an interview with the PM on three occasions, and also with T.K.A Nair, Advisor to the Prime Minister, and with Pulok Chatterji, Principal Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office. Those requests were either ignored or declined.
— When I made my final request for an interview with the PM in July, I was told on July 30 “The PM has declined all interview requests till the Monsoon session is over.” At that stage the current session of parliament (known as the Monsoon session) of parliament had not even begun. There was no mention of the possibility of an interview afterwards. In any case my story touches on the fact that parliament has been adjourned every day throughout the current session by opposition calls for the PM to resign, which is a story I felt should be told, interview or not.
Indeed, we remain extremely interested in speaking to the prime minister.
— My apology was for the fact that the website was down and the PM’s office could not post a reply directly. As soon as the problem was fixed, I informed them. I stand by the story.
— I spoke to Dr Baru personally on the telephone during the reporting for the story. He confirmed that these sentiments were accurate.
Pachauri comes across as a complete fool in his communication with WaPo. How on earth did you construe a couple of “sorrys” in a phone conversation as an apology? If Mr Denyer indeed apologized why did he not demand in writing?
Manmohan has a whole team of clowns instituted in the PMO apart from himself. It would be funny and hilarious had it not been as tragic as it is!
I think the Caravan article was an excellent and insightful essay about the PM. For any journalist doing a news story on the PM, the Caravan article should be a must-read as part of research.
I don’t think its lazy journalism to agree to a point of view and take your article further from that point of reference but not quoting properly is sacrilege.
However as it has been updated on the WP website, I it’s okay.
Neha, it’s not okay that WaPo carries a post-dated clarification. Simon Denyer rehashed the quotes from Baru and Guha, in blatant disregard for what constitutes honest journalism. Not just lazy but dishonest journalism to pass off someone else’s interview as if it were your own legwork.
If Richard Harwood, legendary ombudsman of the Post, had been alive, Denyer would have been eating crow.
So, now, what’s all this fuss about? Who doesn’t know what the Post stated are truths and nothing but the truths? How mean can the establishment become when it raises a hue and cry over what’s essentially a matter-of-fact comment on the performance of the prime minister — which is matching with the perception of the people, if not the Indian media that’s indulging in boot-licking when it comes to political reporting. This has been the case for long, and the Delhi media in particular is known for its omissions and commissions, as was amply exposed by the Radia tapes episode. And, are we here to break the glass that reflects our ugly faces? Why can’t the PMO act in a more civilized manner, especially as Manmohan Singh is seen as a shade better than the run-of-the mill, street-smart politicians when it comes to manners and etiquette? And, why would he allow his men to stage a drama over what was essentially a professional job? And, does the fact that Time magazine had tendered an apology over a similar comment on Vajpayee, give us enough justification to seek a sorry for every adverse comments about India in future?
This is indeed a show of lazy and unethical journalism. The copyright on Caravan’s article is of the author’s and the magazine’s and Simon should have taken permission from them before using it. Even if Baru and Guha told Simon that his sentiments are same, he should have contacted Caravan or Jose. And on top of that, not giving credit is suicidal. You can’t just say you ‘failed’ to give the credit. It shows how serious you are about ethics in journalism.
The government just can’t take criticism! Everyone knows you guys are a bunch of douche bags.
[…] now that's all cleared up, but Denyer's article raises a more serious journalistic issue. A blogger writing at the site Sans Serif noticed that Denyer's story used quotes that are similar to those in a 2011 […]
Simon has done a great disservice to honesty by quoting and rehashing Caravan pieces. What is his original contribution in the story other than sensationalising the Times story yet again.
This has been the case for long, and the Delhi media in particular is known for its omissions and commissions, as was amply exposed by the Radia tapes episode