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Today, honesty is a diminishing virtue

india Updated: Sep 16, 2013 15:04 IST
Karan Thapar
Karan Thapar
Hindustan Times
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Today’s sentiments is about two newspapers I respect and read regularly: The Indian Express and Mail Today. This is also why it’s not an easy tale to tell. But should a journalist who discovers members of his profession are guilty of the same unethical practices for which he might have excoriated others — and politicians in particular — keep silent because it concerns his fraternity? Surely not. Otherwise would that not be a case of unacceptable double standards?

My story begins last Saturday (September 7) when CNN-IBN’s Devil’s Advocate interviewed parliamentary affairs minister Kamal Nath. The big scoop was the minister’s blunt and bold statement that if summoned by the CBI the prime minister will submit himself to examination in the Coalgate matter. As he put it: “CBI under law can question anybody and the PM is within the law. So if the CBI wants to question him the PM is part of the law.”

The interview was recorded at 1 pm. By 3 pm CNN-IBN began running news clips. By 3:15 pm excerpts were placed on the channel’s website and by 5 pm emailed to the press. The Indian Express and Mail Today were two papers to whom they were sent.

Imagine my surprise when on Sunday (September 8) I discovered that The Express and Mail Today had done identical interviews, with Kamal Nath making exactly the same point. Was this a coincidence? Or was it just conceivable they had seen the news clips and the excerpts and decided to put the same question to Kamal Nath so they could claim he had given the same answer to them as well? In other words, had they cleverly converted our interview into their own?

Curious but also upset, I telephoned the minister. He confirmed my suspicions. Shortly after CNN-IBN began running news clips, the papers contacted him and asked the same questions about the PM and the CBI.

Incidentally, the PTI also contacted Mr Nath but only for confirmation the interview was genuine. Once obtained the story they released gave full credit to CNN-IBN and Devil’s Advocate.

Not so The Indian Express and Mail Today. The Express published it as its own on page 7. Mail Today splashed it across the front page as the paper’s main lead. Tellingly, in neither case did a journalist claim a byline.

I felt this was unethical. In fact, to be honest, it felt like ‘theft’. So I smsed a complaint to Shekhar Gupta, the editor of The Express, and Sandeep Bamzai, the editor of Mail Today.

Shekhar didn’t respond. Sandeep did. He accepted what had happened was “bad form” and promised a clarification on Monday (September 9). It appeared on page 24. If I hadn’t known it was coming, I would have missed it.

Journalists will tell you this sort of thing is not just common but even rampant. Television channels regularly take newspaper stories and present them as their own exclusives. What’s so terrible if two newspapers return the favour?

Nothing much, is the short answer. Except ethics and standards suffer in the process. But in today’s India who cares about that?

At least two papers do. The Hindu and The Business Standard carried the same story, attributing credit to CNN-IBN and not claiming it themselves. That didn’t make the story less interesting. It didn’t make the papers’ journalism seem small. It just made the papers more honest.

But these days honesty, it seems, is a diminishing virtue. On that count, sadly, journalists can’t claim to be very different from politicians.

Views expressed by the author are personal