Heads I Win, Tails You Lose
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com

This whole Anand Soondas episode—the implausible claims, counter claims, rebuttals and conspiracy theories– reminds me of the Tamil phrase echa thuppi vambu izhukkardhu which loosely translates as spitting on someone with the express intent of picking up a brawl.

If it was an attempt to dent Narendra Modi’s credibility, and fan the imbecilic ‘Feku’ campaign run by Congress Party partisans on twitter, it seems to have been a partial success. For media consumers, it offers a precious peek into the workings of a large and unwieldy news organization such as the Timesgroup, and for journalists and editors, this episode ought to be a refresher course in ethics.

Let’s look at the original story itself. It had “plant” written all over it. It is not an uncommon practice for the political parties or the business houses to sell a “good” story to the journalists. Where Soondas perhaps erred was in transmitting with the hyperbolic conviction, some pretty dubious claims (if they were made in the first place). There was not a hint of skepticism (something that, again ought to be, second nature to most journalists), or even a spirit of enquiry in Soondas’ piece.

It was a pretty bad case of enthusiastic regurgitation of what a single source had told him. And the source, Anil Baluni, was quite evidently a mid-ranking BJP leader in the state, and going by Abheek Barman’s assertions, an APCO executive.

The save-your-backside tool for slovenly reporters, who couldn’t care to cross check facts, is to attribute them to the source, and add for good measure, without dismounting from the high horse, they could not be verified “at the time of going to press”. But Soondas’ piece gave off the impression that he was close at hand to witness Modi personally pulling flood victims up into a rescue helicopter much in the manner of Bollywood action heroes.

Everyone is entitled to a bad day in the office. Maybe Soondas though this was the compelling story of Uttarkhand floods that would make him stand head and shoulders above all calamity chroniclers who had been skedaddled out of Delhi into Dehradun. Reporters can get breathless in a hot spot. Maybe it was his turn. A larger share of the blame must surely go to his editors back in Delhi, whose job it was to take a step back, and a deep breath and “police” the copy, and ask the relevant questions.

Now, Soondas himself is no upstart. He is the editor of Sunday Times of India (ToI) and a top ranking member of ToI’s editorial team. But let us leave that aside temporarily, and assume his reporter’s instincts got the better of his judgment as an editor.

But what is even more shocking is that Soondas outs his source in an interview to a rival paper (I can think of several reporters and editors who were prepared to go to jail if that was the cost of protecting a source) and is pretty remorseless about his stupidity. “I believe rescuing 15,000 people over four days is actually possible since it refers to providing them food, transport, logistics,” he chipped in.

A journalist taking on another, much less a colleague, who works in the same office, is a terrible spectacle. The very next day, another Timesgroup “senior resource” (organizational lingo, not mine)Abheek Barman took to ToI’s edit page to lugubriously lecture Soondas on logistics of rescue operations, and to allege that Modi’s evil PR firm APCO that specialises in burnishing the image of mass murderers the world over, had toyed with his own colleague.

Perhaps Barman could have called Soondas over the phone, if not out for a convivial cigarette session to know the truth that he was so eager to? In older times, there was no greater insult for a journalist to be told by a fellow practitioner of the trade that he was a stooge of PR companies. Now, many wear it as proudly as Virat Kohli his world cup winner’s medal.

Writers of far more skillful than Soondas (who allegedly nurses writerly ambitions) are known to secretly desire repudiation that comes as a result of their ability to displease. Often they crave the giddiness and pleasure of disgrace. If that is indeed the case, Soondas must feel over the moon.

Alternately, all this could also be a case of ugly journalistic score settling. Even if stories recounted by journalists come with an unmistakable whiff of Scotch flavoured rum, they often have a lot of meat. You only have to spend a few minutes at the press clubs of Delhi to know that news and views section of the paper in question are seldom on the same page, to put it mildly, when it comes to political orientation. That much you can decipher reading the paper itself. Sniper attacks of the past may have turned into a savage internecine newsroom war given the politically polarized times we live in.

But you know what; all this will inevitably have a happy ending. If the track record of the Timesgroup is any indicator, both Soondas and Barman will get a hefty pay hike pretty soon. You, the reader, can go screw yourself.