Finally Ambanis have got full control over India’s largest independent news agency

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By Hardev Sanotra

Freedom is the lifeblood of journalism and independence its soul. A free press flourishes in a nation which respects these ideals. But these are trying times. The threats to institutions, though, are not only external,  they can arise from inside too.

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At IANS, we had a quiet, often amused, pride in stating its tag line: “India’s Largest Independent News Service”, with emphasis on the word “independent”, as we were much smaller than the Press Trust of India. It was the only news agency with an anti-establishment outlook.

Late last year and early this year, the CEO Mahesh Daga, director Shibi Alex Chandy, and I, its managing editor, resigned with varying notice periods, as the owners had brought in their own choice, Sandeep Bamzai, to run the show. For the staff, this was like a journalistic temblor with the epicentre on the man who, in journalistic circles, is seen by many as an Ambani camp-follower.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

IANS was supposed to be a news agency largely run by journalists. That’s how it was for several years till the owners decided to begin using the media outlet for personal purposes.

When I joined IANS in February 2015, the founder and chief editor, Tarun Basu, was withdrawing from active participation in the news agency (His decades-long association ends this month). My understanding with the CEO, Daga, was that I would not directly handle any news items pushed by the owner, Anil Ambani, or his group. I knew of their reputation and did not want to be doing their bidding, even though I was assured that there was not much interference. The then business editor was entrusted the task of handling any news release or ideas emanating from ADAG.

This went on smoothly, with very few items moving on the wires in which the Ambanis were interested. I kept to the principle that any news in the public domain, no matter how critical of the Ambanis, would move on the wires with full details.

Since the agency was owned by the younger brother, the communication officials in the elder brother Mukesh Ambani’s company too felt they could push items of their interest onto IANS wires through the business editor. As managing editor, I kept a light overview, ensuring that nothing gross would go.

This was the arrangement till the business editor met with an untimely death, too early in his life. The mantle for managing and journalistically sanitising the missives from the Ambanis fell on the shoulders of the director, Chandy, who until then was happy with managing administrative functions. He was also roped into handling special reports, which was deemed to be the USP of IANS.

Chandy has been in the profession for almost four decades, and has worked with a many publications. He does not believe in publicly protesting, unlike me, choosing to make a quiet exit when his principles clashed with the direction a publication was taking. He stayed with IANS for 21 years because of the benign nature of the agency, and because it was largely run by professionals keeping journalistic ethics in mind.

The first skirmishes

Even though I had kept aloof on interaction with the Ambani officials, there were some skirmishes. A junior executive from the elder brother’s communication company once called me to tell me to not use some item. I blew my top at the very gumption of that man. I told Chandy I would resign that very minute unless they apologised. After some phone calls, the top man in the communication office called to apologise copiously, saying the junior had exceeded his brief.

At another point, Rohit Bansal, one of the non-executive directors at Network18 – which had by then been taken over by the elder Ambani’s company – tried to prove that a senior journalist, in charge of the business section, had provided misleading news, when he himself had actually misled her and me.

Bansal had worked with me in TV18 as a journalist, and he perhaps thought he could use that familiarity to get a story through. Several emails later – also inadvertently marked to his juniors by me – he called to concede his mistake. I told him never to write to me. That was the end of our interaction.

Generally, the skirmishes were few and I kept to the principle – and ensured everyone knew it – that we would not refrain from carrying any anti-Ambani story in public domain. So any media story, for example, by the French investigative site Mediapart on the Rafale deal, would see all details carried.

Dealing with outside pressure

Often the journalistic fights were external. Like the instance when we carried a briefing on India-China relations, quoting the external affairs spokesperson, when the comments were understood to be off-the-record. The mistake – made by two senior journalists – was noticed and a story superseding the earlier one was moved on the IANS wires soon, as is the practice in a news agency.

But the government was not satisfied with that. The XP (External Publicity) spokesperson in the ministry of external affairs called me to say that the earlier story would have to be killed. He started on the wrong foot by saying, “It would not be good for IANS…”

I cut him short and told him that he cannot threaten the editor, to which he said that he was not threatening but only stating that it would not be good for IANS or the country. That sounded like a threat to me. Several exchanges later I told him bluntly that the story would not be killed.

The result was that IANS correspondents on MEA beat were taken off the XP WhatsApp group, no SMS were sent inviting us to any function, and we were not allowed to attend the briefings – this went on for months, till two spokespersons later the facilities were restored quietly. During this period, feelers were sent that if we apologised, things would return to normal. I refused.

Last year, the head of the BJP media cell, Anil Baluni, called me to say that a story on party president Amit Shah’s comment on UP had been wrongly attributed to him. The correspondents who covered the BJP president said that they had quoted him correctly. The BJP official, though, kept on insisting, implying that IANS would not be invited to further briefings. But no overt action followed after I stood my ground.

Similarly, the DG of PIB, Sitanshu Kar, called up to say that a story that IANS ran on the largest number of demonetised notes being deposited in a district bank in which Shah was a director was “not very comfortable” for them. When he was told that it was “quite comfortable” for IANS, he let it go.

It was not always the party or the regime in power that had problems with news items we ran. One of our stories, discussing the algorithmic nature of Google searches, said that when the word “Pappu” was written in the search box, the name of Rahul Gandhi came up on the top. One of the Congress’ spokespersons, Randeep Surjewala, called our deputy chief reporter to lament that IANS had ran the story because it was against the opposition leader. Had we run a similar story against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said, “IANS would have been shut down.”

I checked the word “Feku” online, often attributed to Modi, and true to form Google showed up the name of the prime minister. We ran that story too. Surjewala of course had no comment to offer after that.

It’s not as if the agency did not make mistakes. We did. And the most egregious one was when the word “Bakchod” went in a news story next to the prime minister’s name. We did apologise profusely for the blunder, passed on inadvertently by the chief reporter and not caught by senior editors. The chief reporter had to pay the price, and to some extent, so did the editor who had cleared the copy.

After Rafale, owners start taking interest

The challenges at the agency were exacerbated by the owners interest in pushing dubious stories on the wire since early last year, many related to the Rafale deal.

After allegations against the offset contract brought in a lot of flak against the junior Ambani, any favourable news was pushed through the IANS wires. Therefore, a copy of the interview with the Dassault head, who claimed there was nothing wrong with the deal, came earlier than others got it.

Similarly, unsourced (and in my view, dubious) stories supporting the deal moved on the wire, although watered down and sanitised somewhat at the agency.

The CEO, Daga, told the intermediaries that this could not go on for long. Sometime in the middle of last year, he said he would resign if things did not improve. Chandy, who handled the copies from the Ambani stable expressed the same sentiments. I, of course, told them that I would resign if the owners brought in someone else. When I heard the name of Bamzai being bandied around, I promised I would resign the very day he joined.

A self-confessed admirer of Anil Ambani, Bamzai had told me that the younger Ambani had partly financed the sports website that he had set up with two other journalists. When he came looking for a job a few years ago at Tehelka’s planned newspaper for metros, Financial World, which I had joined as managing editor, Ambani called up Tarun Tejpal to push Bamzai’s case. The industrialist’s Delhi man, Tony Jesudasan, spent a couple of hours with me trying to convince me that he was the right person to add to the 70-odd journalists that we had already hired.

I asked Jesudasan why they were conducting such a high-intensity campaign for a man whose journalistic credentials were, at best, questionable. He told me: “The boss wants it.”

I told him that was not good enough for me and I put my foot down, which Tejpal endorsed. FW never took off, as the financier KD Singh got cold feet one year into the implementation.

I am certain the resentment Bamzai held against me must have welled up when he greeted me with an exclamatory “very good” after I told him that I had resigned that morning, when he asked me what my plans were. I had landed at the office after a leave of absence. By then, he had already ensconced himself in the director’s cabin, with the title of Chief Editor & CEO, even as the CEO was very much in the office.

That afternoon, at my last editorial meeting with senior staff, he walked in and started shouting at the designated Chief Reporter, accusing him of not having followed his directions on some story.

In my resignation letter, I had written that “I fear (the new team) would run (IANS) aground, editorially speaking, sooner than we think. I don’t want to see that happen from close quarters.”

In many ways, the agency is now being used regularly to further the narrow agenda of an industrialist. There is no one to draw any lines. If anything, Bamzai and those he brought with him are more loyal than the king and are only too willing to further the subversion.

None of N. Ram’s devastating articles in The Hindu on the Rafale deal were reflected in the news agency.  A recent three-part series, totally source-based, in IANS seemed to blame Lockheed Martin, a competitor, for the Rafale problems. It has the imprimatur of having come from the top. My advice: At the very least, show the courtesy of removing the agency’s tag line.

Many journalists have been asked to leave. Recently, the head of arts and culture section, a fine writer and reporter, was told not to come to office to serve his notice period. This was on the grounds that he had retweeted criticism of the prime minister on his personal handle (which mentioned him as an IANS journalist).

Executive editor V.S. Chandrasekar, who had headed the PTI desk for almost four decades, left a couple of weeks ago – unhappy, I believe, with the unprofessional way news was being handled.

It’s a tragedy for journalism that this comes in a milieu where the regime in power has made efforts to reduce our freedoms. Last year, a message was conveyed from the owners that direct criticism of the prime minister should be avoided. When this met with vehement opposition, they dropped the idea.

The media should work as a bulwark against politicians’ grab for more power. When institutions like IANS, and many others, become hagiographers and propagandists, subverted from inside and outside, it points to an illness in the society.

They may continue to have a desiccated, lifeless agency of sorts, but it will never earn the headline that Paranjoy Guha Thakurta gave to his story on the BJP president that the news agency had run: “Who’s Afraid of Amit Shah? Not IANS.”

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Hardev Sanotra is a Delhi-based journalist and former Managing Director of IANS.This article was first published in The Wire.

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