The pink press was caught napping. Again.
Soon after the Punjab National Bank scam broke, news media was filled with all the righteous noises attacking crony capitalists getting away with looting public banks. Yet again. ‘Another Mallya’ was the refrain. The political class, bureaucracy and investigative agencies were blamed for letting India down.
In all of this, few questions were asked of Big Media, a section of which, it appears, sat pretty on a truly explosive story and didn’t bother investigating it.
Soon after Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi – both related and protagonists in the PNB saga – hit the headlines, a letter by Bengaluru-based businessman Hari Prasad to the Prime Minister’s Office started doing the rounds. In this letter, written in 2016, Prasad spoke of a scam “similar to that of Vijay Mallya”. He alleged that Choksi had “siphoned off thousands of crores out of India.” He went on to state that despite “very small tangible assets – just Rs 25-30 crore”, Choksi was able to get loans to the tune of Rs 9,872 crore. Explaining how Choksi was able to pull this off, Prasad alleged that it was possible because of “fictitious balance sheets” consisting of “manipulated and inflated figures” that showed a large portion of his assets as “inventories and trade receivable”.
But that’s not all.
In a stunning indictment of the press, he wrote that he had approached the The Times of India Group with the story. “They refused to cover the story as they have financial interest in that company,” he stated. The letter adds, “General perception of the public is that media companies get the info on a case and then they start negotiating deals with the accused and so on.”
When Newslaundry spoke to Prasad, he confirmed that he had approached a senior journalist with Economic Times in Mumbai. But he was told, “We cannot cover this.” He added that he had also written emails to “CNBC, TV18 but nobody took note of it.”
Prasad also stated that he had approached the media only because he believed there would be some good journalists who would show interest. “But none of the media [organisations] supported me when it was the right time to support.”
Speaking about media coverage of the PNB scam now, Prasad said: “Now it is in the public domain, it is exposed, it is super hot so everybody wants to meet me. Now everybody wants to cover it. It is a TRP game. This is not fair.” He added: “If they had woken up then, maybe we could have avoided this problem. Maybe I could have recovered my money, maybe Choksi could not have escaped from the country.”
Expressing his concern about the state of Indian journalism, the Bangalore-based businessman said: “If someone approaches the media, they should at least check whether it is a genuine complaint, genuine request or not. And they should at least get back. This is not journalism.”
However, he abstained from painting all media houses with the same brush. He said, “Not all the media [organisations] are bad. We are what we are in society.” Prasad hopes that going forward, when such frauds come to light, the media will play a more proactive role in exposing them.
Speaking of the reason why sections of the media including ET, one of the largest circulating English business dailies, did not run the story, he said: “No reasons were explained.” In the absence of any coherent response, Prasad said, he gave up.
In Times Group’s case, the reluctance could simply be explained by their financial interests.
One of the prime-accused and jeweller Nirav Modi’s uncle, Mehul Choksi, is the managing director of Gitanjali Gems. And this jewellery retail chain was signed on by Times Group’s investment arm Brand Capital in 2011. Negative coverage could have only hurt Gitanjali Gems’ share prices and in turn their investment. According to the National Stock Exchange, the value of Gitanjali’s shares has fallen by 19.98 per cent since February 15 – the day PNB’s MD & CEO Sunil Mehta’s press conference went live.
Newslaundry also reached out to The Times of India and ET for comments regarding the non-publication of this story. While a spokesperson for the former said “no one from the paper was approached”, no response was received from ET. This story will be updated as and when ET responds.
Sadly, more than anything else, this lack of enthusiasm to even look into a story that had the potential of exposing a scam worth Rs 11,400 crore and counting, speaks about the dismal state of the pink dailies.
This was pointed out in 2016 by The Hindu’s Readers’ Editor AS Panneerselvan in an opinion piece titled “What ails business journalism.” Panneerselvan stated that business journalists “seemed to have lost their ability to detect the early shifts of tectonic plates that create corporate tremors”.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a former business journalist said: “The mainstream media in general, and business press in particular, has willfully surrendered its ability to investigate corporate and government omissions, and vigorously interrogate claims.”
The reason for this “erosion in the ability to sense and report corporate affairs” was simple – the rise of a new breed of gatekeepers, PR agencies, that controlled/limited access to corporates – the source of all big money.
The journalist also stated: “There is a mad rush to get merger and acquisition stories. Such stories are almost entirely PR-led. Cultivating influential lobbyists and making oneself useful to them and their corporate masters are today more vital currency than cultivating genuine sources or developing sectoral knowledge.”
The journalist also spoke about the reluctance on the part of newspaper editors and owners to commit scarce resources for something as unsexy as public-spirited research and investigation. He said: “RoIs are greater in carrying puff pieces or provocative opinion that will keep social media feeds buzzing for half a day.”
“Consequently,” he said, “The pink press was caught napping when the Tata Sons and Infosys boardroom bickering broke out.” Sadly, he added, barring “ivory tower oped analyses” there’s isn’t much else that Indian business media can boast off.
“This is the tyranny of PR,” added Rajrishi Singhal, former Executive Editor with ET. “A lot of access to corporates and banking is now controlled. Reporters now need to work that extra bit to build contacts via different platforms.”
Speaking about the changes required for the survival of the Indian business journalism ecosystem, Singhal said: “Several institutional changes are required,” apart from the need for journalists to cultivate contacts to overcome the limitations imposed by access journalism. This would include looking at the number of business publications and their ability to adapt to digital media, he said.
“We have a business journalism ecosystem that is much larger than the size of a business community that warrants such an ecosystem. We have 5-6 business dailies, in addition to 5-6 leading business magazines. But I doubt that we have the volume and depth of businesses that justifies so many publications.”
Nevertheless, not all is lost, Singhal said. While he is ambivalent about the future of business journalism in television, he says there are still good business journalists doing some good work. “They will find ways to adapt to the digital media,” he added.
Newslaundry also spoke to Sucheta Dalal, managing editor of Moneylife, about the state of business journalism in India and what the reluctance of certain media organisations to look into Prasad’s allegations says about the Indian business journalism ecosystem. She said: “We are living in strange times so it seems unfair to target anybody when the majority of readers themselves are not discerning and certainly not willing to pay for accurate, unbiased information.”
Dalal hits the nail on the head – in the event of readers not willing to pay for news, most media organisations have to find other ways of sustenance, either from events and summits or, like in the case of Times Group, private treaties. While this may mean keeping the business model of journalism alive, it could eventually lead to the death of journalism itself.
Complaining about the media is easy and often justified. But hey, it’s the model that’s flawed.