Apology + Rs 500cr: Is Indian Express right in sending Open a legal notice?
By Pradyuman Maheshwari and Shruti Pushkarna
It was the most read story on MxMIndia yesterday. As the news of the legal notice served by a lawyer representing Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta and three others filtered in, there were heated discussions in newsrooms on whether the Express and its legal eagles were right in serving a legal notice to Vinod Mehta, Open and its senior staffers.
First some background. On April 4, The Indian Express carried a story by editor-in-chief Shekhar Gupta with Ritu Sarin and Pranab Dhal Samanta on two key army units moving towards New Delhi without informing the government. Ajmer Singh contributed to the report.
|The Indian Express report (April 4, epaper)|
|The Open interview (April 21)|
|The ‘notice’ (May 15, note: source unverified and unknown)|
There was outrage and denials issued by all and sundry in the government and armed forces. However, save the outbursts, it wasn’t proven that the Express story was incorrect.
Meanwhile, ever since the report appeared, The Indian Express – while still respected as a no-nonsense, credible newspaper – was the butt of ridicule by commentators and on social networks. Those in print may have been a lot more gentle, but a few television discussions were indeed scathing.
And then came this interview with Outlook’s editorial adviser (and former editor-in-chief) Vinod Mehta in newsmag Open on the issue. The headline of the interview said it all: The Mother of All Mistakes (issue dated April 21, 2012). In his inimitable style, Mr Mehta suggested that Mr Gupta was taken in by a story that was planted on the Express.
While a magazine has a limited readership, since the article was freely available on the internet and it carried a very pointed allegation by one high profile editor on another, the interview viralled in the media fraternity a great deal.
This legal notice by a lawyer representing The Indian Express and the four writers of the story – Shekhar Gupta, Ritu Sarin, Pranab Dhal Samanta and Ajmer Singh – came less than a month of the publication of the interview.
One would’ve let the notice be, but its contents make for interesting reading. So while Mr Mehta may be suggesting in the interview (and he also said amidst some cheer at the Press Club Bombay awards recently) that he quit the Independent owning moral responsibility of an incorrect story, the notice points out that in his memoirs (Lucknow Boy), he projects that he was compelled to do so. “Till now, I am unsure why I had to quit.”
The notice asks for an apology and pulling the story off Open’s internet edition openthemagazine.com. At the time of filing this report, Open hasn’t done either and two senior staffers told MxMIndia that the magazine does not intend to do either.
The notice also demands damages of Rs 100 crore each to the lawyer’s clients. That’s five of them – the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta, Ritu Sarin, Pranab Dhal Samanta and Ajmer Singh. The Rs 500 crore damages have to be paid regardless of the apology.
MxMIndia asked a few senior editors for their views on the issue. While many of them did not want to be drawn into the controversy, there were a few who told us that they didn’t know enough of the matter to be able to comment.
Our questions were: Is the media too sensitive to criticism? Just as the Express, Shekhar Gupta & Co sent a legal notice to Open and Vinod Mehta, can governments, politicians, businesspersons and even film-makers who are critiqued by the media also send notices and ask for crores as damages?
Here are reactions from four veteran commentators:
Dileep Padgaonkar, former editor-in-chief, The Times of India:
Of course it is… the media is sensitive to criticism. The media thinks it is fit to criticise everyone but the minute everyone points a finger at the media, the media bristles. I think media should take criticism directed against it in its stride, this is part and parcel of democracy. And I don’t think one should be too prickly in these matters unless of course there is a clear case of personal attack, defamation… in that case legal course is available but otherwise one should ignore these things and go on.
As it is, the censorship of cartoons was a dismal warning of the sensitivity of the political establishment. Now if media is going to go at another section of media, there is going to be a free-for-all and the big casualty out here would be good, decent, honest journalism.
Sevanti Ninan, editor, The Hoot, columnist and media-watcher:
Criticism is not an accurate word for what Vinod Mehta called The Indian Express story. He essentially said it was a planted story and it was a huge mistake to carry it. Considering that the first byline on the story was that of the chief editor, that is quite statement to make. You are saying the chief editor and his colleague are susceptible to plants, thereby seriously questioning their credibility. So I guess the Express could hardly ignore it. IE did come in for a lot of criticism on the import of the story and the display given, including a critical editorial in the Hindu but nothing quite as damning as Mehta’s statements.
This is the 3rd 100 crore notice involving the media over the past year, in any case. So it is becoming more common.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, independent journalist and commentator:
I think The Indian Express has over reacted. I think it’s gone a little over the top. They may disagree with what Vinod Mehta has said… my personal view is that it’s a point of view which obviously the Express doesn’t agree with but I don’t think that what Mr Mehta has said can be construed to be criminally defamatory. And the kind of damages sought are excessive. They are as excessive as the damages that Justice Sawant has sought from Times Now and what Times Now has sought from TheHoot. I mean these are ridiculous sums of money.
I think we’ve become an extremely intolerant society. I think people talk about freedom of expression being a fundamental right but I don’t think people are really believing in Article 19(1)A of the Constitution of India. Like so many sections of Indian society, including our political leadership which is very upset about these political cartoons that have appeared in textbooks, I think even sections of the media are becoming extremely intolerant of criticism. If you are in a democracy, you have to give the right to everybody to disagree with you.
Sucheta Dalal, senior journalist and commentator, consulting editor, Moneylife:
Well, not the media, but The Indian Express is too sensitive to critcism… It’s an interesting thing, it’s the first time it is happening and we should see where this goes, whether they follow through by actually filing a case. It’s the first time that somebody in the media is suing another person in the media, we need to look at how it goes… as I said everybody else is sensitive, everybody else does send defamation notices but I don’t know how many of those notices actually get converted into legal action. So we have to wait and watch.
Otherwise the notice is also a way of making a point, it’s a way of putting pressure. It’s not just Vinod Mehta, if he looks at what was said about that story on the social media, then there are a lot more people that they would probably need to sue. So maybe he is making a case out of Vinod Mehta and Open magazine, we need to see whether they follow through. I would say that the test is not in the legal notice, the test is in seeing whether they are actually going to follow through, stand in court and argue it out.
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