David and Goliath – a virtual parable

BY sajan v| IN Digital Media | 14/10/2005
If blogs are to be taken seriously, they should live up to the standards of accountability and reliability of the mainstream media that they so deplore.


Sajan Venniyoor


In June this year, the youth magazine JAM (Just Another Magazine) ran a rather unflattering story on the Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM).  

IIPM, seen as a somewhat cocky challenger to the IIMs (‘Dare to dream beyond the IIMs!’), and known for its lavish advertising budget, was not amused to read ‘The Truth about IIPM’s Tall Claims’. The JAM story questioned IIPM’s high ranking in the Outlook-Cfore B-school ratings of 2003 (which IIPM reportedly quotes in many of its ads). JAM magazine points out that the research agency, Cfore, had removed IIPM from its ranking as it had received "serious complaints about the veracity of information given by them." Furthermore, says JAM, its campuses were nothing like the vast and modern architectural wonders promised by its full-page ads, its faculty wasn’t drawn from ‘Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Insead…’ as stated, its placement record wasn’t all that hot, nor did its students get the prodigious packages promised by the institution. And - what’s worse - its MBA degree was not even recognized in India. 

The expose was picked up from JAM’s website by blogger Gaurav Sabnis, an IIM Lucknow graduate. In language much less temperate than JAM’s, Sabnis poured scorn on IIPM, accusing it of ‘sc**wing around with people’s lives and careers’.  He cast doubts on the academic antecedents of its promoter, Arindam Chaudhuri, and - in case one didn’t get the point - titled his posting ‘The fraud that is IIPM’. 

Things went rapidly downhill after that. Blogs sprang up overnight in defence of IIPM. Eschewing the niceties of debate, OracleCoder, Jassi, Raghuveer Srinivas, IIPMStudent9 and others savaged Rashmi Bansal, the editor and publisher of JAM, and Gaurav Bansal. Four letter words flew like confetti as they questioned Bansal’s credibility, credentials and sexual orientation. A shaken Bansal responded in her blog ‘Youth Curry’ on 7 October, quoting at length from one of the anonymous bloggers who, after calling JAM magazine ‘a dubious small-time publication’, had gone on to accuse her of running a smear campaign against IIPM at the behest of a rival institution. "Aaj Tak," said the blog, "ran a sting operation where it was revealed on camera that JAMMAG accepted money in cash from [name withheld] group of educational institutions to write a negative story on IIPM…"  

"There has been no story on Aajtak re JAM magazine," countered a furious Bansal, "There is no expose because there is nothing to expose." 

The blog war took a new turn when someone claiming to be the ‘head of the legal and compliance counsel’ of IIPM slapped ‘legal notices’ on Gaurav Sabnis and Rashmi Bansal, as well as some of their supporters and fellow bloggers. Sabnis’ woes did not end there. Sabnis, who worked for IBM, was informed by his bosses that IIPM was putting pressure on the company, to force him to pull his posts. He insists that IBM never directly asked him to remove his posts, but apparently the pressure got worse. His company, wrote Sabnis in his blog, began to get ‘some bizarre threats’ from IIPM. The crunch came, says Sabnis, when the Dean of IIPM wrote to a senior executive at Lenovo (IBM) saying that "the IIPM Students Union had decided that if my blog posts were not deleted, then they would gather all the Thinkpads they had been given by the institute, and burn them in front of the IBM office in Delhi."  

On Oct 10, Gaurav Sabnis posted a cheerless update on his blog. "I have resigned from IBM," he wrote. He added a disclaimer that the decision was "entirely my own and I was not asked by IBM to resign, nor was I pressured in any manner…" The face-off between blog and B-school had claimed its first victim.  

In spite of the threat of legal action, none of the bloggers have removed the offending posts and links from their blogs. All the same, there is an undercurrent of unease within the community. Many of them choose to see the incident as a threat to their freedom of speech. Here’s a powerful institution trying to gag a small but determined group of Truth Seekers (as one of the bloggers calls himself/herself), while the mainstream media stands idly by. Indeed, there is much angst over the role - or absence thereof - of the MSM. The bloggers have an easy explanation for this, as articulated by one of them: "Well… IIPM is one of the leading media spenders... thanks to their full-page ads. So, its money talking all the way!" 

To be fair, the mainstream media - Hindustan Times, NDTV, Pioneer and Indian Express - did take note of the ongoing spat, with most of them sympathetic to the bloggers. But it says much about the navel-gazing quality of the virtual world that few bloggers realize that blogging is a minority interest, and that even in the wired West, it’s only when they bring down a Dan Rather that their online crusades merit serious media or public attention. JAM magazine is very much a part of the mainstream, and it broke the story with some degree of restraint, but that cannot be said of all the bloggers. Gaurav Sabnis admits that the language he used "may be a bit harsh, with words like "sc**w around" and "crap" which may hurt some people`s sensibilities, but I think they were appropriate in the context."  

Well, IIPM doesn’t think so. Nor, I suspect, would any mainstream journal. That’s where the blogger’s defense of unbridled blogging falls apart. Article 19 is invoked with much passion by the community, but even Article 19 places reasonable restrictions on free speech. Gaurav Sabnis is a seasoned blogger, and a fairly moderate voice in the Indian blogosphere. But surely he cannot be so disingenuous as to assume that he can - in a public forum - arbitrarily question the bona fides of an institution and its promoter, in a manner that could potentially damage its business, and then claim the protection of the right to free speech. Legally, IIPM is well within its rights in taking the blogger to court, says an advocate quoted by the Express. ‘‘The organisation’s reputation is tarnished by such statements and if it continues to be eroded, it can resort to civil and criminal procedures under defamation laws." Sabnis is critical of the anonymous blogs that sprang up overnight in defense of IIPM, but thinks nothing of bolstering his own case with links to the anonymous Truth Seeker (‘an IIPM ex-student as well as ex-employee’), whose blog came up at much the same time. 

If blogs are to be taken seriously as an alternative medium, they should measure up to the standards of accountability and reliability of the mainstream media that the bloggers so deplore. Not so long ago, a fairly popular blog took pot shots at that media behemoth and everybody’s favourite target, the Times of India. The blog’s readers were much amused; the Times less so. A legal notice was duly slapped on the blogger - a perfectly valid one in this case. Discretion prevailed over valour, and the blog closed down voluntarily. There was some outcry over the strong-arm tactics of the Times, but what is significant is that no attempt was made either to defend or substantiate the hostile comments made in the blog.  

When the IT Act 2000 - which is technically a law, though not yet in effect - comes into force, bloggers will face bigger challenges than dubious ‘legal notices’ from the rich and powerful whom they challenge at will today. 

Just because you are the underdog does not mean that you are always right.


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