Mourning for Mediaah!

IN Digital Media | 14/03/2005
Mourning for Mediaah!




The thing about free speech though, is that it does not come for free. Its price, at the very least is a lawyer’s fees.




Sevanti Ninan



The world of bloggers is agog with the news that Mediaah! the media blog run by Pradyuman Maheshwari, has abruptly shut shop after receiving a legal notice for defamation from the Times of India. But in what in bloggers parlance is referred to as MSM, mainstream media, there has been scarcely a ripple. Journalists who had taken to visiting this gossipy blog precisely because it carried the kind of stuff they could not write, will turn elsewhere for their daily dose of gossip.  It is unlikely that they will gather and protest, as some are fondly hoping. In the real world of MSM if you target a single entity whole-heartedly (ninety percent of Mediaah! postings were about the TOI or its group publications) you invite a legal notice. Usually, one article is enough to invite a notice from a biggie---ask any publication that has tried to write about the Ambanis. Publications receive lawyer’s notices all the time. If they shut down every time one arrived there would be no media left. 


But in the blogosphere a petition has been launched to save Mediaah!


"Once upon a time, till yesterday that is, there existed a weblog called Mediaah! It offered "No-holds-barred news and commentary on the Indian media." It was the media`s media. It gave us breaking news, offered biting commentary of actions of media houses, as reflected in their products and otherwise. It followed a well-known and accepted technique of rude reviewing. You know what that is if you read Vir Sanghvi`s Rude Food. How would the media world react if a restaurant whose dishes Vir Sanghvi called "indigestible," went to court against him? They would have raised all the hell. Here we have a similar situation. Mediaah! weblog reviews the Indian media space. They offer commentary, which, by definition, are opinion. Now the media house under review, in this case The Times of India, has slapped a legal notice on the reviewer, Mediaah! On March 10, 2005, Mediaah! announced that it is forced to shut down due to harassment from this media conglomerate in question.

The purpose of this blog is to house a campaign, which aims to force The Times of India to withdraw the legal notices and enable Mediaah! to continue its independent, impartial commentary and criticism of media entities, who are engaged in an ongoing criticism of the society as a whole."

Another blog has sprung up (Mediaha!)  which houses the legal notice as well as the offending posts which the TOI notice demanded should be removed from the blog. You can read both sides and decide for yourself.   


The notice sent by the country’s wealthiest media group is drafted by someone (name fuzzed out) who describes himself as a former senior central govt standing counsel, and a former public prosecutor, Delhi Administration.  It is not from a pedigreed law firm, and its language is not exactly elegant.  "On mere looking at your website a lay man can also understand that you are in the habit of doing malicious campaign against various media houses."  The legal notice says it is being sent for " defamation for tarnishing the reputation. Materials being continuously posted on against Times of India group companies with the intention to hurt the business image of the company." Given its language, you even wonder whether it is a hoax.


Maheshwari stands accused of  "Criminal conspiracy against my client by continuously posting all sorts of libellous and  defamatory material on the website with a view to project distorted and negative image of my client." It runs to five or six pages, in that vein.  It is indignant about the fact that being a blog, no item ever got taken off, but remained accessible by scrolling down. As the notice puts it, "the injury is continuous."  Referring to an earlier notice from TOI to which Mediaah! had responded by taking off the offending posting, the former govt counsel says, "you had fuzz played on an earlier occasion." Fowlers would need to decode that usage for us.


So was Mediaah! defamatory?  Well, it carried language and insinuation that mainstream publications would not. Sample:


"Should Mid Day sell stake? Should it sell stake to the Times? Will Times use Mid Day to serve its own ends? Will it continue its policy of treating Mid Day journalists as B-grade employees and pimp Mid Day print space under the garb of Medianet?"


It was gossipy and irreverent. The nineteen posts ordered off were a mix of critique and news stories about the Times group. Defamation could be alleged not because of actual content but  because of sustained targeting. The blog  fired away merrily at the TOI, almost every single day. It had a source or sources within the newspaper, and that became its major selling point. It is hardly surprising that they moved to plug the leak. If somebody were to malign either Maheshwari or Mediaah! day in and day out, would either keep quiet?


Maheshwari offered an explanation for why his blog was so Times-centric: 


"There are many reasons why Mediaah! has so much of Times:

1. Other organisations don’t have so many newsworthy (and bizarre) things happening within
2. It’s the largest print player and the most influential of them, so it makes sense covering it
3. There isn’t as much happening elsewhere.
4. People from the Times are more keen on others knowing about what’s happening internally
5. There’s are many interesting events in the North East… how much of all of it do we cover? Why doesn’t BusinessWorld or for that matter any other publication cover the patch-up of only the likes of Anil and Mukesh Ambani and not two paanwallahs on the road. The paanwallahs could also be as prosperous and popular?"


Translation: But aren’t we all obsessed with the sheer gall of the Times? 


We are, we may take it on now and then, but we don’t presume to target it. It is prudent to know the limits of your strength.


In the blogosphere the theme song is that a brave, independent blog is being snuffed out by Big Media. Come on! Make a noise! Save it!  Freedom of speech is under threat.


The thing about free speech though, is that it does not come for free. It s price, at the very least is a lawyer’s fees. Pradyuman Maheshwari was offering no holds barred commentary on the media. If you are no holds barred, it stands to reason does it not, that the guy you are targeting will also be no holds barred?  You have to be prepared for that, and cover your flanks. Or you have to duck and become subversive. The online world has a dozen methods of attack without being traced or pinned down. He should have tried some of them.


The comparison with Vir Sanghvi’s Rude Food is specious. If Sanghvi were to target the same hotel and restaurant day after day, he would be send a lawyer’s notice, but perhaps a more elegantly phrased one.


It is instructive at this point to look at the role blogs played in Rathergate during the US elections last year. CBS News anchored by Dan Rather presented a set of documents (the Killian documents) criticising George Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. News blogs came up with information which cast doubts on the authenticity of those documents. Other mainstream media picked it up, and CBS was forced to order an independent investigation. If a blog is raising an issue of national importance and providing evidence to go with it, the mainstream media will pick it up. But if it is a matter primarily concerning a media house with no larger implications, in India the media will not take on other media, no matter what. That has been Maheshwari’s misfortune.


Mediaah! shut down earlier too, for altogether different reasons. Because the blog was not as viable as its founder had hoped it would be, and he needed to take up a job. The closure did not become a cause then. A David and  Goliath script is more appealing. In that sense the TOI has done him a favour. And he will doubtless be back. Possibly wiser, and hopefully better prepared to fight back.











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