A hatchet job on Smriti Irani

IN Media Practice | 18/04/2015
Outlook's cover story on Smriti Irani was based entirely on anonymous sources.
This kind of journalism is unethical, says PRASHANT REDDY THIKKAVARAPU. Pix:Ministers Irani, Rajnath Singh and Manohar Parrikar. bjp.org
There is a thick red line drawing the boundaries between gossip and political reporting. Outlook appears to have been completely blind to this distinction when it published its recent cover story on Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani. 
The cover piece was basically about the decline of her political fortunes and was a collection of three stories and an interview. The main story, by Saba Naqvi, reported on the perception of Irani from within the BJP. The two accompanying pieces by Mihir Srivastava and Prathna Gahilote reported on how the bureaucracy and RSS perceived Irani’s performance and future. The interview of Madhu Kishwar on Smriti Irani was conducted by Uttam Sengupta.
Cumulatively, these three different pieces quoted or cited anonymous sources on 25 different occasions and almost all the sources were critical of Irani. In fact, the pieces are constructed from gossip provided by only anonymous sources; there isn’t a single source speaking on the record. 
Strangely, the reporters did not even think it necessary to explain why the sources chose to remain anonymous. It would perhaps have been a different story if all these anonymous sources were complimenting Irani but it is clear from the quotes in the three stories that the sources were criticising Irani. Apparently, these three journalists and their editor saw nothing wrong running an entire cover story based on purely anonymous sources. Is this ethical reporting?
Last year, I wrote in The Hoot about how several journalists threw journalistic ethics and propriety to the wind when they fell over each other to report, on the basis of entirely anonymous government sources, the supposed antics of Gopal Subramaniam. The aim then was to scuttle, at any cost, Gopal Subramaniam’s appointment to the Supreme Court and the media was only too glad to be used as the executioner by the government. 
Is it ethical to expect a person to properly defend himself against allegations, without revealing to him the details of the person making the allegation against him? No it isn’t. Reporting is about informing readers about facts and in order for readers to form an opinion they need to know the source of the facts. 
In the interests of greater transparency in journalism, anonymous reporting should be the exception and not the rule and should be resorted to only when the information can be corroborated by a source willing to go on record, or by documentary evidence. As taught to even cub reporters in the West, in no situation should a reporter rely on quotes from anonymous sources to criticize a person. It is very likely that such an anonymous source has his or her own agenda.
If at all reporters have to resort to anonymous sources, they should explain to readers the reason why the source chose to be anonymous. In cases where an individual is speaking out against a powerful government or corporation, the media may be ethically justified to use anonymous sources if there is a danger to the life of the source and also provided that the allegations are corroborated by documentary evidence or other persons who are willing to go on record. To attack an individual, however, on the basis of anonymous sources is simply unethical. 
Excerpts from the anonymous sources in Outlook’s cover story are reproduced below:
Smriti, A Fading Memory? (by Saba Naqvi)
1. For one, well-placed sources reveal that she wouldn’t stand up to greet BJP veteran (and the very polite) Union home minister Rajnath Singh; she would keep sitting in her chair.
2. There is also the story of a verbal cat fight inside the national headquarters of the BJP with another woman leader and an older account of Smriti pushing out a woman who had come to a Mahila Morcha meeting when she was in charge. 
3. An important BJP member also tells a more recent tale of writing to two ministries on a matter involving women. There was no reply from the HRD ministry though the home ministry sent a prompt letter.
4. Says a BJP insider, “If she thinks someone may not be important in the larger scheme of things she will not give time. If she imagines someone is against her, she will sometimes not greet him or her. But till now in internal meetings or public rallies where the prime minister was present, she would carry herself like the queen bee of the proceedings. That is why people are quite pleased that Amitbhai has kicked her out of the national executive.”
5. A member of the NE told Outlook , “Many people at the meeting wondered if Smriti had just had a tantrum and taken her temper out on Fabindia since she can’t shout at Amit Shah and throw files at him.” 
6. A senior BJP leader puts it quite bluntly, “She is very charismatic, bright and hard-working. But she seems to love a fight and that is something that is not required in peacetime. She seems to like controversy as it keeps her in the news. But her PR is so bad. Instead of charming people who come to meet her, she makes them uncomfortable. She is talented, so we are hoping to get her to change her ways.”
7. “A group from IIT which went to meet her in the avatar of HRD minister had this to tell: the minister declared at least “seven times” that she was not illiterate. She was somewhat offensive, said one of the members, as she had perhaps decided that offence was the best form of defence. 
8. Says a woman leader from the BJP, “Smriti has also been the butt of sexist barbs and comments in Parliament and under normal circumstances we should all have been rallying around her. But the problem is that she does not seem to like most of us, so some of us would not dare to commiserate with her.”
9. “The problem in Smriti’s approach to politics,” says a BJP insider, “for which she has the talent and the ambition, is that she has found it necessary to seek godfathers, and if they don’t exist, to invent an imaginary closeness to powerful male figures.”

No Jotting, the Babu Has Left the Building (by Mihir Shrivastava)

10. “She was made minister with a cabinet rank as she was thought to be amenable to both the BJP agenda and that of the RSS,” says an RSS ideologue. “Our agenda is not the same as Modi’s. Smriti was seen as a neat compromise.”

11. “She is defensive and reactive, both at the same time,” says a joint secretary who’s trying hard to evolve some kind of a working relationship with Smriti. “She’s also a bad listener. She should realise that the HRD ministry is a complicated maze. There are so many hallowed institutions, the IITs, IIMs, UGC etc with their own philosophy and work ethics. They are all manned by learned people. There is much to learn before you start to act.”
12. “She is articulate, smart and has a quick wit and is intelligent enough to know that she knows little about what she’s dealing with,” explains a vice-chancellor of a central university in northern India. That said, she’s quick to assert an “I know” even when she doesn’t get it. Also, if one tries to instil an idea into her head, or explain anything new, she’s quick to retort, “I know my work” or a “This is not your classroom, this is my ministry”.
13. Another director-level officer empathises with her, “Her job is not easy. She has to work with the bureaucracy that in turn deals with academia. Sure, the wise old heads of academia have a big ego, but she has an even bigger ego. She is, after all, the government.” 
14. A V-C who is well into his 60s hits the nail on its head. “I thought of her as a breath of fresh air. Her predecessor from NDA-I, Murli Manohar Joshi, a professor of physics in Allahabad University and my contemporary, arguably was the worst HRD minister India has seen. But now I feel Smriti is giving even him tough competition. Ignorance is not always bliss,” he says.
15. Another senior HRD ministry official is so fed up he’s thinking of going back to his home cadre. “She is fairly democratic in her rudeness,” he laughs, “it doesn’t matter if the person is head of a coveted institution or an undersecretary.” In one instance, she is alleged to have thrown a file at an additional secretary-rank officer at a meeting. Later, she apparently apologised to him, saying it was her wedding anniversary and she was “tense”, even telling him she would “restore his honour”. He, instead, sought a transfer. 
16. The tone and tenor of her parlance with ministry functionaries has often been described as unparliamentary. “The PMO knows it,” says another joint secretary in the HRD ministry who has applied to go back to the home cadre, “I hope they do something about it.”

A Matter of Orientation (bPrarthna Gahilote)

17. Sources confirm that she’s “on her way out from the Union cabinet” and “very soon”.
18. Sources close to the Sangh leadership in Nagpur say, “Smriti Irani clearly lacks basic understanding of the ideological concerns on the issue of education. She doesn’t know how important the HRD ministry is for the Sangh. In fact, for the Sangh, the HRD is the most important of all ministries.” 
19. “There’s no doubt the Sangh leadership was unha¬ppy with Smritiji and how she was running the HRD ministry. The last straw actually came last month, when Kakodkarji had to quit from his post because of her. That was unacceptable to the RSS,” a source said.
20. Sources confirm that the RSS leadership had been receiving constant complaints about Smriti’s behaviour too. “She was rude, oppressive and bossy without any knowledge or information on most issues,” says a leader. It is said that even senior RSS officials who met her had gone back with a “poor impression of the minister”.
21. Bureaucrats with Sangh sympathies, too, had similar tales to report to the RSS bosses. She would “pick and dump at will”, preferred to “humiliate” senior officers, VCs, academics and experts “in public”.
22. Moreover, the Sangh found her “slow and lacking in pushing the RSS agenda in education” as agreed upon between the RSS and the government. Sources confirm that RSS has conveyed its assessment of Smriti to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP president.
23. Party sources confirmed that Smriti’s claim of being close to the PM has upset even Amit Shah, the BJP chief, who sources say had warned the PM, and had also taken it badly when she said Shah had taken advantage of Modi’s absence from the country to expel her from the BJP national executive.
24. While many in the BJP dismissed the incident as her “old ways of seeking attention”, the RSS listed it as “yet another despicable attempt by Smriti to court unnecessary controversy”. 
25. A source told Outlook “her cabinet rank has gone to her head and that needs to be fixed. We can do without these theatrics”.

The author is a Delhi-based lawyer.
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