Much ado about a newspaper article: Washington Post and India

Whether or not Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is a tragic figure, it is clear that his office’s media management is tragically inept.

By practically whining about a perfectly ordinary news profile about Dr. Singh in The Washington Post, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has given the article the weight it does not deserve.

The profile published by the Post on Sep 4 said the prime minister’s image of a “scrupulously honorable, humble and intellectual technocrat” had turned into one who is “a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government”.

As profiles go this one by the newspaper’s Delhi correspondent Simon Denyer is one of those quickly marshalled pieces reliably reflecting the popular sentiment in the country’s middle class and republishing some fairly pungent comments by eminent names such as historian Ramchandra Guha and Manmohan Singh’s former media adviser and economist Dr. Sanjay Baru. Even there Denyer was caught flatfooted by first disregarding to mention that the quotes he attributed to Guha and Baru were, in fact, first published in the Caravan magazine last year.

The newspaper has since carried a correction acknowledging that “An earlier version of this article failed to credit the Caravan, an Indian magazine, for two statements that it originally published in 2011. The assertion by Sanjaya Baru, a former media adviser, that Singh had become an object of ridicule and endured the worst period in his life, first appeared in the Caravan, as did an assertion by Ramachandra Guha, a political historian, that Singh was handicapped by his timidity, complacency and intellectual dishonesty. While both men told The Post that the assertions could accurately be attributed to them, the article should have credited the Caravan when it used or paraphrased the remarks.”

The profile even resorts to cheap shots such mentioning how Dr. Singh’s detractors put their mobile phones on ‘Manmohan Singh mode’, as in the silent mode. While the joke is clearly funny, its place in a serious profile in a serious newspaper about a serious man is questionable.

However, it is not the content of Denyer’s article, such as it is, that is the issue but the way some functionaries of the Indian government went about trying to counter it. India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni seemed exercised enough to say that she would take up the publication of the profile with the external affairs ministry ostensibly to find ways to correct the misimpressions created by it. But Soni’s comments were unfairly conflated by the broadcast media to say that the Indian government was demanding an apology for the piece when that was not the case.

Then came a poorly crafted letter from Pankaj Pachauri, the communications adviser to the PMO, to Denyer which accused him of “unethical and unprofessional conduct”. On the face of it there was nothing even remotely unethical or unprofessional about Denyer’s conduct, at least until it was pointed out that he did not bother to say that the Baru-Guha comments were dated and taken from another publication. That certainly opened him to criticism but Pachauri did not know about it at the time he sent his rejoinder. In any case, that does not materially change the fact that the PMO handled the whole affair poorly.

Pachauri’s letter mostly points out procedural shortcomings such as whether Denyer should have claimed that he was declined an interview with the prime minister when he was actually told it was not possible until the end of the monsoon session of Indian parliament. Whether he would have indeed been granted an interview after the monsoon session is a matter of conjecture because Manmohan Singh is not particularly known for granting news interviews, which ironically plays into his image as a “silent” leader that the Post writes about.

Ideally, the PMO should have treated the Post profile with a sense of dignified detachment and not felt compelled to issue any clarification. Other than disputing on factual grounds via the finance ministry assertions by the newspaper’s that the rupee has “collapsed”, it serves no purpose getting into a slanging match with a journalist over such routine stories.

Pachauri’s official communication with Denyer reads more like a private individual grousing rather than the communications adviser to the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy taking issue with assertions in a newspaper article.

The PMO rejoinder is in keeping with how quickly the Indian establishment bristles at slights in the Western media when the more mature response would be to dismiss it as unworthy of their attention. In the end, whether the prime minister is a silent tragic figure who is also “a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government” is largely still a matter of opinion. In this particular debate, it needs no stating who has the more difficult job – the prime minister or a journalist?

Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based journalist and commentator.

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1 Comment

  1. says: Abdul Jabbar

    Truth is always bitter. Denyer could have been more damaging. It is always desirable to have a little dishonest Prime Minister than an inefficient one.

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