The backstory of the Times Now case: A lesson in media hubris

The Rs 100-crore defamation case against Times Now is a no-brainer for most reasonable observers. Of the many great sins committed by the media in recent years, flashing the wrong judge's photo for 15 seconds on air is a misdemeanor at best. This is the equivalent of awarding Al Capone a life sentence for jaywalking.

The penalty is indeed "disproportionate", as BJP leader Arun Jaitley claims, but Times Now is hardly the sainted victim — despite best efforts of its sister outlets and fellow TV channels to paint it as such. Revelations on the online media blog The Hoot (read it here) and the recent issue of India Today (article unavailable online) make clear that this grievous wound was largely self-inflicted. Buried in the details is an object lesson on the consequences of media hubris.

On 10 September 2008, Times Now aired Justice Sawant's photo as part of its story on the provident fund scam, confusing him with Calcutta high court judge PK Samanta. Here's what happened next, according to The Hoot:

Representative image. The most convincing argument against the freedom of press in this country is often the press itself. Reuters

Justice Sawant through his secretary Mr. Kamat conveyed this mistake to channel on the same day. But there was no rectification, no clarification. Justice Sawant then addressed a letter to the channel on 15th September, exhorting it to rectify its mistake. Times Now received the letter on 18th September. Again there was no rectification, no apology. The channel finally ran an apology on 23rd September, exactly 13 days after committing the mistake and five days after receiving Justice Sawant’s letter.

The India Today version of events notes that the 'letter' was in fact a legal notice threatening Times Now with a Rs 100 crore defamation suit. Hence, the apology. But the magazine also notes that the channel did not directly respond to Sawant until 25 September — two days after they started scrolling the apology.

The grudging and belated response incensed the judge who again threatened a lawsuit. This time around, according to India Today, editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami requested a meeting, presumably to soothe ruffled feathers. And then... failed to show up. He instead sent a letter, two days before the appointed date, claiming he had to undergo a surgery. But much to Sawant's fury, Goswami continued to anchor his daily show as usual — seemingly unimpaired by said medical procedure.

Ergo: the decision to go ahead with the lawsuit.

To echo a fellow journalist's response: "How stupid can you possibly be?" How foolish to set into motion a catastrophe that could have been easily averted with a modicum of polite decency.

Seen in this light, the Times Now case is primarily a tussle between the media and the judiciary over who's on top. The answer to that question is writ large in the grovelling apology issued by Goswami on 14 November: "We are extremely apologetic to Justice Sawant for the mistake and any personal damage done to his reputation because of the inadvertent error of running his picture instead of another judge."

On the larger issue of defamation, the media is on solid ground — but again weakened by its own antics, as Hariharan VS points out:

Also while media unequivocally condemns defamation cases being foisted against it, it would like to retain the right to sue others. The Hindu, for example argued in 2004 when it faced a deluge of defamation cases from the Tamil Nadu government that the defamation law violated the freedom of speech guaranteed by Article 19 and as such was ultra vires the Constitution. But when Archana Shukla broke the story of Hindu’s Board Room battles in March, 2010, N Ram, the erstwhile champion of freedom of speech did not have any qualms in slapping a defamation notice on her and the Indian Express!

Big media houses make it very difficult to be on their side, even when the press is clearly in the right — and in dire need of support. India ranks thirteenth on the Impunity Index created by the Committee to Protect Journalists, a hall of shame that spotlights nations where "journalists are murdered on a recurring basis and governments are unable or unwilling to prosecute the killers." Apart from outright murders, outlets are routinely subject to harassment and intimidation by the government, business houses, and corporate personalities (See: Arindham Chaudhry v. Caravan).

Yet the most convincing argument against the freedom of press in this country is often the press itself. The most powerful players in the media market exhibit – much like Times Now re Sawant – a cavalier arrogance and disregard for public interest when exercising the limited freedom they possess. An attitude that is now bearing bitter fruit. The media's one source of legitimacy -- public support -- is rapidly eroding.

The recent Outlook magazine survey reveals a dreary picture. Thirty one percent agree with Press Council of India Chairman Justice Markandey Katju that the media is "anti-people", while 24 percent are not sure. Thirty nine percent agree that the media is "elitist" and 27 percent are not sure. On the seemingly clear-cut Times Now defamation lawsuit, the public is evenly divided: 41 percent think the Rs 100-crore penalty is exactly right, 46 percent wrong, and 12 percent aren't sure.

There's blood in the water and the various sharks -- government, judicial, and corporate -- are circling in for the kill.  And that's not good news for anybody, be it Times Now, the media, aam janta, or democracy. Do we really want to unleash an avalanche of politically motivated defamation suits on a press already made timid by willful legal harassment? I think not.

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