AS THE TRIBUNE remained deafeningly silent about what prompted its decision to publish what can only be described as an abject apology to senior Akali leader Bikram Singh Majithia in its Sunday edition (October 29), sources deep in the newspaper’s management claimed the surprise clean chit was published despite resistance from the top editorial quarters.
Sources said Editor-in-chief Harish Khare was strongly against the idea of buckling under pressure and had refused to publish the apology. However, he had to cave in after The Tribune Trust took a stand.
Sources said while The Tribune Trust’s chairman, Justice (retd) S S Sodhi, demanded in no uncertain terms that the newspaper publish such an apology, Khare demanded that it be conveyed to him in writing.
It is now known that certain members of The Tribune Trust were also taken by surprise by the apology published on Sunday. Khare, it is learnt, insisted that the apology be published in exactly the same form in which it was received from the Trust since he did not want to give an impression that it had any editorial stamp.
The Tribune Employees’ Union which met today completely dissociated itself from the apology published by the newspaper and demanded an explanation from the editorial leadership and management. It is likely to plan a protest at a meeting of its executive on Tuesday, Oct 31.
Many veteran journalists, including some who had worked with The Tribune in senior positions in the past, felt the editorial leadership of the newspaper should have escalated the issue to at least a full meeting of the Trust and not allowed a few powerful members of the Trust to browbeat the editor in such a matter.
Senior editorial members of The Tribune today held in-house confabulations even as many among the journalistic staff were seething with rage as they perceive their standing has been severely undermined by The Tribune’s decision of publishing the apology.
The Tribune Employees’ Union today held a meeting and not only did it completely dissociate itself from the apology published by the newspaper but also demanded an explanation from the editorial leadership and management.
Balwinder Jammu, general secretary of the union, said a meeting of the executive has been convened for Tuesday where a decision about the next course of action will be taken.
An insider with knowledge of the current thinking among the employees said a black badge protest was already on the cards.
Sources in the management as well as on the editorial side confirmed that the tussle between the top leadership of The Tribune Trust and Khare was the worst kept secret in the newspaper, and the relationship can barely be described as working.
Unconfirmed reports said The Tribune Trust is likely to hold a meeting on November 3, and by all indications, the meeting could be a stormy one. "The apology has already framed the contours of the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the Trust,” said a senior staffer close to the management, on the condition of anonymity.
Khare’s term as editor in chief is to end around mid-2018 and given the current reading of the relationships between some of the Trust members and the editorial decision makers, not many are ready to bet money on his tenure being extended.
It is a fact that Harish Khare has carved out a distinct identity with his brand of journalism and readers look forward to his weekly articles, published under the branding "Statecraft” and "Kaffeeklatsch”.
The Tribune journalists that Punjab Today spoke to said the apology in the form in which it was published has diminished their capacity to take upon politicians. "If we are to publish details of murky dealings of the politicians only after the final proof is known and evidence gathered, then we might as well say goodbye to investigative journalism. It now seems we will not even be able to write a sensible news analysis,” said a senior journalist, adding he would prefer that journalists should protest a la #NotInMyName.
Another senior journalist who has never been associated with The Tribune said the apology was no more an in house matter of The Tribune. "The newspaper should make public the details of its verification exercise so that readers are aware what led it to recant all that it had published. When you say sorry and you apologise, it is important that you prove this is how you found you were wrong and this is why the system of checks and balances did not work, so that readers know that it was a bonafide mistake in the course of perusal of truth and fair practice of journalism,” the senior journalist with more than two decades of industry experience said.
The relationship between the top leadership of The Tribune Trust and Editor-in-Chief Harish Khare is exactly an ideal one. After the apology, published at the insistence of The Tribune Trust, it will need to find a new normal. The Trust is set to meet on November 3.
Yet another senior journalist who has covered the office of the Chief Minister for years said the newspaper was duty bound to explain whether its reporter had played truant, or that it was fed wrong information, or whether its sources turned rogue.
"By simply stating that its reports denigrating a senior politician – who is a public figure and had every right to be fairly treated – were all false and the newspaper is very sorry, the newspaper will be putting under the cloud every single report it published so far, or will publish in the future. How is the reader to know if another apology is coming up on the front page?” he said.
Often, in case of any independent newspaper, the relationship with power is adversarial in nature and editorial stances are honed in such a way that the newspaper is always seen as speaking truth to power, a former editor of a major newspaper in the region opined.
On his part, Khare has hitherto succeeded in earning for The Tribune exactly such a reputation. In fact, following an editorial, titled "Return to governance: Captain faces an uphill task," published in May 2017, Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had taken up cudgels directly with Khare and written a stinging 'letter to the editor', a rather unprecedented form of grouse lodged by any CM.
Having published the apology for extremely damning reports that alleged a senior minister’s links with the drug trade, the newspaper was duty bound to explain whether its reporter had played truant, or if it was fed wrong information, or whether its sources turned rogue.
Claiming that "only a small section of the media" was castigating his government, Amarinder had said, "I am not a miracle maker." The editorial, Amarinder had said, "not only err(ed) on the side of a strong and unjustified bias but fail(ed) to reconcile the harsh realities of Punjab."
"(I)t is sad, indeed, to see even senior journalists engaging in uncalled for criticism and choosing to ignore hard facts in favour of rhetoric," the CM had written.
Ironically, Amarinder Singh has so far not expressed an opinion about The Tribune giving a clean chit to a politician against whom he and his party campaigned strongly in the run up to the polls and against whom some 40 of his party MLAs have been demanding action, even writing a joint letter to him, former Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa slammed The Tribune’s management for the apology.
Bajwa went public with his grouse, putting up a video message (given below) on his twitter handle.
Bikram Singh Majithia, on his part, thanked The Tribune for publishing the apology, attributing it to the inherent grace on the part of the institution.
Sources said the last word has not been heard as yet on the issue and the clean chit to Majithia is likely to trigger an explosive debate in the media circles, but it is what happens now within The Tribune that will have everyone riveted.
WHAT THE ‘APOLOGY’ SAID
The Tribune’s apology published on Sunday had said its reports suggesting "involvement of Bikram Singh Majithia…with an illegal drug syndicate” have been found to be completely false and that it offers an "unconditional apology” to the Akali Dal leader. The Tribune not only did not say if its reporting was based on wrong facts or incomplete evidence but actually informed its readers that it has verified and found that Majithia was not found involved "in any drug trade.”
"On verification, it was found that Bikram Singh Majithia was not involved in any drug trade,” The Tribune wrote in its apology published alongside a huge photograph of Majithia.
The newspaper also said it "deeply regrets the damage caused to Majithia’s esteem and prestige, and the anguish caused to his family and well-wishers. An unconditional apology is offered by The Tribune for the same.”
Incidentally, the reports in question were published in 2014 and 2015 when Harish Khare was not at the helm and most editorial decision making was happening under the editorial tutelage of Kanwar Sandhu. Sandhu later quit in less than savoury circumstances, and went on to join the Aam Aadmi Party. He won the election as an MLA and is widely seen as one of the most articulate and cerebral faces in the party who remains heavily underutilised. His view on the apology published by the newspaper where he worked is yet to be known.
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