In an explosive development triggered by The Tribune’s abject apology to Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia, The Tribune Trust has removed Justice SS Sodhi (retd) as its President, replaced him with Jammu & Kashmir governor N N Vohra, and seemed on the brink of withdrawing or nullifying the apology published on October 29.
The decision was taken by The Tribune Trust and conveyed to the newspaper’s staff on Tuesday. The Trust, which met on November 3, Friday, will meet again this month to take a final call on formal withdrawal of the apology or any other step it deems fit, top sources close to members of the Trust told Punjab Today.
The Tribune had come under heavy criticism after it published a shockingly abject apology on the front page in its October 29 edition, claiming it had verified the earlier allegations made against former minister Bikram Singh Majithia and had found him not involved in any drug trade.
While some top Congress leaders opposed to Captain Amarinder Singh, including former state party chief Pratap Singh Bajwa, had objected to the clean chit, The Tribune had also left its own journalists and the larger media community crestfallen.
Punjab Today, which had broken the inside story about sharp differences between editor-in-chief Harish Khare of The Tribune and Trust’s president SS Sodhi, had also reported that Khare had made it clear to his inner circle and members of the Trust that he was not on board on the matter of publication of apology and was made to carry it on the front page under duress.
Khare addressed his staff and colleagues on Tuesday, and made it clear that The Tribune will continue to report "without fear or favour” and exhorted them to go about their jobs in the most professional manner.
Known for a fiercely independent streak in his demeanour and writing, often reflected in his columns, Khare also privately invited suggestions from certain colleagues about how to undo the damage done to the reputation of The Tribune due to the publication of the apology, Punjab Today has learnt.
The decision was taken by The Tribune Trust and conveyed to the newspaper’s staff. The Trust met on November 3 and will meet again this month to take a final call on formal withdrawal of the apology to Majithia
In the October 29 "unconditional apology,” The Tribune had admitted that certain news stories that it carried "with prominent headlines suggesting involvement of Bikram Singh Majithia…with an illegal drug syndicate” were found to be completely false.
Bikram Singh Majithia had claimed it as a clean chit while detractors of Amarinder Singh, including 40 MLAs who had demanded action against Majithia in writing, were left high and dry. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh had maintained a stoic silence on the issue. Incidentally, Punjab minister Navjot Singh Sidhu has been going hammer and tongs after Majithia, and the latest development in the media house is certain to give him a booster shot.
Clearly, the latest stance of The Tribune is neither good news for the Akali Dal nor for the Amarinder Singh government, political and media analysts said.
Critics of the apology move had been questioning why the Tribune did what it did, and how could it have verified all the facts and found Majithia completely innocent, as it claimed.
It came out in the Trust’s meeting that not all members of the Trust were on board on the issue of publication of the apology to Majithia.
As per Khare’s terms of employment, his tenure is to end mid-July but with the latest turn of events, The Tribune’s editor seems to be well on its way for another go at the job.
Apart from Vohra and Sodhi, other members of The Tribune Trust are former GOC-in-C, Western Command, Lt. Gen S. S. Mehta (retd); media industry professional with decades of experience in business management Naresh Mohan; and former UPSC chairman and former Manipur governor Gurbachan Jagat.
THE APOLOGY THAT TRIGGERED THE CRISIS - "On verification, it was found that Bikram Singh Majithia was not involved in any drug trade… The Tribune 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.”
Sources said The Tribune’s journalists, who had been demoralised since the publication of the apology, were in an upbeat mood at the latest twist in the tale, and want Khare and the Trust to escalate the matter to a logical conclusion.
Justice Sodhi (retd) is understood to continue as a member of the Trust, though the last word on it may be said only after the Trust’s next meeting this month.
Vohra in, and as for Sodhi, silence!
On the record, The Tribune did not refer to the controversy, choosing instead to publish a brief news item about Trust’s member Vohra being elevated to the position of president of The Tribune Trust, and altogether omitting to even mention the name of the outgoing president S S Sodhi.
In a rather cryptic message to the Tribune’s rank and file, Vohra was quoted as saying that "the Tribune Group of Newspapers must remain totally committed to the pursuit of highest journalistic values and to the promotion of sterling civic virtues and ethical standards.”
The fact that The Tribune did not even name the outgoing president Sodhi, sent clear signals to all interested quarters in polity and media as it was in sharp contrast to its earlier practice. When Sodhi had assumed the top job in April, 2012, the newspaper had not only thanked the then outgoing president R S Talwar publicly for services rendered but even announced that Talwar was the senior-most Trustee of The Tribune Trust, that he will remain a member of the Trust and that the institution, under his watch, "grew in strength, witnessed innovative changes and launched several new products which enabled it to consolidate its leadership position in the region.”
The Tribune's public announcement about NN Vohra taking over as president of the Trust did not even name SS Sodhi who has been a Trustee of The Tribune Trust since 2002, and its president since 2012.
It had also dwelt in detail upon Talwar's impressive career graph, recalling that he was "a distinguished and upright member of the IAS” and even adding that "throughout his distinguished service...he held the reputation of being an officer of unimpeachable integrity.”
Compared to that transition, the public announcement about Vohra taking over as president of the Trust did not even name Sodhi who has been a Trustee of The Tribune Trust since 2002, and its president since 2012. When he had assumed the top job, Sodhi was described as "a distinguished legal luminary, public servant, author and former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court,” apart from his many other achievements, including his stint as the Lok Pal of Punjab, finding mention in the announcement five years back.
Incidentally, Sodhi is also considered among the oldest residents of Chandigarh, a city where the power elite is adept at reading significance conveyed through such codes of powerspeak.
(An earlier version of this story had described the position as Chairman of The Tribune Trust. It is President of The Tribune Trust. - Ed)
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