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Ethics row over US newspaper’s report on PM

Manmohan Singh

New Delhi, Sept. 6: This is scrutiny season for the paragon portals of journalism, it would seem.

Jonah Lehrer, science writer on The New Yorker, was found to have used fabricated quotes of singer-lyricist Bob Dylan. Fareed Zakaria, Time contributor and CNN host, magpied entire paras from writer Jill Lepore’s work on gun control for a column.

And now Simon Denyer, Delhi-based South Asia bureau chief of The Washington Post, is caught in a swirling row over scavenging quotes on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh without proper attribution.

Lehrer had to resign his post. Zakaria was suspended and apologised publicly before being reinstated by both organisations. Denyer’s critique of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was updated by The Washington Post with a “correction” on the web edition this morning.

“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 Post’s erratum said.

That still didn’t stop senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) slamming Denyer’s story, titled “India’s ‘silent’ prime minister becomes a tragic figure”, as a “poor and concocted piece of journalism which fails standards of ethical practice”.

They were “tolerant of criticism”, they promised, but had objected because they found The Post’s reading “malafide and motivated”.

Not unlike Time magazine’s recent cover feature labelling Singh an “underachiever”, the Post story took critical notice of the drift under the Prime Minister: “The story of Singh’s dramatic fall from grace in his second term in office and the slow but steady tarnishing of his reputation has played out in parallel with his country’s decline on his watch… critics say the shy, soft-spoken 79-year-old is in danger of going down in history as a failure.”

The Prime Minister’s communications adviser, Pankaj Pachauri, was quick to slug the piece and its author with adjectival invective in a formal letter. He called the article “totally one-sided” and Denyer himself “unethical” and “unprofessional”.

Pachauri picked a quarrel with Denyer on two counts —that repeated requests for an interview with the Prime Minister had met with no positive response and that he had “apologised” for the piece in a telephone conversation following its publication.

Beyond amending his piece to attribute quotes he had used, Denyer stood stout by his story. He had not been given any assurance on the possibility of interviewing the Prime Minister, he said in his reply, and he had only apologised for a technical malfunction on The Post’s website as a result of which Pachauri wasn’t able to upload his anger for close to half a day.

A sample suffices to suggest the almost petulant tu-tu-main-main tone of the exchanges between the two:

Pachauri: You have been telling the media here in India that your request for an interview was declined though the mail below says clearly that the interview was declined “till the monsoon session” of Parliament which gets over in two days.

Denyer: When I made my final request for an interview with the PM in July, I was told on July 30: “The PM has declined all interview requests till the monsoon session is over.” At that stage the current session of Parliament (known as the monsoon session of Parliament) had not even begun. There was no mention of the possibility of an interview afterwards.

Pachauri: When I rang you up to point this out, you said “sorry” twice though you tell the media here that you never apologised. Your website where we could have posted a reply is still not working, 11 hours after you said “sorry” the third time for its inaccessibility.

Denyer: My apology was for the fact that the website was down and the PM’s office could not post a reply directly. As soon as the problem was fixed, I informed them. I stand by the story.

But is this merely a skirmish provoked by thin-skinned pique — Pachauri jousted sarcastically that he was “not going into” The Post’s “one-sided assessment of the Prime Minister’s performance as comment is free in journalism” — or is there an underlying narrative about journalistic ethics to it too? Evidence at hand would suggest a bit of both.

Pachauri’s ire was clearly provoked by more than just issues of principles and accepted journalistic practice; his emphasis on the “one-sidedness” of Denyer’s piece would indicate criticism hasn’t gone down well. It is probably worth note, though, that Time’s recent censure of the Prime Minister passed sans comment from the PMO.

On the other hand, Denyer has been faulted for cherry-picking dated quotes and not attributing or contextualising them. Sanjaya Baru was surprised to find himself quoted in The Post, although he had spoken earlier to Denyer about the Prime Minister.

Currently abroad, Baru told The Telegraph in an email: “Yesterday morning, when I suddenly started getting calls that Washington Post had quoted me, I said but I never spoke to them!! I never imagined that on September 5, the Washington Post would publish something based on a July 20 conversation. Anyway, the point is that I had asked Simon (Denyer) to ‘contextualise’ what I told Caravan, adding the caveat that I think the Prime Minister is in a better spot now. He failed to do that…. Simon (Denyer) did call me but that was in July…. He should have quoted Caravan.”

Denyer’s Delhi-based colleagues from leading American newspapers — The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times — declined to comment. Another compatriot spoke, but strictly off the record: “The anger issues of the Indian government apart, there is something here about how we are meant to attribute quotes. I do not know if this is going to be seen as part of what happened with Fareed (Zakaria) and open a debate, but it will surely make people sit up and be more careful.”

Denyer himself sounded weary of the episode but unshaken on his story or intention. “It is not my intention to be at war with the Prime Minister’s Office or anyone; I have said what I had to say in my reply and made due corrections,” he told The Telegraph. “I only think it is just to write about what is happening in a country and convey it in a balanced way for my readers in America and that is what I have done.”

Pachauri wouldn’t think so, but Denyer isn’t inclined to join issue any more.