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Ambika Soni’s adventures in arm-twisting

Author: Aditya Sinha
Publication: Dnaindia.com
Date: September 18, 2011
URL:   http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/column-ambika-soni-s-adventures-in-arm-twisting-1588429

As for being critical of the ruling party, isn’t that what being the “watchdog of democracy” is all about? And which self-respecting journalist would support an oligarchic government bogged down by corruption?

For about ten days, the Government of India’s Department of Advertising and Visual Publicity stopped advertisements to this newspaper. It’s through the DAVP that ministries and public sector undertakings publicize commercial requirements, i.e. “tender ads”, in newspapers. The DAVP is under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting headed by Ambika Soni, whom a 2005 US embassy confidential cable (exposed by Wikileaks and published by The Hindu in March 2011) described as one of Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s three principal advisors and the one trusted the most.

Indian newspapers make their real money from the ads they publish: this also subsidizes the newspaper for the reader who pays only Rs2.50 for an issue (each actually costs around Rs11-12 to produce). The government obviously does not place ads in each and every paper that is printed in India; and even among large-circulating mainstream papers, ad-rates vary depending on the reach. For a government to temporarily halt such ads to a mass-circulating metro-based newspaper like DNA is unusual.

Delhi-based journalists are at home with I&B bureaucrats even if the ministry is not part of their beat simply because it is also a nodal ministry for logistical matters. Our ad-sales division — the people who procure ads for publication and are thus the ones who make us our money — were anxious at losing out on revenue without any warning. They asked their contacts at DAVP and were told it was on instruction from the minister’s office. Nobody knew why.

Ad-sales asked us journalists if we could unravel the mystery. We wondered whether or not it was linked to DNA’s dropping the Edit page, but a responsible and reliable official assured us that such was not the case. Discreet inquiries with the minister’s office led us to believe the government stopped the ads for a limited time to, well, to teach DNA a lesson.

We advised ad-sales to seek an appointment with Soni. True, meeting a minister — even for journalists — is not an easy thing, but it was the only concrete step we could think of (I’m not much of a backroom-journalist). It was a pleasant surprise when the ad-sales executives immediately got a slot to meet the minister.

Soni was pleasant enough. She told our guys she was unaware of any DAVP action; but in any case the government was rationalizing the flow of ads to English and language newspapers.

Her body language, according to the ad-sales team, suggested otherwise. And then, during a general chat about the newspaper, she came to the point: she said that DNA ought to look at its coverage over the past few weeks and introspect.

The past few weeks was of course dominated by Anna Hazare’s agitation, arrest and fast. From the beginning DNA felt this to be an important event; it was covered robustly and splashed prominently, with an occasional sharp headline. The government did not cover itself with glory in handling the agitation, and once it was over it was said that the Congress party was angry with the media, particularly TV news channels, blaming the media for the frenzy that was whipped up.

Soni’s statement led us to infer that our Anna Hazare coverage was being punished by a suspension of government ads, and that Soni met our ad executives just to ensure the point was driven home.

This was not surprising because DNA recently has faced suspicion and hostility from the government which has apparently adopted an attitude of “you’re either with us or against us”. The prime minister’s media advisor has privately accused DNA of an agenda against the government, and its Editor-in-Chief of being close to a political party in the opposition.

For the record: I am close to no political party. In fact, I wrote a 1996 biography of Farooq Abdullah and I have ghost-written a 1994 book by the then minister of state, Salman Khursheed (apologies for having to divulge what was till now a secret). Both gentlemen are ministers in the present government.

As for being critical of the ruling party, isn’t that what being the “watchdog of democracy” is all about? And which self-respecting journalist would support an oligarchic government bogged down by corruption? This does not mean that DNA attacks only for the sake of attack: when the prime minister restarted dialogue with Pakistan, only we ran a page one edit supporting the move.

The day after the meeting with Soni, DNA started getting DAVP ads again. Presumably, from the government side, mission was accomplished. The government apparently feels no shame that an emerging power like India should be witness to such clumsy attempts at arm-twisting the media.

From our side, however, all news will continue to be treated on merit, even if it shows the government in poor light. For DNA, it serves the public interest to expose faulty decision-making, malfeasance and corruption. Loss of business can be measured, but the loss of credibility cannot. Above all, that someone in government tried to be petty and vindictive is, to us, validation that we were doing our job right.

- The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA, based in Mumbai
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