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  • Never trust a newspaper

    Posted On December 3, 2001

    By Karan Thapar

    There are moments in time when a columnist ends up with egg all over his face. Well, let me make a clean breast of it, I face such a moment today. Actually, to be honest, it was last sunday but I can only make amends this week so the embarrassment will rankle this morning.

    But in admitting to my lapse I feel I have to drag in The Indian Express, on whose journalistic veracity I relied. If I was wrong – and I was, I admit it – so too was The Indian Express. If anything, it was more wrong than I. However, that’s small consolation though it is a fact.

    Now to tell you all. Last week I wrote to pick a quarrel with Prof. J.S. Rajput after reading (and believing) a report on the front page of The Indian Express of the 24th of November. The report claimed that Prof. Rajput had said that certain deletions in CBSE history books were required because 17 year olds cannot think. This was said both in the headline and in the text but it was never said in quotations. That should have caused me a moment of concern but, foolishly, having noted it I overlooked it. That was my first mistake.

    The report further claimed that Prof. Rajput had expressed an opinion questioning the need for history books to include references to beef eating in ancient times. This time the opinion was in quotation marks. The actual quotation, as published in The Indian Express, was : “Beef eating is discouraged in many households. What purpose does it serve to inform them that in ancient times beef was served on special events?”

    These two points riled me. No, that’s a euphemism. They worked me into a froth. Thus charged up I wrote to criticise Prof. Rajput. I ridiculed him both by tearing apart his alleged views and by questioning his continuation as Director of the NCERT. I thought I had a good case. In fact, I thought I added to it significantly by citing at length the example of a 17 year old called Abinash Choudhary who had the previous week proven beyond doubt that 17 year olds can think. To rub my point in I had called the piece ‘Mr. Rajput, meet Abinash Choudhary ’.

    Well, I was wrong or so at least I now believe. Of course Abinash has no share in my error so let me exclude him from this explanation. The story I told about him (and the conclusion I drew about the ability of 17 year olds to think) stands intact. But much – thought not all – that I said about Prof. Rajput was wrong.

    Actually, I was mistaken, not wrong, but I don’t want to take recourse in mealy-mouthed hair-splitting distinctions that serve only to save my amour propre. I was wrong because The Indian Express was wrong. I believed what I read whereas I should have questioned it and checked on it before rushing to publish my response. I did not do any of that and hence the error.

    However, how I found out that I was wrong is the really interesting part. It happened last saturday as I was preparing for a discussion on my SAB TV programme Line of Fire on the NCERT controversy. I intended to repeat some of the points made last week and invited Prof. Rajput to join us. He readily agreed. But in doing so he pointed out that he had in fact denied The Indian Express report and that the paper had not printed his denial.

    “Oh” I said weakly, both surprised and horrified as I realised that the next day, Sunday the 2nd, he would read what I had written based entirely on The Indian Express.

    “You denied it and they did not print your denial?” I echoed. I wasn’t sure what else to say. I suppose I was also looking for reconfirmation that I had heard correctly.

    “Yes” he replied matter of factly.

    So I instantly asked him to send me his denial and in minutes his office faxed a copy of the press release it had issued. The first thing I noticed was that it was dated the 26th. The press release was about a report in The Indian Express of that day concerning a different matter. But the last two paragraphs read as follows :

    “This kind of misreporting from The Indian Express is very
    disappointing indeed. Earlier on, on Saturday November 24, the
    . paper had printed a sub-heading to a news story with a misquote
    attributed to him (Dr. Rajput) as saying ‘17 year olds can’t think, so
    they shouldn’t discuss’.”

    “Dr. Rajput had not said anything remotely near to that. The
    discussion he had had with the reporter was in the context of
    principles of education, whereby curriculum developers should
    have the capacity to understand the learning needs of a child at a
    certain age. The reporter made short work of that and drew her
    own incorrect inferences. A clarification by the NCERT Director
    issued the same day is yet to be published by the newspaper.”

    If the paper has not published his denial – and at that point I hadn’t read it if it had – that seemed suspicious. From my experience papers refuse to publish denials only when they know they are themselves in the wrong. Otherwise they publish them along side their own version which usually proves they were right.

    At this point I decided it was time to do my own research. So I delved into the cuttings and discovered that on the 27th (the day after the NCERT press release was issued) The Express did publish extracts of the press release but carefully (deliberately?) buried references to the bit about 17 year olds and their inability to think in the middle where you would only see them if you read the full piece. Still, it was clear enough except for the fact the article itself was not on the front page (where the original allegation had been) but inside the paper. More significantly, a rejoinder from The Express reporter, which was published along side, attempted to rebut all the points made by Prof. Rajput but failed to refer to the bit about 17 year olds. Why? Unless ..... And then suddenly it dawned on me that perhaps Prof. Rajput was right and The Indian Express wrong.

    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. But worse was to follow. At this point I read the press release a second time and discovered the following sentence on page one. Criticising The Indian Express for other reasons it continued :

    “... the reporter of The Indian Express .... even got Dr. Rajput’s
    name wrong. It is not Joginder Singh Rajput but Jagmohan Singh Rajput.”

    Unfortunately I did the same thing last week. Believing The Indian Express I referred to Prof. Rajput by the wrong name. I should have checked it out. But I did not. It did not even occur to me that the paper could be wrong. That was my second mistake.

    Consequently the only bit from last week’s Sunday Sentiments that still seems to stand is my quarrel with Prof. Rajput over the alleged quotation questioning the need to teach 17 year olds the fact that beef was eaten in ancient times. I presume that is a correct quotation but only because the NCERT press release has not mentioned it. The absence suggests as much. After all, such press releases only point out what is incorrect. They never concede that the paper got some thing right.

    So now my quarrel with Prof. Rajput is a much-reduced one. Last week it seemed like war on all fronts. Today it’s a mere skirmish. Instead, this week I have problems with The Indian Express. That reminds me of a much loved though often abused adage : “Never trust a newspaper”.

    My friend Aftab Jafferjee used to put it pithily : “Dear Boy” he would say. “Just because it’s in print doesn’t mean it is correct. Otherwise we lawyers would have very little to argue about and no chance of relieving you of your money!”

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