As a helpline coordinator, I strongly believe that print publicity is the lifeline of any helpline. Naturally then, it serves my interests to be on good terms with the media. In fact, I am usually the first one to reach out to the media and inform them about help-seeking trends in the city whenever there is a spike in calls pertaining to a particular issue and there are several instances where such interactions have resulted in print features for my organization, which in turn led to more calls. We also make it a point to ask each caller where they heard of us, so we can determine where to focus our publicity efforts the next time, and often we learn from our callers that our number has been featured in a particular publication. In order to ensure that we don’t miss out on such stories (and to be able to write a thank-you email to the publications for them) we have even set up Google alerts for the helpline’s name and telephone number, and routinely scour the web for any news pieces about us.
This system has served us well so far, and it enables us to spot stories about us soon after they appear online. It was on one such routine Google search on the 15th of February 2014 that I spotted a story in the Free Press Journal titled ‘Helplines Flooded With Desperate Calls Before V-Day’. Given that unlike other times (such as exam result days and mental health week) the helpline had NOT been flooded with calls, and that no media houses had contacted us for a story, this was a surprise. Relationships, in fact are a perennial issue brought forth on calls and V-Day does not really make a difference to this. As I opened the article, I was in for a bigger surprise. Not only was my helpline’s number quoted in the article, but there was a two-paragraph quote describing a call allegedly made by a 14 year old girl to my helpline, which was attributed to me! Here is the excerpt featuring my organization:
“A 14-year old called up iCall- a mental helpline run by Tata Institute of Social Sciences- saying that she loved her friend’s boyfriend and that their Valentine’s Day celebration is making her envious of her.
“She said that her friend and friend’s boyfriend were celebrating each day of Valentine’s week which she can only dream of as she is not that pretty. She said that she can never fall for someone else and will die out of the envy that she has for her friend,” said Paras Sharma, co-coordinator of iCall, which is under Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
“It was shocking for me as this girl couldn’t see that she has all time in world for falling in love and that many Valentines like this will come and pass by,” said Sharma”.
Apart from the fact that the journalist in question never spoke to me for any article, and that the account of this 14 year old was completely a figment of the reporter – Swati Jha’s overactive imagination, there were several other things which appeared amiss about this quote. For example, we were called a ‘mental helpline’ whatever that meant. Secondly it quotes me as the Co-Coordinator at iCALL whereas no such designation exists at iCALL (I am the Programme Coordinator). Even if this god-awful attempt to impersonate me were true, as a Counselling Psychologist, I am bound by the ethics of confidentiality and anonymity and would never share a case in such lurid details with any publication – be it academic or news. One can refer to iCALL’s annual report to get a taste of how minimally we quote our call transcripts even in an academic publication on our own website.
Fortunately, I was not the only one quoted in this outlandish article. Also quoted prominently, was a fellow mental health professional from a suicide helpline that operates in Mumbai. Given that our field is a small one, the coordinator of this helpline was a phone call away. Unsurprisingly, he too mentioned that he had not been contacted by the FPJ for any article.
Despite the fact that it was a Saturday afternoon, I took my chances and called up the FPJ office and asked to speak either to the reporter or to the editor. The operator at first tried to get rid of me quickly but realized I meant business as soon as I mentioned that I was calling to lodge a complaint regarding a story. I was then put through to Mr TGP Krishnan who identified himself as the Deputy General Manager at FPJ. He was surprised at my claim that I had been quoted without being interviewed and said that this was unheard of. He mentioned that he had been a city editor with the FPJ in the past and that they had a zero tolerance policy for such shenanigans and assured me that I would hear from them soon if I formally wrote him a complaint. I obliged, and sure enough, I got a frantic call from a woman from the FPJ on my helpline number (not my office number or mobile, mind you), asking to speak to ‘Prashant’. A counsellor corrected her and asked her if she wanted to talk to ‘Paras’ and the lady agreed.
It turned out to be the journalist herself, Swati Jha – who put on a brilliant act of being shocked at my ‘denial of having spoken to FPJ’. I asked the lady if she had my personal number or even knew my name correctly. She said she did not have my number and said that she mixed up my name because she speaks to a hundred people in a day. I asked her if she had a telephone log of her conversation with me and she made the outrageous claim that her phone only stores the last dialled number. And of course, she had no audio transcript of the conversation. I asked her if she was sure that it was my voice she heard on the other line the day she claimed to have spoken to me and she said that ‘it could have been someone else at your organization’. Unfortunately for her, I am the only male employee at my organization, and the only one authorized to speak to the media.
I immediately called Mr Krishnan back and informed him about the conversation and he assured me that the story would be taken down and a retraction would be printed if the journalist was not able to prove her story. In the meantime I started tweeting and facebooking about this story so that the readers of FPJ, and the clients and well-wishers of iCALL knew that we had been falsely quoted. A blogger friend was kind enough to write about our side of the story and several journalist friends retweeted my tweets to the official FPJ twitter handle demanding a retraction.
Sometime around the night of the 15th of February, 2014, the article was quietly pulled down from the FPJ website. Even at the time of writing this piece the link throws up ‘Nothing Found’.
I checked my inbox to see if there was any intimation over email by the FPJ team regarding the pulling down of the piece but there was none…until the next day. And that too from none other than Ms. Swati Jha herself. She wrote to me from a personal email which mentioned her name as ‘Swati Priya’ that said (sic) ‘As demanded by you FPJ has taken down my story from its website. I do not have any proof to back my side. Kindly consider this as an apology from my side. My intension was in no way to harm the reputation of your esteemed institution. I apologise if in anyway I have done that’.
Like any reasonable individual, I interpreted this as an admission of guilt on the part of the reporter. I, however replied to her saying that since my name had been used publicly, nothing short of a printed retraction would suffice. By then, I had been put in touch with Mr Anil Singh, a seasoned journalist and the Metro Editor at FPJ by a friend. I explained the events up until then to Mr Singh and even shared the email by the journalist (which he was not aware of at that point) with him. He assured me that if I did have such an email, as I claimed, the editors would certainly do what is necessary since the FPJ does not tolerate such incidents.
Everything seemed fine up until this point, but then the trail went cold. I did not hear back from Mr Singh for two days, and ramped up the pressure on social media and through my friends in the print media. When I was finally able to get through to Mr Singh again, he told me candidly that the reason he did not return my calls was because the matter had gone to his seniors and that his opinion was no longer relevant since ‘the Supreme Court was now looking into it’. That ‘Supreme Court’ happened to be Mr Shailender Dhawan who as I learned was Editor-in-Chief at FPJ.
In my first conversation, Mr Dhawan sounded polite to a fault. He mentioned several times that he was committed to ‘resolving the matter to my satisfaction’. At the same time, he pleaded with me to ‘look at the matter holistically’ and ‘consider the impact an incident like this could have on a young journalist at the threshold of her career’. He asked me to think back to my early days as a professional and said ‘We all made mistakes when we started off, didn’t we?’ I was in no mood to bargain though and told him in as many words that I did not care what happens to the journalist, and that it is better if she learned a lesson about violating ethics at this point in her career rather than later. I suspect this did not go down too well with Mr Dhawan because his tone changed from thereon and he began to complain how I had been ‘targeting a young journalist on a public platform like Twitter when the matter was being looked into by the editors’. At one point he equated this to cyber-bullying and I had to remind him that it was I who was the aggrieved party here and not his scribe! We finished the conversation with Mr Dhawan promising a final verdict the next day. He asked me to refrain from any criticism on social media until he got back to me.
I was not convinced by this and asked the Chairperson of my Centre – Dr Sujata Sriram to speak to Mr Dhawan and tell him that we meant business, which again did not augur well with him. He rudely said that ‘You need to be patient’ and asked her ‘if she was an office-bearer or an employee’. We had decided enough was enough and that we would have to act against FPJ if a printed retraction in the newspaper was denied.
The next day, I waited until 4.30 PM to call Mr Dhawan for his ‘verdict’. Much to my surprise, he mentioned that he had not called me because there was nothing further to say. He said, “Neither party has provided me clinching evidence”. I asked him what more evidence he needed besides the journalist’s own admission of guilt and an independent claim for a retraction by the coordinator of another helpline. Mr Dhawan at this point made the outrageous demand for the entire call log of the helpline so that he could ascertain whether a call was truly NOT made by his journalist. What Mr Dhawan failed to understand was that as a helpline that promises confidentiality and anonymity to its clients, sharing a call-log with a third party would tantamount to an ethical breach of humongous proportions. I asked him why his journalist should not instead be asked to prove that she made the call and furnish a call log. Mr Dhawan said that she did not have the same but she had some ‘scribbled notes’.
He turned quite unfriendly when I said that it was unethical on his part to stand by his journalist when she admits to not having any proof to back her claim of talking to me or the other helpline. Mr Dhawan, dogged as ever, said that since the other helpline was a 24×7 helpline, he cannot rule out the possibility that his journalist called at an odd-hour and spoke to a volunteer at the other helpline (this despite the fact that the journalist claims to have spoken to the coordinator of that helpline). By the end of the conversation, Mr Dhawan turned outright rude and asked me ‘Not to waste his time and do whatever I deem fit’. I assured him that this would not be the last he heard about this story and that it was an unwise decision on his part not to have retracted this story.
It was rather perplexing that a senior journalist, despite such a weak defence being put up by his reporter, chose to side with her, despite the fact that she had already owned up to having no proof for her story and had asked the paper to remove the story from the website. It was even more ridiculous that the paper put the onus of establishing that a conversation did not take place on us rather than asking the journalist to prove that it did in fact take place. What clinching proof can one give for the ‘non-existence’ of something after all? But the craziest insinuation of them all was that critical comments on social media against the newspaper and the journalist (both of whom were calling us liars) amounted to cyber-bullying!
I approached my friend Vidyut Gore-Kale who had earlier blogged about this incident on her website and she was kind enough to write another scathing account on her website. I also contacted an old college friend who had worked in the media earlier and is now a lawyer and it looked like I had no option but to approach the Press Council of India, send the paper a legal notice and hope for the best. But then something awesome happened. Geeta Seshu, from The Hoot who had been helping me behind the scenes the whole time, decided to run the story on her website. This account in fact was meant to be published on The Hoot. She also took the initiative of contacting FPJ and told them she was doing a story on the incident and that they needed to justify not retracting the story. That is when the tide turned. Because the next morning, I received a call from Geeta informing me that a front page retraction had appeared in the paper. Just like that. The paper informed her, not me, or the other helpline, which tells you a thing or two about who Editors fear. My threat to the Editor of taking up the matter legally and to the Press Council had fallen on deaf ears, but the fear of being shamed further on the internet, especially on a forum like The Hoot clearly got them thinking straight! Here is the apology printed in the paper
The whole incident shows the lengths to which the media will go to avoid admitting that they were caught with their pants-down. It also shows how some senior journalists never grew out of the 80s where the only avenue for redressal was a ‘Letter to the Editor’ which they could chuck into the waste-bin without a regard. To call the usage of social media by an ordinary individual to defend his/her name as ‘cyber-bullying’ is quite bizarre. But our IT Act can be used by unscrupulous elements to potentially persecute the very people it was meant to protect. Since I did not need to complain to the Press Council of India, I cannot comment on whether that would have achieved the desired result, but it clearly appears that Editors do not fear them. What then, can an ordinary citizen do when a media wrongs them and refuses to do anything about it, besides shaming them on Social Media? In my case, I was fortunate enough to know people on Twitter and online media who could create the kind of noise that finally forced the paper to withdraw the story. But if it were a bigger publication, and there were more vested interests in running a story such as this, I could have ended up having a case lodged against me under the IT Act! While I am glad things did not get that ugly, the incident on one hand has made me more cynical about mainstream media than I already was, but on the other hand it also shows that a clean, honest and approachable online medium can help restore the balance in favor of the little guy, even if it is just by a little bit!
Paras Sharma serves as the Programme Coordinator at iCALL Psychosocial Helpline – A field-action project set up by the Centre for Human Ecology at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.