Last week, I was lazily scrolling through Facebook, figuring out what wisecrack to post or what picture to share to get maximum likes, when P pinged me on FB chat. P, a friend and a senior journalist, was furious about the reports splashed across the media on a proposed action by the country’s trust watchdog. Picking up from a late afternoon agency report, almost all business channels and newspapers reported the proposed hefty penalty to be levied on cement companies for alleged cartelisation.
Most reports quoted an anonymous source in the Competition Commission of India (CCI); some gave details about what time the report was to be released the next day, while others said the chairman is yet to affix his signature, and so on.
The friend was angry because according to her, this was tantamount to speculating on a judgment. “How can these people release the order before it is even signed?” she asked. She said it was different from other leaks, such as the CAG report or some committee report, which were not in the nature of a judgment.
I tried to respond by saying that if the Commission and the companies did not have a problem about the leak, why should journalists worry? I then tried to explain to her how the CCI is a relatively new regulator. Unlike the market or banking regulators, it still does not have enough experience or established systems to dispense with information to the media in an organised manner. (Both the Securities and Exchange Board of India and the Reserve Bank of India have full-fledged media cells manned by officers above the rank of general manager.)
Further, at a different level, they also need these news splashes to establish their presence among the country’s already crowded and ever-growing flock of regulators. She was not convinced. “The sanctity of a judgment has been violated,” she insisted.
Then, I tried to point out to her that if somebody did not have the leaked report and was complaining about the leak, it would be seen as a ‘sour grapes’ argument. Ironically, the only paper that did not report the leaked order had its office on the same building as the regulator.
P brushed aside the sour grapes argument and said instead of speculating on the contents of the report, the media should probe how it was leaked and bring the culprit to book.
Though I rubbished her asking why any journalist would prosecute his own source, I realised she had a point. The order was a significant one. It slapped a huge penalty on some of the top listed firms and had the potential to influence stock prices. Yet, curiously, the prices remained stable.
There are some difficult questions that arise out of the episode for both the media and the Commission. What happened at the Commission between Tuesday, when the order was reported and Thursday when it was first published on the website? What defence did the media have if one of the companies reported to have been fined was not actually on the list? Why did the market react the way it did?
Both the Competition Commission and hyper-competitive media have to learn a lesson or two from the pigeons of Wasseypur. In the Gangs of Wasseypur, Sultan, the butcher, says, “Yeh Wasseypur hai. Yahan kabootar bhi ek pankh se udtha hai, aur doosre se apna izzat bachata hai. (In Wasseypur,even the pigeon flies with one wing and saves its honour with the other).”