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Bal, Open and the perils of political journalism
"What Manu has verbally communicated to me is that Sanjiv Goenka told him that because of Hartosh, I am making a lot of enemies...political enemies." PARANJOY GUHA THAKURTA talks to Hartosh Bal, Manu Joseph and Sanjiv Goenka
Posted/Updated Friday, Nov 15 16:10:16, 2013

Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Open, was served a notice of termination of employment on Wednesday November 13, 2013. The weekly is published by Open Media Network Pvt Ltd, a company in the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group headed by industrialist Sanjiv Goenka.

Goenka has reportedly wanted Manu Joseph, the editor of the publication, to remove Bal from his position for quite some time now. Joseph resisted but finally gave in to "rebuild his relationship with the owner" and "push through an ambitious online plan" for the magazine.

Bal said Joseph told him that Goenka wanted him out because his writings and the airing of his views on television had earned the industrialist a number of "enemies" in political circles. Joseph said Goenka was unhappy with Bal for a long period of time because of a range of reasons, including his alleged editorial incompetence, promotion of personal grouses, poor writing style and the general quality of political coverage in the magazine. 

When asked to enumerate the reasons why Bal was served a notice of termination of employment, Goenka said that "as a matter of policy, I don't want to comment on any individual employee".

However, a source close to Goenka told this writer on condition of anonymity that the "mandate" of Open magazine is "more to report than provide opinion", that this mandate was specified to each employee recruited, that Bal had been "providing more opinion than reporting news" and that he was "excessively judgmental". In this context, without referring specifically to Bal, the source added that if someone is told what to do "once, twice, thrice....ten times but chooses not to respond, action will be taken".

Bal, who studied mechanical engineering in the Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani, and mathematics at New York University, had worked with the Times of India, the Indian Express and Tehelka in Delhi, Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, before joining Open as political editor in 2008 before the weekly was launched. He said that the way in which he was served a termination of employment notice was not just morally and ethically wrong but also legally untenable. He said he would challenge the termination notice. 

Joseph said he knew that Bal would "raise hell" when served the termination of employment notice. "I told him he should," the editor of Open added.

What follows are edited excerpts from conversations and email interviews conducted with Bal and Joseph.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (PGT): What were the circumstances that led you to leave Open? We learnt about your departure thanks to your November 13 tweet which said: "Received termination notice from Open today after I refused Rs 15 lakh to move on quietly..." 

Hartosh Singh Bal (HSB):  Well, the immediate circumstances were that I was given a termination notice. It was not a departure. I was told to go. 

PGT: Surely this did not come to you as a bolt from the blue---were you not anticipating something like this... 

HSB: I was anticipating this for a month and half... I was politely informed first by Manu Joseph that they (the management) would rather have me leave in a fashion that is convenient to everybody. Finally I got a phone call on October 11 from the HR (human resources) head of the (RP-Sanjiv Goenka) Group, V C Agarwal. Later I was told by both the editor Manu Joseph and the publisher R Rajmohan that they were opposed to the move (to serve a notice of termination of employment to me). The group HR head asked: "How can we arrange this conveniently?" Manu had already indicated (that the management wanted me out). I had thought this through. There were clearly only two ways forward. Either I resigned or I would have to be served a termination of employment notice. I decided that I would opt for the latter as that could act as a deterrent to the management from removing a journalist without giving any reason. 

PGT: You wanted to make sure that you would leave in a manner in which it would become expensive. Correct? 

HSB: Not expensive, but a deterrent. I think they (meaning the management of Open) should not believe that a journalist can be easily dismissed without citing any reasons why he was being asked to go. 

PGT: From your tweet, one may surmise that your departure could have something to do with the last article you wrote for Open entitled “The Hero and the Prince” which was critical of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi? 

HSB: No, one should not surmise anything of that sort. If you read what I wrote on Twitter, all that I have said is that is the last article I have written. 

PGT: One would logically draw a conclusion to such an effect since the second statement follows what you wrote about you receiving a termination notice... 

HSB: What I am saying is after I was informed by Manu (Joseph) that I should not be writing anymore, especially any kind of commentary in the magazine... the whole process started. 

 

PGT: So you still do not know the reason why you were asked to leave... 

HSB: That is correct. What Manu has verbally communicated to me is that Sanjiv Goenka told him that because of Hartosh, I am making a lot of enemies...political enemies. 

PGT: What is your future course of action? 

HSB: I am very clear that the services of no journalist can be terminated without citing a reason. I think that this is not a moral or ethical position; this is also a legal position. I think many journalists misunderstand the legal protection that still exists within the kind of framework we work in. 

PGT: Even if you have signed a contract with your employer and which I presume is a contract that does not come within the purview of the Working Journalists Act. Am I correct? 

HSB: What I think is that there is a legal argument. I would not (like to) divulge everything at this stage but I think you cannot step outside the Working Journalists Act, irrespective of what your contract is. I think the Act envisages certain protection for the craft of journalism not for the kind of employee...The Act is for protecting the idea of free dissemination of information that comes through journalism. It is not bound to the kind of employment... The spirit of the Act is about providing certain circumstances in which journalism can be done. If the journalist's employment is to be terminated, the least that should have been done is that he should have been given a reason. The reason would require fact. I think this is the minimum protection a journalist needs because dismissal of journalist cannot be arbitrary. 

PGT: Let me ask you a hypothetical question. Suppose your editor told you that he had lost confidence in your ability to be a good political editor and therefore, you should leave. What would you do if Manu Joseph made such a statement to you? 

HSB: He should have. I could have responded at that point of time. This did not happen. A year and a half ago, I had received an offer to join the DNA (newspaper). I was ready to leave but I was persuaded to stay on by Manu Joseph at Open. I was told that Sanjiv Goenka too wanted me to stay although I did not have any direct communication with him. From the very beginning I have not had any direct communication with Sanjiv Goenka; neither did I see any reason why as the political editor I should be in direct communication with the owner...              

PGT: Do you have any plans of joining any other media organisation at this juncture?  

HSB: No. Not that anything hasn’t come up yet but I haven’t yet thought in that direction. I am clear that any media organisation which wants to talk to me they should be clear that this is the background. See whatever I have done has been cleared editorially by Manu at every step. I have five years in Open. I am a veteran staffer of sorts. Nobody has found any error in what I have done. No clarifications have been issued, no questions raised, nothing pointed out ....editorially, nobody has ever questioned anything I have done. I have followed due editorial processes. 

 

PGT: My last question to you Hartosh is about the Rs 15 lakh figure in your termination notice. How was figure arrived at? 

HSB: What I was offered is the equivalent of 15 months basic pay plus management allowance, not the entire remuneration package. 

PGT: Anything else you would like to tell me at this point of time?  

HSB:  Yes. We had conducted discussions and I told them that I am not bargaining. I have lasted five years with Open. At the end of five years, they want me to leave. If I had joined DNA a year back, I assume I would have earned more. But the issue is not just the financial loss that they are inflicting on me. They are stopping me from writing as a political journalist when it matters the most. This is again an impingement on the kind of work I do. 

 

 Manu Joseph’s replies to the Hoot’s questionnaire  

1. Why did the management of Open Media Network Pvt Ltd, publisher of Open weekly magazine choose to serve a termination of employment notice to Hartosh Singh Bal? What were the circumstances that led to him being served the termination of employment notice? 

From the time I took over as editor, three years ago, Sanjiv Goenka had conveyed to me now and then, his opinion that I must look for another political editor. I was granted complete editorial freedom but the issue of the political editor was a persistent cause of dispute between the owner and me. Mr Goenka had a range of reasons for why he felt that way – from competence issues to promotion of personal grouses to writing style and the general quality of political coverage in the magazine. I completely disagreed with Mr Goenka and he let me prevail. Over the past few months the pressure on me increased I do not know why,  and I had to make a decision. One option I had was to relent and rebuild my relationship with the owner so that I can push through an ambitious online plan for the magazine. Quitting was the easier option, which I had done thrice already in the past three years.

No official reason has been mentioned in his termination because I refused to give any reason.

2. On the evening of Wednesday November 13, Bal tweeted: "Received termination notice from Open today after I refused Rs 15 lakh to move on quietly..." Why was he asked to move on "quietly"?

The facts are, as usual, less glorious. In the modern-day office, the principled stand usually leads to a point when the calculators come out. Money is a form of justice, so Hartosh and the HR had conversations. The HR offered Rs 15 lakhs, Hartosh wanted much more. Things didn’t work out.

No journalist who is fired has any reasons to go quietly these days if what he feels is his rightful financial compensation is not granted. Nobody was under any illusion that he will go quietly. Hartosh had several conversations about his post-departure moves with me. He told he will “raise hell”. I told him he should.

3. Bal told me that he "was politely informed first by Manu Joseph that they would rather have me leave in a fashion that is convenient to everybody".

Nonsense! About three months ago when the final pressure on me began to remove Hartosh, I did not inform him because at that point I had decided that I will be able to deflect this one too. Then Hartosh got to know of this from the marketplace, and he asked me, and we had several conversations regarding how to handle the situation.

4. Thereafter, he said that on October 11 he received a phone call from the human resources head of the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group V C Agarwal who asked: "Can we arrange this conveniently?" Bal further said that you, Manu Joseph, and the publisher of Open, R Rajmohan, had both told him that you were opposed to the move to ask him to leave his job. Please provide me your reactions and comments to what Bal has said.

It is true that I was totally opposed to the move. That is the reason the management had to proceed without an official reason.

5. Bal told me that after he wrote the last article that was published in Open (on October 3, 2013) titled "The Hero and the Prince", you informed him that he "should not be writing any more, especially any kind of commentary in the magazine". Why did you ask him not to write any kind of commentary? Did you arrive at this decision on your own or did anyone suggest to you that he (Bal) not be asked to write any more commentary/opinion articles for the publication/website?

The fact, again, is less glorious. Hartosh was of the opinion that since he might have to fight the company in court if his financial demands are not granted it is best he stops writing and I agreed.

6. Bal has further said that you, Manu Joseph, had told him that Sanjiv Goenka (who heads the RP-Sanjiv Goenka group of companies, of which Open Media Network Pvt Ltd is a part) had told you that "because of him (Hartosh) I (Goenka) am making a lot of enemies...political enemies". Is this statement correct?

That is correct. I told Mr Goenka that I cannot let this influence the content of the magazine. He told me that it is not just the magazine. He was concerned about some of the things Hartosh has said on television. I do not know what those statements are.

7. Bal told me that no journalist's employment can be terminated without citing a reason, that this is not just a moral or an ethical position but also a legal position. What are your views in this regard?

I do not know about the legal position. It certainly is not moral or ethical.

8. When I spoke to Sanjiv Goenka asking him to enumerate the reasons why Bal was served a notice of termination of employment, he said that "as a matter of policy, I don't want to comment on any individual employee". However, a source close to Sanjiv Goenka told me on condition of anonymity that the "mandate" of Open magazine is "more to report than provide opinion", that this mandate was specified to each employee recruited, that Bal had been "providing more opinion than reporting news" and that he was "excessively judgmental". In this context, without referring specifically to him, the source added that if someone is told what to do "once, twice, thrice....ten times but chooses not to respond, action will be taken". Your comments on these remarks.

The fact is that Sanjiv Goenka conveyed to me many times, over the last three years, his discomfort with Hartosh, which I absorbed and deflected as editors are supposed to do. I had given Hartosh a broad sense of this, but I did not convey any specific warnings. Hartosh was never told by me that he should stay away from a line of comment or a story. I let him have complete freedom. 

Related links:

Sacked Open journalist says he’ll go to court (WSJ blog)

A conversation with: Former political editor of Open Magazine Hartosh Singh Bal (NYT blog)

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