I will sue you; I will silence you

Diary of a real estate journalist

The quid pro quo culture is the comfort zone of both the real estate developers as well as the media. Ravi Sinha shares his experience of resisting both greed and threat to practice brutal honest journalism. The mindset to silence the objective journalist with tempting offers and legal threats is nevertheless all pervasive.

“Mr Sinha! How objective is the brand rating of Track2Realty? I don’t think I deserve to be ranked that low. Anyone can sue you for defamation.”  This has been my first meeting with the developer at his office on the insistence of his marketing & communication head. The man was visibly giving impression of being upset with his not so higher ranking.

As a journalist my body language normally changes when someone tries to shoot the messenger. I try to give the offence back as much with my gesture as with words. I opened the water bottle calmly and quietly took the sip, deliberately making him wait till I finish drinking the water. The body language was neither timid nor intimated.

“Are you aware gentleman that as a journalist I have weathered 47 legal threats in my career? As a matter of fact, I have announced it to social media that I would be throwing a big party the day I complete half century of legal threats. I am conscious of the fact that my objective journalism, including brand rating, is not going to earn me very many friends. Forget legal threats, I have even weathered anonymous life threats over phone.”

The developer instantly changed track to laugh out his own statement as a casual remark. Now that the threat did not work with me he had a counter offer of greed. “Can you guide my team how could we raise our ranking? We can get into a marketing deal with your company if you want.”

“Sorry sir! Not my job. This is a clash of interest. If I would guide you team in how to elevate your brand positioning then I would be morally and ethically bound to raise your brand rating in the next edition. I am a relationship blind person. I go by public perception through consumer survey and there is neither clash of interest nor quid pro quo,” I stood by my ground firmly.

This has been a Gurgaon-based developer with all his sharpness to judge the vulnerability of the other person before him. Of course, he might have succeeded every now and then with the kind of media morality that India today is witness to.

While coming out of his office, this lady asks me what is my opinion about her CMD. I said you are a friend and hence I didn’t offend him but please convey my appreciation to your CMD, “I have found him a sharp person who tests the vulnerability of the other person before him. Unfortunately, I am not vulnerable.”

This is not just a one off incident that has shaped my opinion about the developers. I am constantly weathering such demand (either tossed up with greed or threat). Frankly speaking, I am left with no choice but to create a personality and brand of journalism that makes the large universe of the stakeholders either scared with me or despise me.  

Silencing journalists with greed & threat is most convenient option for the developers

Legal threats are mostly juvenile jibe on part of erring developers; they run away when confronted to dare 

Had builders been in politics they would have sued all opinion polls for not forecasting them as winners

Quid Pro Quo suits the vested interests of both the builders as well as the greedy media

Buying and showcasing an award is better investment than investing in processes to elevate the brand ranking

Real estate in India was never known for high quality objective journalism, till the time Track2Realty accidentally came into the space. Now in its seventh edition of brand rating of the sector, the developers at large are still uncomfortable with their actual brand positioning.

The mindset is to buy out an award, a trophy or citation, to showcase it to the world and feel good about themselves. It also serves the sales purpose of showcasing to the gullible home buyers as how credible the brand is with so many awards being bestowed with. 

“How can you deny us what we are looking for,” cribs another developer. “You are a small media house. We get what we want even by the mainline media. It is the client that dictates his requirements.”

“Of course, large media houses sell awards, give glorified coverages and have all the financial clout. But we are not known for size but credibility. And if our credibility has no value, then why are you coming to us? There are very many petty shops of media around. Please leave,” I have often been not just firm but brutal to make sure I fail their vulnerability test of judging the right price. 

It is not that I have not tried to convince the developers that every piece of journalism is not for sale. I often tell them, “what is all the more important gentleman is the fact that I, or for that matter even our marketing team, have never approached any developer in advance that we are rating you at this level. You only get to know once the report is published. If we come to you in advance, sharing the findings then only we are open to any business alliance or quid pro quo.”  

It is not that the developers don’t understand our editorial integrity. Real estate is a small world and the word of mouth spreads pretty fast here. It is an accepted reality that Track2Realty ratings can not be influenced, forget being bought over. Even the worst critics, or those who have exchanged threats, showcase our reports if they happen to be ranked higher.

But since the greed element does not work with us, hence this undertone of threat, ‘I will sue you; I will silence you’. I have a few questions to ask to these developers. Why are you so intolerant to the objective media? Don’t you think top ranked (among Top 10) is itself an honour? Why to be Number 1 only when in a given relative study the other company might have done better than you?

Once the HR Head of a Mumbai-based developer confronted me, “No one can be better employer than us. Have you spoken to our employees before ranking us that low?” I smiled with sarcasm, “Have you spoken to the employees of those developers ranked higher than yours?” The man is now more theatrical than hysterical, “why should I?”

My smile now turns into giggling, “So, without even knowing what the competitive market is offering in HR, you have given yourself a certificate of best employer? And why should you think I reveal it to you who all are your employees to have spoken to us? Isn’t a survey confidential?”

In a democratic country any one is free to file a case against any one. But the issue here is not about threatening to sue or filing the case but to be legally in a position to sustain it.

Strictly speaking from the legal standpoint, if a consumer survey could be sued for defamation then all pre-poll surveys could be sued for defaming the one political party that is being projected as getting routed. After all, the political opinion polls are more often than not off the target. In contrast, Track2Realty rating has rarely erred in its study.

Moreover, just look at the off target projection of the credit rating agencies. They are supposed to rate a company on the basis of financial papers and yet they fail many a times. How come IL&FS had got AAA Rating before being declared junk overnight? In contrast, brand rating is all about perception of a company and yet there is so much of cribbing about one’s ranking.

When the developers have poor/shady/crooked communication & marketing team with equally crooked PR agencies, that either doesn’t share information in public domain in general and with media in particular, then Track2Realty is also not an astrology point that would forecast the given brand’s true worth.

My message is always loud & clear: “only the companies that have clean system and professionals sharing information with us can expect higher brand rating.” In a business where the vast majority of developers are not listed, debt not always on the books, and information gap in the market, the developers would only be evaluated on the basis of information (whatever information) available in the public domain and public perception survey.

More importantly, all media houses don’t intend to or are ready to be media partners or partner in crime with the builders. Those are other journalists who expect builder’s PR hospitality; since I don’t expect or entertain, hence I reserve right to expect higher degree of professionalism. Oops…now someone would say I have defamed developers and other journalists and my statement could lead to another semi-literate or juvenile legal notice.

I am not exaggerating the facts here. These are my own real life experiences. I recently wrote it in professional WhatsApp group of Track2Realty how certain PR agencies act stupid. The juvenile corporate communication team of a developer, after having taken a hit by my brutal honest assessment, not only leaked the message to the said agency but also provoked the agency to threaten me with defamation threat.

It is a different matter that both the builder’s corporate communication as well as the PR agency failed to assess the stuff an honest journalist is made of. I called it a bluff and welcomed them for so-called defamation case that could never be filed.

I am not sure whether the lawyer advised against it or it was simply a bluff. But the law student in me knew that all that it could lead to was some entertainment in the courtroom, followed by my counter case of trying to frame a journalist in false case with malafide intentions.

I am also conscious of the fact that no one would dare to file a case. It will only make them a laughing stock and force me to further expose their fault lines and consumer grievances/backlash in the public domain. This is one business where there is always more to conceal than reveal.

Even one of the large corporate houses in real estate tried this trick of legal threat with me and had to back track when I confronted them to file a case. My stand to expose their consumer grievances in a press conference made them quite nervous and vulnerable.   

Threat & greed are nevertheless two deadly weapons against the journalists that I have to guard against. It often comes together, even sugar coated many times. A fellow journalist friend often reminds me that I should be careful in my overt criticism of the builders. They have money and muscle power to harm me physically. It is not that I am not conscious of this reality. But then I also feel that the compromised life of a journalist is far greater death than death itself.

On a serious note, I can neither be threatened (legal or otherwise) nor tempted to greed. Such experiences don’t really bother me. Threats to sue & silence nevertheless enrich my experience, not only for my social media entertainment but also as plots for my upcoming novel, “The Most Hated Journalist.”   

Track2Realty is an independent media group managed by a consortium of journalists. Starting as the first e-newspaper in the Indian real estate sector in 2011, the group has today evolved as a think-tank on the sector with specialized research reports and rating & ranking. We are editorially independent and free from commercial bias and/or influenced by investors or shareholders. Our editorial team has no clash of interest in practicing high quality journalism that is free, frank & fearless.  

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