Analysis

Owning the news

By Gouri Chatterjee

7 July 2014

Journalists once talked louder than money.
Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz

When the news media becomes its own newsmaker there is reason to rejoice – or repent. Take Geo News, for instance. Pakistan’s most watched news channel is holding the world transfixed by doing what the country’s politicians haven’t dared – locking horns with the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The first week of June this year saw a further escalation in their battle, with the channel suing the spook agency for defamation over accusations of being ‘anti-state’, even as the country’s electronic media regulator suspended Geo for 15 days for reporting that the ISI was behind the April shooting of Hamid Mir, one of the network’s marquee journalists, and imposed a fine of PKR 10 million (around USD 100,000). We can only rejoice at a media organisation showing such courage under fire.

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The work of the Guardian, a British daily, is similarly inspiring. The globally iconic newspaper brought Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp to its knees by exposing how the corporation’s British tabloids had bribed the police and hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians and even the Royal Family; faced off against British and American authorities with its WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations because, according to the paper’s editor Alan Rusbridger, citizens in a democracy deserved to know; and is working towards transforming itself into a global digital newspaper aimed at engaged, anti-establishment readers, while keeping it available entirely for free – a heady experiment indeed. Cheers.

In India, it is not journalists who are grabbing the headlines but their owners.

Alternately, we could wring our hands at the less uplifting news of surveys in both the US and the UK showing that only a quarter or so of the populace in those countries believe that journalists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being, with only business executives, politicians and lawyers faring worse. (In the US, TV reporters are barely more popular than advertising salespeople, state-level politicians or car salesmen; while in Britain, print journalists take perverse pride in “being down there with the money-changers and the harlots,” with only one in five members of the public trusting journalists to tell the truth – on par with bankers and below real estate agents.) The comforting theory that if everybody hates them they must be doing something right doesn’t quite cut ice – the public esteem of journalists has, over the years, been going steadily downhill.

Vanity fair
In India, it is not journalists who are grabbing the headlines but their owners – and it is time to repent, and regroup. The climax was reached at the end of May with the dramatic announcement that the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries had gobbled up Network 18’s sizeable bouquet of broadcast and digital media properties. The nation’s richest man is now a media mogul; he will now not only grace front pages and flat screens, announcing mega projects and attending prime ministerial investiture ceremonies, but will pull the strings behind the scenes, too.

This is news not because it is the first time we are seeing a businessman investing in the media. Many of India’s leading publications, including the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Malayala Manorama and Eenadu (to name just a few), owe their existence to business families. Even the roots of the Indian Express lie in a businessman who went on to become India’s most colourful press magnate, the redoubtable Ramnath Goenka. Later, even the Tatas had a stake in the Statesman. In the late 80s and early 90s, many other business stalwarts such as Vijaypat Singhania (the Indian Post), L M Thapar (the Pioneer), Sanjay Dalmia (Sunday Mail) and Lalit Suri (Delhi Midday) had illusions of media grandeur. Even the Ambanis, including papa Ambani himself, tried it once (Business and Political Observer) and found it a rather sour experience. And less than two years ago, the Aditya Birla Group announced that it had bought a 27.5 percent stake in Living Media India which publishes India Today and owns TV Today. So the prospect of Indian businessman launching and acquiring media platforms is neither new nor newsmaking. Yet the Ambani’s takeover of Network 18 was news, and, deservedly, had the media agog.

None of the previous media barons or industrialists, not even the Ambanis of the 80s were as gargantuan or as formidable as the Ambanis today. As former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi put it in April this year, “Reliance is a parallel state. I do not know of any country where one single firm exercises such power so brazenly over the natural resources, financial resources, professional resources and, ultimately, over human resources.”

Of course, an organisation as unassailable as Reliance doesn’t really need to own media outlets to influence government policy or even to build a public image. Whether through fear or favour – or both – the media cannot be said to have been miserly in giving Reliance due coverage or importance. In fact, the battle royale that Ramnath Goenka fought with Dhirubhai Ambani in the pages of the Indian Express in the 80s is said to have been sparked off by Dhirubhai (who at the time was Goenka’s friend) joking that he could get any of Goenka’s Express journalists to do his bidding whenever he wanted.

The fact that Reliance has little interest in helping citizens make informed choices through the dissemination of information via its news channels, websites and magazines is no secret. According to a Reliance statement issued in the wake of the Network 18 deal, the “acquisition will differentiate Reliance’s 4G business by providing an amalgamation of telecom, web and digital commerce via a suite of premier digital properties”. Indeed, journalism is not what Reliance’s investment in media is about. However deep his pockets, Mukesh Ambani is not dreaming of giving BBC, CNN or Al-Jazeera a run for their money. Though Reliance Jio (as the company’s 4G wing is called), may sound like Pakistan’s Geo, and the Independent Media Trust (the holding company set up in January 2012 to channel Reliance funds to Network 18) may sound like the Independent Media Corporation, which owns Geo, the two operations are as dissimilar as the proverbial chalk and cheese.

A done deal
The complete insouciance with which Reliance declared its business intentions vis-a-vis its foray into the media world, and the matter-of-fact manner in which it has been accepted by one and all is ultimate proof of the secondary status of journalists in the news business in India today. Journalists are there to do their owners’ bidding, not to play any meaningful role in society; content is something owners decide while journalists merely execute their wishes; making money is the primary objective of any media organisation, even if that leads to carrying news that is paid for. In this model, the ‘customer’ is given whatever they want, journalistic ethics or standards be damned.

Samir Jain is credited with being singularly responsible for the emasculation of journalists, not just in his own organisation, but across the nation.

Though this trend began in the liberalised 90s, it has now come to fruition. In newsroom after newsroom across the country, journalists no longer so much as dream of exercising editorial independence without deferring to the wishes of Owner-Ji and his business boys. Instead of deciding the course of news and taking a call on what is or isn’t in the public interest, or taking up cudgels against those who wield power in ministries or in boardrooms, editors are content to be bit players – the errand boys of the business managers who pay their salaries.

This is not how professional editors used to be, and owners respected them for being what they were – or so it is said. Celebrated journalist Philip Knightley’s recollection of working for the Sunday Times in 1970s Britain is demonstrative:

One day, the owner of the paper, a Canadian called Lord Thompson, knocked on the editor’s door while the morning news conference was in progress, said “hello”, and then rather tentatively asked: “Say boys, would it be possible to squeeze in the Canadian ice hockey results each Sunday?” There was a moment of shocked silence. Then the deputy editor, Hugo Young, said, “Lord Thompson, this is an editorial news conference to which you’ve not been invited. If you’d like to put your suggestion in writing, I’m sure that the sports editor will be willing to consider it.” And next morning there was a note to the editor from Lord Thompson apologising for attempting to interfere with the paper’s editorial policy.

 Imagine!

We being a deferential lot in India don’t have anything as thrilling in our kitty, but as an oldtimer, I still remember the confidence in our eyes and the self-assurance in our voices as we dealt with the men from the other side of the corridor – the circulation chaps who wanted the paper to be sent to press even before the day’s news had come in, and the advertising guys who pleaded with us to go soft on someone-or-other, either because an advertiser would scream blue murder or because their followers could do us harm. We would pour scorn on their cravenly attitudes and stomp off knowing full well that we were the supreme beings in our little dunghills, the men and women who put readers, not advertisers, first. Whoever owned the newspaper, we owned the news.

Though moral condescension was often directed at those across the corridor or on a similar pay-grade, sublime irreverence was, on occasion, directed at those holding the purse strings. Repeated by many but sourced to none, the story of how in the 80s the then heir apparent of Times of India was ticked-off – and more than a patch humiliated – by the then Editor Girilal Jain, is a classic. Though the editor had made clear his distaste for managerial presence in the newsroom, the story goes, the real glory lay with the lumpen hacks who told the same trainee owner that if he wanted a better newspaper, he would have to arrange for cleaner toilets. How the tables turned. That bruised young Owner-Ji is today’s omniscient Samir Jain who is credited with being singularly responsible for the emasculation of journalists, not just in his own organisation, but across the nation. Thanks to him, editors these days barely figure in any list of India’s movers and shakers while one in every four powerful Indians is a media baron.

It is amazing how easily Jain moved the target of news organisations from making a difference to simply making money. Bottom-line chasing became the be-all-and-end-all of journalistic endeavours: news no longer had to be important, it had to be interesting. Valuation, not values, became the guiding principle within newsrooms, while corporate shibboleths turned into journalistic minefields lest the amour propre of advertisers be hurt. Managers began to rule the roost. Editors too began to take more pride in advertising revenue and soaring circulation figures than in the stories broken and the impact made. The commodification of news was complete as paid news became the order of the day.

‘Citizens Jain’
It’s not that earlier journalists were superior beings or that the owners were all model citizens eager to impoverish themselves for the public good. But everyone accepted that the media could only make modest profits, and that journalists could only earn modest incomes. No one was looking for untold riches from their investments in media. Some, admittedly, also counted their rewards in terms of influence wielded and policies dictated – Ramnath Goenka of the Indian Express being a prime example. But even when Goenka waged his spectacularly unsuccessful war against the Ambanis in the 80s, he still retained the primacy of news in his enterprise, allowing hundreds of other types of stories to bloom in his own paper and in others – the harrowing conditions of our jails were depicted, the trade in women in the interiors of Madhya Pradesh was graphically described, the Bhagalpur blindings were narrated, the causes of communal riots were probed, the sad tale of non-criminal lunatics being locked in jail came to light, etc. In many cases, high quality investigative reporting led to a modicum of reform. Journalism mattered, journalists mattered.

That was before Samir Jain and his Times group declared that they were not in the newspaper business, but in the advertising business, and that their ‘properties’ were ‘brands’ with ‘target audiences’ that advertisers coveted. In line with this logic, the post of ‘Editor’ with a capital E was done away with. All wisdom flowed from the top, and reporters began to follow orders and write copy dictated by advertisers. As if that wasn’t enough, Jain set off a price war that may have appeared reader-friendly, as it reduced newspaper prices across the board. In fact, it made all news organisations increasingly dependent on advertising revenue, thereby tilting the scales heavily in favour of the managerial side of the business. Brand-building exercises came to be seen as essential while news-gathering expenses were regarded as expendable.

As American media specialist Ken Auletta put it in his October 2012 New Yorker piece ‘Citizens Jain – Why India’s newspaper industry is thriving’:

Samir and [his brother] Vineet Jain make no pretense that what they do is a public calling. Rather than worry about editorial independence and the wall between the newsroom and the sales department, they propose that one secret to a thriving newspaper business lies in dismantling that wall.

One of Samir Jain’s blue-eyed managers told Auletta, surely echoing his master, “Editors tended to be pompous fellows thundering from the pulpit, speaking in eighty-word sentences. They saw themselves as part of nation-building, as part of a big dialogue. It did not connect too well with younger Indians.”

Even if politicians are pilloried for sins of omission and commission, corporate corruption and transgressions are rarely addressed.

Jain and his managers evidently did. Hence, says Auletta, “‘Aspirational’ is a word one hears often around the Times offices, as a way of characterizing the sunny outlook that the Jains say their readers want… Poverty, given that it’s not a condition to which one aspires, receives scant coverage.” Poverty, environment, global warming – the list of untouchable subjects not just in Times of India but in the Indian media as a whole is long indeed. What Samir Jain did yesterday has been replicated by other media barons today. Even if politicians are pilloried for sins of omission and commission, corporate corruption and transgressions are rarely addressed.

Even the worm turns – can’t journalists stand up and be counted? Surely, they don’t really believe they are of so little consequence in news operations? Can’t they say ‘enough is enough’ and demand editorial independence and the freedom to do the job their own way? ‘How?’ you may ask. Owners can easily sack them and replace them with another lot who will willingly do their bidding. Besides, Raghav Bahl, the founding owner of Network 18, is a journalist-turned entrepreneur and look where it landed him.

From all accounts, Bahl was playing the same game as other media owners, measuring success solely in monetary terms and trying to become too big too soon, thereby overextending himself. (Ironically, in the cosmic world of the stock markets, all of this ‘business first’ philosophy still hasn’t gained media houses due respect. The day the news of Reliance formally taking over Network 18 was announced, the latter’s shares rose by 20 percent, but Reliance Industries were down nearly 1 percent.)

But I digress. The answer is not to go into business oneself but to ensure the primacy of journalists in all news organisations. That is where a need for a movement comes in. Maybe our own ‘Occupy Newsrooms’ – a movement to win back respect for journalism by insisting that it be valued by its quality rather than its monetary returns. It is now or never. Soon there won’t be any journalist left who came of age in times that were different, who knows the possibilities a truly free press holds. So come on folks, and not just journalists, it matters to everyone: start writing, blogging, screaming, whispering, lobbying, hectoring – whatever it takes for journalists to own the news once again.

~Gouri Chatterjee is a senior journalist and a former editor at DNA and The Telegraph.

2 Responses to “Owning the news”

  1. SIta Ramanathan says:

    Excellent article!

  2. ManDog says:

    Brilliant piece! Newsrooms across the world are struggling with some of these same issues but i despair for Indian journalism – which has such a great tradition of independence and social conscience that is being dragged through the mud by corporate owners who think Paris Hilton is bigger news than poverty and climate change, because she sells more papers.
    For newsrooms, I think the answer could be in Trusts. The reason the Guardian is able to do what it does, without interference, is that it is managed by the Scott Trust and no one stands to make or lose money when it goes against the grain of public opinion to tell the truth.

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