Archive for August, 2010

There was this joke I heard about God some time back and it went something like this:
There was an old man sitting on his porch watching the rain fall. Pretty soon the water was coming over the porch and into the house. The old man was still sitting there when a rescue boat came and the people on board said, “You can’t stay here you have to come with us.”
The old man replied, “No, God will save me.” So the boat left. A little while later the water was up to the second floor, and another rescue boat came, and again told the old man he had to come with them.
The old man again replied, “God will save me.” So the boat left him again.
An hour later the water was up to the roof and a third rescue boat approached the old man, and tried to get him to come with them. Again the old man refused to leave stating that, “God will save him.” So the boat left him again.
Soon after, the man drowns and goes to heaven, and when he sees God he asks him, “Why didn’t you save me?”
God replied, “You dummy! I tried. I sent three boats after you!!”

While I would never put a journalist in His category, they face this predicament time and again. People expect them to ‘do’ everything and if things don’t get done, it’s because journalists are not doing their job. It’s bloody unfair. Why should the journalist carry the world’s burden and expectations on his or her shoulders?

I thought about this last night while chatting with a student on Facebook. She believed that it was the media’s duty to ‘change’ the world. My suggestion to all those kids who harbour this misconception is to join the priesthood, since they (as in priests) believe they have direct access to Him and we all know of His powers and what He can do when He takes it upon Himself. But as the joke proves, even He expects you get off your butt and DO something!

“You Press guys should do something” or “You Press guys don’t do anything!” I’ve heard these two comments for as long as I can remember, and I think these are really stupid assumptions. It’s NOT the journalist’s job to change the world or even attempt to. His or her job is to write about these issues and hope that somewhere along the way the people will bring about the change. A journalist is not a civic official, lawyer or policeman. It is their job to ensure that things get done and not the journalist’s. Yes, there are times that a journalist, out of his or her sense of duty, also goes to court. But that is the journalist’s prerogative and is not, as some people would have us believe, binding on them. Newspapers, time and again, highlight the corruption of politicians. So how is it that people continue to vote for these same politicians, every five years?

Let me cite a very small and common example from our daily lives. My local newspaper carries a picture, now and then, of some overflowing garbage dump somewhere in the city. By publishing the picture the newspaper expects the civic authorities to act and while pictures keep appearing and the civic authorities keep cleaning up, the garbage dumps continue to overflow.

I also sent a picture to a local newspaper, of a garbage dump strategically placed a few metres outside the housing complex where I stay, because I find the stench unbearable every time I walk past the dump. I am, like every other citizen, hoping that the picture will galvanise the authorities into cleaning up the place.

I realised after I sent the picture, that I had committed a mistake. The hard-working conservancy workers come there every morning with their brooms and diligently clean up the area around the garbage bin and put all the rubbish in the bin. A few hours later it’s back where it shouldn’t be – outside. Why? Because, people living in the area walk up to the bin with their garbage, and instead of throwing it inside, just dump it outside and walk away. So you see, the city does not need ten thousand more conservancy workers to keep this city clean. It needs people – the very people who complain that the “Press doesn’t do anything – to learn some basic civic sense.


I read a few days ago of the death of veteran and very respected journalist Gopalrao Patwardhan. My overriding memory of Gopalrao (I don’t think he would like me to address him as Mr Patwardhan) during my brief association with him was his gentleness.

I met him last year at the Ranade Institute during a get-together and as I sat next to him after touching his feet, he looked up and said “Sinha? How are you. You had left Pune hadn’t you?” I had met him last, probably in 1998, before I left for Delhi and was amazed that he even remembered me and my whereabouts so many years later.

That’s not all that I remember Gopalrao for. In 1987, when I moved residence from Pimpri to Salunke Vihar, I required a phone since I then worked at Maharashtra Herald. I asked a colleague what I could do to get a phone quickly, since in those days getting one was a tedious procedure where one had to wait months, and sometimes years for a connection.
One of my colleagues suggested that I speak with a journalist called Gopalrao Patwardhan, who was then a member of the Telephone Advisory Committee (TAC) and had the authority to sanction two connections. I agreed but the colleague spoke to him instead and handed over my papers. A few weeks later I was told that my phone connection was sanctioned.

When I finally met Gopalrao at a Pune Union of Working Journalists (PUWJ) meeting I thanked him profusely. He modestly replied that he really hadn’t done anything at all. He had the power, so why not use it to help someone, was his take. We spoke every time we met at PUWJ meetings or any other events till I left Pune.

After my phone connection was sanctioned a gentleman from Pune Telephones paid me a visit. He gave me this rather tedious spiel about this and that, about how difficult it was to get a phone connection and how lucky I was. I could guess where the conversation was headed, and it went something like this:

Phone man: You don’t know how hard I had to work to get a phone line for you.
Me: Really?
Phone man: Yes, so difficult; no phone connections; I had to use my influence.
Me: But why phone was sanctioned through the TAC.
Phone man: Yes, but you see the line is in my hands. So, what’s in it for me?
Me: What do you mean?
Telephone Man: I am going out of my way….
Me: You realise you’re asking a bribe from a journalist
Phone man: Not a bribe, Sir, just a token of appreciation.
Me: OK what do you want? I won’t pay you a rupee, do you drink?
Phone man: Yes, Rum
Me: OK.

I don’t think the telephone man, in his wildest dreams, was prepared for what came next. Once I had the phone connected and working, I procured two bottles of Old Monk Rum through a friend from the Army canteen. Then I marched into the Pune Telecom office with the bottles of Old Monk very visible to all and sundry, and plonked it on table in front of the telephone man.

“Here are your bottles of Rum, Sir,” I said loud enough for people around to hear. “And thanks for the telephone connection.”

Mr Telephone Man went a bit pale and start stuttering that he didn’t drink, didn’t want it, didn’t mean it, and then pretending that the bottles lying on the table were invisible! The shocked look on the guy’s face and the bemused one on the faces of the onlookers were worth a million bucks. Task accomplished, I picked up the bottles and strode out triumphantly.

I’ve mellowed down since then and become a lot more circumspect! Considering the manner in which not just the media but even sections of the industry are run today and having experienced it firsthand, I think one has to accept that the days of yore, will remain just that, the days of yore. It’s a harsh reminder that everything is not black and white. There are those grey areas that exist everywhere, which one has to accept as a part and parcel of our existence. Also, freedom of the Press does not mean freedom from Administration. Accept that and move along.

But coming back to where we started, here were two men – one who believed in giving without expecting anything in return, and the other who was always looking for returns on his investment!

During one of my lectures with media students we were analysing Operation Bluestar, the aftermath and the manner in which it was covered by the media – which wasn’t very much because of the total media blackout.

In these days of 24×7 news coverage, and going by the coverage of the terror attacks in Mumbai, one wonders how the TV crew would have reacted to being kept out of the thick of things during Operation Bluestar. But as some of them admitted at an ongoing lecture series at the SIMC in the past few days, even for them the events in Mumbai were a new experience and something even they were not prepared for.

Sure, the news channels mishandled things, but they admit they were also shooting blind, because like the ordinary Mumbaikar, they too were completely in the dark as to the enormity of the situation. What they did say was that, bowing to the requests of the government agencies. the time between covering a particular incident and putting it on air was 30 minutes, so technically it wasn’t a ‘live’ broadcast. Interesting. Whether it made a difference to the final casualty figures or the manner in which the police and the army handled the whole incident will always be debated.

But for a hardcore print media person and someone who has despised the broadcast channel for the manner in which they report news and the quality of news, it was refreshing to interact with a young lady from one of the premier English channels.

This young lady gave a presentation on the kind of hard work done by the people behind the scenes, and all the hitherto unknown technical details, that go into putting together a news story for all of 90 seconds! It was an eye-opener for me. From getting people into the newsroom to getting connected to someone in a remote corner of the world, to making sure they had the right news clip, and most interesting was the fact that they had to get it all out in seconds not minutes – listening to the young lady was a fascinating experience.

What I also found interesting was when she spoke about how one had to keep a conversation going if they suddenly lost contact with the person they were interviewing; when they really had nothing much to say about an incident unfolding on the screen, because they didn’t know enough to even fill 30 seconds!

I don’t know how many students noticed that while some of their peers were struggling to get the news anchor’s videos set up on the screen she kept the audience engaged with her continuous chatter about the working of a news room. She would look back to see if the kids had finished and then continue to speak when she found they were still struggling. Any of us would easily have lapsed into silence and let the attention of the class waver, like we always do when the computer starts acting up or the projector screen doesn’t start. But the young lady didn’t miss a beat. That was what fascinated me.

I realise that even after 20 years in the print media there’s a lot I didn’t know about broadcast television. Also, that it is far more difficult to get a news story on air than publishing a report in a newspaper. I know some of my friends in the print media might howl with protest, but the truth is that the effort taken to publish a news story, while in its own way arduous, is far less taxing than what I was given a demonstration of yesterday.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I condone the kind of reporting done by some news channels! Some of the stuff is still puerile and some of the people who speak on TV really leave me amazed at their lack of basic general knowledge. Also there is the editing (and I mean content not visuals), which is replete with spelling and grammatical errors. Is it the time factor or the quality of people at the news desk that is the problem? Leaving all these issues aside, yes, I have developed a little (just a little) respect for the people who bring us 24x7news.

…on the subject of paid news

Posted: August 8, 2010 in blogging

To all those of my students who are interested in the subject of paid news. This might be interesting

Sometime in the late 1980s the owner of the paper I worked with, said something that has stuck in my head ever since. His managers were showing him the new office we would soon be moving into. The building belonged to him and the interiors were being done up to accommodate a newspaper office.

One of the managers, while showing him the panelling, electrical fittings and wiring, complained that the contractor was making money. The owner asked whether the contractor was doing sub-standard work and was told that it wasn’t the case. His reply: If he’s doing a good job, let him take his cut! What he actually said was, “Itne bade samudra se agar koi do lota paani nikkal le, to kya farak pdta hai.”

I guess the Commonwealth Games or for that matter any international event, always faces similar issues. Don’t get me wrong. I am neither endorsing the Commonwealth Games nor the corruption scandals that are being unearthed every day. To get screwed for almost Rs 35,000-50,000 crore (if a news magazine is to be believed) by corrupt officials and politicians, for organising an event of no consequence, is a colossal wastage of public money and a matter for the CBI and chartered accountants – post the event.

In normal circumstances any sports event that is organised anywhere in the world is done with the intention of making money. Unfortunately in India, with the exception of cricket, any event staged is done more to promote certain individuals or sports bodies rather than making money or promoting talent.

The other issue (again this is my personal view) is the man himself – Indian Olympic Association Chief, Suresh Kalmadi. He evokes extreme views. There are some who swear by his organisational abilities and there are others who believe he rides roughshod over dissent and has little patience for people who don’t see eye to eye with him. He comes across as abrasive, bordering on the rude. A lot of people (read politicians) don’t like to be dismissed in a manner Kalmadi usually reserves for people who, he believes, are interfering with his ‘mission’ – be it the BRTS, the Commonwealth Youth Games or now the Commonwealth Games itself.

The man obviously sees for himself a bigger role in the scheme of things – like becoming the IOC chief sometime in the future. And there’s no better platform than the Commonwealth Games to make that point. Then there is also the fact that Kalmadi is a Congressman, so there is no dearth of people of all hues and political affiliations taking pot shots at him. Criticism from the media or sportspersons is understandable to a certain extent, but when it comes from politicians – some of who have no connection to sport – it does make one wonder whether there’s more to it than meets the eye.

But having said all this, now that we are into this neck deep, let’s get on with the Games. It would be a terrible loss of face for the country if it were to be called off now. We can calculate the costs; deal with all the corruption, nepotism, politicking and mudslinging later. Whether the system is competent enough to deal with it, is an issue the people need to debate and force the government’s hand if they find investigations being sidetracked. But that is our problem and not that of the rest of the world. Why should we wash our dirty linen in public? What are we telling the world? That we are a country of pimps, freeloaders, shady businessmen, crooked politicians and greedy officials who are in it together to screw the country.

Personally, I think those issues can wait, till we get this damn thing over with.

Hard truths about software

Posted: August 3, 2010 in NRI
Tags: ,

You probably think I’ve been kicking myself really hard these past five years for chucking up a cushy job in a newspaper and floundering in and recently out of an IT/Corporate Communication job. But, I look at the bright side.

If I hadn’t quit journalism, I would have never seen an ‘interesting’ side of the software industry. A side where us “country bumpkins” were looked down upon by condescending non-resident Indians and their American counterparts; where Indians would be given a crash course in “professionalism” (shades of Enron’s Rebecca Mark?) and where promises made to Indian employees were usually forgotten in a week.

When I spoke to my former boss at HT (who I have to thank for giving me the opportunity to work there), about my new opportunity in an Information Technology firm, he cautioned me: “It’s not worth it. Don’t do it. You have a future here.”

In hindsight, I guess he was right. I had got two promotions in less than three years in a profession where people usually hung around for decades on the same post. But I was adamant. I was tired of journalism; tired of the bullshit I encountered every day. And I had had enough of the politics and pressures that politicians and their cronies exerted on editors. Free press, to me at that moment, was an oxymoron.

How could it ever be called ‘free’ when a story which might have toppled a chief minister was watered down, to ensure that it didn’t jeopardise the business interests of the media house? What about the compromises the journalists had to make and still make? Today, after five years all that seems so irrelevant. I’ve also accepted the fact that journalism then and now are on different tracks and the twain shall ne’er meet, but back then it was frustrating.

So when I walked into an ‘IT firm’ on my first day at work, I thought I had been transported into another world. Away from the humdrum and buzz, away from the acrid, stale smell of cigarettes that permeated a newsroom. No more endless cups of tea and discussions about the government at the tea stall outside the office. I had left all that far behind. So here I was in this all glass environment, looking and feeling like a fish out of water.

I was never a geek (and never will be) and my interest in software extended to my PC, which I used for reading the news, chatting and surfing. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was a complete misfit. And the technical jargon made it even worse.

But it was amazing how these guys with their faux American accents actually conned everyone, with this whole spiel about how kicked we should feel that we were actually working for an ‘American’ firm. It took most employees less than a week to figure out that it was not just their accents that were fake– the whole edifice was.

Whatever my inadequacies as a PR professional, it didn’t explain the behavior and attitude of the NRIs and the superciliousness they treated the Indians with. I found a work culture that looked professional from the outside, but scratch the surface and it was full of holes. Plans made were changed every week.

The marketing ‘strategy’ was hardly what one would expect from US-based companies. Employees were told to call their cousins, friends and uncles and ask for business! It was a bit like the neighbourhood grocer calling you to ask whether we could shop at his place! Budgets promised were never sanctioned because the company seemed perennially broke and projects never got off the ground for the same reason. They didn’t care who spent the money as long as it wasn’t them. After a while the exercise became a joke – If IBM and the Pune Municipal Corporation (speaking hypothetically) funded the entire project, my company would be more than happy to associate with it!

According to ‘them’ Indian workers were ‘gits’ who lacked professionalism and “We are going to teach you the meaning of professionalism.”. Indians should also work their butts off preferably for free, never complain and gratefully accept the crumbs thrown their way.

I felt sorry for the female employees and those on the night shift, who were given neither lockers nor transport, nor dinner (Since it wasn’t mentioned in the employee handbook, they were not entitled to it, was the official credo). Guess what they got for snacks – four biscuits. Yep, you read correctly!

Then there was the system of appraisals and increments. I worked in two media organisations where increments and promotions were given every year at the same time, come what may. While the amounts may have been a matter of debate, it was never denied. But at an IT firm it was a new experience. There were a lot of promises made but none kept. And it wasn’t as if the employees were not performing. There was, just, a new excuse every time!

But we were dealing with NRIs. And you didn’t tell NRIs how to do their jobs. They told you. After all, professionalism was not something we Indians understood. Or so they would have us believe.

Knowing our marbles….

Posted: August 1, 2010 in Media

Yesterday as I watched the news about Sohrabuddin’s alleged encounter one name kept popping up – that of a famous marble manufacturer who had allegedly paid Rs 10 crore to eliminate Sohrabuddin.

My mind went back to my short stint with Business Standard sometime in 1999-2000 I worked with the marketing features team under Jaideep Dhagat. He was one of the most charming marketing managers I have worked with. I use the word ‘charming’ deliberately because when he started to convince a company official on the benefits of an advertorial feature in the BS, the official stayed convinced!

It was fascinating to watch Jaideep function, because he toyed, flattered and wove his spell around the client. Then before the guy sitting opposite knew it, Jaideep would have a signed cheque in his hand or at least a written assurance for an advertorial. There were times when people would come running after us asking us to return the cheque! It was seduction par excellence! Last heard Jaideep was in Financial Express. Wherever he is, I am sure he’s doing what he knows best.

During one of those sessions I remember we went to Jaipur for something called ‘Stone Mart’ which was an exhibition of marble manufacturers. Rajasthan is the home of marbles and as we did the usual rounds of the stalls, we spoke to owners, some of whom were nothing short of petty criminals who had taken over marble mines by evicting the rightful owners or ‘ran’ it for them through coercion and threats. In the process they kept a large amount of the profits. And believe you me, the profits were large – mindboggling would be a better word.

I especially remember this one guy who told us he did not want his interview recorded. We had found out he was a ‘bad character” but since we wanted an advertisement we were willing to speak to him. “Take notes if you want, but no tape recorders,” he warned. I had a Dictaphone which fit snugly into my shirt pocket and there was no way anyone could have known if I had it on, and recording. But this guy knew, and during the course of the interview he turned to me and said menacingly, “I am being nice to you, so please be nice to me. Shut off the tape, I won’t tell you again.”

There was, however, one name that was missing from Stone Mart and strangely it was supposed to be the biggest name in marbles in the world. We (the BS team) visited the office of the manufacturer. It was a nondescript building and not the kind you would expect from someone who controlled the marble industry from his mines at Kishengarh.

“We don’t need to publicise ourselves,” was the reply we got from the owner’s right-hand man when we asked why they weren’t at Stone Mart. He wasn’t showing off, just being matter of fact. We learned a lot about marbles that day and also realised that we didn’t know our marbles when dealing with the gentleman. We were persuading him to part with funds for advertorial space worth one page in colour and he very quietly asked the costs for a two-page colour. His only condition was that on the pages that he was paying for, there would be nothing else but his company. We agreed.

I remember it was my last job with Business Standard because I was joining HT in Chandigarh in a few weeks. When the team was returning to New Delhi by the Shatbadi, we were excitedly calculating the costs for a four-page pull-out in glossy colour.

A few months later I received a package from Rajiv Sharma, who now heads BS marketing. It contained an eight-page colour supplement on Stone Mart with a separate four pages of glossy colour, with an interview I had done with the man who owned the marble manufacturing company. Since it was an interview conducted through email, no one ever met the owner. He was the same Patni, who owned R.K. Marbles, the biggest marble company in the world, who is now in the news for all the wrong reasons.