Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

At the Ek Bharat Shreshta Bharat brainstorming session in Delhi, which I was invited to in December last year, during a group discussion, when I said the Bharatiya Janata Party was taking the mainstream media (MSM) too lightly, a bureaucrat cut me short with these words, “That’s because the MSM has been made irrelevant by social media.”

I was amazed and appalled at his smugness. I wondered if the bureaucrats are aware of the seething anger among the MSM for being snubbed and ridiculed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and abused by his army of trolls on social media on a minute-by-minute basis over the past four years. Do they even know how the media, print, broadcast and online, can control the narrative on any subject of interest to the general public and how it can spin it around at its convenience and a time of its choosing? It seems, right from the letter that was signed by the members of parliaments and people of prominence against the visa to Modi, the ‘award wapasi’, and up to the Padamavat release it has been the media that has controlled the narrative.

It has been the media that has assiduously flogged the disgraceful campaign against the film by the Karni Sena, by going overboard in its coverage. At every step, it was the BJP that took a knock. Irrelevant media? How successful the media is has been proved by the fact that after every such orchestrated attempt, it has the government pinned to the wall, looking contrite and apologetic. As it turns out now Karni Sena wasn’t promoted by the fringe but over eager chief ministers of a couple of BJP-ruled states looking to make political capital only ended with egg on the faces.

As 2019 approaches, there is an unease among the mediapersons, even those who have come round to the fact that Modi is in for the long haul, that he is silent when goons and ‘fringe groups’ allegedly owing their allegiance to the saffron brigade run riot around the country. There is also an apprehension among those who dislike Modi that he could get re-elected and that the win in 2014 doesn’t look like just another flash in the pan.

A senior journalist friend I met in Delhi told me, Modi’s silence acts as encouragement for the goons. She gave the example of Hadiya (Akhila) who converted to Islam to marry a Muslim. Why are the people from the right-wing taking up on her behalf when she herself is not interested, she asked? What happened to the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution (Protection of life and personal liberty: No person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law)? It’s her life so what right does anyone have to interfere? If she follows her husband to Syria and joins the ISIS and becomes a terrorist she will pay for it. Who gave some unknown entity the right to impose their version of the law? And when this happens Modi keeps silent, she said.

In an Islamic country where more than 98% of them are Muslims, imposing your will could work, but not in India where even if 79.8% of the population of India (2011 census) practices Hinduism, there is a sizeable 14.2% that adheres to Islam (2011 census), and 6% practices other religions (Christianity, Sikhism, Buddhism, Jainism and various other indigenous ethnically-bound faiths,. Again, with its 22 national languages and 33 different communities and so many castes imposing one’s will in such a multicultural country could be a recipe for disaster.

The same journalist said, “You condemn Mullahs running countries with their fatwas and their Islamic laws, but you have no problem with a mahant as PM to replace Modi and want India to become a Hindu state? How different are we from them?”

A news anchor I also met the same evening said to me, “Rahul Gandhi is improving” when I asked what Rahul had achieved in 13 years in political life. By the look of things, large sections of the media who despise Modi don’t care what Rahul says or does, just how dumb he is or how dirty he plays, as long as his antics can help in getting rid of Modi – by hook or by crook. Take the most recent incident of his Burberry jacket which costs an astronomical Rs 79,000 ( Social media was on fire ridiculing the Gandhi scion for his extravagance but did you see too much play in the media about it? Of course not, because everyone just glossed over it and most journalists and media houses ignored it even though it came from someone who spent his holidays abroad but claimed he wore a torn kurta! Contrast that to the furore that erupted when Modi donned the supposedly Rs 10 lakh monogrammed suit. It was presented to him so he wore it and it was later auctioned. Both the issues were not worthy of 5 minutes of airtime, but look how each incident got played.

This is what Rahul Gandhi is so smug about because except for the few who speak against him, the rest of the MSM is, by and large, glossing over every Rahul blooper. And by 2019 it will only get more open and defiant. The BJP and its social media/political managers have a battle ahead.

And there are enough disgruntled elements in their own party who’ll jeer from the sidelines as the Modi/Shah combine do battle alone against the formidable Congress ecosystem. Before that happens, Modi needs to handle the troublemakers and the motor-mouths in his party who are damaging his and the party’s prospects with their indiscriminate utterings and actions. Their two minutes of notoriety is costing the party dear. Like the recent case of the over-zealous right-wing activists who disrupted a Hindu-Muslim wedding even though the families were in agreement.

Then there is the agenda. A couple of years ago, a national newspaper carried this headline “Dalit boy beaten by 4”. Anyone reading the headline would assume the obvious in this day and age. However, the report stated that a Dalit boy was beaten up by four other Dalits. I called a friend in the newspaper and asked why they couldn’t say “4 Dalits beat up boy”. He said it doesn’t sell.

A few decades ago it was common knowledge that if there was a communal riot it usually involved the majority and minority community. Our seniors taught us never to mention either community in a communal strife to ensure we did not inflame passions further. However, today I see news reports that proclaim “Hindu kills Muslim man” I am okay with that because times change and the media need to change with the times. But here’s where the “agenda” coms in. Take the even more recent incident of the young man who was killed by his girlfriend’s family. The headlines didn’t say the boy was a Hindu and the girl a Muslim. Had the genders been interchanged, what would the headline have read? Your guess is as good as mine. There are umpteen such examples. The media is not exactly painting itself in glory with such biased coverage of news, but I think they are beyond caring what anyone thinks of them.

At the same brainstorming session, I also heard thinkers and journalists wax eloquent about integration, and a lot of other blah. My apologies, but it seemed to me that many of them exist in a bubble. I guessed that there were hardcore RSS and right-wing ideologues apart from some journalists and thinkers. Over and over again, they spoke about changing the “narrative”. The problem with that is, you can’t talk of changing a narrative that stresses on winning hearts and making India one, on the one side, and pretend everything is just ‘right’ when goons run amok riding roughshod over people’s ideas and beliefs just because it doesn’t agree with theirs. Or when paid hoodlums manhandle couples or young girls and boys under the pretext of imposing a moral code. Not acceptable. And add to this the frenzied publicity by a gleeful media to motor-mouths and “do-gooders” in the BJP. It will cost the BJP dear by the time 2019 comes around.

Also, to combat the left-liberal ideologues (and they are all over the place), the right-wing needs to come out with a fitting verbal response for every argument, not a slanging match. The right has some articulate speakers and I met some of them at the EBSB meet. There are others I’ve heard and read, but they need much more to engage in a measured debate with the left liberals who have often smoothly taken the debate away from them with ample help from the anchors. Shouting might win you an argument but not the match.

I read recently that the Information and Broadcasting ministry plans to set up more than 60 media units ( across the country to strengthen the Modi government’s outreach to smaller cities and rural areas in the run-up to the 2019 general election. It is one of the sensible things being done to combat the left-liberal narrative but it should have been in 2015. But then, Smriti Irani wasn’t the Minister for Information and Broadcasting.


I sat down to write this piece as I watched some of the well-known faces of the mainstream media (MSM) erupt in an orgasmic frenzy because Tunde ke kabab in Lucknow closed on Thursday for a few hours as they ran out of beef. They couldn’t get the meat for their original shop in Chowk where they serve kabab of buffalo meat and had to make other arrangements. They are an 112-year old kabab joint, so they obviously hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Did someone force them to shut down? No one did. Were there any grievous injuries to the people in Lucknow because of that? No. Did someone die? Nothing of that sort happened, but some journalists from the ecosystem called Lutyen’s Delhi living roughly 488kms away began beating their chests and breaking their bangles as if someone really had expired. And with that, the Indian mainstream media dug another hole in the ground to bury itself another few feet into an early grave.

After 31 years in the media I look around me and wonder – Is this the same profession that I slogged in, putting everything – family, money and personal life – on the backburner for? Now that I am a work-from-home editor I can sit back and watch all this in a detached kind of way, as some elements of the mainstream media (MSM), among who are people who I once respected, go around behaving like a bunch of complete jerkoffs. Was this the biggest story around that sent them into a freaking frenzy, especially on the social media? I have no wish to take names but some of them tripped over their own feet to wail about the kabab joint closing as if someone had died in their family.

I have a lot of good friends in the media, they are all hardworking, almost invisible to the world outside. They do their jobs well, and I know they are damn good journalists because I have seen them at work. These are the journalists you won’t see on your TV screens. They shy away from the limelight, do their jobs, and go home to their families. We disagree on a lot of things, but I respect them and their views, and they mine. Because I know deep down, they are honest to their profession, just like so many doctors who take the Hippocratic Oath. Whenever I have called them for information on a subject I want to write about they have willingly given it to me. I respect them for that. I spoke to a couple of them when I started to write this blog, so a lot of the information here is from them. They will remain anonymous because that is how they would want it.

When I asked one of them (N) last night, what he thought of the over-the-top reaction of the media to the incident, he said. “I have stopped watching the news and reading their columns. I do my job honestly, go home and play with my daughter instead.”

Here is what another Muslim journalist from Lucknow, who I’ll call K, said to me over twitter, “Most people here including my learned journalist friends in the media do not know the difference between beef and cow meat. Beef is not necessarily cow meat, and I have never ever in my life seen a cow being slaughtered in Lucknow although we did get to hear about the occasional story of it being slaughtered in some remote Muslim dominated village purely to spark off communal tension.”

The problem, however, goes deeper. It is about do-gooder first-time chief minister doing what he promised and a bureaucracy which, in an effort to please its master, is going over the top, just like some journalists. The anti-romeo squad is another example of a good thing being messed up by over-enthusiastic volunteers.

“The new chief minister could have handled it better, but the bureaucracy went into overdrive to please him and undid things. There has been no meat available for the people in the last 48 hours, and butchers are scared they will be harassed. They have also been told by the police not to open their shops,” said N. “If the new CM really wants to save cows, he will have to.close the mechanised slaughter houses. Nothing else can save cows in the State not even this vigilantism,” he added.

The various town administrations should have created the right perception but instead, they went about indulging in populist measures to please the CM, which could backfire. They could have asked the civic bodies to determine how licenced meat shops have been functioning this long and could have passed an order that only the licenced ones operate within the prescribed limits. Instead, they have gone after all and sundry and that has created a huge shortage in the market and a lot of unhappiness among the locals.

Anyway, that is the problem of shortage at a kakab joint and meat in UP. What happened to the dumbasses in the media? Of course, this isn’t anything new. It’s been happening over the course of the past two years for very obvious reasons. It began soon after Narendra Modi forced his way into the Lutyen’s Delhi in May 2014 and hasn’t stopped. Every few months, be it an award wapasi, a protest at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, (JNU), or the uproar that erupts over the mindless incidents of some minister or MP shooting his or her mouth off, these incidents happen just around the time of an election and disappear once the results are declared depending on whether the objectives of the MSM and their masters ensconced in Lutyens Delhi have been achieved. There is, however, one common link to all these eruptions. They occur only in BJP-ruled states. Murders, assaults and riots are happening elsewhere in places such as Kerala and Bengal with monotonous regularity, but the MSM is oblivious to those. So, like all those earlier incidents of manufactured outrage, this too looks like just another award wapasi farce, only this time it was wrapped around a kabab.

On second thoughts, I should have retitled this ‘what’s the boss got to do with it?’

I read a quote recently by former president APJ Abdul Kalam that said, ‘Love your job, but don’t love your company, because you may not know when your company stops loving you.” I don’t completely agree with that, because sometimes a good company or a considerate boss can make you go that extra yard.

It was very flattering when an ex-boss told me he’d take me back because I had stuck to my ethics, when I had worked there. He told me I was one of the very few who knew what some of his managers were up to, and instead of joining them, preferred to walk out. Some years later he called me home and said he owed me an apology. I ca,’t possibly get a boss to apologise when they make a mistake, but when one says so, himself….! I haven’t met too many owners, editors or CEOs who have had the humility to accept they had erred and to apologise for it. He’s the only one.

That was valuable experience to my learning curve, and from the time I was 16, having seen and worked in a lot of places, I guess, I’ve seen a few managers – good and bad. But, honesty is not something that all of them appreciate,  even if they make a show of welcoming “frank and honest opinions”. My mother always used to say that people who tell you, “be frank with me about everything including me” are the first ones who’ll come after you with a hatchet if you ‘be frank and honest’ about them! I’ve had bosses telling me to point their errors whenever they make them. You can guess the rest. Stupid me!

There was another guy I worked for in Delhi for a year or so. He shut the company because his weekly medical bills crippled him to such an extent that it sometimes exceeding our weekly printing budget. He could have asked me to go. Instead, he told me to freelance and do what I loved to do – write – and said he would pay my salary till I got another job. I am eternally grateful to that man for his graciousness and generosity, because had he asked me to go that day, five of us would have been on the street, homeless.

These are some managers who you remember for all the right reasons. And then there are those you don’t want to remember at all! I read some time back that two well-known journalists of a national newspaper had resigned. Nothing new, it happens all the time. Two more left a fortnight before that for their own reasons. What I read with interest in the first case was that one of them cited ‘verbal abuse’ as a reason for his resignation. Some months back a news anchor tried to commit suicide alleging harassment from her bosses and top management. I feel sorry for the lady in question, and I can’t even imagine the kind of pressure she might have been under, but what she did was a bit extreme because one should never give any boss that satisfaction.

Two of my ex-bosses in respective organisations once told me that my juniors had complained that I used the F word once too often.  In the first case, the boss laughed and said, “Go easy on them.” She mistakenly thought I was using it against them. I came out and announced that I apologised to everyone for my language, but it wasn’t personal.  I must not have looked one bit contrite after my apology, because there was laughter from the people around.

In the second instance, I asked my juniors if I had ever abused them using the F word. They were surprised because none of them had complained. They said they had no problems with it, because they knew I wasn’t making it personal. It then became a bit of a joke and some of the reporters would say “Sir, please say the word once. The way you say it, it sounds like a compliment not a swear word. Dil ko sukoon milta hain!” (it gives relief to the heart!)

I’ve been accused of a lot else, like berating (NEVER ABUSING) reporters and subs for submitting bad copy, and I am sure they see the wisdom in that now! There were a few tears and then we would go out for a coffee and sort things out. Of course, there are always exceptions. As seniors, one pushes the juniors often to see how far they can be pushed. The brilliant ones survive, the rest make up the average bunch. It is a case of the kitchen and the heat. That’s life. Oh and I’ve made mistakes too, plenty of them, which I’ve paid for in cash and kind, because as an HoD, at the end of the day is responsible for everything that goes wrong.

I remember my senior Joseph Pinto telling some of us once that if anyone made really silly mistakes, “he would “hang the bastard out of the window by his legs!” Last year, I was at a condolence meeting for a former colleague and a senior journalist, and during some of the eulogies a couple of senior journalists mentioned how their seniors would berate them for messing up their copies. That is how they improved in journalism and reached the positions they are in today. I was flattered when they mentioned my name along with the others, because after all these years, it felt nice to be remembered by some of your juniors for the right reasons.

An ex-student tweeted to me some time back that verbal abuse is very common in media houses. She is right, it not common just in media houses but everywhere. In some places it is in-your-face and in others it is more subtle but just as vicious. And that is because managements do not care to act against errant managers, until his/her actions or he/she jeopardises their interests. I have nothing against an occasional ticking off. It doesn’t kill anyone. All seniors lose their cool at some time or the other. With the kind of pressure they are under from the top, it is understandable.

A former student told me how her boss screamed at her over the phone for something that wasn’t even her fault: Bhenc**d, why the f*** did you do this?” He was profusely apologetic to her the minute she walked into the office because he had discovered that it was not her fault after all! Never mind the fact that he got her gender mixed up! However, when I hear of bosses who say they are proud of verbally using their juniors, because that is the way they get work done, I pity them. It shows their inability and incompetence to lead a team.

I have watched the trauma-hit faces of the youngsters around me when bosses without even the slightest provocation have started screaming at them. Juniors then start to treat the job as a sufferance they have to endure because it pays the bills and not something they love to do. And more and more, I have begun to believe that if you do not treat people with respect they will not give you any respect.

Someone has rightly said that if you want to find an unhappy employee look to his boss. This link should make interesting reading. Why such experienced people, who are in positions of power for their talent and abilities (I presume), should behave in such a bizarre fashion is something I can never fathom.  A boss who thinks he has the right to verbally abuse his or her staff, is fit to be admitted to a psychiatric ward instead of the high chair he or she occupies in the corporate world.

I know of a colleague who quit her job, because the boss who was twice her age, went after her so hard that she fled. This was not a case of verbal abuse but one of extreme harassment. This kid just knew more about the job they were working on, and it was making the boss look inept. She told me the whole story one evening on chat and It horrified me that such a senior person could be so insecure about a job and so vindictive. And they were friends. Then there were these two kids who worked for national publications, who were got after by their immediate superiors. Once others noticed that they were taking it quietly, they too joined in, till one of them got frustrated and quit.

So what brings out the sadistic streak in some bosses?  Is it some frustration from the time they were trainees and were bullied by their bosses or are they just doing this to hide their inadequacies as managers, or are they mentally unfit to take the responsibility given to them?  I know ‘uneasy lies the head that wears the crown’ but verbally abusing colleagues and juniors is proof that they are undeserving of the crown – whatever they or the management might think. Even I once had a junior politely telling me, “Why don’t you f**k off?” because I was standing behind her correcting her as she edited her copy.

I was taken aback for a second and then we started laughing. But then she was something special and she has proved it over the years by becoming one of the finest journalists this profession has produced. And we’ve remained good friends these past 25 years. We always want to emulate our seniors and believe that one day we would like to walk in their shoes. Would I ever want to walk in the shoes of someone who believes that swearing at his or her staff  is the way to get work done? This blog is my answer.

Tuesday’s (September 10, 2014) edition of a Pune newspaper reports that a father was arrested for molesting his six-year-old daughter. So while (thankfully) they didn’t name the victim, they showed even more consideration by not naming the father. I wonder why. Shouldn’t they have released the name of this monster? Was it because he wasn’t a well-known personality, but just a casual labourer?

Having been a journalist for nearly 25 years, I abhor censorship of any kind when it comes to writing. I believe media should be free to report anything and everything as long as they have the facts and stay within the bounds of propriety, language, journalistic ethics without maligning, defaming or hurting anyone in the process. In other words, we practice some form of self-censorship.

However, there is a huge difference between having the freedom to report anything and everything and still maintaining some sense and sensibility. As of now, the Indian media is straining on the proverbial leash (no pun intended), but it has some way to go before that leash can be taken off. As it is, with the advent of online media and social networking sites news coverage has changed dramatically. Every time one believes they have reached the stage where they can be called responsible, the media shoot itself in the foot. Judging the way the media reported the Shweta Basu Prasad incident, I think they still have a long way to go before they can be called a truly responsible media.

I was waiting for some follow-ups from the ‘professional journalists’. However, there was pin drop silence. I waited for some more time hoping they were getting their facts. There was still nothing. There were the usual condescending, self righteous articles from some journalists. Then one of the newspapers ran an online poll on the subject with the actor’s picture, and that’s what got my goat. Under the garb of meaningful journalism, some people will do anything for a few hundred hits. And this, from the newapaper that I was proud to say I had worked for!

Whether they believed the actress’ story or not; whether she was telling the truth or not, or whether she was doing business are not the issues here. And I am not even defending the woman. Let’s face it. Many of our actors, who often wear a halo, do tend to have more skeletons in their closets than we can possibly imagine. Likewise, Shweta Basu Prasad may have been back in the news for all the wrong reasons, but to be made into a headline the way she had been, was just appalling.

What were the editors thinking when they allowed their news editors to use the name and picture of a 23 year old woman in their publications and the TV channels? Was it just for a few hundred copies and some TRPs? Did they not once consider the fact that she might have had a family somewhere who will have to live with that stigma for the rest of their lives? And if there were so concerned about the prostitution racket this woman was involved in, why was there this almost deathly silence when it came to revealing the identities of the men who were caught with the actor in the prostitution racket in Hyderabad or the kingpins of the racket? Surely, they know who these people are. Or is it because some names are too familiar and too close for comfort for them to print?

As journalists we are often asked not to disclose names of organisations or departments either, if a matter of sexual assault is to be reported. In Prasad’s case not only are we talking about the gross ethical violation in terms of publishing her biography and filmography on every story; but just in case the public’s memory needed to be jogged, newspapers and TV channels went the extra mile to release her picture without bothering to blacken out the eyes or blur the face.

Journalists are taught to exercise caution when reporting even the most insignificant case of sexual assault. For a fraternity that continues to remain cautious when mentioning the December 16 gang-rape episode, what happened when reporting on the present case? Was the fact that we were talking about a National award winning actor and not a college student that the free pass for journalistic ethics went flying out of the window? What followed was even worse. They brought out human interest stories on how the media owed her an apology, without ever offering one.

I remember an incident after the bomb blasts in New Delhi in mid-2000. Some TV channels carried the picture of a young boy who had identified one of the men who had planted the bomb. I was appalled when I saw the child’s picture. Thankfully, it was pulled out soon after. However, the next day I was even more shocked to find that a national newspaper had carried the picture of the boy. Since I happened to know someone there I asked why they had violated the child’s privacy and more importantly since he was the only eyewitness. The reply I got was, “Oh, the TV channels already broke that rule, so why blame us?”

It’s unfortunate that the media, which is quick to pounce on hapless bloggers and writers on social media platforms and threaten them with law suits for publishing something that lampoons them, is now strangely silent. Wouldn’t it be nice if one read a public apology in the newspapers addressed to the young lady and her family? Do they have the guts or the courage to do that? Or do they believe that an apology doesn’t really matter anymore since the damage is already done? Or, even more importantly, do they believe they are above the law?

Why is there such a hue and cry about the perceived threat to press freedom with a business magnate buying up a news network? Is there a rule against an industrialist with a lot of money buying up a media house? If he wants to make the network a mouthpiece of the present government who are we, lesser mortals, to complain? It’s his money and his mouth. The message to all employees across the board in even independent media houses or those owned by business houses is short and terse: If you don’t like it here, you can take your idealism someplace else. Some go but most stay.

No media house is in the business of social service. There are around 20 lakh NGOs in the country and even they are not all in it for the pleasure of serving humanity. Like it or not, business interests come first – ALWAYS. The profits from the business pay the bills, and media is no more about a small printing press run by an idealist, his daughter and a peon. There are hundreds of people to be paid, and overheads to be looked into. So anyone who believes that a free and fair media is being bought over by big business, and in the process being compromised, he is right. But there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it. This is the reality today.

When a corporate house takes over a media house it brings with it, positives and negatives. It also brings its share of downsizing, and that is the fear that lurks in the heart of every employee. For example, a company may not want a staff of 300 in their media house. So maybe 100 people may be thrown out and 200 will be doing that much more work at the previous cost. Journalists are then faced with the classic George Bush catch phrase – you’re either with us or against us. Most of them just buckle down quietly and carry on, because no one, not even editors, wants to lose a job.

So when I hear these protests about integrity and ethics being compromised, it makes me want to laugh. How many editors have the courage to refuse something that comes down to them from the Corporate Office? For that matter, how many editors actually stand up for their juniors? Those days are long gone when editors were respected by the owners for their sheer presence, so let’s not kid ourselves and get sanctimonious about press, freedom, integrity and ethics being sent to the cleaners. The freedom to write is still there, as long as you know where the thin blue line is. Integrity and ethics are there too. You just need to figure out, as India Gandhi’s minister once said, whether you want to bend or crawl.

The story was different in 1970s and the 1980s. Things went pretty much downhill from the 1990s. Around the time we entered the 21st Century, and advertising began to play such a huge role first in print and later in broadcast media, the whole debate on ethics, integrity and press freedom was put in cold storage. The threat of advertisements worth crores of rupees being cancelled can put a stop to any dreams of editorial freedom and journalistic ethics some journalists might be nurturing!

So when celebrated news anchors exercise their vocal chords every night, it is not because they have the freedom to say what they want, but because the louder everyone screams at each other on the TV screen, the more people watch it and the more advertisers want to use that medium. Like my son says, it’s no different from watching Big Boss! As for the newspapers, let’s be very honest. There are very few ‘exclusives’ that appear nowadays anyway, because you don’t know who you might end up offending. Most of the stuff being churned out is from press releases or briefings, for which very often even seniors take bylines. Then the issue of ethics and integrity does not bother them?

I worked in five media houses and I can honestly say that except for a brief while in one of them, not one of the editors ever stood up to the management or for their juniors, unless they were his favourites. A good reason for that not happening is a lot of editors (or resident editors as they are also known in smaller newspapers) are no better than glorified bureau chiefs or news editors. I am not deriding either editors, bureau chiefs or news editors, but since the business side of the newspaper is usually in the hands of a DGM or GM, who is the de facto unit head, the editor’s job is to control just the flow of news (which the bureau chief or the news editor do anyway) and engage in public relations exercises. Of course, there is always the exception to the rule, but of the people I worked with, none of them, with one exception, ever had the opportunity or did anything out of the ordinary.

A former colleague once told me about the time he unwittingly did a report on a company of the proprietor of the newspaper he worked for in the mid 1980s, which very nearly cost him his job. The proprietor was also a well-known builder who owned a stone crushing machine. Officials of a school close by had complained to the newspaper of the pollution the machine generated when it was run, and forced them to keep their windows shut. So some time later, this colleague, who had just joined the newspaper did the story which was published with pictures on the front page.

The next day, as soon as he reached the office he was told to meet the proprietor. The gentleman complimented him for doing the story, but told him he should have confirmed whether the builder was still using the stone crushing machine. He then told the stunned reporter that the machine belonged to him and he had stopped work as soon as the people around complained to him. The young man kept his job. I would like to see how many journalists in today’s day and age keep theirs, if they do something like that.

It was the ‘shock & awe’ moment, but that day in mid-2000, I realised that the sun was about to set on the Editorial department. After almost a month of dry-runs we were launching the edition in the North and the inaugural issue was handed over to us.

My first reaction was “Wow”. My second was, “What the fuck happened to the front page?” The news, all 24 pages of it, was inside a four-page mint coloured jacket with the company logo in the centre. It was truly an astonishing marketing gimmick of a product. I thought it was a one-time attempt, but as it turned out, advertisers lapped it up and full-page jacket advertisements became a rage, while news content got relegated to second place. Then, in my opinion, it was devaluing the whole concept of a NEWSpaper. Now, of course, my views have changed!

Today, in the few media schools that I have ventured to give lectures in, the introductory session on the various departments of a newspaper, I show them a power point presentation. On the first slide are the departments of a newspaper in this order: Marketing, Editorial, Circulation and Production.

I tell the students, that as a person who spent all his years in the editorial department of a newspaper, it pains me deeply to stand in front of them and state unequivocally that today marketing rules and editorial will always be second in the pecking order. While the students think I am joking, in reality I have accepted that fact since the 1990s, the whole media scene has changed and marketing pushed editorial off its pedestal. This was all thanks to the way some media houses decided to do business, and the others followed the leader. The Marketing head of a media house is supposed to have told his staff, “Forget this is a newspaper. Just treat it like a bar of soap that you need to sell.”

Personally I see nothing wrong, because I realise how important money is in the scheme of things. However, the downside to it is that with the growing influence and control of marketing over editorial content means, the days of the powerful editor are passé. Media houses are no longer the mom n’pop shops of the earlier days. I mean, you can’t expect to pay the salaries of a few thousand people without enough and more revenue earned from advertising. And that cannot be done if Editorial starts saying you cannot take an advertisement on this page or that. Returns from newspaper copies sold won’t even pay for the day’s printing costs. Who pays for the rest?

From the quarter-page advertisements which used to be the limit on the front pages, Marketing has started putting jacket advertisements and ads on the front pages that leave half a page, or sometimes just a quarter-page for the news. Initially I was aghast, but I realised that Editorial had well and truly been elbowed off its hallowed perch. Today, however, much editorial believes they have the power, when Marketing says they need the page for an advertisement, they fall in line. They might complain or quibble over the size but they also realise that the organisation needs the money. Of course, even Marketing realises that news sells papers so there is a line that even they will not cross. In the paper I work for, the Editor and Marketing have reached an understanding that there will be just one advertisement on the front page, not exceeding a certain size.

However, with the growing influence of money power, comes the downside of pressure from corporates to kill stories inimical to their interests, or plugs to promote their business interests because of the advertising revenue they give the media house. Then there is the pressure from political parties to put forward their points of view. Again, this is nothing new. All newspapers, from the 1900s have supported one party or another and they have unabashedly promoted them, whether in the form of news or in recent times, advertorials. Everywhere in the world, newspapers support the political party of their choice, so why not here? It is a part of the editorial policy – unwritten, but yet underlined.

So, now, when I read all these things about paid news and paid-for opinion polls, I don’t flip out. I also find the hysterical outpourings of journalists about paid media so hypocritical. Like they didn’t know it wasn’t being done before in so many other ways? Aren’t there senior journalists, whose affinity for a particular political party or leader is well documented, being commissioned to write a column? That guy is hardly going to criticise the politician he supports! And I am sure he didn’t do the piece for free. Not paid news? And when Editors realise it doesn’t go with the editorial policy of the newspaper, they often tell the desk to ‘tone it down’ or leave it as it is, if it suits them.

I remember a colleague who left us at the small paper we worked in, to join a very big media house and the total awe she was in when I met her after that. She said “This is power. You have no idea of the influence that Marketing has over the editorial. We can just walk into the editorial department where the pages are being designed and tell them ‘We are taking over pages 10, 11 & 12. And these editorial guys just give us that “just drop dead’ look!”

So while one is aghast at the way editorial departments have been dumbed down, one has to learnt to accept it as a fact of the profession. One can either swim with it or clamber ashore.

The Hindu was once known as the newspaper which had NO errors. I stress on the word ‘NO’.  This newspaper was the last word in correct English. It must be right, if it is in The Hindu, was the foregone conclusion. With due apologies to the Virginia Slims advertisement that appeared in the early 1960’s (I think), we’ve come a long way baby!

A few weeks ago, The Hindu had a word in the lede that would have made ALL their late editors turn cartwheels in the grave. It had used the word ‘catapult’ instead of ‘capitulate’ in a report about the Advani resignation farce. It got me and I am sure, a lot of others, smiling at the delicious irony of it. Imagine the blunder happening at The Hindu, which always prided itself for the correctness of its language. The same Hindu, in the early days, offered a generous sum of money to readers who could spot an error in the newspaper. It was reported that for many years there were no claimants for the prize. But this incident also got me thinking.

After having worked in the media industry for the past 23 years, this is a question that I have often pondered over but have always come up short for answers: Is it possible to produce a zero-error newspaper? And, if so, under what conditions?

During my stint with the Hindustan Times in Lucknow, the HR guys came over once to give us a presentation on Six Sigma which they wanted to implement in the newspaper. I sat through the lecture that stretched for a half a day and at the end of it, when I was asked whether it could be employed in the editorial department, I said a flat no. Here’s why. Feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

Let’s just step back a few decades and explore the work in newspapers between the 1950s up to the early 1980s. In those days, most reporters still filed only a story or two every day as per their beat requirements. Copy editors (then known as sub-editors) edited three to four reports on a shift ( I may be wrong here). There was more than one sub editor to do one page. Pages were made by layout artists supervised by seniors. There were no spell-checks. If you had a doubt, there was the fat dictionary. For grammar and sentence formation, your command of the language was what saved you or screwed you.  But of the people who worked there many were dons in the language and secondly they were passionate about the profession.

By the mid 1980s, when I joined a newspaper, sub editors were editing up to two pages per shift, again in hard copy, although computers were being used to type in matter. It was only in the 1990s that computers began to be used for editing and page-making as well. Cut to the present day and age, where with the help of computers copy editors not only edit, but also design up to four pages per shift. Journalism schools were not too much in fashion in those days, and as Kushwant Singh said in the foreword of a book on journalism, one could learn more journalism in three months working for a newspaper than by spending two years in journalism school.

Today media schools have spread across the country like the proverbial rash. But they are churning out graduates and post graduates with very little connect to the high pressure world outside. The quality of manpower emerging from here has a huge role to play in the product that they intend to promote. While there are youngsters who are (to use the phrase) to the manner born, there are numerous others who take up journalism because they couldn’t get into, maybe, medicine or engineering. So unless they discover the hidden talent and revel in the course, they are already facing the proverbial Mt. Everest. Then, a month’s internship is not enough. Today, a fresher is thrown in the deep end from the day he or she joins, and not everyone feels right at home. The smart ones learn to swim the rest struggle to stay afloat. It is the latter that is a cause for worry. This is where a mentor plays such a significant role at least in newspapers. Magazines are luckier, in that aspect I am told.

When we were trainees, there were seniors who were looking over our shoulder at what we were doing. Very often, we were told to watch how they edited a particular copy. So we did not just learn to edit, we also learnt to write better.  Maybe, that’s a practice we should resume, at least in a newspaper, even if it means extending work by a few hours. Today, that is missing, mainly because there is no time. If I make copy editors sit next to me every time I rework their copies, the deadlines will go for a six.

Take the example of the newspaper I work for. On any given day we have between 25 and thirty local and region reports, which are far more than what any other local newspaper carries, except maybe the vernacular editions. So, while I run my eyes over all those reports once edited and I still find mistakes, I correct them. When the copy has numerous errors I’ll call the copy editor and show him where he or she has erred. I don’t always have the time to individually call juniors over and explain to them the intricacies of editing and rewriting every time they make an error. I hope that they will read the newspaper the next day to see the corrected versions of their copies.

In such a working environment, can we ever produce a zero-error newspaper? Not everyone could produce it then, and with the kind of pressures we face, I just wonder whether we can do it now.

And if you need more proof, here it is. From the Indian Express of July 27, 2013.