MUMBAI — A few years ago,
editor Tina Brown -- still fresh from the launch of her then-new venture, the
Daily Beast -- came bearing advice for the Columbia Journalism School Class of
2009. American journalism was suffering an "earthquake," she told the students
in New York -- but those sitting before her didn't necessarily have to feel its
There was still a promised
land of journalism out there, Brown told them, but to find it they'd have to
head east -- to India, where literally tens of thousands of newspapers were
scrapping for new readers; where reporters from the 400-plus news channels
jostled one another for the best shots; where the disruptions of the Internet publishing
were still in the future.
Yes, Brown said, if she
were a young, aspiring journalist, she would pack her bags and head for India.
"There's tons of highbrow newspapers in India, terrific magazines," she said.
It's a place to "learn about other societies and other ways of doing
Had these students taken
Brown up on her advice, and actually come to India, they might have found the
picture a sight less rosy than she had promised.
These earnest American
J-school grads would have witnessed the time an industrialist-lawmaker sent
representatives with a hidden camera to record extortionate business reporters
demanding money in
exchange for not carrying critical stories. Or the night one television
reporter in Guwahati asked a crowd assaulting a woman to move
to a well-lit area because his camera crew had just arrived. The class of 2009
would have learned, as many news networks did this fall, that a seemingly
benign comparison between the current prime minister's speech and one by a
prime ministerial candidate violated Rule 6 of the Cable Television Networks
Rules, according to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. (The ministry
issued an ominous advisory reminding networks they were duty bound to not
offend good taste.)
The news business in India
may be buzzing with life, but a number of recent high-profile, ugly affairs
among its supposedly leading lights have shown, once again, that its soul is in
crisis.The news business in India
may be buzzing with life, but a number of recent high-profile, ugly affairs
have shown that its soul is in
The case that most recently
dominated headlines across India was the arrest of the charismatic Tarun
Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka, one
the country's top investigative magazines, on charges of raping a colleague.
The feisty magazine has been sent reeling -- six journalists, including the
managing editor, have resigned in the wake of the accusations -- and now, with
its biggest investor threatening to pull out, Tehelka faces an uncertain future.
But, incendiary though it
may be, the Tehelka case may say less
about the state of Indian journalism than
the recent eviction of Siddharth Varadarajan from his position as
editor-in-chief at the Hindu, one of
India's leading English-language dailies, based in Chennai. The family behind
the paper, the Kasturis, who have a penchant for nasty internal rifts, recently
put their differences behind them in order to oust Varadarajan, the first
"professional" editor in the venerable newspaper's 135-year history. He lasted
for little more than two years.
"Professional," a reporter
at the Hindu told me, meant "editorial distance from the owners. 'Professional' was supposed to be someone finally putting space between the
family and the newspaper's actual output." Before Varadarajan was appointed in
2011, "the actual ability of editors had never been tested," she said.
"Editorship was simply inherited."
as the world generally knows it, remains something of a rarity in Indian media.
By and large, India's bustling newsrooms are populated with young practitioners
who've learned the trade on the fly. J-schools exist, but they "have faculty that probably hasn't stepped foot into a
newsroom in years, if not decades," said Raju Narisetti, a vice president of
strategy at News Corp. who founded Mint,
an Indian business newspaper. They will find employment, but little further training
on the job. "I do
remember from personal experience an age when editors and senior
journalists were willing to spend the time and effort to teach, to mentor, to push, to work with young journalists and
help them develop their skills," Prem Panicker, the managing editor of Yahoo India, told me. "I don't know of an editor -- any
editor -- today who can be bothered."
Out of this not
particularly promising soil, a few good reporters do grow, but a large number
of them wind up working for media organizations that aren't exactly committed to rigorous
journalism. The proprietor of the Times of
India, the country's largest English-language paper (also family run),
for instance, told the New Yorker last year,
"We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business." He
continued, "If you are editorially minded, you will make all the wrong
Before Varadarajan was named editor of the Hindu, he'd spent time as its associate editor. He had once taught economics
at New York University, but at the newspaper Varadarajan had a broad mandate --
he wrote about business regulation, national and strategic affairs. (He has
something of a pedigree: his brother, Tunku,
is also a journalist, and was once the editor of Newsweek Global.) In 2011, his
ascension to the top of the paper's hierarchy was endorsed by a majority of the
board of directors. "What we wanted to do is to
professionalise (sic) and contemporise the daily," said N. Ram, then
editor-in-chief, in making way for Varadarajan. Observers, at the time, however
noted that the appointment may have been driven less by such seemingly pure
motives, and more by inter-family squabbling, as one family branch
maneuvered to block another faction.
By any reasonable account, the Hindu
under Varadarajan began to invest in deep investigative reporting; its
suspicious transactions between a large real estate company and Sonia Gandhi's
son in law, and filed detailed accounts of India's Central Monitoring System, a
comprehensive surveillance tool, that, as the Hindu correspondents
explained, has no clear legal
limitations. Varadarajan's Hindu had
a sharp front page that eschewed fluff, and made exciting young hires,
including those focused on data journalism (this move, in particular, was
seismic for a newspaper that once believed in putting kids at a science fair on
the front page).Ram -- who has penned lengthy essays on the need for improved
standards in Indian media -- put his daughter, a mint-fresh J-school grad, on
the Hindu's front page.
who worked at the paper under Varadarajan say they found an editor who was open
to ideas, responsive to criticism, and less likely than his predecessors to
make befuddling news choices, including many inclined toward
self-promotion. Under Ram, the Hindu published a
story in February 2009 about Tibet's rapid development, which, in the first paragraph quoted a "prominent Indian
journalist" who rejected "Tibetan independence propaganda." The second
paragraph revealed that the prominent journalist was Ram himself (who is
an unabashed supporter of China's rise). Even more
years before Varadarajan's appointment, Ram -- who has penned lengthy essays on the need for improved
standards in Indian media -- put his daughter, a mint-fresh J-school grad, on
the Hindu's front page for her achievements: "Vidya Ram,
27, from Chennai was designated the top student in the Class of 2007 of the
Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, New York." No word on
what the well-educated Vidya might have made of her father's decision.
At last count, there were more
registered newspapers and about
400 regional and national news
channels across India. But with this proliferation has come concerns about the
quality of the journalism being produced. Developing a professional Indian Fourth Estate -- one with editorial independence, one that adheres to widely
accepted ethical and editorial standards -- still faces an abundance of
The Indian media landscape
is a tangle of conflicting interests. Media outlets, such as the sprawling
Network18 -- which runs CNBC and CNN-IBN in India -- and NewsX, are financed by
big corporations with other pressing interests, such as telecommunications and
petrochemicals; a large number of news organizations, including News 24 and the
Sun Group, have close links with powerful political players. Western media,
too, may see conflicts of interest at times, but in India, the best practices
in ethical standards seen in the international journalism are unevenly applied.
Journalists have few protections
from corporate and
advertising pressures: "Corporate ownership makes you constrained in writing
about owners and their interests, and maybe their friends as well," said Govindraj Ethiraj, the former
editor-in-chief of a locally-run Bloomberg News channel in India, who later
left to found an independent, donor-funded journalism site. "Perhaps you'll get
one critical article in, and then the message will come from above," said
Ethiraj. Then there's pressure from political quarters to change news headlines
and hold back inconvenient stories, according to news correspondents who spoke
with me on condition of anonymity. Politicians may have close connections with
media owners (or may own media themselves), threaten to scuttle business
contracts, or even dangle the tempting carrot of state-sponsored advertising (state
governments altogether spend around $300 million on advertising annually).
Employees at one of India's largest news channels told me about instances when
the editor took calls from a top government official in private, and returned
to the news pit to suggest new, less incendiary, headlines. This was a frequent
occurrence, they said.
are casualties. In November, political duress led to the noisy departure of a
high-profile editor: Hartosh Singh Bal, who led the politics desk at Open, a newsweekly, was fired at the
behest of the magazine's owner, according to its editor, Manu Joseph. In an interview with The Hoot, a media website, Joseph said
that his boss -- Sanjiv Goenka, whose businesses include energy and retail -- complained,
"because of [Hartosh] I am making a lot of enemies ... political enemies."
Occasionally, some publications decide to raise the bar.
When Narisetti of News Corp. founded Mint,
a financial newspaper with headquarters in New Delhi, in 2006 (full disclosure:
I worked there for a year until August 2007), he introduced a number of
journalistic best practices, including requiring that stories from anonymous
sources had to be confirmed by at least two other sources if the account was to
pass muster. He put in place a code of conduct -- a curiosity in Indian media
at the time -- that included, among other things, rules on dealing with public
relations executives and accepting gifts and junkets. One of the first
dismissals for violations of the code occurred before the first issue was even printed,
which is to say, the code was taken seriously. But while Narisetti lay down
internal standards, he said he found the constant external pressures exerted on
journalists and editors sapping. (After leaving Mint in 2008, he spoke to the New York Times,
which reported this about their
conversation: "He said he left earlier than he expected because of a 'troubling
nexus' of business, politics and publishing that he called 'draining on body
In an interview over email, Narisetti told me that the coopting
of journalists by the business side in Indian newspapers was unparalleled. "There are problems everywhere, but most such issues tend to be
exceptions, sporadic and often fixed, unlike what I encountered in India," he
said, calling it "a culture that is perpetuated and reinforced when industry
leaders embrace policies that destroy even rudimentary church and state
At the Hindu, these lines
were blurred to the point of abstraction.
former editor, N. Ram, had ascended to become the Hindu's group chairman, and justified the move to remove Varadarajan in a letter to five
directors, advocating greater involvement by the family: "The 'Hands off
management' approach had denied the company the benefit of the rich experience
and talent on the Board," it said. It was "out of line with the editorial and business
values that the 135-year-old institution had always stood for ... the course we
had embarked on was proving to be disastrous."
But outside the Hindu -- including among high-profile Western journalists --
Varadarajan's departure was viewed as a loss for the paper. "The Hindu was a
far better paper under [Varadarajan]. It is a great loss for readers," tweeted Lydia
Polgreen, a New York Times editor and
former India correspondent. "The family wins but Indian journalism loses,"
wrote the New Yorker's Jonathan
Shainin (a former editor of mine at the Caravan). Senior television correspondent Rahul Dev told
the cable news show The Big Picture that the
dismissal "gives us a clear signal that the owner families in Indian
media ... they are still uncomfortable with professional leadership --
independent professional leadership of their family-owned properties."
"We saw it as a progression toward professionalization of
family-owned media businesses," he said. "This is a step back."
Bal's firing at Open,
which came soon after Varadarajan's sacking, led to an immediate outpouring of
angst about the worrisome direction India's media had taken. Sreenivasan Jain, a
managing editor at the news channel NDTV,
"What on earth is going on with the media?!" A former editor of Forbes India, Indrajit Gupta, surmised
on Twitter, "It is perhaps more to do with the
lack of values and the inability to handle political pressure."
The Kasturis, meanwhile, maintain that Varadarajan's exit
doesn't mean an end to quality journalism at the Hindu. "I would argue that the present Editor-in-Chief
and Editor are as professional, that is, as schooled in journalism, its
professional values, methods, and techniques, and as experienced as they come,"
Ram told Tehelka, in the days
before the magazine wound up in the throes of its own crisis.
Varadarajan's departure, however, the Hindu seems to have
returned to its old ways, judging by the glowing coverage it gave to a
speech by Ram at Mahatma Gandhi University. "Referring
to Mr. Ram," the piece read, "the [University] Chancellor said he embodied all
that was expected of a true journalist as he epitomised the qualities of a
But Varadarajan's departure, Hartosh's sacking, and the troubles
at Tehelka all come at a delicate
time. The forthcoming elections -- featuring the authoritarian Narendra Modi on
one side, and Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a dynasty perceived as remarkably corrupt,
on the other -- have polarized public discourse. The effects of these
elections, seen as pivotal for the direction India takes, have been felt within
media organizations and without. Every editorial statement, and every
journalist, is under scrutiny for any political leanings. Established
journalists are routinely described as "paid media" -- a phrase that somehow packs
in leaning, bearing, and blunt insult. In effect, readers have formed their own
narratives, especially online, where the media are viewed as susceptible to
sway. Bal himself recently told
the New York Times that "The ability to influence media, the attempt to do so -- that
is changing rapidly. I think it is worse now."
the Hindu, one of this country's most
esteemed papers, faces the 2014 elections without its finest editor in recent
memory. Open is without a straight-shooting political editor who kept the
right and left satisfied with his balanced assaults on both sides. And who
knows how damaged Tehelka is by its
editor's assertion that the allegations against him are a political conspiracy?
So yes, come to India, Tina Brown -- now that you have some
free time. It would be an eye opener, for you or any young journalist.
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