Of owners, brand managers and editorial freedom

The shaky freedom of expression has led to the loss of exceptionally good talent at giant media houses, leading to a compromised editorial product

e4m by Twishy & Abid Hasan
Updated: Jan 16, 2014 8:32 AM
Of owners, brand managers and editorial freedom

Christopher Dodd once said, “When the public’s right to know is threatened, and when the rights of free speech and free press are at risk, all of the other liberties we hold dear are endangered.” Media is not a commodity, but a vibrant institution that has enormous power to shape public opinion and create social awakening. But what happens when there is concentration of power in the hands of a few family-led organisations? What is the outcome of an owner commanding the editor? The shaky freedom of expression has led to the loss of exceptionally good talent at giant media houses, leading to a compromised editorial product.

I quit
“With The Hindu’s owners deciding to revert to being a family-run and edited newspaper, I am resigning from The Hindu with immediate effect” – tweeted Siddharth Varadarajan, former Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu. “I had taken a pay cut to join The Hindu essentially to experience professionalised editorial management, which was the core value that N Ram offered me. The moment that whole decision changed, I decided to step down,” said MK Venu, former Executive Editor of The Hindu. Hartosh Singh Bal, former Political Editor of Open magazine tweeted, “Received termination notice from Open today after I refused Rs 15 lakh to move on quietly.” Soon after Bal, Manu Joseph, Editor of the Open magazine decided to step down. These dramatic resignations force us to think if these stalwarts were biased, judgmental or editorially incompetent?

If we believe so, it seems we have erased from our minds the fearless reportage of the NATO war against Yugoslavia, the destruction of the Bamyan Buddhas by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq and the crisis in Kashmir. We have forgotten the recordings of telephone conversations between Niira Radia and several influential people. We have turned a blind eye to the superior analysis of the budget and the various monetary policies.

The KSL Board that decided a few years ago to keep the family out of editorial control and run the paper in a more professional manner sent a message to the society about its love for family over professionalism with the exit of Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu.

As reported in the Hoot, Hartosh Singh Bal said that Manu Joseph told him that Sanjiv Goenka wanted him out because his writings had earned the industrialist a lot of political enemies. But, what happened when another journalist considered close to a political party joined as the Managing Editor? The Editor himself chose to resign. This is the outcome of an owner influencing the decision of an editor. But the larger question is: have these resignations affected the giants?

It’s War
Journalists are the face of a media house. They have helped in building their equity, but these influential owners often forget their contribution. Get an interview of a brand and Hola! He is your next big advertiser. In most of the media organisations, journalists are forced to report stories about people who matter to the brand managers and owners, leading to a biased coverage.

On this burning issue, Siddharth Varadarajan said, “Virtually all the major problems plaguing Indian journalism today – paid news, sensationalism, biased reporting – can be traced back to the decline of the institution of the editor and the consequent absence of editorial integrity. There are hardly any newspapers or news TV channels where the editor is able to operate freely from the day to day interference of owners and brand managers. In many media organisations, the owners themselves insist on functioning as editors.”

According to Hartosh Singh Bal, when an owner dominates the decision of an editor, then clearly the aim is not journalistic. “An owner bypassing the editor would act in this manner for considerations other than editorial, and this can only have a negative impact on the quality and integrity of any magazine, newspaper or channel. Journalists in turn are undermined and their authority called in question, once it becomes apparent to a politician or an advertiser that an editor can be by-passed they will aim to do so whenever it suits their commercial interest,” Bal added.

The Indian media is at an appalling state due to the conflict of interest between the editorial and the business side.

Daipayan Halder, Executive Editor, Millennium Post observed, “Mainstream media is hugely compromised as corporate and political interests drive editorial policies in newsrooms. The editor is often bypassed and his views account for little in deciding the story line up for the paper or the editorial slant that stories are given. It is left to smaller, more independent newspapers and social media to put out unbiased journalism as the big papers are mostly peddling half truths. Take the recent Aston Martin crash story. Very few papers carried the story in detail as the name of a big corporate group cropped up.”

There have been many instances when the editor has been asked to change a story as per the political inclination of a particular media group. Many politicians get direct benefit from owning a publication or a channel. The idea of a free press is confined due to immense pressure from political parties.

What next?
Why has the media become the slave of a few family-led organisations and corrupt babus? When will the owner stop interfering in the editorial product? The freedom of the fourth pillar of democracy is at stake and the recent developments in the media houses give a clear indication of the times to come.

Varadarajan feels that that the freedom of expression can be preserved only when journalists and editors are protected from being penalised for defying unprofessional instructions.

However, Bal said, “There is a larger question of what kind of media we as a society want and this requires a legislative response that enforces certain norms of ownership and journalistic conduct. But beyond this, there is an onus on individual journalists and more particularly editors. An editor who cannot take a stand because that can cost him his job should never be holding that position to begin with.”

Today, there are several issues plaguing journalism and this can be resolved only when there is absolute differentiation between the editorial and business. There is a dire need to put restrictions on ownership by political parties and corporate honchos. Greater FDI in media will help in reviving the sector with a host of fresh ideas and providing financial comfort to upgrade technology and attract skilled manpower. By providing greater economic freedom, more competition will be generated and the advertising revenues will be distributed among several players leading to the end of concentration of power in family-led organisations.

However, as a journalist, do you want to play a crucial role in channelising information to the society or work for a politician or industrialist-led organisation that restricts the freedom of expression? The choice is of course, yours.

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