Edited Out

The slow disappearance of independent editors from Indian media

01 December 2018
A meeting of the Editors Guild—an association of Indian editorial leaders—was held in Delhi in June 2017, after offices of NDTV were “raided” by the tax authorities.
A meeting of the Editors Guild—an association of Indian editorial leaders—was held in Delhi in June 2017, after offices of NDTV were “raided” by the tax authorities.

The “unmanageable” editor is a vanishing breed in India. Most of India’s political class, including the central and state governments and their opposition parties, finds strong, independent editors undesirable. Corporate bosses remain disdainful of professional editors. Owners of media houses, who handpick pliant journalists, are most unhappy if an editor turns out to have an intrepid streak. Even within news organisations, colleagues prefer to have a weakling at the helm. The absence of an editor who has a mind of her own suits all those who define our zeitgeist. Over the years, with the corporatisation of the media and the advent of the media-savvy politician, unmanageable editors have been replaced by managers.

Not long ago, Indian media was defined by strong editors—Durga Das, Frank Moraes, S Mulgaonkar and, in recent years, Sham Lal. These were individuals with formidable intellect, experience and skill, who commanded authority and authenticity beyond their arguments. This authority was the result of an inner rectitude, which made them impervious to the sway of the statesman, the demagogue or the moneylender. Above all, these editors counted because they believed that their primary job was to promote the public good—a goal that the politician too claimed to share, as a representative of the people.

It also helped that for the first four or five decades after Independence, beginning with Jawaharlal Nehru, political leaders had respect for educated opinion, albeit with a pronounced bias in favour of English newspapers. Because the political leaders themselves were juggling with ideas and ideological formulations, they had a grudging appreciation for the authoritative, objective, fair and truthful writers and commentators with a sophisticated, cosmopolitan touch.

Though there was always a tension between the establishment and the media, the political leadership became adept at co-opting the journalist. It was during the Emergency that the danda was used against difficult media operatives. The Emergency also created tribal loyalties and allegiances in the media fraternity. When the Janata government came to power in 1977, it immediately ensured that Khushwant Singh—a strong supporter of the the Congress regime under Indira and Sanjay Gandhi—was ousted from the Illustrated Weekly of India. Partisanship became a badge of honour for many journalists and editors.

The Rajiv Gandhi era saw renewed attempts to shut up all those journalists who annoyed the prime minister or his coterie. The 1984 Lok Sabha elections produced a seemingly immovable regime. The overwhelming numbers in the Lok Sabha created utter hopelessness in many political quarters. Attempts were set afoot to undo the Rajiv Gandhi government and several senior journalists got sucked into politicians’ conspiracies. In Rajiv Gandhi’s confrontations with his then minister VP Singh, or with President Zail Singh, journalists seemed to be speaking from one side or the other, rather than representing the larger public interest.

Harish Khare as a media advisor to the former prime minister Manmohan Singh. His last assignment was as the editor-in-chief of The Tribune. He now considers himself an intermittent public intellectual and writes occasionally for The Wire.

Keywords: LK Advani media Atal Bihari Vajpayee Hindustan Times The Indian Express Narendra Modi NDTV editor S Mulgaonkar Durga Das Frank Moraes Sham Lal Prannoy Roy Illustrated Weekly of India Khushwant Singh Rajiv Gandhi Narsimha Rao Arjun Singh Corporatisation