Edited Out

The slow disappearance of independent editors from Indian media

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. VIPIN KUMAR/ HINDUSTAN TIMES/ GETTY IMAGES
01 December, 2018

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years, with the corporatisation of the media and the advent of the media-savvy politician, unmanageable editors have been replaced by managers.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.

The scene changed again in 1991. The Indian state not just vacated the commanding heights of the Indian economy, the political class also ceded primacy to “the market.” This, in turn, induced a pivotal transformation within media organisations, as the market produced its own theology. The marketing director suddenly became a much more important functionary than the editor. The success of a newspaper was no longer to be judged by its ability to influence public opinion, but by the size of its revenues. For editors and journalists, it has been a losing battle ever since—except in those organisations where the owners themselves doubled up as editors.

Economic liberalisation also brought in new resources, including foreign money, which in turn induced new morals and manners. Journalists were now paid handsomely and the profession attracted new talent. The television scene changed dramatically, almost overnight, without anyone choreographing this change. It got bigger, slicker and smarter, grabbing large chunks of media space, respect and revenues. Just about the time the institutionalised editor was losing her space in the newspaper, the anchor was emerging as the new star.

After 1991, a kind of corporatisation of the media was inevitable. The upside was that the newspapers were no longer entirely dependent upon the government for advertisements, nor were the journalists dependent upon the government’s discretion and patronage for housing, telephone connections and so on. The corporate houses provided a new zone of comfort for the media.

The media scene was vibrant, contentious, chaotic and competitive, as editors sought to pursue their traditional chores in the new context of globalisation and the internet. The core of that traditional brief was—and, remains—an institutional obligation, watching the government, challenging its narrative, questioning the presentation and interpretation of its facts. The media is also obligated to unmask abuse of discretion, misuse of office and neglect of public duties. Of late, there has been an addition to this roster of obligations—providing space for dissent.

After 1991, successive minority governments in Delhi found themselves having to humour and appease an increasingly aggressive media, demanding a role for itself in determining the public interest. On the other hand, the prominent politicians of the time—the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, or the Congress’s Arjun Singh, PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh—were utterly, hopelessly ill-equipped for the age of television. During the 1999 hijacking crisis, the relentless round-the-clock television coverage forced the Vajpayee government to surrender to militants.

In an ideal scenario, the government would govern as competently as it could, and the media’s role would be to honestly interpret facts. But with profits being its primary goal, the media is no longer interested in doing an honest job. The governments also proved incapable of delivering on the good-governance front. The result was that governance deficits kept growing, which was highlighted by an aggressive media. In the 1990s, for the first time, the Indian politician no longer seemed to enjoy the upper hand in crafting the narrative.

But elsewhere in the world, particularly in the democratic West, a new breed of politicians, which recognised the need to try to regain the upper hand, was coming of age. This new breed understood how the revolutionary changes in technology of communications had changed the ways in which a society thinks about itself. Bill Clinton in the United States and Tony Blair in Britain became consummate role models for aspiring politicians all over the world (a phenomenon I spoke about in March during a lecture in Ahmedabad). Young, handsome, articulate and at ease in front of the camera, they understood the speed and reach of the new technology and adapted to the new art of shaping the narrative.

The Clintons and the Blairs redefined the relationship with the media. The new politician is clever, intelligent, policy-literate and often amoral. She is joyfully unscrupulous and goes about using all available resources—legal and quasi-legal, sometime even illegal—to manipulate the media and its star performers.

In India, the “old” politicians—such as Advani, Sonia Gandhi, M Karunanidhi and Sharad Pawar—remained totally impervious to the new media, its technological reach and its organisational advantages. The old Indian politician believed in cultivating individual journalists, believing in his capacity to persuade and cajole a difficult customer.

Then came Narendra Modi. He is the first politician who can smell out the cameras. He understands new media and its need for events and spectacular drama. During the early days of his long chief-ministerial innings in Gandhinagar, Modi set about rendering toothless Gujarat’s two most influential newspapers—Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh. Between them, these two newspapers had a near monopoly over Gujarat’s political discourse. No chief minister could afford not to mollycoddle the two newspapers, both of which are family-owned and family-edited. Modi disrupted this arrangement. He bypassed the newspapers, using television to reach the people. His strategy was simple: create event after event for the consumption of the television and reduce governance to a spectacle.

By exploiting the television media’s gullibility, Modi began carving out a national profile for himself. First, he organised the Vibrant Gujarat events, which turned investment into the states’ industries into spectacles. Corporate leaders came to Gandhinagar, and doled out certificates for his “entrepreneurial” leadership. As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was deeply involved in micromanaging these staged events. He acutely understood that such extravaganzas reverberated beyond Gujarat—thanks to the new media’s national reach. And, his eyes were set on the Delhi throne.

Modi shrewdly sized up the national media, especially its television megastars. He positioned himself as a combative, confrontationist interlocutor, as opposed to the gentlemanly Vajpayee. He induced the self-styled hard-talkers, such as Karan Thapar and Rajdeep Sardesai, to walk into his parlour. Predictably, these representatives of the so-called “Lutyens elite” would exert themselves, trying to pin him down on his lack of secular credentials, but Modi and his perception managers were immensely satisfied that he was acquiring a new national image of a leader who was not at all apologetic about the pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. The national media became an unwitting collaborator in creating a base for Modi beyond Gujarat.

Modi fed the television media’s insatiable appetite for dramatic encounters. He staged confrontations, first with his own party leadership, then with the Congress and the central government. Modi understood that India was moving beyond the conventional decencies of the Vajpayee-Manmohan Singh era, and that Indians were comfortable with a dash of combativeness, even with a bit of vulgarity, in our public life.

When Modi came to Delhi in May 2014 he brought with him an extraordinary understanding of the national journalists and their organisations—the feuds and frictions within the media. The Modi crowd had a nuanced understanding of the fault lines, as well as a very comprehensive lowdown on the financial precariousness of each media house. The Modi establishment also armed itself with sophisticated techniques and tools of a fast-changing communication universe.

And, suddenly, the media did not know what hit it. After a long time there was a prime minister who had a commanding majority in the Lok Sabha and was insistent on commandeering the media as his cheerleaders. It was no contest—on one side was a gaggle of divided, disorganised, selfish, greedy, ambitious media operatives, and on the other was a government determined not to let the media gain the upper hand. Most chose to abandon their traditional adversarial role and became, instead, the government’s barking dogs, snarling at the opposition rather than speaking truth to power. Those who did not fall in line were made to feel the pain.

Most instructive is the NDTV saga. The channel had managed to create for itself the image of a natural home for liberal voices and impulses, and had grown into a media empire during the years of the United Progressive Alliance governments. After May 2014, it could not make up its mind whether it wanted to remain critical of Modi or to join others in making peace with him on his own terms. It wavered and equivocated. Some time in October 2016, NDTV decided not to air an interview it had recorded with P Chidambaram. The channel blacked out a former home minister, saying his interview “compromised national security.” This was caving in, shameful and inglorious; but the demand was for total surrender. So, in June 2017, the NDTV offices were “raided” by the tax authorities. Not since the ugly days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency was intimidation of the media so obvious and so naked.

The utter shame of it all was that The Tribune, which I was editing at the time, was perhaps the only newspaper to write an editorial the next day decrying the raid as an assault on the media. A few other newspapers took their time to take a stand. Most others simply ignored the NDTV affair.

Fortunately, the Modi government’s “take-no-prisoners” approach has created a backlash. A section of the media is discovering its spine, as some of the corporate houses are recovering their breath. Be that as it may, Narendra Modi has set in motion entrenched partisanship in the media ranks, just as his government has set in new precedents in intimidation.

More than ever, the Indian media is in need of an unmanageable editor.