Over the past decade, many prominent Indian media houses have staked their prestige on mega-events where advertisers sponsor speakers ranging from Indian politicians to out-of-office US statesmen. In recent years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has easily been the marquee draw at such events. Though questions have been raised about the dangers of breaching the wall between editorial and business, for much of the industry, these events are seen as a win-win proposition. They attract prominent speakers who create sound bites for big media brands, in return for a platform and wider publicity, with sponsors more than willing to go along. However, recent incidents, featuring two of India’s largest media groups—the Times Group and the HT Media group—have highlighted how such mega-events imperil editorial freedom.
In March this year, Modi pulled out of the Economic Times Global Business Summit at the very last minute, citing “security concerns.” Along with him, several ministers and senior bureaucrats also withdrew from the event. The decision caused a huge loss of face for the Times Group. Given the largely favourable coverage of the government in the group’s publications, it was difficult to fathom the reasons for the government’s step. Subsequent events seemed to carry their own message. A journalist critical of the government, Rohini Singh, left the Economic Times, and a spoof on Modi, which ran on one of the group’s radio stations, was soon taken off the air. (Singh went on to author a story for The Wire on the finances of Jay Shah, the son of the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah.)
Then in September this year, shortly after a meeting between Modi and the HT Media owner, Shobhana Bhartia, in which she sought his presence at an event, the media house announced the exit of Bobby Ghosh, the former managing editor of Quartz, who was serving as the editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times. Shortly after the announcement, the newspaper discontinued an initiative it termed the Hate Tracker, which collated information on hate crimes in the name of religion or caste.