Dialogue  October - December 2005 , Volume 7  No. 2

The Changing Role of the Editor

Ram Bahadur Rai

In a General Body meeting of the ‘Hindustan Samachar’, a multi-lingual news-agency, held about twenty-six years ago, Baleshwar Aggrawal, the General Manager cum Chief Editor of the of news-agency introduced Ramesh Chandra, the owner-cum Editor of the Punjab Kesari to us. I was ignorant about Mr. Chandra upto that time and was impressed by the information given to me about his newspaper. I became immensely eager to see and to read Punjab Kesari after that. I traced a copy of that paper and was excited to read it for the first time. I must share with you the reason for my excitement.
    Shishganj Gurudwara lies adjacent to old Delhi Railway Station. I knew a person there who used to sell newspapers for years. I also used to get newspapers and magazines of my choice from his stall. In the motley of newspapers that decorated his stall, I never picked up Punjab Kesari as its cover pages pronounced boldly its ‘filmy and trivial’ lineage. And I was as unconcerned with cinema as V.P. Singh was with Amitabh Bachchan. V.P. feigned ignorance about Big B, till 1985. Anyway, after going through the stories published in the Punjab Kesari, I cursed myself for not giving proper attention to that paper earlier. Reason was not the special reporting of the newspaper, rather its circulation rating. Audit Bureau Circulation (ABC) had named it along with the Navbharat Times, the Hindustan, the Rajasthan Patrika, the Nai Duniya and the Aryavarta as having crossed the circulation figure of one lakh daily.
    I had similar encounter with that news-paper again during the late 1980s. The editors at 7, Bahadur-Shah Zafar Marg, were regularly asked to learn lessons from the Punjab Kesari. That was the decisive transition period with respect to leadership change in Hindi and regional language journalism. Trajectories of various events criss-crossed. A young generation was being handed over the reins of the institutions located at 7, Bahadurshah Zafar Marg. This generation vied for carrying out its own editing by inverting their predecessor’s thinking. To appreciate the zeal, one may say, the new generation, enthused with new ideas and techniques, had come forward to run the existing institutions. ‘Media’, for the new leadership, no more reflected the concern about socio-political apparatus; whereas their predecessors considered ‘media-business’ as dignity churning and a social-commitment enterprise. Teleological gap widened to such an extreme that even the filial ties could not cover up the chasm.  
    Inter-generational conflict was not evident at the altar of ‘ideas’ alone. The Navbharat Times was overtaken by the Punjab Kesari in circulation figures. The new generation was under immense pressure to emulate the Punjab Kesari’s success story. At a time, when the economics of newspaper got correlated with the advertisement revenue and the maximization of the ad revenue determined the enterprise, the tutoring by the new generation to follow the Punjab Kesari’s success story was not unnatural.
    I am pondering over the objectives of this new generation as this concerns the institution of the ‘Editor’. Only few years back, the opinion about various newspapers were formed on the basis of the ‘charisma’ of their Editors. Readers were not aware about their owners. Yes, there were politicians, businessmen and the higher-ups in the government who knew who owns what and what concerned whom! But, general public knew newspapers through their editors only. Time has changed since then. Now, a reader forms his/her opinion about the newspaper through the ownership. Is that something to abhor? I think, one cannot form a moralistic judgment over such issues.
    The real issue is not as to how the readers form opinion about the newspaper. What concerns us is the logic advanced by votaries to mutate the Navbharat Times into the Punjab Kesari. To understand the phenomenon, one may put up a cursory glance at the ongoing printline published in the Navbharat Times. That summarizes the essence of a newspaper. Printline is a way to fulfill the legal requirements as per the instructions of the Registrar of Newspapers. Printline contains two important informations apart from the declaration of the names of the publisher and the Editor. During 1980s, the Printline used to be published on the margins of the editorial page. One could know the fact that the newspaper was being published for last 50 years; the current publisher was Puneet Jain and its Senior Editor, Madhusudan Anand. The Editor Anand represented the glittering flame of the Navbharat Times. Some years back, the Printline contained the name of the Chief Editor. No longer any more. It is either relegated into the dustbin of history or fossilized into an object piece in the museum of the newspaper. The Navbharat Times has mutated into a strange clone of itself. The wonderful horns in the form of the chief editor have suddenly disappeared, but the ‘body’ still survives. What a biological destiny for this imbiotic species? This abnormal mutation defines my fundamental query.
    Let us skip over metaphoric propositions and ponder over concrete events. During the period of Ashok Jain’s ownership, there existed a chairman for the institution to decide policy matters. The Managing Director supervised the routine matters and had no direct relationship with the editor. With growing interference of Mr. Sameer Jain, the nature of the management underwent a metamorphosis. The duality between the chairman and the Managing Director dissolved. 7, Bahadurshah Zafar Marg represented the Centre for transcendental non-duality, the Advaita. It became national leader of the media in that aspect. In fact, it was already a leader of the English language newspapers. Robin Jaffrey has found in his studies that there are 21 big companies involved in the newspaper business out of which only 4 big companies are associated with essentially English newspapers. The Benett-Coleman is the only Company whose Hindi newspapers had widest circulation till recent days.
    There are a number of anecdotes eulogizing Sameer Jain. His very first statement addressed to his editors used to equate ‘newspaper’ with ‘business’. His proud declarations confabulated the ‘poor’ editors: Publish what sells in the market – sensational events, sex, jokes, hyperemotionalities. His second statement used to pygmie editor’s status. Earlier, editors considered themselves as representatives of readers before their owners. Therefore editors put themselves onto high pedestals as how could a newspaper exist without readers. Sameer Jain punctured this understanding. For him, newspapers survive on the fulcrum of the management techniques. There is a market for the newspaper. Who so ever understands the market, sells the newspapers. And it is the job of the management experts. Sameer may feel offended with the word ‘expert’. But it is how he himself states about these people. Sameer is not ready to confer greater status than merely ‘skilled labourers’ to these ‘experts’. For him, editor and journalists are skilled labourers and the theory of ‘wages’ is to be applied on these categories. The newspaper group, which was known for sticking to the recommendations of Salary Board and its own standards for payment to employees, is experimenting with new contract system.
    Journalism has descended into a pure capitalist enterprise. The rules adhered to by the journalists have collapsed, as they no longer enjoy any autonomous sphere. The glorious tradition of media is fading. Journalists cannot form a union at 7, Bahadurshah Zafar Marg. No one is willing to even write an elegy for the ‘dead’ trade unionism. The pomp and show witnessed during union elections in earlier times is an illusion. With the end of unionism, the owner has gained absolute power to apply contract system for the employees. This can happen only when the owner himself appropriates the editorship. For god’s sake, this fine demarcation still exists in the ‘Printline’ of the Navbharat Times. If one glances at the Printline of the master of the pack viz. the Punjab Kesari, the demarcation will be evident – “For the owner Hind Samachar Limited – the, Printer, Publisher and Editor – Vijay Kumar”.
    A journalist working the Dinman narrated an incident. When the rumour pertaining to the closure of the journal was at its peak, a group of journalists sought appointment with Sameer Jain. Sameer Jain bluntly expressed that he was not bothered about the revenue loss he was incurring on publishing Dinman, but the fact that the space occupied by the magazine at 10, Daryaganj could fetch him a monthly rent of Rs. 10 lakhs. Some people may foam at this attitude but the market and the commercial interest have logic of their own. The question that perturbs me is as how the media house which created news Bureau for the Navbharat Times that was envied by other Hindi newspapers has succumbed itself to the logic of market. This has caused a spiraling effect over whole field of journalism. It is not that only the Navbharat Times is facing the assault of market. Sameer Jain does not consider it fit to have any editor in the Times of India and even in the Economic Times. There was a time when revered Shri H.K. Dua was invited to edit the Times of India with an expectation that he could influence the then prime Minster to hush up the FERA violation case against Ashok Jain. H.K. refused to do so and expectedly his exit was imminent. The matter was taken up by the Press Council. The Editors Guild also jumped in the fray. The controversy battered the status of the Press Council itself. People realized that the Press Council no longer enjoys any effective authority. Jawaharlal Nehru had high hopes about this institution in disciplining newspapers. It no longer enjoys any legitimacy. Even the media has grown over the years. Apart from the print, the visual media is multiplying exponentially. The nation needs effective Press Council. But, none is concerned about the impending chaos that an undisciplined and unregulated media can brood.
The institution of editor is losing its sheen after attaining a level of prestige during 1980s. Once upon a time, I asked late Rajendra Mathur as to whether he had planed to improve the standard of the Navbharat Times. Rajju Babu was the Chief Editor of the newspaper in 1991. My question had cropped up after a long deliberation and I had sought prior appointment with him to discuss this matter at his home. I rubbed a little salt by adding whether he had compromised with the prevailing situation and sidetracked his vision and endeavour? He was very forthcoming. He narrated his plight. He could have discussed his schemes with Ashok Jain as he reads Navbharat Times. But, how could have he entered into a dialogue with someone like Sameer Jain who never reads any Hindi newspaper. At the time, when new standards for media were emanating from 7 Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, another churning was going on in the adjacent building. Journalism was undergoing a sea-change and so was its leadership i.e. the institution of editor. The debate with respect to these changes will continue.
    The other incident that changed the nature of media happened in the Express Building. Ramnath Goenka joined the anti-corruption movement launched by V.P. Singh. His newspapers also joined the fray. The owner donned the robe of a missionary and launched a jehadist offensive. He was accompanied by the writer-troop of editor and journalists. The Indian Express and the Jansatta led the attack against the then Government. In one way, the fight was not against corruption per se. It was targeted to use issue of corruption in the politics of power. The media had the last laugh. This was the first victory of media as a determining factor in political change in out country since independence. Before the Bofors issue, the media always sided with those in authority. One could just gauge their leanings during the Janta Party rule or during, Indira’s post-1980 rule when media didn’t associate itself with public opinion but the authority. The Government used to control media houses and they, in turn, obliged those heading the government. The trend was reversed only during V.P. Singh-led movement. When the new government. was formed, the media considered it as its own victory.
    But, the Bofors saga hit hard the institution of the editor. Politicians began to hobnob with the owners and the editors slowly got marginalized. Earlier, Ramnath Goenka was the exception in having privileged direct relationship with political leadership. But, the Lok Sabha election in 1989 changed the scenario forever. Editor no more remained a ‘mean’. Now, editors have been reduced into a sentry of their owner’s commercial interests. They no longer represent the tradition of journalism or interests of readers. 

The history of Indian media is two hundred years old. This is also the corresponding age of the institution of the editor. By this time, the nature of the editorship should have evolved and carved out its own specificities. Unfortunately the ‘margins’ are the destiny of editors. His functions have dramatically changed. Democratic norms and unbiased reporting are disappearing from the media. The institution of ‘Editor’ had been revered by the journalists for three reasons: capacity as an intelligent Editorial leader, administrative efficiency and commitment towards colleagues. But, how many contemporary editors imbibe this troika between ‘me and us’ anymore?

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

Astha Bharati