India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
Vol. 15 :: No. 12 :: June 06 - 19, 1998
A newspaper scandal
Editorial changes in The Times of India raise disturbing questions.
EVEN as media baron Ashok Kumar Jain is reportedly recuperating from a third coronary bypass surgery in a hospital in Cleveland, United States (Frontline, March 6, 1998), top-level editorial changes are being effected in The Times of India, the flagship publication of the Bennett, Coleman & Company controlled by his family. The changes have brought to the fore an age-old conflict of interest - involving those newspaper owners who view their journalistic publications as commercial enterprises subserving their business and private interests, and those editors who believe that newspapers are public institutions where social responsibilities and obligations are paramount.
While such conflicts are inherent given the nature of the industry, in the past confrontations between owners and editors were rare for a variety of reasons. With a few notable exceptions, the political leadership in the past was less intolerant of criticism than it is today. There were also liberal owners who allowed editorial autonomy to their editors, disregarding political pressures. That situation, however, is changing. The political leadership is much more intolerant of criticism and much more inclined to intervene in various ways, subtle and crude, in the affairs of newspapers. Also, many owners have developed diverse commercial interests and these often clash with editorial autonomy, not to mention freedom.
The resolution of this conflict has taken many forms. In the case of certain publications, the owners have taken upon themselves editorial functions and equipped themselves for editorial responsibilities. Ownership when combined with editorial excellence has often made for a successful and credible enterprise. In fact, combining editorial control with ownership has proved to be a way that is being increasingly adopted. However, there are newspaper organisations where editorial and management functions are still separate. In such cases, owners often set an editorial policy that deftly balances commercial and public interests. The Times of India group, in the past few years, has gone one step further, according to informed observers, treating publications entirely as commercial enterprises or "brands".
B.G. Verghese, former Editor of The Hindustan Times, says: "Subservience of the public interest to commercial considerations is largely the function of the changing ethos of the times." He added: "The changing personalities of the newspaper owners and the changing values of the times are at the root of these conflicts." Verghese himself was sacked from his position in the Birla-owned daily for pursuing an independent editorial policy that did not suit the interests of the owners.
THE summary dismissal of Editorial Adviser H.K. Dua from The Times of India on May 26 cannot, however, be attributed to his pursuit of an independent editorial policy that did not suit the interests of the promoters of the group. In fact, in recent times, The Times group, under the stewardship of Samir Jain, has demonstrated its ability to keep under check any attempts towards editorial independence. This was done through the creation of multiple centres of power within the editorial set-up. The position of the Editor itself was dispensed with after Dilip Padgaonkar left in 1994 to make way for Gautam Adhikari who took over as Executive Editor without control over the editorial page. Since then, the editorship has eluded all aspirants; they have had to be content with miscellaneous designations such as senior writers and political analysts. Meanwhile, the editorial content itself has lacked the coherence of a coordinated policy, according to experienced observers.
Dua has the distinction of being perhaps the only journalist in post-Independence India to have been at the editorial helm of three major national newspapers - The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Times of India.
He was sacked for a very different reason, going by his account of what happened. He wrote a letter to Arun Arora and Pradeep Guha, executive directors of the company, on March 22, soon after a midnight office order deleted his name from the printline and substituted it with that of executive director Ramesh Chandra in his new additional capacity as Managing Editor. In this letter, a copy of which is available with Frontline, Dua calls the action of the management "unfair, illegal, arbitrary, administratively improper and mala fide."
Dua goes on to say in the letter: "You are aware of the reasons for your issuing the questionable order that comes after several events. When Mr. Ashok Jain, Chairman, was in Apollo Hospital, he called me and asked me to lobby with political leaders to seek their help in the FERA cases he has been facing for some time. I refused on the ground that on principle and as an Editor I cannot perform any extra-curricular role and suggested that neither the Editor, nor the paper should be involved in the matter. This was not appreciated." (emphasis added).
Dua adds: "After a few days, Mr. Ashok Jain asked me to write articles in his favour to create a helpful climate before the Supreme Court takes up his cases. I said as an Editor I can only defend the public interest, not the private interest. Mr. Ashok Jain made known his anger to me on making the distinction between public and private interests - a concept which has always been dear to me" (emphasis added).
In the next paragraph of his letter, Dua states: "I was also surprised when I was asked to accompany Mr. Jain's counsel to the Supreme Court when it took up his plea for anticipatory bail. My refusal to do so did not make me popular with the management which has been gradually increasing pressures on me without realising that my known keenness to uphold professional values cannot allow me to be of any help in the proprietor's personal problems with (the) law."
Dua had also verbally told the management that if his position was not restored, he would seek legal redress. After negotiation, the management agreed to restore Dua's name in the printline on condition that he withdrew his letter and refrained from taking the matter either to the Press Council or to the courts. For a while it appeared that Dua had won the first round in asserting his independence, and his name reappeared in the printline.
However, on May 20, the management issued a letter to Jug Suraiya, acting Editorial Page Editor, and M.D. Nalapat, Chief of Bureau, New Delhi, directing them to report to the Managing Editor. This meant bypassing Dua, the Editorial Adviser, as well as Padgaonkar, who has staged a comeback of sorts as Director (Corporate), and has been taking an active interest in editorial matters. The order merely sought to formalise a practice that had been initiated earlier of different editorial teams reporting to the publisher's representative.
Dua hit back, with another letter dated May 22 addressed to Ramesh Chandra. In this letter he questioned and protested against the action of the management in diminishing his editorial role and functions. He claimed that ever since he took charge as Editorial Adviser, all resident editors and heads of departments, including the Chief of Bureau, New Delhi, had been reporting to him and cooperating with him in editorial responsibilities. "That the management is doing all this without any prior word with me shows how arbitrary can be its decisions and mala fide its intentions. No self-respecting Editor can really accept such things happening in a major paper like The Times of India which should not be doing anything which may tend to reduce area of editorial freedom and responsibilities."
In the same letter, Dua reiterated: "I have already pointed out in my letter of March 28 that the management has decided to curb my freedom and area of responsibilities simply because I have refused to be of any help to Mr. Ashok Jain who is facing serious problems involving alleged violation of FERA laws. I have already made it clear to Mr. Ashok Jain, Mr. Samir Jain and Mr. Vineet Jain that I would not compromise on self-respect and integrity - personal and editorial - to help the family in its problems with law" (emphasis added).
RETRIBUTION was swift in coming. While just a few weeks earlier the management had asked Dua to resign and even offered him a substantial separation package, now he had to go out with just the equivalent of three months' emoluments as compensation as provided for in the contract relating to his appointment. The grounds for the dismissal were that Dua had taken his differences with the management to public forums. This is perhaps a reference to a presentation he made as a member (at the request of the Guild's president) to the Editors' Guild on the circumstances leading to his diminished status in the newspaper's hierarchy. Padgaonkar attended the meeting of the Guild and suggested that "there is another version." More disturbing is his reported role in carrying an "eyewitness's report" on Dua's presentation, which served as the "evidence" to sack the Editorial Adviser.
If editorial freedom was an issue in the sacking of an Editor, it would have been controversial enough to arouse a public debate. In the case of Dua, going by his account, information provided by various privileged sources and the assessment of some veterans in the journalistic field, the reasons appear to be different - and even more disturbing.
One interesting, and plausible, version doing the rounds within The Times of India is that with the chairman of the company, Ashok Kumar Jain, and the all-powerful vice-chairman, Samir Jain, away in the United States, the owning family did not know that Dua was to be sent out in this fashion. "This is not their style," observes an insider adding that this hatchet job was the joint work of Padgaonkar and the functional executives.
Interestingly, when Ashok Jain was about to be apprehended by the authorities in connection with his alleged violations of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA), on January 4, 1997, the help of Chief of Bureau Nalapat was enlisted to bail him out. Nalapat apparently used his political connections with the then Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, to secure a respite for Ashok Jain. Since then, the authorities concerned with the enforcement of FERA have been trying in vain to secure Jain's interrogation. The time allowed by the Supreme Court for the conclusion of the probe into the Ashok Jain case will run out on July 4. A petition filed by the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) in the Supreme Court for extension of time is yet to be admitted. The E.D. was asked to come back with the petition after the court's vacation. If the E.D. is unable to secure an extension, the probe may have to be abandoned.
KULDIP NAYAR, veteran journalist, diplomat and Member of Parliament, is one of a growing number of intellectuals agitated over the circumstances leading to Dua's dismissal. He raised the issue in Parliament on the first day of the budget session. Nayar told Frontline: "The dismissal of Dua violates the basic tenets of press freedom. It is a very big challenge to a newspaper which is essentially a public institution. We are approaching eminent people to enlist their support in the fight against the management of The Times. We shall even seek legal remedies on grounds of mala fide action by The Times management."
The Editors' Guild is reportedly taking up the matter. However, when contacted by Frontline, Vinod Mehta, president of the Guild, declined comment on the issue except to say that a statement was being drafted by the other members of the Guild and he would issue it in his capacity as president. Mehta is known and widely respected in the field for his assertion of editorial independence. When, as Editor of The Indian Post, he was involved in a showdown with the publishers over his independent editorial policy which was perceived to be inimical to the latter's business interests, he chose to resign from his position. He did not seek redress either from the Press Council or from the Editors' Guild.
Verghese, on the other hand, went to the Press Council in 1974 following a similar confrontation with the owners of the newspaper he edited. K.K. Birla was summoned by the Press Council and had to appear before it. However, the Press Council's findings were stayed for certain reasons and the matter went to the courts. The particular Press Council itself was wound up subsequently.
Dua is examining his options, including the possibility of taking the matter to court. While an indictment by either the Press Council or the Editors' Guild may have moral and ethical force, neither body has any legal authority to initiate action even when it is convinced that editorial independence has been jeopardised by self-seeking private interest or by a collateral agenda. "But such strictures can influence public opinion and affect the credibility of the publication in the long run," says Verghese.
THE political persuasion of The Times of India also appears to be changing in tune with the times. Times insiders are of the view that the recent attempted editorial revamp indicates a softening attitude on the part of the management towards certain political parties. Those perceived to be critical of Sonia Gandhi and the Nehru family are sought to be sidelined, as also those who have been following a stridently nationalistic and anti-U.S. policy, they say. Under the earlier editorial leadership, The Times had been keenly sensitive to U.S. opinion in its news coverage as well as editorials. Insiders also allege that in the not-too-distant past, a top-level U.S. diplomat had frequent interaction with the top editorial and news team in The Times set-up and often influenced the presentation of news as well as views. This practice was discontinued when Dua took over as Editorial Adviser. (Earlier, as Editor of The Hindustan Times, Dua won the respect of colleagues by resisting or moderating abuse of the newspaper's columns at the instance of the Rajiv Gandhi establishment's dirty tricks department, notably in the St. Kitts frame-up against V.P. Singh.)
Under Suraiya, the editorial page has been reportedly painted by Padgaonkar and his allies as "a den of leftists and liberals" who are too independent-minded, although their contributions to the editorial page have come in for appreciation from Samir Jain himself on several occasions.
Other top-level changes in the editorial set-up at The Times of India have been attempted or accomplished. The man behind this is believed to be Padgaonkar, who left as Editor in early 1994 to make way for Gautam Adhikari. Since his return to The Times fold, with a corporate designation, Padgaonkar is seen to be pursuing this mandate: "Get rid of Dua and some 60 others working in the editorial streams." Padgaonkar's position is said to be below that of the Managing Editor in the present scheme of things. The work content is disturbing - interfacing with management and erasing already blurred lines between editorial and management/business.
A series of attempted transfers including the replacement of Nalapat as Chief of Bureau, New Delhi (and his relegation to the status of a political analyst) by an old Times hand, L.K. Sharma, the newspaper's London correspondent, appears to have been put on hold. Those being targeted reportedly include Jug Suraiya, the acting Editorial Page Editor under whose leadership The Sunday Times of India crossed the million-copy mark and who is known as a writer of flair; Ramesh Chandran, the newspaper's Washington correspondent who was to be made Deputy Chief of Bureau under L.K. Sharma; K. Subrahmanyam, veteran strategic affairs analyst and columnist, whose strong views on the nuclear issue have invited displeasure; and Shastri Ramachandran, Senior Assistant Editor working on the editorial page under Suraiya. "The management manoeuvres apart, Padgaonkar is pursuing a personal agenda," sums up the feeling of some insiders who add a more disturbing note: "You have got to have the protective umbrella of either Sonia Gandhi or the saffron crowd. The middle ground is caving in here."
These moves have certainly heightened the sense of insecurity among the editorial staff of the newspaper chain.
Insiders are making the point that this round of bloodletting spearheaded by Padgaonkar allied with some functional executives is bigger than any undertaken by the owners, especially Samir Jain, in the past.
"Any journalist who goes to work for The Times group knowing its recent track record on editorial freedom should have no illusions about the treatment waiting for him," says C.R. Irani, the outspoken Editor-in-Chief of The Statesman.
Nayar wants an ombudsman for the press at large to be appointed. He believes that editorial freedom can be best ensured by respecting the security of tenure of the Editor, strengthening the institution of editorship and having an independent editorial budget. However, he feels, one should take up the editorship of a newspaper only if one agrees with the editorial policy of the management.
Rajni Kothari, eminent political scientist, condemns the sacking of Dua, whom he characterises as a distinguished Editor who has conducted himself with dignity and courage. Kothari told Frontline: "It is an attempt to humiliate the entire editorial fraternity. If the reports about the editorial changes that are taking place in The Times group are true, it amounts to a virtual coup, a slap in the face of editorial freedom. The blame for this cannot be laid entirely at the door of the management. Journalists are also to blame, especially those who put together the 'Human Rights Watch' columns in the newspaper."