Sunday, September 25, 2011

TRP is a 3 letter word

Once – little before he left the country, over idlis and coffee at the Saravana Bhavan on Janpath - Raju Narisetti, the founding editor of MINT (now Managing Ed at Washington Post), had jokingly talked about “the farm house index of Indian editors”. He had surprised me by rattling out names of senior editors who owned multi-crores worth farm-houses around Delhi, villas and holiday homes in the hills and by the sea.

His more than worthy successor, R Sukumar, has written a very thought provoking edit last week on media ethics titled “The real-issue-with-journalism” (click link here). Suku starts his piece – talking about his own company leased accommodation and hits the nail straight on its head. Historically, a newspaper journalist was hugely underpaid. Even after “corporatisation” of print-media today, most of the editors of leading newspapers earn only a fraction of what is paid to the head honcho of the same media house (Only 3 or 4 Indian Editors – on last count - are known to be earning Corporate Salaries with Employee Stock Options et al. Please don't ask me for names !!)

If I were to use my favourite analogy (click here to read) of a restaurant with newspapers, and if I liken the Editor to a celebrity Chef, there are many instances of Michelin Chefs paid higher than the General Managers of a hotel. Thankfully things are changing. But, still on average a journalists remuneration in not comparable to those of their marketing and commercial colleagues, who reside on the other side of the LoC as it were (to use another of my pet phrase when talking about newspapers click here) in the Church vs State divide between editorial and marketing believed to exist in the media world.

not of manor born

Only – perhaps – The Statesman, in its good old days, provided fancy accommodation to its editors (at the haloed Minto Park Complex – the premier residential address of Calcutta’s top box-wallah company executives - on D L Khan Road near the Calcutta Zoo) and, probably, also the Bennett Coleman Group (Times of India), with its large cache of prime properties in Mumbai. Others pretty much had to fend for themselves and have to do so even now.

The point I am trying to make isn’t that – inequalities in remuneration alone justify journalists taking undue favours from state, corporations, businessmen, politicians or individuals. But, the roots of such ethically ambivalent behavior probably lie there.

The desire to acquire wealth – of which land and property is a prime denomination – is a basic and universal human need that exist from time immemorial. But, in a feudal society like ours – where traditionally exceptional fortune could only be earned through the benevolence and favours granted by the rulers (read, those in power) or deprivation of the weaker sections of society, greed for “land” and “residential” property is a national affliction . So, we have Army Generals, Judges, bureaucrats and politicians all running after 'special quotas' and out of turn allocations of prime property.

It has always been considered fair-game to get land allotted from government at concessional rates for constructing “patrakar colonies”, “press enclaves” or “media centres” – treating it almost on the same footing as cheap booze at the Press Club, like a standard journalistic perk.

I remember a friend and a colleague fighting a legal battle with the Government of Maharashtra for converting the tenancy rights of an apartment on Pedder Road in Mumbai, where his late father – an eminent vernacular editor – had been granted permanent lifetime residence by a former Chief Minister of the state.

Lodi, Lutyens or Aurangzeb

Private corporations were quick to latch on to the trick. Many firms dabbling in real estate on the side offer priority allotment to journalists even before the bookings are opened to the public (like in the olden days of ‘public issues’ – promoters granted cheap shares to their friends in the media out of their quota reserved for business associates) others offer free or low rent residence to journalists – out of their pool of company flats or properties indirectly owned by them. One mega-corporation (no prizes for guessing) is particularly known for such generosity. I know of some journalists enjoying their hospitality long past their retirement at a prime address on Aurangzeb Road.

But, the question is to what extent does this compromise a journalist’s independence?

Gucci, Prada or Birkin

Without equivocating – I am not sure if I would put the above at par with free-loading Food and Lifestyle journalists. How many of our Food Critics pay for their restaurant bills? The girl-friend of a well-known glamour boy of Indian media (herself a ‘lifestyle’ journalist of some repute) is known to flaunt a collection of designer hand-bags – that’s the envy of many high society ladies - received as gifts on junkets of international fashion houses, on which she accompanied her partner.

Here again the truth is – many junior journalists wouldn’t be able to afford 5 star meals on a regular basis paying out of their own pocket and till quite recently not too many media houses would reimburse their bills either, assuming as a matter of course, that it was a free dinner in any case.

One clever media baron caught on to this rather early and decided - instead of his journalists receiving free meal tickets or other favours for positive plugs in their columns – to publish a ‘rate card’ for “paid Content” – cutting off the middle-man as it were and brilliantly monetizing a business opportunity.

Mr Pony-tail and Queen Bee

This has led to increased porosity in the once water-tight Chinese walls between advertising and editorial – with increasing instances of advertisers influencing content. It is no longer limited to a few usual suspects – known for having a slew of journalists and editors on their payroll. Why waste efforts at cultivating individual journos – when you can strike deals with the owners or the management themselves ? Therefore, it’s also not surprising that, perhaps - the most infamous among them have dismantled their in-house media-fixing department and outsourced it to the queen bee of the PR industry. One of the most “respected” business house – during a long stand-off with a top media conglomerate – shifted patronage to their rival group, not just in terms of advertising support but also sponsorship of mega events – in lieu of positive editorial coverage. Much has been written and talked about – with little result – about the media clout of a walking sartorial disaster doubling as an academic imposter ( the ‘Baba Ramdev’ of the Education Business). And, the recent family spat in a southern media empire – reveals a lot about how vulnerable the most self-righteous editors can be to external pressure.

But, pay-offs needn’t always be in cash or favours. As we have seen during the recent “R-gate” controversy – power can be a big “turn-on” as well. Many years back – a late editorial doyen, had pointed out to me some members of his ilk at a popular watering hole in Delhi – saying they are a breed of “fixers who masquerade as editors”. You have to only visit the same venue on any evening on Max Mueller Marg in New Delhi – if you wish to spot some these species.

on a different track

There are other ways of dishing out favours too. Suku in his article has talked of journalists lobbying for the “Padma Awards”. Junkets are the simplest and an age-old lolly-pop which still hasn’t lost its charm for many. Now, I am told, the in-thing is to provide "scholarships" to the kids of journalists through family or corporate trusts.

In an era when the country seems almost besieged by insurgent movements in different corners and neighbourly disquiet – many a journalist, due to their proximity to certain groups, become self-proclaimed “interlocutors” (be it of the Nagas, GNLF, ULFA or Kashmir for many years) and get inducted into “Track 2” diplomacy – for which they are rewarded in invisible ways by the government either through one of the ministries or Intel agencies like the RAW. Many of them are in the 'pay' (I am advisedly not using the term 'take' ) of the government for services they may well consider "patriotic" and, perhaps, a ticket for a "Padma".

There are many instances like the one of a senior editor setting up his own TV Content production company which was commissioned to do special programming on Kashmir. In some of our neighbouring countries - Indian journalists turned media-entrepreneurs have launched publications - which locals are convince have been funded indirectly by the Indian establishment.

These are by no means new tricks. We all remember how in the cold war era journalists were actively wooed by both the blocks and thinly veiled accusations often surfaced about someone being an agent of CIA or KGB depending on their Left or Right leanings.

The idea of this long narrative was not to chronicle what’s wrong with the journalistic world and how rot has set in to media. I genuinely believe that, our media is no less or more corrupt (for that matter ethical and principled) than any other section of our society or professions. So, it brings me back to the earlier question – as to what extent does such gratifications compromise a journalist's integrity.

hooch, hooch, hooray

I am inclined to take a somewhat amoral position on this. To me – if the media gave so much coverage to Anna Hazare, the 2G Scam or Adarsh is not because they had a sudden churn of conscience but they had simply no option. They could have done otherwise only at the risk of losing viewership or readership. The key, therefore, to making all our institutions behave responsibly and ethically lies in the arousal of public consciousness about issues that affect us. And, it is here that – crusaders like Anna Hazare, civil society activists, RTI champions and – most importantly – a fiercely independent judiciary plays the catalyst role. The triangular diagram above - perhaps - best depicts the construct that will balance the dynamics at play.

Once the mood of the people changes – everyone will slowly fall in line and change their tune (if not their hue). My friends in the media will probably kill me for this comparison – it will then be much like the voters of Tamil Nadu – who after accepting all the gifts of TVs, Washing Machines and drowned in hooch – still go and vote for exactly the party and candidate they want. Past favours and gratifications received will not really matter any more.

So, TRP, isn’t such a bad word after all.

(Note & Disclaimer: The above account is based on impressions gathered through many years of fraternising with the journalist and media community. None of the examples cited relate or pertain in anyway to my experiences in the media houses I have worked in during the course of my professional career).

My other blog-posts on Media:

Light and Sound on TV

3 Wise Men

Deceptively Simple

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sunday salivation

Are you a closet voyeur like me (except that I reside in a glass paneled closet) - who reads this new series “Diary of a single girl” in the Time Life Supplement of the Sunday ToI (click here)? While indulging in vicarious relish – on a lazy Sunday morning over my 3rd cup of tea in bed, I wonder how representative is this profile of the typical “single girl” ? Admittedly, Times Life is a supplement that’s editorially mandated to cover a whole range of lifestyle topics from relationships to religion and sex to spirituality (generally in that order). But, is it meant to be mere prurient fantasia to titillate the imagination of the readers or a peek-a-boo into the changing trends in society - I am not so sure. Also the question arises in my mind, to what extent does newspapers and media have a responsibility towards shaping societal norms ?

The ‘single girl’ who is the subject of this diary or journal – is professionally accomplished and has a successful career of her own and keeps (no pun intended) a long distance relationship with a fully ‘loaded’ boy-friend, her partner for rocking “palang-tod” sex. Her best friend is a gay guy – who understands her perfectly better than any man or girl-friend could. She flirts with and cock-teases other men – such as her boy-friend’s brother or her gym instructor (who can” stretch her inner thigh muscles like no other man can” ) – but stops short of jumping into bed with them – as an assertion of her sexual confidence of the new-age woman, who has sex on her terms only and knows where to draw the line or say no (being ‘sexually responsible’ in an amoral world is the mantra’).

Even my best friends (gay or gal) would not call me a prude. Living in Mumbai and Delhi, I have known a quite a few professionally successful single women (now, don’t ask for names or cell numbers, please !!) . Probably, only one or two of them would come tantalizingly close to this description– but still they would be more an exception than the rule. But, then I don’t claim to know the whole universe of sexually liberated single girls . Therefore, I can’t still reconcile myself to this column appearing in a Sunday family newspaper. Media they say, sometimes foretell social trends. Perhaps, this could well turn out to be a format of the future. Is this a life-style option – I would think for my daughter ? Frankly, I am undecided.

In another piece in today’s paper, Shobhaa De writes (click here to read) – “scratch the surface and we are all voyeurs”. And, I have earned a special right to be so – for yesterday, I turned 51 (for those of you who forgot to wish me Happy Birthday) !!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reflections on a roll

Exploring Bihar – many parts of it that I had never seenbefore – has been, perhaps, the most interesting experience of my current job till date. It’s been like re-discovering the Indian heartland. Those who consider Bihar backward –haven’t probably visited interior West Bengal. Masked in fudged statistics of agricultural growth and claims of more equitable income redistribution by land reforms – the Communists masterfully kept the state wrapped in a poverty net for over 30years.

Travelling through not only the districts but even the shanty suburbs of Calcutta – one feels depressed to see how living standards far from moving up has indeed slipped back. Sights in the less affluent parts on the fringes of the big city – narrow lanes with cyclerickshaws bellowing their air-horns and road side vendors selling fish and vegetables in the light of kerosene lamps , hand-carts of tele-bhaja sellers and hawkers of Phuchka dispensed in the most unhygienic standards, neon-lit local sweet-meat shops – seem almost implanted from rural mofussils of the 50s and 60s of yore. Time has stood still here for more than half a decade easily – notwithstanding the mindless and aesthetically appalling concretization all around.

Political agnostics

True West Bengal doesnot have the baggage of social inequities and not beset by the cast fissures ofBihar and UP – though a religious fault-line is soon developing with both the current and previous ruling parties trying to create a separate vote-bank of the growing minority, who were traditionally politically agnostic. That has in fact further diverted the attention of the political class from real issues of development.

In comparison, remote Siwan in the Western Bihar (birthplace of Dr Rajendra Prasad) – though not one of the most developed constituencies of the state - appears more civilized than an average district town in West Bengal. A look at the District’s official website gives some indication of
the greater engagement of the administration - a sense of ownership - in governance. For me, however, a simple index of development is the cement consumption in the area – which was large enough for us to spin-off Siwan as a separate Sales Area cutting off its umbilical code with Chapra, to which it was earlier attached.

the power of 3 and Didi

It’s probably thanks to the 3 Railway Ministers Bihar had invery close succession – Nitish, Paswan and Laloo – the Siwan station is visibly neat and tidy –where one wouldn’t mind waiting if the train’s late in arriving. But, I was more impressed by the train itself – on which I traveled to Lucknow from there. The AC1st coupe on the Vaishali Express is one of the cleanest I have bee non in a long time. The attendants were courteous and helpful. During the 6 hours journey – the sweeper came at least
thrice offering to clean the cabin - something that’s becoming a rarity these days. I can’t say this any longer of trains emanating from Howrah or Sealdah (Calcutta) these days. In any case Bengalis, are never known for their service orientation. But, now with their “Didi” (succeeded by her chella) at the helm – theyhave total immunity from all work ethics.

We all lament that, train journeys are not the same anymore. But, for a change I quite enjoyed this one – whistling past the cow-belt country, watching the prosperous fields soak in the mellow sun of the fading summer, while gorging on a packed lunch of dry mutton curry and parathas.

The train reached Lucknow on the dot of time and was alloted berth at the old station of “chota line” – the terminal for the meter gauge service that has since been closed. Though not as imposing as the main “Char Bagh” station – it’s still charming. The best part is – presumably, under Maywati’s programme for social upliftment of the backward classes – all Coolies have been provided with hand-carts, no doubt making their lives much easier as also it lightens the conscience of passengers who dump their load on these poor porters.

Viva Taj

I used to be a regular at The Taj in Lucknow – in the late 90s when it had just opened. Even then it was one of my favourite hotels – and morethan anything else I remembered it for its very good Awadhi restaurant –Oudhiyana – which could any day give the ITC’s Dum-Pukht a run for its money. I have always wondered why the Taj hasn’t carried Awadhi cuisine to their restaurants in other cities. – when they do such a fine job of it in Lucknow.

Went back to The Taj – now re-christened Vivanta, their new mid-priced brand - again after nearly 14 years. The value of address has been greatly enhanced by Maywati’s beautification drive ofthe Gomti embankment – where it was earlier a solitary structure. Its design very naturally blends into the red sand-stone architecture that now adorns the stretch alongside the river. The refurbished rooms are very smart and the service has become crisper.

I used to be earlier somewhat critical of the Vivanta . I thought it was a forced make-over to make a brand differentiation. But, now I think they are getting their act together and I am beginning to like it. Recently we stayed at the Vivanta Malabar in Cochin and loved the place. The attitude of the staff, I find are more friendly and helpful in keeping with the old Taj culture and not uppity and synthetic as in their flagship luxury properties like the (Taj) Mahal on Mansingh Road in Delhi.

But the best part of the experience was Oudhiyana – which,mercifully, have been retained in its pristine glory – without trying to go for a facelift or relaunch. Apart from the excellent Kakori and Galauti – Chef Sharma turned out a brilliant Gosht Nahari for us – which he admitted is not simmered overnight, as the traditional masters would do – but slow cooked over an hour in a special mutton stock.

However, must admit eating in front of a huge portrait of Wajid Ali Shah and the Nawab looking straight onto the plate – did induce a tiny of guilt, which had to be overcome with a generous gulp of a deep rich Sula Dindori Shiraz.

Finally I was left wondering, if only Wajid Ali could haveavailed of Bariatric surgery a la Nitin Gadkari – we probably would have a few more signature entrees of Oudhiyana.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Opium in a Handbag

Reached the end of the “River” and what a beautiful and rewarding journey it was. It’s arguably Amitav Ghosh’finest novel yet and I ungrudgingly take back all the criticisms and reservations heaped on him in my earlier blogs (Click here to read). Though billed as the second part of the trilogy – the narrative sails on its own and the threads linking it with the Ibis (Sea of Poppies) are at best tenuous. Here, the historical backdrop – is not like

a cloak sitting heavily on the story, but - acquires a life of its own as Ghosh, the master of minutiae, paints the canvas with every little detail of a Chinese scroll painting. Unlike some of his previous works – Ghosh doesn’t challenge or intimidate his readers – instead transports them to a charming old world, as if after a few draughts of that magical smoke. The historical details – such as Bahram’s chance encounter with Napoleon - yes, as in Bonaparte – in St Helena does not distract. And, the parallel tale of Paulette and Fitcher Penrose on the Red Ruth

– in search of the elusive Chinese Camellia is beautifully woven into the main plot – probably leaving a

trail to be picked up in the final part of the trilogy. A must read for everyone – even if one had missed The Sea of Poppies.

Handbag as a fashion statement

But, the book I am enjoying immensely is the Political Biography of Mayawati by the journalist Ajoy Bose. I had resisted it for a long time – probably because of my innate prejudice for the subject. But, on my couple of recent trips to Lucknow – I couldn’t help but being impressed by transformation she has wrought to the city. At the risk of being scoffed at by my more evolved friends – I have no qualms in admitting, I found grandeur, vision and aesthetic taste in what had been described as grotesque display of megalomania. Undoubtedly very deep and astute thi

nking has gone behind creation of these monuments of Dalit iconism.

Any future regime thinking of destroying them – would have to do so at their own peril and no naming any number of roads, bridges, airports, educational institutions, hospitals or other centres after members of one ‘family’ - can outdo these gigantic feats of architecture. In any case, it is better than the stadium I believe Mulayam Singh had built in his constituency – which is now a public cattle grazing ground.

It would be fashionable to argue that the humongous amounts of monies spent to build t
hese structures could have been better utilized on power plants and infrastructure projects that would have benefited the people and contributed to the development of the state. But, while roads, bridges and power
projects can be built even through private investments or PPPs – social re-engineering can only be done by the state and it is difficult to put a price tag on the costs of social change. Bose’ book gives a terrific insight to the psyche of Mayawati and, her late mentor, Kanshiram and the movement they created that could well be a turning point of Indian history.

My only worry is – after 400 years when future generations of archaeologists excavate the ruins of the Maya Age of Modern India and unearth the great Behenjis statues – they might mistake her handbags to be the fashion statement of our times.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Trauma and Coma

As the nation recovers from the trauma of the Anna Hazare’s Ram Lila Saga - the government seems to have quietly slipped back to its pristine state of virtual coma.

Sometimes I suspect, the peoples’ grouse against this government is not as much because it is deemed to be corrupt as it is considered incompetent.

At least the crisis had stirred the ruling party to some kind of action – however, misguided or ham-handed they might have been. But, once the situation was brought under control by the wily manipulations of the Machiavellian Bong – Congress’ “man for all seasons” , Pranab Mukherjee - the party seems to be again at a loss for direction.

I for one always felt that - Anna was merely a 'symbol' of the issue that is agitating the national psyche (Please read my earlier blog: Jai Ho by clicking here). By his near ascetic persona built on a Gandhian mould he was able to capture the imagination of the nation as a crusader against corruption. To me his idiosyncrasies – such as not allowing the youth of his village to drink and flogging them in public if caught – are no more relevant than Gandhi’s kinks of sleeping naked with nubile women and making his wife clean toilets. Equally, accusation of being an unelected, ‘self-appointed’ peoples’ representative etc, doesn’t wash. Today – by definition - you cannot win elections unless you are corrupt. Equally, any alleged chinks in the credentials of Anna’s associates can’t detract from their cause.

I could myself write a thesis on how corruption is ingrained in our bones and – notwithstanding the morality preached in our scriptures – Indians are genetically coded to be corrupt. So, I have no illusions that, a Lokpal Bill would have been a panacea (or to use the new favourite catchphrase “magic wand” – wand pronounced as ‘waand”) of all ills. But, that’s not the reason why we should throw the baby out with the bath-water.

The Prime Minister has himself acknowledged his government is perceived to be the most corrupt government in the history of India. The Lokpal Bill presented to him an opportunity to seize the agenda turn the problem on its head. He could have cleverly appropriated (or, in the least, co-opted) the ownership of the idea (as they had done – by default or design – in the case of RTI) and initiated effective steps to give the country a powerful machinery for tackling corruption. That would have also been a good way to shift away the focus from the individual to the larger cause. But, alas they lack both in intent and statesmanship.

Instead what we are seeing is the relapse of arrogance - with spin masters like Salman Khurshid asserting - "we may have made errors in judgment, but didn't commit any mistakes". We see the government and the party behaving churlishly - as if they were forced to swallow a bitter pill - which, being unable to digest, they are trying to eject out of their system by a combination of emetics and purgatives. In a classic case of shooting the messenger – the media has become the favourite fall guy to cover up the bungling of the government – the likes of Kapil Sibal suddenly feeling jilted by their favourite TV news anchors.

So, a GoM (group of ministers) has been appointed to tackle the media (making it difficult not to draw parallels with the Emergency) and the dirty tricks department has been commissioned to split ranks within Anna’s supporters, rent opposing voices of dissent, order searches and investigations to rip open their past and try to trip them with notices and charges of tax non-compliances or violations. The political crisis managers surely realize, far from embarrassing or discrediting them by these motivated actions – they are only exposing the government’s dubious designs further.

The first thing to do at such uncomfortable times is to cast doubts about the funding of the agitation. The Congress did this during the JP movement accusing it of being funded by the CIA and, I was reading Ajoy Bose’ Political Biography of Mayawati last night – the same insinuation was made against Kanshiram in the early days of the BSP. That could well be the truth, as Congress politicians surely know how political campaigns are financed. One hears similar whispers about Indian intelligence agencies inspired actions in our neighbouring countries. In Nepal, where I have lived for some length of time, almost everything – from rising prices to riots - is blamed on machinations of RAW. So, those who are asking, who paid for Anna’s medical bills at Medanta, may also like to put the same question to the first family of the Congress Party. The declared combined wealth of Sonia and Rahul would not be enough to pay for their trips, holidays and SG’s treatment abroad. But then, why should someone ask the obvious. (See link by clicking here)

The exercise of asking Ministers to declare their assets was similarly farcical. It raised more questions than it answered. If the idea was to build credibility and show transparency – the effect was just the opposite. Surely, the government doesn’t think the people of India are such morons to believe the ridiculous disclosures of wealth. But, they probably think that the people simply don’t care – so politicians can get away with anything.

One would have thought – the Anna episode would have served as a wake up call. But, alas you can’t hear the alarm clock in a state of coma.


Pranab Mukherjee calls India – the greatest functional democracy, whatever that means. The truth is today – the government has stopped “functioning” and Congressmen are busier discussing the state of Sonia Gandhi’s health than the state of the nation.

Speculations are rife about how unwell she is and whether she’d be able to resume her normal duties soon or she’ll return briefly to anoint the 41 year old “Prince Charming”, if not for the big job, at least as the “working president” of the party.

It’s ironical when the Prime Minister underwent a major coronary by-pass surgery – the government didn’t think it necessary to appoint an interim head – the unstated assumption being everyone knew where the real power strings were firmly held. But, now that the mighty lady herself is out of action we are kept equally in the dark – as it is considered to be a “private affair”.

The nation’s right to know – who’s going to be in charge should an unfortunate eventuality strike – is kept firmly in suspended animation. The allies and the opposition are deferentially silent. I see this as a rather ‘dysfunctional’ democracy – though some would even go to the extent of calling it a Banana Republic.