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