And How Can Indian Press Be Free?

I relish Khushwant Singh’s column in Hindustan Times, because he provides a different viewpoint, at least in some, that makes you light but think a little. After going through his Delhi, a fusion of history cum fiction, I did not read any of his books. It is unfortunate, but the major print media today is in hands of intellectually third rated businessmen some of them are unscrupulous too. The print media has hardly any other social objective today but one to survive the severe competition from the digital (news channels) onslaughts. What percentage of the readers today are those reading editorials and lead articles? Print media has hardly any representation in the rural India and the issues of the people in unorganized sectors and self-employed class. The news forming the majority are only polluting the simple rural population rather than providing any assistance in coming out of age-old curse of poverty though success stories and encouragement for innovation and entrepreneurship.
But Khushwant Singh’s story in ‘Outlook of March 24, 2008‘ is about the shocking way the media barons are working. How can one have faith in such media? Here is that in his words:

The hard truth about Indian journalism is that proprietors matter, editors do not; money counts, talent does not.

The latest instance is the unceremonious sacking of M.J. Akbar, founder-editor of the Asian Age. He is perhaps the most distinguished living member of his tribe. He started the weekly Sunday and the Telegraph for the Ananda Bazaar group of papers based in Calcutta. He has been elected member of the Lok Sabha and is the author of half-a-dozen books, all of which have gone into several editions. Fifteen years ago, he, with a set of friends, launched the Asian Age. It was a bold venture as the Asian Age came out of all the metropolitan cities of India as well as London. It had little advertising but had a lot more readable material taken from leading British and American journals than any other Indian daily. It was as close to being a complete newspaper as any could be. Besides these unique qualities it also published articles by writers critical of the government and the ruling party. It was probably this aspect of the journal that irked Akbar’s latest partner in the venture; he had political ambitions of his own and wished to stay on the right side of the government. So without a word of warning, on the morning of March 1 while he was on his way to office, Akbar learned that his name was no longer on the Asian Age masthead as its editor-in-chief. It was an unpardonable act of discourtesy committed by someone with less breeding and more money.

I had been a fan of MJ, not because he is from Bihar, but because I found him one of the best editors and real secular in thinking and action. And then he moves on to tell his own bad experiences.

Akbar was one of the small team of editors who helped me take the circulation of the Illustrated Weekly of India from a measly 60,000 to well above 4,00,000.It is ironical that I was sacked in much the same way in 1978 as Akbar was this year. The journal, like all others published by Bennet Coleman, including the Times of India, had been restored by the government to the Jain family. As soon as they took over, they started meddling in my business. My contract was terminated and my successor appointed. I had one week to go. I wrote a tearful piece of farewell, wishing the Illustrated Weekly future prosperity. It was never published. When I arrived at the office in the morning to tidy up my desk, I was handed a letter asking me to quit immediately. I picked up my umbrella and walked back home.

It was an undeserved, deliberate insult. It still rankles in my mind. The Jain vendetta continues to this day. Even functions held in my honour presided over by people like Amitabh Bachchan, Maharani Gayatri Devi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while reported in the Times of India, never carry my name or photograph.

I feel like stopping my newspaper ‘Times of India’, but what are the alternatives? Perhaps that is the reason that they hardly accept any thing that I write critical about the industry, be it the poor salaries and facilities for the lowest workmen, or the very much limited role of the industry in education, even the industrial training, particularly in the non-knowledge sectors. I only wish that the people came to know about the ownership of all the newspapers and its credentials and start judging themselves.

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