What the New Yorker, an American fortnightly, has told about the Jain brothers, Samir and Vineet, presiding over the Times of India group, has been known to most. The contribution by the New Yorker is that it has nailed the doubts and confirmed that the biggest media moguls of the country believe that there is nothing sacrosanct about news columns and can be sold for a price because a newspaper for them is a commodity, like talcum powder or tooth paste.
A reader may be shocked to know that the news he avidly reads is paid for. His frustration and helplessness is heightened because he does not realize which part of the story is news and which part is a fake. This violation of editorial standards does not bother the Jain brothers because they treat the profession as an industry to earn money. They feel proud that they have torn ethics into tatters and have still remained the No. 1 newspaper in India. Not only that, they make more money than probably any other newspaper in the world. The great Rupert Murdoch’s empire is 20 times bigger than the Times of India. Yet he earns less profit.
In a nine-page article, the fortnightly narrates how the Jains treat journalism merely “as a necessary nuisance and celebrates the advertiser as the real customer.” Not surprisingly, the Times of India does not carry the name of editor in print line because the paper does not have any.
Someone, not they, had said long ago that writing in a newspaper was writing on the back of advertisements. The Jain brothers practise this both in letter and spirit. “We knew we were in the business of aggregating a quality audience. Before that, we just sold advertising space.” The New Yorker article carries no direct quotes of the Jain brothers. They probably refused to be interviewed.
However, their lackeys, thankfully none from the editorial side, have given a peep into their mind. One lackey says: “Editors tend to be pompous thundering from the pulpit, speaking in 80-word sentences.” Vineet Jain himself is clear that to succeed in newspaper business, you must not think like editors. “If you are editorially minded, you will make all the wrong decisions.”
True, the Jains have made newspapers into a ‘news’ paper business. But that is because they have perfected the art of packaging their newspaper, cheapening it and bringing it down to the level of yellow journalism. Yet they do not mind this because they have the distinction of converting the profession into an industry. Editors for them are cheaper by the dozen.
I recall Girilal Jain, the then editor of the Times of India, ringing me up one day to ask whether I could speak to Ashok Jain, the owner whom I knew well, to get his son Samir Jain off his back. Giri said that Ashok Jain, whatever his preferences treated him well but Samir’s attitude was humiliating. Ashok Jain said in reply that he could buy many Girilal Jains but he could not find one Samir who has increased his revenue eight times. Inder Malhotra once recounted to me how senior journalists were made by Samir to sit on the floor in his room to write out the names of invitees on cards sent by the organization.
What the Jain brothers have done in their venture to make money is to reduce newspapers to a title-tattle. Journalism is just a facilitator in their business. To ensure this, the newspaper, according to the New Yorker, tries to maintain “a robust degree of optimism even in the news space—despite murders and rapes and accidents and tsunamis—and prefers to talk to the inspirational young. Poverty stories are given a low billing.”
Business or management departments have come to have more say over the years. I think the tame role of press during the emergency is one of the reasons why commercial interests have come to take precedence. When it was seen the pressmen had caved in without a fight, the management began to push them from the pre-eminent position they once occupied. They are at the beck and call of the business side. We used to throw the press note with BM (business must) into the dust bin.
Since the relationship between business and editorial has become blurred, free expression has got restricted and day-to-day interference has increased. It is an open secret that the management or the business side dictates a particular line dependent on their economic and political interests. That many owners are sitting members of the Rajya Sabha is not as important as is the fact that they cultivate political parties for seeking favours.
And their indebtedness or proximity to the party or the benefactor is reflected in the columns of newspapers. This relationship is what has got translated itself into “paid news”. Stories are sought to be written in a manner where a particular person or a point of view is projected in news columns. Readers seldom detect when information is laced with propaganda or when advertisement is woven into the text of news columns.
However, time has come when a media commission should be appointed to look into all aspects of newspapers, television and radio. When the last press commission was appointed in 1977, we did not have television because it did not exist in India at that time. The whole gamut of media needs to be looked into to determine, among other things, the relationship between owner and editor, journalist and owner, who has circumvented the Working Journalists Act to introduce a contract system, and linkage between TV and the print medium. Today, a newspaper can own a television channel or radio. There is no bar on cross-media ownership. This is leading to cartels which ultimately affect the freedom of the press.
For reasons best known to the ruling party, it does not want to appoint a media commission. Could it be because of the influence of the Jain brothers who have a lot to answer? The Jain brothers must understand that the right to freedom of expression was given to a scribe so that he or she could say anything without fear or favour. If the piper is to call the tune it will only raise serious questions about the freedom of expression. In democracy, where free information stirs free response, the press cannot be at the whim of a few. A restricted press may well violate the constitutional guarantee for the freedom of expression. EOM