NEW DELHI: Demonetisation has hit at least two mainstream newspapers, one of which has been actually in the forefront of a campaign supporting the controversial move till date.Both have moved to dismiss hundreds of employees in what remains a hush-hush almost covert operation as journalists and other staff struggle to cope with the sudden notices served on them.

In December the Ananda Bazaar Group that publishes The Telegraph in English, and the Ananda Bazaar Patrika in Bengali from Kolkata moved to check the losses that insiders claim were caused by demonetisation. ABP reduced the pages of each publication that the Business Standard, once owned by the group but since independent, reported were at least six per publication;informed departmental heads to cut down the staff; and reduced the retirement age arbitarily of course, from 60 to 58 years that impacted immediately on 45 employees, again according to the BS report.

There have been reports whispering their way on to the internet, of a drastic fall in advertisement revenues of the entire media. A major newspaper that does not seem to have the ability to cushion the losses is the Hindustan Times that has closed down at least six editions, and some Bureaus. At least 200 employees have been adversely affected, again according to the grapevine without official confrmation, with a new editor Bobby Ghosh being brought in to preside over the largescale retrenchment.

Hindustan Times proprietor Shobhna Bhartia has not seen it necessary to explain the reasons for the sudden shut downs with the process of sacking staff still continuing, and not completed. Some of the editions---Indore, Bhopal, Varanasi, Allahabad, Kanpur, and perhaps Kolkata soon if not already closed---have been working since almost two decades. It is interesting that at least three editions that have been closed are from Uttar Pradesh, a state going in for elections next month. Again one must reiterate that this information is not independent, and comes from the few and scattered reports that have found their way to the media. HT employees are too terrified to talk as the Damocles sword of dismissal is still hanging over most heads.

It has been for a while that the corporate owners of newspapers have changed the rules of employment from the wage board to contracts, that they insist give them the right to throw out employees without even the proverbial golden handshake. Dismissal has become a favourite with media managements to control the news by controlling the journalists, with one major Delhi newspaper having sacked an editor a few years ago without informing him, and merely pasting a notice on his door that he read when he came in to work one morning.

News channels when they change hands, such as News X that went through different ownerships, fell the employees without notice with one rather nasty decision by the channel earlier locking out over 200 employees when they reported for work, without notice, and without compensation. They were not even allowed to go inside to pick up their belongings by the security guards at the gate.

This power wrested by the managements of media houses over the years has seriously compromised the quality of journalism. Reporters are constantly threatened with dismissal through the basic nature of the contracts they sign when they join work, and have to follow the management line that is often in direct violation of journalistic ethics that are based on honesty and commitment to facts. The result is a sense of fear within media houses, particularly where dismissals on flimsy grounds are not an aberration, with journalists censoring their news even before writing it to keep their jobs from being threatened.

Since most managements controlling the media like to support the government of the day, and switch loyalties with every election, the irreverence, honesty, independence associated with the fourth pillar of democracy has become a major casualty. Faced with the real risk of dismissal, scribes not always from well to do families, fall in line and prune the news accordingly. The old editor versus reporter face off on stories, that were a hallmark of almost every good newspaper through the 1960’s till the mid 1990’s at least, have been replaced in entirety by ‘management policy’ that guides the editorial content so that it does not impact on other businesses and on advertisement flow. As senior editors like Kuldip Nayar have often pointed out, “today journalists crawl even if they are asked only to bend”.

This is because the scribe does not have a choice. He is caught between reporting the truth, and a jobless existence on the other side. Most compromise, and toe the line without question. However, as the current spate of dismissals proves this too is often not enough.

It might be recalled, however, that every media house attributing the dismissals to losses pay huge salaries to a select group of scribes usually based at the headquarters. These figures are mind boggling, and are paid to those who generally have a good and sound line to the government of the day. The more capable of these journalists that form the central core manage to shift loyalties with governments, having perfected the art as it were. The compensation is huge salaries with or without even having to write on a regular basis.

There is a certain rot that has set in, crippling journalism and violating the rights of working journalists. The profession is being turned into a supplicant of authority, with journalists unable to resist the pressure in real terms. Journalistic bodies that are in existence have not proven equal to the task of protecting the scribes from such controls--- that hinge on economic livelihood of the reporter and the family he or she supports--- with the professional editor-in-chief having been replaced in almost the big media houses by the money bags. And the appointed editors doing the bidding, or else facing the proverbial ‘notice on the door’ asking them to leave as per immediate effect.

A senior journalist and editor of the Times of India, who has sadly died in recent months, was never really able to shake off the reputation of siding with a big newspaper management in the 1980’s to introduce the contract system. This really turned the tables on the working journalists, and ensured that the power moved almost irretrievably to the ‘management floor.’

Several ‘editors’ have since sat over large scale dismissals of working journalists who are often unable to find another job because of the created glut in the ‘market’. All these worthies draw big salaries, and enjoy the confidence of the management so long as they oppose the rights of the working journalists, and exert pressure on the employees usually drawing a fraction of their salaries.

News is thus reported under pressure, with a phone call from the government of the day ensuring a virtual ‘black out’. Often the management well versed in the kind of news that should be projected, exercises the pressure, with the recalcitrant journalist in the chain being pushed out to ensure smooth functioning of the apparatus as it were. There are numerous examples of such pressure across the media industry, most that go unreported but are well known to the insiders.

Large scale sacking is not frequent, but now not unknown either. It speaks of the times, and of the fear that is almost pervasive in the media however, that despite hundreds being rendered jobless without notice since December into January this year, the media managements are able to get away with this violation of basic working rights without even a murmur of real protest.