When We Were Fired From the Asian Age: A Story of Political, Corporate Control That Makes the Media Crawl
NEW DELHI: Deccan Chronicle owner Rama Reddy, who appeared in the initial days of taking over Asian Age, as a fairly simple gentleman changed as power and (money) went to his head. A quiet person standing virtually on the sidelines, not conversant with the guests at the parties thrown by editor-in-chief MJ Akbar, Reddy would smile his way through what must have been long evenings for him at the time. He was introduced to some of the guests, never to all, and was too modest at that stage to point that the Asian Age was owned by him and not by Akbar who of course, was always the star of the evenings.
He would rarely miss an occasion to tell me the flak he would receive for my stories and articles, how the Congress leaders---and he often named them---would accost him and ask him to stop my columns. But every conversation would end with a laughing, “but you continue writing, don’t worry I am not a weak man.”
Those were heady days as apart from other campaigns the Asian Age was in the thick of the controversy over the nuclear deal being negotiated by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with the United States. The present foreign secretary Jaishankar was a key figure along with others at the time. We were ahead of others in reporting the secret negotiations going on at the time, and with every story our relationship with the centre would dip by several minus points to well below freezing levels. The hostility was palpable at official gatherings, and I at least had become quite immune to being ignored (snubbed?) by Singh’s officers who were committed to the deal as much as he and Washington were.
As a journalist one also became conversant with the words ‘anti-national’ at the time, although the army of trolls deployed by the BJP/RSS was of course missing at the time.
Rama Reddy grew ambitious as Asian Age became more and more successful. It became the alternative newspaper for those seeking independent and bold journalism and after revelling in the new publicity the owner and proprietor came up against a hard wall. As word had it, he went to Congress president Sonia Gandhi seeking a ticket to Parliament and was told in so many words that he should first control his ‘newspaper’ from attacking the government on a daily basis.
A big negative for the Asian Age had been a series of stories I had done on Bofors based on an eight hour long interview with the Swedish investigator Sten Lindstrom who had agreed to speak to us, after years of silence. The interview coincided with the Lok Sabha elections which were seen as crucial by the Congress and its close ally then, the Left to ensure the defeat of the BJP government at the time. The Congress was furious with the series, and the Left was so beside itself that some worthies from its Delhi unit called and abused on the telephone, accusing me of supporting the BJP! A vague effort to point out that no journalist worth his or her profession would have held back the ‘story’ or refused the interview fell on deaf ears, as the Congress and sections of the Left united to shoot the messenger, in this case the Asian Age and the editors.
Rama Reddy was clearly feeling the pressure, and after he was told by the Congress President to slam on the brakes he decided to speak with me. He had spoken with editor Akbar of course, but the latter was travelling abroad and I was in charge of the content. So perhaps out of the realisation that I would not listen he said, “just for a week don’t write on Sonia Gandhi, thats all, just a week.” Because by then he was hoping his candidature for the Rajya Sabha would be cleared. Fortunately there was nothing really that the Congress president did, so the “deal” held.
The Congress party had realised that while they could not control the journalist, they could certainly play on the new ambitions of the businessman. And clearly the party went to work on him, with a falling out for reasons one believes for other than just the content of the newspaper, between Akbar and Rama Reddy. Around the time that Akbar was fired---he came to the office from a visit abroad to find that overnight his name had disappeared as the editor from the newspapers credit line, and had been replaced by that of Rama Reddy. He packed up and left, literally pushed out of the newspaper he had set up and moved to success.
I had got a call a day or so earlier from Rama Reddy asking me to meet him at the apartment he stayed in in Delhi. To cut a story short, I was told gently of course that now Akbar was expendable, that the newspaper would see a change in policy, and that it would be supporting Sonia Gandhi, and would I be okay with that? In other words there would be complete business control of editorial policy. I left and sent in my resignation. And paid three months salary to Rama Reddy for wanting out!
An earlier experience had been with a pink financial newspaper. I am not mentioning the name as I have not cleared this with then editor, who not just turned that financial daily around, but made it profitable and popular. I worked in what were then possibly the most ideal conditions in that newspaper, with an editor who was professional, independent, bold and an excellent mentor for us. Needless to say it was the same qualities that he was hired for that became an issue for the management when the newspaper started making profit, and the first person to be sacked was the editor himself.
Under the Manmohan Singh government, as now, the media is under corporate censorship. News covered by the cameras does not find a line in the bulletins following a ‘phone call’ from the government to the owner or to the editor in charge directly. Yesterdays P.Chidambaram is today’s Arun Jaitley. Both are known to be selective, ruthless, and ensure the ‘death’ of news even as they manage to push in the ‘plants’ through selective briefings. The scribes who gather for the briefings rarely question the politicians, accepting the gossip as facts and often writing the reports that then project the government in power in a positive light even when facts are damning.
Censorship is acute, but it is not official or visible. The working journalists feel it on a daily basis but are powerless to do anything about it. Having experience for two years as the National Affairs editor in News X, one learnt how channels were told what discussions to organise during prime time with the star anchors falling in line with the same rapidity as the poor journalist worried about losing his or her job. And sometimes when the decision had been conveyed early enough, a tv news channel would start introducing the issue into the news bulletins through the course of the day, convincing the viewer of its news relevance (even when the opposite was true) and then organising a one hour debate around it. And how, guests were selected to ensure that one or the other view was propagated more strongly than the counter.
A certain dishonesty has entered TV news even through what are called sim sats, which are basically interviews recorded earlier or later and then used in the discussion as if these were live. I have been part of high rating programs on television where one of the key panelists is missing, and the anchor acts out the questions as if he is receiving responses, and later the interview is fed into the program. So by the time it is aired, the viewer is convinced that all the panelists are there as he/she sees them. Or again a sim sat, has happened with me fairly recently, is taken and then instead of the anchor informing the viewers that this interview was taken earlier, he places the recorded interview as live, and even goes through the motions of asking questions that were never asked in the first instance. This happened over News X with the channels star anchor finally apologising for this completely unethical practice.
Under the new government the control has been perfected, and is not even visible at times. Scribes falling all over themselves to take selfies with Prime Minister Narendra Modi are indicative of the malaise that has overtaken the media, where no one is even willing to ask hard questions despite the opportunity. Journalists are so keen to be welcomed by the politician in power, that they forget that they are supposed to function as watch dogs and not tame ‘dogs’. Manmohan Singh tightened the policy of just two questions from scribes accompanying him on his visits abroad, with two journalists selected to ask innocuous questions. PM Modi is following the same tested princple with the questions now directed at allowing him to speak of his one or the other pet themes, such as terrorism, on a visit abroad. Scribes now listen, they do not question, and one is reminded of how a top anchor and owner of a TV news channel bent over backwards to welcome PM Modi and the new Ministers on their show, almost as if they were welcoming hem for dinner to their house.
(To be Continued in the New Year)