Wednesday, 16 January 2013

The Role Of Editor In Contemporary Media


My father, the late Shri Mayaram Surjan, a pioneer of value-based Hindi journalism in post-independence India, fondly used to say that our prestige is auctioned just for 25 paise everyday (hamaree izzat 25 paise mein roz neelam hotee hai). It was the cover price of the newspaper in those days and what he meant was that once a paper has been sold, it becomes the property of the buyer and s/he is free to pass a judgment on that day’s production. I have narrated this little story to bring home the point that media is a complex business. It’s not a solo performance but requires close coordination at several levels and utmost care has to be exercised at every step before the paper hits the stands. The same holds true about the electronic media. The reader, viewer, listener demands credible output in return of the subscription paid by him/her and if you look carefully at the structure of a media establishment, you will find that there is only one person in that system who can relate to the outside world and who in the public eye has the capability to fulfill this requirement. Once upon a time that person was known as the Editor with a capital E.

Why the editor? Why no one else? What were his qualifications? What was his remit? What was his authority? How did he connect with the readers? What was his role in coordination? Several questions crop up. The answer in one word is that the editor used to be the guiding spirit of a newspaper. In the days of the yore, the newspaper business had two clear-cut compartments- editorial and management. The owner or his nominee would look after the finances, advertisement, circulation, shop floor and so on. Yes, the editor was also appointed by the owner, but he was not supposed to report to the manager. Rather, he was much above the manager and had direct access to the owner. In fact, the editor enjoyed much greater esteem in the eyes of the general public and the owner quite often remained in the background. Then, there was another kind of establishment where the editor himself was the owner of the paper, howsoever small it may be. In both the cases, the editor enjoyed this exalted position due to his knowledge, experience, leadership, grasp of language, and understanding of issues, decision-making ability, fearlessness, sagacity and many other qualities.

It is not hard to realise that while the owner invested the money, procured material and machinery, built up circulation network, solicited advertisements- it had no direct bearing upon the general public or readership. On the other hand, what the editor did was clearly and visibly reflected in the newspaper- the selection of news, its placement, drafting, layout and so on. One may say that it was the editor who shaped the identity of a newspaper, turned a sheet of newsprint into a vehicle of information, ideas and interpretation. What was true yesterday is equally true today. What is relevant for a paper is relevant for a channel as well. One, who ignores the truth, does so not only at ones own peril, but also at a great cost to the democratic society and the very idea of democracy. I must add that at one hand, media is an essential tool for strengthening democracy and on the other side; it can healthily grow only in a democratic environment. Therefore, any devious intervention puts both in danger. The diminishing role of editor is one such unwelcome plot.

There has been much talk in the recent days about the degradation of the institution of editor in the print media. Most of it is true, has been said with pious intent and has a touch of nostalgia about the days when press was a mission and not commerce, but in the process, we have somehow failed to the see the larger picture. The print media once dominated the whole spectrum, but over the last few decades bit-by-bit the media scene in India has gone under complete transformation; and today a sizeable part of that space has been taken over by news channels and social media sites. I hold that the role of editor is similarly important in the electronic sphere as well, though it is seldom discussed. It might be due to the fact that a) most critics and analysts come from the print media fraternity and b) on the whole the role of electronic media is still in want of critical assessment. Then there is this all-important fact about changing ownership pattern in the media industry that has a huge bearing upon the issue under discussion.   We also need to factor in the impact on Indian media of the changes in global political economy and media as part of it.

I read some fifty years ago an autobiographical book titled “ I bought a newspaper” written by a British journalist Claude Morris. Morris narrated his life story as to how he came to acquire a small newspaper in a county in Wales and with the support of the cross-section of the local community turned it into a vibrant tool for social action and mirror of public aspirations. This started changing in the 1960s with the arrival of Roy Herbert Thomson (later Lord Thomson of the Fleet Street) on the media scene, who once defined the news as something tucked between advertisements in a paper. His place has been taken over by Rupert Murdoch and his family. The difference between Morris and Thomson or Murdoch is evident. For the former journalism was his calling, a sacred duty to the society, for the later it was all about wielding power and minting money. Morris was a journalist whereas Thomson and Murdoch hired journalists as wage labourers. This transformation of media took place side-by-side with the similar paradigm shift in the political economy that reached its pinnacle during the Thatcher-Reagan years.

The corporate India didn’t lag behind in emulating the trend set by its role models. The mighty Times Of India group was the first to diminish and demolish the institute of the editors. Many others followed the suit. The compartments were broken, owners became editors without any qualification needed for the task, and their names started appearing in the print line. In some cases, the name of the editor altogether disappeared. However, the story doesn’t end here. Perhaps, in order to establish their credentials, they also took on publishing newspaper articles under their bylines, which were in fact, penned by ghostwriters. But this charade reached its height in the late-eighties, when on several occasions, these newspaper barons managed to steal the opportunity, at the expense of the working journalists, to join the press party of the prime minister on his foreign visits. On each occasion, before flying out the master shamelessly left instructions to the staff to publish the stories from abroad filed by the wire service under his name. To be sure, this was not new to Indian press. Some fifteen years before this, veteran journalist and founder-secretary of IFWJ, Jagdish Prasad Chaturvedi was told by his employer to forego a foreign trip with the prime minister in favour of the employer’s son. This was a rare incident for those times and Shri Chaturvedi taking exception to this demand immediately resigned from the newspaper without giving a thought to his future.  Sadly enough, what was an aberration has become the order of the day and most journalists, unlike Shri Chaturvedi, seem to be averse to take any risk. In the current atmosphere, many remain clung to lucrative package offered to them and have no compunction in becoming willing partners in this game of media corporatisation. The story of page-3, paid news, response features and other marketing gimmicks is all too well known and I will not waste your time on that. In stead, let us focus our eyes on the electronic media.

The situation seems to be different here, but only at the surface; the underlying reality remains the same. The editors of news channels very regularly appear on the screen, particularly during the prime time or when there is a ‘hot story’. They wear the holier than thou attitude on their sleeves and with certain smugness promise to change the things. They tend to blast any small event out of proportion, try their best to sell it as an epoch making one and once it fizzles out, slip out to cash upon some other event. They present themselves as the prosecutor, police, judge and the witness- all rolled into one, and lambaste the democratic polity. Why? What public good is served in this way? The fact is that they are doing what their masters have ordered them to do. In the USA, the corporate houses largely control politics. Their Indian counterparts are also trying to achieve the same here.

I am tempted to compare this phenomenon with a similar trait in the film industry. The financier dictates the term and the director has no alternative but to follow the orders. A manifestation of this can be seen in a bizarre thing called an ‘Item Song.’ One may cite the differences between a news channel and a film, but they cause greater worry in my mind. The active life of a film is not more than a few weeks and hardly has a permanent impression on the viewers psyche; whereas the news channel is there day in and day out with the editor or anchor harping repeatedly and relentlessly upon the same topic. Secondly, in a film, the director is never face-to-face with the audience as the channel editor does. Therefore he is able to wield greater influence on the news watcher. Thirdly, a film is often a fantasy presented as fantasy, but TV news is offered as an undeniable reality. This has led me to believe that our 24x7 news channels are doing a grave disservice to the nation, but there seems to be no stopping in sight.

Let us now talk a little about the Internet and the new media that comes in two varieties- 1) individual messaging and 2) group messaging. It is rather impossible to check or edit what is posted on individual sites. The postings are mostly of juvenile kind and need not concern us. Yet, the possibility of socially harmful messaging is always there, but at least I don’t know if there is any remedy for it. We leave it for the present and go to group sites. I myself subscribe to a number of such groups that carry discussions on the topics of my interest. But I feel that many of these sites have no adequate editing or moderating mechanism, although they were promoted and run by experienced journalists. These sites soon turn out to be free for all and the basic object of setting up the facility is soon lost in a haze. It is unfortunate because the Internet has a potential to provide an alternative media, which in turn has the potential of becoming vox populi. So even in this case, the need for an editor can’t be over emphasized.

 I have witnessed the erosion of the institute of the editor over the last four decades or so. There used to be an All India Newspaper Editors Conference. It is defunct now. Its offshoot grew in the avatar of Editors Guild of India. It has also become non-functional. Another fine organisation called Press Institute of India, too, has been left to die a slow death. The trade unions like IFWJ and others have also lost their vigour. Then, there is a big number of journalism training schools in the country; all painting a rosy and glamorous picture about the future but I do not know if anyone of them is honest enough to tell the bitter truth that whatever is being taught in the classroom has no relevance in the outside world and their sole purpose is to prepare wage slaves for the corporate driven media industry. 

This is a dismal picture and doesn’t bode well for the future. An instrument of media without an editor is like a ship without a captain at the helm that is certain to go adrift, sooner rather than later. A media baron may invest enormous sums on packaging his ‘product’ and be successful in creating a ‘brand’ but what does it mean to the society? A newspaper with constant infusion of funds can achieve astronomical growth in circulation and a news channel highest possible ratings, but if the content is rotten inside the beautiful wrappings than it is tantamount to a scam. The primary objective of media is to present the current events in a way that helps people in becoming more cognizant about their life and enables to take decisions based upon such understanding. But what is happening today is that media houses have turned into event management outfits providing cheap entertainment. As regards editors, I may give two examples- one is a chief editor of a big newspaper and other a channel anchor once known for his arrogant manners: both now travel around the country and tell juicy stories on culinary delights offered at five star hotels and roadside dhabas. This is what corporate chiefs have reduced them to. 

This brings us to the million-dollar question- what should be done to reverse the situation. I should not claim to have a ready answer; yet, I venture to offer a couple of suggestions that might be useful in this direction. The first is that the journalistic fraternity comes together, pools its resources, forms cooperative societies and launches its own newspapers and channels. This will require at least some, if not all, eminent journalists to say good-bye to corporate media houses and lead from the front: much like what Dr Verghese Kurien did in Amul or what the employees of the erstwhile Indian Coffee Board did to take over Indian Coffee Houses. If such step is taken then I am sure a huge number of public-spirited citizens will also come forward to support the cause of independent media in the country. The second suggestion does not need such drastic action. A group of journalists while continuing to work with corporate media houses may set aside a certain amount of their income to build up alternative media like a weekly paper or a wall paper or at least an internet site. The thrust of these suggestions is that the journalists alone have the find the answer and they must take up the challenge. Obviously, The issue is much larger and deep-rooted and has to be understood in that way. Else, one should not moan and grumble about the victimization of the editor.

Talk delivered at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Dhenkanal, Odisha on 15th January 2013