Why Newspapers Are Important
The Times of India is a newspaper where this columnist spent a pleasant decade. During his time, it was headed by Ashok Jain, who in his experience never sought to alter the editorial views of his senior team. Ashokji, as he was affectionately called, used to have long sessions with senior editors, discussing not business or the profits that his company was making, but how to get India moving forward. Once, this columnist wrote about “Indutva”, the concept which asserts the composite culture of India, a culture where ancient Vedic traditions fused with Mughal beliefs and Western approaches.
Each citizen of India embodies these three great streams, even those who believe that they are representative of only one, and who profess to have contempt for the other two culture streams. Unless an individual respects other cultures and traditions, he or she would lack the breadth of vision needed to adjust to a world where communication across thousands of miles is just a computer click away. It was clear that the Chairman of The Times of India agreed. He called this columnist early in the morning the article (on Indutva) appeared, and spent an hour discussing the composite philosophy of India. It was truly a pleasure to work in a newspaper that had this quality of leadership.
A newspaper ought not to make the accumulation of profit the core objective of its existence. It ought to be a champion of its readers, taking up the causes that would affect them positively, and fighting against trends that are harmful to the reader. In Kerala, where too this columnist edited a large newspaper, most of the readers were growers of coconut. Which is why it was not surprising that any problem that affected the industry was immediately highlighted, together with a strong stand against religious intolerance and fundamentalism, from whatever source. It was when hard-line Hindus, Muslims and Christians were united in their opposition to the policy of the newspaper (the name of which was Mathrubhumi or “Motherland”) that this columnist knew that he was doing a good job as Editor.
In The Times of India nationally, when an opportunity presented itself in 1994 with the departure of an editor who was deeply steeped in European traditions, almost the first step taken by the new team was to throw away the Rule Book, which till that time had straitjacketed the newspaper into following a version of the English language that went out of vogue even in the UK in the 1930s. Indian English was given respectability, on the assumption that the people of India were entitled to their own version of the language, the way the people of Australia or the US did. Cultures are “horizontal” and not “vertical”. Each is the equal of the other, rather than being placed on a vertical scale, with higher and lower. There is nothing wrong in using a version of the English language that relates to the uses and traditions of this country, and from 1994 the language used in The Times of India reflected this. Although editorial purists were aghast at replacing “English English” with Indianised English, Chairman Ashok Jain gave full support. He was a man proud of his country and its culture, and not defensive about either.
What counts for a newspaper is the bottom line of the country and not simply the bottom line of the company running the newspaper. And the best part is that this is an industry where idealism brings financial reward. An honest stand creates the credibility needed for a newspaper to grow. And unless readers believe in a newspaper, it would cease to have value for advertisers. During the 1990s, The Times of India was as respected as the London Times was during its heyday. An example would suffice. An article appeared on the edit page in 1997 asking for tax rates to be lowered to 10 per cent, 20 per cent and 30 per cent. A few weeks later, the Union Budget introduced by then Finance Minister P Chidambaram suggested precisely that range. On other matters as well, including on questions of national security and economic policy, governments paid attention to The Times of India while framing policies. The newspaper became an effective champion of the consolidation of economic reform as well as a modernisation of the military and a re-focus towards new rather than traditional threats.
Since he left thirteen years ago, this columnist has never returned to The Times of India offices, so he is unaware of much of the changes have taken place in that institution since then. Recently, The New Yorker carried some comments by the youthful Managing Director of the Times Group, Vineet Jain, in which he is reported to have said words to the effect that profit, profit and more profit was all that drove his publishing empire. If true, this is a change from his father, who never once mentioned the word “profit” in any of numerous conversations that he had with this columnist. Profit cannot be the objective of a national pubishing house, accuracy and relevance in reporting is. The money earned is a by-product of such enlightened policies. Even today, The Times of India has a significant degree of trust within its readership. That is capital which needs to be carefully tended, for ulimately, Credibility is King. And that can only be built by reporting the news in an accurate manner, even if in the process some deep pockets or powerful people get annoyed. Vineet’s elder brother Samir has several times spoken of a newspaper as being, in a sense, a check on the government. He wanted his newspaper to be respected by those in power rather than used by them. Hopefully,the words quoted by The New Yorker do not represent Vineet’s final views on the subject of newspaper responsibility. He has a tradition to protect and this columnist expects that he will do precisely that.
A newspaper is not soap or toothpaste. It is a skien of ideas, concepts that can make or hinder a nation. It needs to contribute to the national debate on major issues and stand for those concerns that are relevant to its readers and to the general public. Much more precious than a bank balance is goodwill and respect within the community, and publishers of any newspaper need to keep this in mind while managing their enterprise. In the 1920s,it was the media in the US that cleaned up so much of corruption in that country. In India, there are many more checks on freedom of expression and information than were there in the US even at that time, but the status quo needs to be challenged and wrongs exposed by the media in India much more than what is the case now.
By MD Nalapat