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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 42, October 8, 2011

Fraud Crusaders

Saturday 8 October 2011, by C.N. Chitta Ranjan

From C.N. Chitta Ranjan’s Pen

For long years now, the debate on “Freedom of the Press” has been proceeding on the wrong track. This is not fortuitous. The loudest participants, who get the widest publicity, are defenders of the status quo in the control of the structure of the print media, particularly the big newspapers, the chains and groups.

The Express episode, which in the last few months has produced a Niagara of words, offers the most dramatic illustration of how the issues involved in the concept of “Freedom of the Press” can be deliberately distorted and confused. An industrial dispute leading to a strike is immediately projected as an attack on Freedom of the Press. The proof cited is the timing of tax or other raids on a press establishment which in the relevant period is conducting a campaign against the Prime Minister. Facts and conjectures and downright falsehoods are carefully mixed up to conjure up a nightmare attack on Freedom of the Press. This writer is no admirer of Rajiv Gandhi, no apologist for his erratic ways. And yet, he is not ready to swallow the myth that Ramnath Goenka, his tribe and his agents are real crusaders of real freedom of speech and expression, of which Freedom of the Press is a part.

In dealing with this question, it becomes necessary to take a look into the antecedents and methods and purposes of the owners of the big business press, whom the gullible, even among the intelligentsia, consider to be the foremost champions of genuine Freedom of the Press. Few look beyond the glamorous façade to discover the interests the Press Barons represent, project and defend all the time in different ways. Nor is seen the calculated suppression or distortion of the interests of the vast majority of the people, most of whom cannot even read the newspapers, because they have been kept in illiteracy and poverty.

In newspaper establishments, especially the big newspapers and chains, the journalists, including the mighty editors, are no more than tools of the proprietor or management. That is the truth, and it is as much true of the Arun Shouries and the Girilal Jains as of others. The Express empire and its owner have a long history. From a small daily fighting a losing battle for circulation and advertisements against The Hindu in Madras, it has grown into a massive Express network with editions at eleven centres plus language papers. Editors are recruited and discarded according to the owner’s requirements or whims. From the ouster of T.S. Chockalingam from the editorship of the Tamil daily Dinamani more than four decades ago and the resignation of that outstanding editor, Khasa Subba Rao, from the Express almost forty years back, to the unceremonious replacement of S. Mulgaokar for the time being by V.K. Narasimhan at the start of Emergency and Narasimhan’s removal once his utility ended, the exit of B.G. Verghese and others, and the coming, going and recall of Arun Shourie—it is quite a long, sordid story, farcical and melodramatic. The running thread is unmistakable—whoever is useful to the owner for the time being is in, whoever is not, is out.

Even the currently fancied Arun Shourie, who behaves as if he is something like a cross between James Bond and Spiderman, seems to be unaware of his own size and stature, either in the Express empire or in the Press as a whole. Almost everyone in the Press is aware of his role in the Antulay expose as Goenka’s penman, in the Bombay Express industrial dispute as the owner’s pet union-basher, and in Delhi as the management’s own strike-breaker par excellence. All this was in two spells under Goenka. His “investigative journalism” is limited by his boss’ requirement at the relevant time. His “investigation” is based on material supplied by Goenka, Express reporters, interested politicians and bureaucrats, and of late Gurumurthy. Shourie’s imagination and capacity to produce many kilograms of “stories” form the rest of the story. To consider the Shouries and the Guru-murthys as champions of freedom of the Press is sheer fantasy. Can Shourie, the famous and unparalleled investigative journalist, turn his research talents to uncover the tons of dirt under the vast Express carpet, to bring out the skeletons in cupboards around him? This Gandhi-quoting scribe should act on Gandhiji’s repeated advice to turn the searchlight inwards.

This writer knows of occasions in the past, when Goenka scrapped editorials and had substituted editorials written and published by others. There was not a whimper on such occasions from even a well-known editor. Those who acquiesce remain in their posts. As simple as that. One finds it difficult to believe that Shourie is different. At best, it is a case of convergence of interests, and guess who is the master and who is the servant. One who has to secure a body-guard to enter his own office is surely no great Editor. Earlier on, many of the Times of India staff were quite amused when Shourie moved about, within the office premises, with an armed bodyguard. “My life in danger” is a strange refrain coming from the bravest of our Editors hand-picked by the most powerful of our Press Barons. Paranoic individuals can hardly be purveyors of truth.

But in the story of the Express empire, Arun Shourie and his friends form only one small episode. Cases against the Express empire did not start yesterday. There were many in the sixties and the seventies. And even when Express lost a case, nothing happened to the companies. Many forget the numerous charges and cases of the past, and remember only the recent raids, which were part of a serial story. It is not for nothing that the Fact Finding Committee on Newspaper Economics (January 1973), after studying the Express maze, recommended that “there should be a thorough investigation into the affairs of this Group, bringing together the data available with the different authorities and examine further the way in which newspaper profits have been used”. It is difficult in one article to explain the financial manipulations of the Express empire—even if one is able to under-stand them. The jute company affair and the IISCO shares episode are some of the outstanding ones in which Express’ manipulations were involved.

THE exploitation and suppression of workers in this empire is another dimension worth nothing. The two aspects got entangled in 1959, when, in order to forestall the report of the First Wage Committee, Goenka split his Madras unit (three newspapers, English, Tamil and Telugu). Notices were issued to employees giving them the “option” to work under a new company at a distant centre without any change in the then miserable wages. That led to an agitation and a total strike. When the union could not be broken, Goenka closed down the Madras papers. Long after the employees got dispersed, when the Supreme Court disposed of the case four years later, the English and Tamil newspapers were brought back from Chittoor and elsewhere.

From 1950 onwards, there have been many cases of union-breaking, not only in the South but also in Bombay and Delhi. It is a sordid tale. And Goenka has got away with all this and more. Arun Shourie’s heroics form only a footnote.

The Express empire is not alone in financial manipulations, though it had the advantage of something of a wizard at the top, with tremendous connections with high and mighty personages from T.T. Krishnamachari, Morarji Desai and others earlier, down to Chandra Shekhar, George Fernandes and the like in recent times. He has links with practically all national political parties, apart from the government and the bureaucracy, not to speak of his special relations with the RSS-BJP.

Many may not remember the Vivian Bose Commission report of the late sixties. The report brought out the interlocking and such other practices of certain companies. One of these was Bennett Coleman, owners of the Times of India and allied publications. Only one newspaper published the details of that report. Most of the newspapers, especially, the big ones, left the coverage to the national news-agency, PTI, which in its turn disposed of the report in six short paragraphs that gave no information what-soever. That was a demonstration of the power of the tycoons running newspapers. Even the national news-agency has been under their control. And, Ramnath Goenka is Chairman of PTI right now. But many friends cry themselves hoarse about “Freedom of the Press”, thinking only of one well-publicised episode in the murky history of the Indian Press dominated by a variety of business and industrial houses, each with linkages of all sorts, not only with other business houses but with the stock market, politicians, and lobbies—political, financial and international.

Often some persons who feel concerned ask—whose freedom, freedom for what purpose, journalists’ freedom to protect and promote the interests of the deprived and oppressed or owners’ freedom to promote their own and their allies’ interests and to distort or suppress facts according to their own requirements, and so on.

The “Freedom of the Press” that is much talked about these days is certainly not something that concerns the mass of our people. Wars between corporate structures is news. Individuals in power or out of power, who are friendly to or are seen inimical to the owners of the newspaper, constitute news. Those, who at a given time are friendly with industrialists and businessmen and who run newspapers, are the ones who deserve publicity. Freedom of the Press, in that lexicon, is the freedom of the owners to win friends in corridors of power and to run down those whom the owners disapprove of. All the rest of us (We the People of India) do not matter.

It is unfortunate that the organisations of journalists, which frequently demand restruc-turing of newspapers in order to enable journalists to perform their duties in the interest of the public good, make no effort to expose the way “news” is handled by newspapers in the interests of a small privileged section of the population. Are the starving, the unemployed, the underpaid, the shelterless getting justice in the majority of our newspapers? Are such exploited sections, which together make up the majority, getting any benefit from “Freedom of the Press”? Are only the rich and the powerful to treat the country and its wealth as their private property?

These are some of the many disturbing questions. Those in positions of power and influence, and those whose only ambition is to replace the present incumbents, are quite happy with the prevailing state of affairs. In a set-up in which some individuals, who are human enough to fight for the rural poor or tribals, are shot and described as “Naxalites”, how does one expect justice? Others too, who may not be so labelled, suffer the same fate or are being harassed in numerous ways. All this is not “news”, all this is not included in the ambit of the “Freedom of the Press” we discuss endlessly.

We talk of strikes by employees. On July 1 last year, many newspapers closed down for a day, under instructions from the Indian and Eastern Newspapers Society, the main organisation of newspaper-owners. It was an action in protest against modification of the interim relief for newspaper employees awarded by the Wage Board. The relief awarded was paltry, thanks to the attitude of the representatives of the IENS and the other owners’ organisation, ILNA (Indian Language Newspapers Association). When the government increased the percentage of relief, there was a hue and cry, though the increase did not go anywhere near the employeees’ demand.

The Indian Express, in its announcement of the one-day closure, said the government had “destroyed the sanctity of the Wage Board and the value of its work”. Other pretexts were there, like newsprint policy, but the main target was enhanced relief for the employees. The First Wage Board’s award was challenged by the same Express group, which got it struck down. The employers’ representatives have always been engaged in non-cooperation on the Wage Boards. Where did the “sanctity” of Wage Boards disappear then? That, you see, is “Freedom of the Press” in action.

MOST saddening of all is the attitude of the judiciary. Let us leave out the Supreme Court having struck down as “unreasonable” the provision regarding gratuity in the Working Journalists Act as first enacted. The Price-Page Schedule—recommended by the First Press Commission to ensure fair competition, scope for small papers to grow and new papers to come up, and introduced by the government—was struck down by the Supreme Court in the name of protecting circulation growth. In practice, it amounted to allowing rich newspapers to get more prosperous, for the additional pages are needed not for news but for advertisements. In other words, freedom to increase profits, and to get even greater leverage for pressuring policy-makers. There is no need to go into the press-industrialists-businessmen-advertisers nexus. When Bennett Coleman challenged the govern-ment’s move to limit the number of pages to ten—at a time of acute newsprint shortage— the Supreme Court struck it down. As veteran journalist G.N. Acharya had put it, “Reduced to its bare logic, the judgement amounted to saying that an editor cannot exercise his freedom in less then ten pages.” More recently the proposed hike of import duty on newsprint was sharply reduced by the Supreme Court—again the circulation bogey.

The latest is the Bombay High Court’s ruling that Section 22 of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices (MRTP) Act is not applicable to newspaper establishments. The reference was to the question of starting of new editions by newspapers. The chain phenomenon is already a grim reality. One owner, whose interests are obvious and are not the same of the generality of the people, has eleven editions of his English daily, apart from editions of language news-papers, in different centres, to project his own interests as national interests. Another house has fewer editions but is expanding. There are yet others too. The point is that one owner’s predilections and prejudices are reflected in many parts of the country simultaneously — a privilege smaller papers cannot afford. Another point is that where a chain spreads, small and medium papers must pay the price—maybe wind up. The Bombay High Court says, in effect, that this is just and fair.

The High Court says at one place: “Realis-tically speaking, it must be recognised that small and, therefore, financially weak news-papers would not be in a position to offend the government of the day for long and the more upright among them may be forced to close down. The larger and financially stabler news-papers must be recognised as having an important part to play.”

One remembers that during Emergency Raj, with censorship imposed, the “larger and financially stabler” newspapers did not “offend the government”. Even the Indian Express, which is hailed as the bravest, was criticising the government on the one hand and publicising Sanjay Gandhi on the other. Ramnath Goenka bristled, while son B.D. Goenka sought to maintain cordial relations with the chief perpetrators of the Emergency. As for the other big newspapers, one Opposition leader, who later became a Janata Minister, declared that during Emergency many of these newspapers crawled when they were asked to bend.

This is a brief sketch, perhaps scrappy, but the question is: what should we do to secure real Freedom of the Press, to make the Press the genuine Fourth Estate, whose purpose should be to serve as a watchdog of the interests of the people in terms of the working of the other three Estates—Legislature, Executive and Judiciary? Is it not time for journalists, publicmen and others concerned to think of the basic issues involved and find some way out? Let us not, please, take the present framework for granted, but plan for a genuinely Free Press, independent of both the government and the owning cliques with their own narrow interests. Let us think then of the intesrests of the large segments of our people and work towards making the Press useful to them—a worthwhile instrument of their own in the tasks of nation-building.

NOTES

1. Ramoji Rao is chief editor of Eenadu and Newstime of Hyderabad, and is also Chairman of the Margadarsi Chit Fund. A show-cause notice issued to the chit fund company by the Company Law Board, Ramoji says, is an attack on Freedom of the Press. You can draw your own inference.

2. It is too early to comment on the Express campaign against the Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court following a Full Bench ruling on a petition against Chief Minister N.T. Rama Rao.

(Mainstream, January 9, 1988)

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