Not just about the brothers, it’s the children too

26 March 2010

Far from being cowed down by N. Ram‘s threat to sue for the “demonstrable falsehoods and defamatory assertions” in its report on “Ram’s role and actions in developments within the newspaper group and the company“, the Indian Express continues its coverage of the goings-on in the board room of the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” for the second day in a row.

For starters, Ram’s “decision” to sue to commence “civil and criminal defamatory proceedings” is a five-column story on the front page of  all 13 editions of The Hindu. Just what was precisely false or defamatory in the Express story is not something Ram’s statement points out, but it makes transparent the decisions, reassigning duties within the undivided Hindu family, taken by the board on March 20.

To the extent of conveying who is still in charge of The Hindu, and of sending a signal to employees and other interested parties, the statement leaves no room for doubt.

However, the phraseology of the statement indicates that it, if the case goes ahead (and Ram says on his Twitter feed that it will), it is likely that it will be personal battle of Ram and not of Kasturi & Sons, the holding company of the paper.

For its part, The Indian Express too carries Ram’s sue threat on page one, with as much prominence as it gave to the original report, but adds its own response:

“The report, ‘Battle for control breaks out in The Hindu very divided family’, (The Indian Express, The Financial Express, March 25, 2010) is based on information received from multiple and high-level credible sources.

“All facts were verified and cross-checked to the highest standards of accuracy and fairness that the Express Group holds itself to. We believe our report was neither malicious nor defamatory.

“We have great regard for The Hindu as an institution and for its editor-in-chief N. Ram as a journalist and editor for their commitment to principled journalism. We stand by our report and the reporter.”

In the process of defending itself, Express also makes public the purported transcript of the e-mail correspondence between reporter Archna Shukla and N. Ram before the story appeared.

However, The Indian Express doesn’t let matters rest at that.

On day two of its coverage, it quotes from an email sent by Ram’s aggrieved younger brother N. Murali (who has been kicked upstairs as “senior managing director”) to “colleagues”.

“At the Board meeting on 20th March, some directors subjected me to utter humiliation and attempted disempowerment. I will resist all attempts to deny me my rights, responsibilities and duties as the managing director,” Murali writes.

Murali has been stripped of his powers over the key departments of advertisements and purchase, and has now to share many of his duties (accounts, industrial relations) with newly appointed managing director K. Balaji, the well regarded son of former Hindu editor and Ram mentor, G. Kasturi.

More importantly, it is the letter written by Murali’s children Kanta and Krishna, along with youngest brother N. Ravi‘s daughter Aparna, quoted by Express on day two, that gives the clearest indication that this current round of the battle for control of 128-year-old Hindu is not just between M/s Ram, Murali and Ravi, but also about the generation that will inherit the paper from them.

“It is essential that the Board considers issues of corporate governance and the appointment of family members seriously,” write the three.

“To point out the obvious, the business cannot accommodate every member of the family, particularly when there are no institutional mechanisms in place to prevent the receipt of unjustifiably large entitlements over a long period of time.

“Each of us, whether in the previous, current or next generation, has received and continues to receive tremendous benefits from Kasturi and Sons, which far outweigh those received by non-family employees. It is high time that we recognize that our privileges are derived primarily from the contributions and loyalty of over 3500 non-family employees. Each one of us has, in some way or the other, abused their loyalty, trust and contribution.

“The inequitable and arbitrary system that currently exists is not only unfair to non-family employees but to shareholders as a class as well. If there is ever any intention of instituting sound and modern corporate governance practices and discontinuing the feudal system that exists, then issues such as the ones we have raised need to be addressed squarely, honestly and without fear or favour.”

Quite clearly, the recent appointment of children of various directors as foreign correspondents continues to rankle.

Ram’s daughter Vidya Ram (middle) was recently named as European correspondent of The Hindu‘s business paper Business LineNalini Krishnan‘s son Ananth Krishnan (right) replaced Pallavi Aiyar as The Hindu‘s Beijing correspondent; Nirmala Lakshman‘s son Narayan Lakshman (left) was hurriedly sent off as The Hindu‘s Washington correspondent filling a vacancy of nearly five years.

Speculation at The Hindu is that a couple of more “children” are also eyeing the exit sign at airports.

To be sure, both Ram and Ravi have done their stints as foreign correspondents, and sources say that one of the other directors (not N. Ram) was the prime mover behind the move to send Narayan Lakshman to Washington. So just what precisely the opposition to the recent appointments is, is unclear.

Express reporter Archna Shukla’s emailed questions to Ram mentions the “high very salaries” at which generation next had been hired which had apparently led to “unpleasantness among [board] members”. But in his reply Ram dismisses the complaint.

“To describe the relevant salaries as “very high” would be laughable; in fact, if the precise numbers were revealed, the salaries or renumerations would be characterised as “rather low”,” writes Ram.

While N. Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy have clamped up after their tweets yesterday, N. Ram continues to keep his 6,584 followers on Twitter posted with his version of the case.

He says he will do “exactly what I say”, which is sue The Indian Express for the “demonstrable falsehoods and defamatory assertions” in its report, and even leans back on the Bard to back himself:

# “Is it not a reasonable proposition that in any democratic organisation, an isolated few must necessarily respect the will of the majority?”

# “Shakespeare (Othello, iii,3) is often cited on defamation: ‘Who steals my purse steals trash. But he that filches from me my good name….’”

# “There can be no defence, in law or intelligent discourse, for these demonstrable falsehoods that defame recklessly.”

While most other family owned English papers—The Times of India, Deccan Herald, The Telegraph, et al—have understandably remained silent on the goings-on in South India’s largest English daily newspaper, only Mint, the business paper published by the listed HT Media, carries any mention of the Express-Hindu standoff.

New Indian Express editor Aditya Sinha‘s tweet on day one that Deccan Chronicle was rumoured to be working on a story turns out to be just that: a rumour. There is no story in the Hyderabad paper, which has an edition in Madras, at least not today.

Nevertheless, Sinha tweets:

There are various theories doing the rounds on why the Indian Express has taken on The Hindu so openly and so aggressively on what is clearly an internal matter of a family-owned newspaper.

# Is this a legitimate news story without a “backstory”, an honest journalistic attempt to throw light on the opaque goings-on in “public institutions”?

# Is this a proxy battle between the left and the right in Indian politics?

# Is this an attempt to pave the way for a more investor-friendly management which might be amenable to foreign investment?

For a couple of years now, there have been rumours that The Hindu was seeking infusion of funds to expand its footprint in the face of competition. Kalanidhi (and Dayanidhi) Maran‘s Sun TV group was mentioned initially. Later, the Fairfax group of Australia came into the picture.

But those in the know point out that the Express story is a post-facto account of the March 20 board meeting.

All indications are that wicket-keeper Narasimhan Ram, who played one first-class cricket match for Madras in the 1965-66 season, is on a strong wicket. For the moment.

The tone and display of his statement in the paper make that quite clear. Also, in the middle of the melee, word is that Ram found the time to fly to Delhi and sup with Bill Gates‘ wife, Melinda Gates, on Thursday night.

Moreover, although a board meeting is said to be around the corner, a couple of key board members (both women) are said to be conveniently away from Madras, strengthening Ram’s hands, if push comes to shove.

Newspaper image: courtesy The Indian Express

Photographs: courtesy Twitter

Also read: Under N. Ram, The Hindu becomes a ‘sorry’ paper

The Hindu responds to churumuri.com. We do too.

A surprising first at employee-friendly Hindu

The great grandmother of all newspaper battles

When a newspaper is no longer a newspaper

HAROLD EVANS: ‘Families are the best custodians of newspapers’

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