Posts Tagged ‘Mount Road Mahavishnu’

‘The Hindu’ issue more complex than you think’

24 October 2013

Predictably, the “private” TV news channels do not have too much on the resignation of Siddharth Varadarajan as editor and removal of Arun Anant as CEO of The Hindu after the family-owned newspaper decided to restore status quo ante on Monday.

Newspaper reports have been sketchy and superficial, and web interviews and Twitter feeds of the various players involved have only given a one-sided, black or white view of the Mount Road Mahavishnu‘s brief flirtation with professionals.

A Rajya Sabha Television (RSTV) panel discussion, featuring S. Nihal Singh, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Rahul Dev and Dilip Cherian suggests the “family vs professionals” issue is more complex and layered than we think.

Also read: In a family-owned paper, only furniture is fixed

N. RAM: caustic, opinionated, humane & sensitive

14 January 2012

Thursday, 19 January 2012, is a red-letter day in The Hindu calendar. After an eight-year tenure as its helmsman, Narasimhan Ram will step down as editor-in-chief of South India’s largest English newspaper; a tenure pockmarked by several professional highs and as many personal lows.

While N. Ram can justly claim to have played a role in making The Hindu top-of-the-mind reading by his stewardship of the WikiLeaks India cables among other stories, there can be little doubt that the paper’s openly partisan coverage of the Left parties, China and Sri Lanka have not quite cast the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” in great light.

Above all, while Ram was merely the custodian for eight years of the 133-year-old newspaper, his actions in undercutting his brothers and cousins under the alibi of “professionalising” the family-owned media house have the potential to have long-term implications on the family-owned Hindu in a competitive market.

What cannot be doubted is that while the former Tamil Nadu wicket-keeper invites intense dislike among his baiters, and there are many, the dog-breeder is also intensely loved by his admirers, and there are many of them too. Here, a former Bangalore correspondent of Frontline, the fortnightly owned by The Hindu, pens a panegyric to his former boss.

***

By CHETAN KRISHNASWAMY

In the early 1990s, as eager students pursuing journalism studies in Mysore’s historic Maharaja’s College, our class was vertically split in its choice of the two main heroes who were blazing a new trail in India’s lively media arena.

While one bunch supported Arun Shourie, who, among other things, in the late 1980s had launched a campaign against the introduction of the defamation bill, an instrument introduced by the then Rajiv Gandhi government to curtail a free media, especially the Indian Express of which he was the editor.

The other-half idolized N. Ram.

Ram, we believed, was the true anti-establishment hero who, through his trenchant and hard-hitting writings had exposed the Bofors scandal. For us ‘hungry cubs’ fed on antediluvian and archaic theories, this was a potent manifestation of the true power of independent and ethical journalism, of impactful journalism.

Further underlining his fiery credentials was his defiant rebellion, in October 1989, against his own editor-uncle G. Kasturi of The Hindu.

Ram, who was then associate editor of the paper and second in command in the editorial structure, rather disillusionedly, wrote of The Hindu’s editor:

… Every time the question of publishing something major and original on the Bofors scandal arose, he [Kasturi] countered the idea of publication with the question. ‘What is really new about this? Isn’t what we have already published enough to make clear to everyone who is involved?’ He also repeatedly stated that while he personally was convinced of the guilt of the government in the Bofors affair, he was afraid that “the institution is in great danger.” This was his perspective on The Hindu which was founded in 1878 and has seen many trials and challenges in its history. (I repeatedly pointed out to the editor the failure to understand the significance of history which underlay his statement.) Kasturi also expressed serious concern over the impact of the fall-out from the Bofors expose on the interests of the “family” behind the newspaper.”

Ram took the extraordinary step of venturing out of the “four walls of The Hindu” to explain the situation to the public at large.

I decided to speak to my colleagues in the profession and ask for the hospitality of their columns to throw light on this vital national and ethical issue. I wonder whether this expose of what has happened within one major journalistic institution would be kept away from the readers of The Hindu through editorial censorship…,” Ram added.

In college, we conducted seminars on Indian journalism’s reigning deity and in our own, sometimes half-baked way attempted to analyze his brand of journalism.

Despite the ideological slant, his writings were direct and factual. It was strident and appealed to our activistic fervour.

***

Fortunately, during the course of my studies, I had established an indirect connection with Ram through the writer R.K. Narayan (my grand-uncle and mentor) who had moved from Mysore to Madras by then, and at whose Eldams Road residence Ram was a “welcome intrusion” almost every evening.

RKN diligently read through all the articles that I had written for Mysore’s local newspaper Star of Mysore and would occasionally give me Ram’s positive feedback with whom he obviously shared my clippings sometimes.

Needless to say, I was thrilled and motivated me to stay the course.

After securing my degree and encouraged by a gold medal and the Sampemane Krishnamurthy award for “excellence in journalism”, I went to Madras for an interview with the then deputy editor of Frontline K. Narayanan, a venerable journalist in his own right.

“KN” spoke to me for some time and on learning that I was just 22 years old, said that I should come back after a few more years of academic rigour. He said I was “underaged and underqualified”.  Frontline did have a reputation of hiring erudite scholars and seasoned journalists, and I didn’t quite fit the profile.

Later, KN conferred with Ram, and on the condition that I pursue my post graduate studies simultaneously was given the job. At that time, I was probably the youngest reporter on the rolls of the magazine.

***

The magazine had demanding standards and I was put through the paces.  However, my first assignment for the magazine came directly from Ram and was relayed to me by KN: it was to be a detailed article on the renowned artist S.G. Vasudev.

I went about it with the single minded dedication of a hardworking debutant and gave it all I had. For me, it was a fulfilling first, and Frontline gave it solid coverage.

A few more months into my job and I got my first cover story for the magazine. The feeling was heady:  Ram was very inspiring, and kept regular tabs on how I was coping with my job and on one occasion even wanted to know whether I had procured a two-wheeler to cover my beat.

Ram’s journalistic principles were exacting. For instance, a reporter could not take chances while spelling names of people and had to prefix even the initials correctly. You were expected to be accurate when you put down statistics. No guess work, no approximation.

Once, I was anchoring a special supplement on KSFC or the Karnataka State Financial Corporation. All through the supplement I had inadvertently called it Karnataka State Finance Corporation. The desk had apparently overlooked this ‘minor’ aspect and the pages were sent for printing. However, in due course this error was noticed and the pages had to be recalled at the last minute.

For my shoddiness, I was issued a written reprimand by the then deputy editor V.K. Ramachandran.

In Ram’s scheme of things fastidiousness had to be a habit not a virtue.

During his visits to Bangalore, I would meet him at The Hindu guesthouse for a few minutes, when he would enquire about the prevailing political equations, and give me a passing perspective of his thinking on the issues.

***

In another instance, I was chasing a ‘scoop’ involving the then Union food minister Kalpnath Rai. Sources intimate to the then cabinet secretary Zafar Saifullah had promised to provide me with incriminating documents that clearly indicted Rai in a scam involving the import of sugar at a price higher than that of the market, apparently causing a loss of Rs 650 crore to the exchequer.

The minute I got whiff of the scandal, I discussed it with RKN over the phone.

“Why do you want to get into all these fancy issues? You will only get into trouble and nothing will come out of it. Look at Bofors, even after so many years nothing has happend,” he cautioned me with concern.

That night, as was his habit, Ram dropped into RKN’s Madras house for their routine chat, which usually covered a range of subjects and extended late into the night. RKN informed him about this overzealous young chap who had called him earlier in the day.

I guess, Ram gave in to his journalistic instincts and immediately spoke to me on the lead that I had picked up. He flew me down to Madras the very next day and encouraged me to work on the story from there. As luck would have it, my source who was supposed to deliver the documents by a flight from New Delhi backtracked even as I was waiting at the airport.

I was completely devastated.

Moreover, the embarrassment of facing Ram, who was waiting patiently at his residence, to study the documents was even more unnerving. Before leaving to the airport, I had boasted in all my youthful enthusiasm that the scale of the scam was bigger than that of the Bofors.

Ram had also given me permission to travel to Delhi if the story warranted it.

When I mumbled an apology to Ram that evening, he immediately understood the situation, gave me a quick pep talk, and ensured that I didn’t feel low or disheartened.

That same fortnight, a rival magazine carried the full story with the documents reproduced in print. It was obvious that my source had provided it to the rival magazine at the very last minute. Minister Kalpanath Rai was arrested in 1994 jailed in connection with the swindle but was later acquitted by the courts.

***

On another occasion, on the last day of a grand Madras vacation, I decided to visit The Hindu office and meet all my colleagues on the desk. Towards evening, just before heading out to catch my train, I gathered courage to pay an unscheduled visit to Ram’s office hoping to brief him about my work.

On learning that he was busy in meetings, and as time was running out, I decided to leave. Just then, he called me into his cabin.

At the end of our discussions, Ram queried how I was returning to Bangalore. I told him that I was originally scheduled to leave by the train but it would have long left and I would instead depart by the night bus now.

Ram looked at me almost guilty that he had made me miss the train. “Night buses can be quite tedious and unsafe,” he told me. He directed his secretary to lead me to the finance department and disburse money required for an air ticket. “We have had discussions related to your work. Your trip is official now, ‘’ he told me before packing me off.

I have never been able to forget that generous gesture.

My aunt Rajni still talks about how Ram went about mobilizing blood donors for my cousin Sudarshan, who was recuperating from a bad scooter accident that I had caused during that time.  Ram ensured that Madras’s leading orthopedic surgeon Mohandas attended on him.

Ram could be overweening, sometimes caustic and opinionated but deep down, he came across as being humane–and sensitive.

***

There is one last anecdote that I should probably narrate. After I did a piece on Mysore’s famous motorcycle manufacturer Ideal Jawa,  Ram contemplated moving me to Bombay as a business correspondent. Once I got to hear this, I was confused and excited.

I called my other famous grand-uncle, the cartoonist R.K. Laxman, with the intention of requesting him to get me a PG dig, and naively told him about Ram’s proposed plans to transfer me to Mumbai.

To my surprise,  Laxman reacted rather sharply and said Bombay was no place for youngsters. He hyperbolically ventilated that people were dying of plague and pestilence and Ram shouldn’t be sending me into this city.

That evening when I spoke to RKN all hell had broken loose. Laxman in his inimitable way had called Ram and restated all the things he had told me. Narayan mentioned that this had irritated Ram as he thought that I had  deliberately cribbed to Laxman.

In hindsight, I feel quite amused that I took out all my frustrations in a long letter that I wrote to Ram. I told him how the distinction between my personal and professional lives seemed to have progressively blurred.  I had mentioned something in good faith, and quite unintentionally to a family member and it had triggered of a professional crisis for me, I indicated in my letter.

Probably, Narayan and Ram would have had a good laugh over my letter. I don’t know what happened. I was forgiven, and stayed on in Bangalore.

In 1997, I quit to join The Week magazine from the stables of the Malayala Manorama.

***

As a journalist who enjoyed and value my tenure at Kasturi & Sons, I genuinely wish that its stakeholders sink their differences and surface as one strong family.

If not for anything at least for the future of good journalism in this country.

The family, as I have known, would still be among the more decent and fair minded employers.

These are rare attributes in the Indian media industry.

File photograph: N. Ram, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Hindu, at a lecture in New Delhi in April 2011 (courtesy Kanekal Kuppesh)

Also read: N. Ram to quit as The Hindu editor-in-chief on Jan 19

Why N. Ravi quit The Hindu after 20 years as editor

Nirmala Lakshman: I didn’t step down; I resigned

Malini Parthasarathy quits as Hindu‘s executive editor

The four great wars of N. Ram on The Hindu soil

N. Murali: The Hindu is run like a banana republic

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’

Selling the soul? Or sustaining the business?

9 October 2009

masthead

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: Let it be said upfront: Indian newspapers have sold their front pages to advertisers before, and The Times of India is not the first.

In 1948, India’s self-proclaimed “national newspaper”, The Hindu, reported the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on its back page, because, back then, the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” used to run ads on the front page.

In the mid-1990s, when the “Old Lady of Boribunder” ran ear panel advertisements on either side of its title, it sold both slots to a (chocolate?) advertiser who created the words “LET” and “WAIT” in the same font as the paper’s mashtead.

Result, when readers received the paper, the masthead that greeted them was “LET THE TIMES OF INDIA WAIT”.

More recently, using the front page for advertising, often by flanking the actual front page with a wraparound, has gained currency among a variety of advertisers and newspapers, including The Hindu.

And there are those who believe this is a good thing because the most important piece of real estate in a paper can draw top dollar, which can sustain newsrooms in a tight advertising market. After all, the New York Times has just started taking front page ads.

Selling the front page for advertising is one thing, but selling a newspaper’s masthead?

That’s precisely what the Delhi edition of The Times of India has done today (see image, above).

The Times often uses the masthead to create Google-style doodles, to wish readers on festivals and to create a splash  on important news days. For journalists and readers of the old school, even that may not be OK, but at least that doesn’t amount to signalling to the world that the soul of the paper is safe.

But in a step that suggests that there is nothing in the paper that cannot be bought for a price, The Times today sells its masthead to a mobile phone company, whose ad, with various arms of it creeping all over the news space, appears below on the bottom-half of the front page.

It can be argued that there is nothing wrong with monetising the masthead. Regular readers rarely look at it with a close eye and in the case of the The Times of India, readers who are used to their paper’s masthead being played around with, may not even notice.

On the other hand, sure, business is bad, but this bad?

toifront

Also read: Pyramid Saimira, Tatva & Times Private Treaties

Times Private Treaties gets a very public airing

SUCHETA DALAL: Forget the news, you can’t believe the ads either

SALIL TRIPATHI: The first casualty of a cosy deal is credibility

PAUL BECKETT: Indian media holding Indian democracy ransom

PRATAP BHANU MEHTA: ‘Indian media in deeply murky ethical territory’

The scoreline: Different strokes for different folks

Does he who pays the piper call the tune?

What a headstart of 1,562 months doesn’t give

24 February 2009

In an interview with Sruthijit K.K. of contentsutra, N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu, talks of how things have changed for the “Mount Road Mahavishnu” after the entry of The Times of India in Madras:

“It’s good, we welcome competition. The Times of India is a major newspaper…. I never put down The Times of India. I learn a lot from them. There are other papers that are non-serious, but not ToI. I not only respect it, I read it with a great deal of interest.

“There is a lot of criticism out there (against ToI) but it’s a serious newspaper. You may not agree with some of the views, some of the things, and they may not like what we do also. But it’s a major newspaper.”

Wiser, more honest, words have probably not been spoken.

The Times of India (established 1838), which is 10 months old in Madras, has 9 full broadsheet pages (inclusive of the advertisements on those pages), plus two edit page pieces, devoted to local-boy A.R. Rahman “breaking the sound barrier” at Slumdog Millionaire‘s Oscar sweep, and other stories.

The Hindu (established 1878), whose home has been Madras for 1,572 months—giving it a headstart of 1,472 (!)  1,562 months in the east coast City over The Old Lady of Bori Bunder—leads with the story on page 1, has a four-column story on page 12, a four-column story on page 16, a full page on the last page of the main edition, and on the first page of the metro supplement, besides an editorial.

What is “over”, what is “sober”?

Should newspapers really mourn young readers turning away?

Amen.

Also read: When the Old Lady takes on the Mahavishnu

How an Oscar winner ushered in a newspaper

23 February 2009

Last year, when The Times of India made its big move to Madras to take on The Hindu, it used music composer A.R. Rahman, who won two Academy Awards today for the best original song and best score for the movie Slumdog Millionaire, as its vehicle of change with this slick television commercial.

Also read: When the Old Lady takes on the Mahavishnu

Any number will do when the game is of numbers

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