In India, if you’re an editor who doesn’t bow down to the ruling elite, it’s off with your head.
There’s a YouTube video which has gone viral. Not Gangnam style. It’s of two television newscasters from ABC 7 resigning live, on air. The channel vice president has stated that the unaware management heard the resignation announcement along with the audience. According to reports, Cindy Michaels, one of the newscasters, said that there, “was a lack of knowledge from ownership and upper management in running a newsroom to the extent that I was not allowed to structure and direct them professionally. I couldn’t do everything I wanted to as a news director. There was a regular undoing of decisions”. Hmm, sounds a lot like what some of our most well-reputed Indian editors have been through in the last few decades.
This is, of course, one in a long line of resignations which has marked international news in the last few weeks. On November 24, 2012 it was announced that the editor of the Irish Daily Star – Michael O’Kane – had resigned because of the uproar caused after his decision to publish Kate Middleton’s topless pictures. He had anyway been suspended since September – when the pictures had been published.
Indian print media’s history of editors’ exits have rarely had to do so because of errors in editorial judgment. They’ve had to do so because their editorial views compromised the management’s allegiance to political power centres. Which seems to be a far greater sin and reason for banishment than editorial faux pas.
MJ Akbar founded The Asian Agein 1993. In 2008, allegedly for Akbar’s anti-Congress stand, he was given the sack by T Venkatt Ram Reddy, the publisher of the newspaper. And there was no time for writing edit pieces or saying fond farewells. The announcement had been made to all readers of the paper and to Akbar himself by the publisher removing Akbar’s name from the paper’s masthead overnight and replacing it with Reddy’s name. Akbar supposedly penned a note to his colleagues and stayed at home.
Arun Shourie is another name in this illustrious list. And he had the privilege of being asked to leave the same organisation not once, but twice!
When we spoke with Shourie on the phone about his departure from Indian Express, this is what he had to say – “Firstly I did not leave, I was dismissed. Mrs Gandhi had returned to power. I had done the story on the Kuo oil deal. This was a company with just $50 paid up capital. It was a signboard company in Hong Kong to which a very large oil import contract was given. The Public Accounts Committee of Parliament was investigating this deal, they asked for a particular file but they were told it is untraceable. I found this file and did a few stories on that. The stories were suppressed, but eventually the paper had to carry them. Mr Ramnath Goenka was already under a lot of pressure because he had just survived the Emergency and was eager not to get into difficulties again. He continued to be under lot of pressure and one day he wrote my dismissal letter, signed it and told Verghese to deliver it to me after he had left for Delhi. There were all sorts of cases – the new building which was being built in Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg was going to be destroyed and in those days foreign exchange violation of even a very small amount could be very troublesome. And I was the gesture of goodwill and that I should be sacrificed. So three days before the case was to commence I was served the dismissal letter.
On the second instance, I had joined The Times of India, but had decided to return to my academic work. Ramnathji must have heard of this. Gurumurthy came to me and said that we should go to meet Ramnathji. So we went to Bombay and met him. Ramnathji said ‘Jeevan mein kai galtiyan ho jaati hain. Mere se galti hui thi… Tum waapas aao. Jo tum paper se karna chahte ho, main wohi chahta hoon ki paper wohi kare’. So I joined the paper. We had done a story on Devi Lal, how he had forged a letter, alleging it had been written by the Prime Minister, VP Singh to the President. We proved it to be a forgery. And he had to resign. He announced that he would have a huge rally. To take the wind out of that rally, VP Singh announced tthat he would implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission. This was a moribund report that nobody had touched in years. I wrote a series of articles about it. Young students started immolating themselves. It became a very big issue. By that time Ramnathji had suffered a stroke. He was not quite aware of what was happening. Some people were trying to take over the paper and they thought that two persons would be obstacles to their plan – one was Gurumurthy, and the other was me. So in Ramnathji’s name I received a five-page dismissal letter over the teleprinter at 10:30 pm that I was dismissed due to editorial disagreements.”
Since we are on the topic of BG Verghese, it’s not like he was spared the editorial guillotine either. And for the same sins as Arun Shourie’s – pursuing an editorial policy which didn’t fall in line with that of the management’s. BG Verghese was sacked from Hindustan Times by KK Birla allegedly after he described Sanjay Gandhi as his mother’s “nemesis” in 1975. In Inder Malhotra’s review of Verghese’s First Draft, he writes – “at Indira Gandhi’s behest, the owner of Hindustan Times, K.K. Birla, sacked Verghese most shabbily.”
We spoke with Verghese, and in his own words – “I had told the proprietor Mr KK Birla that I should retire from the editor in order to get some younger leadership at the top and keep working with the paper in another capacity. At the time Mr Birla didn’t agree but I said it was quite normal to work under a rotating editorship. I have no problem working with someone who has worked under me.
Some months later, in the run-up the Emergency he was under a lot of pressure because HT had been very critical of Mrs Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. So he said to me ‘you said you were stale and wanted to go so now you should’. I said that if the proprietor has lost confidence in his editor then there was no reason for me to stay but I should let the reader know the facts. But I was by no means ‘stale’. Mr Birla objected to my issuing any statement and said he’d take legal action if I did so I replied that in that case I would stay on as he himself had confirmed that I had not lost his confidence. The matter was taken to the Press Council by the readers of the Hindustan Times and others and became a major controversy which finally reached the Delhi High Court and then the Supreme Court. It was soon after the Emergency in between moving from the High Court to the Supreme Court I was served with the notice of termination of service while leaving the office for the day.”
There were others who were banished, made homeless and penurious. Vinod Mehtawas asked to step down as editor of Pioneer (Delhi) in 1994 by LM Thapar with a cheque of Rs 42,000 as three months’ termination pay, and was informed that he would need to vacate his house and car within the month. We all know journalism pays terribly, but Rs 42,000 for three months? It seems the small print in Mehta’s contract stated that he would be paid 3 month’s “basic salary” and not his full salary. And why did he have to quit? He walked out of a meeting with LM Thapar because he did not agree with Thapar’s criticism of the editorial division of the paper.
According to Mehta’s narration of the incident in his memoirs, the volatile meeting with Thapar took place owing to two reasons. The first was an interview Mehta had printed of the army chief General Rodrigues. In the interview, some unparliamentary comments had been made about politicians, something which didn’t go down too well with Thapar’s friends. The second was because Mehta pointed out that while Mala Singh was about to launch her news channel BiTV, there was no transponder in the sky. Mehta was lucky enough to get a day to write a farewell front page edit, say goodbye to his team, and famously left the building at the same time as Thapar entered. Mehta’s lift descending into the portals of unemployment, while Thapar’s simultaneously rose up to the editor-less floors. The entire episode is described in detail in his book, Lucknow Boy A Memoir, (Chapter: Interesting Times).
Forget a free press, a free editor is fine and dandy only as long as his or her editorial position matches with that of the powers that be. But will we ever see some drama like the ABC resignation on air? We can always hope. The nation is waiting.
Interviews with Arun Shourie and BG Verghese conducted by Aastha Manocha.