In an editor’s note titled “Celebrate The Recession”, Indrajit Gupta, erstwhile editor Forbes India, had endorsed India Inc’s survival strategy of “investing, hiring and revamping their organisations all with a clear eye to the future”. Keeping in mind recent events which involve Gupta and his colleagues, the question one must ask is – are editors with 15-20 years of experience any different from professionals in other fields with similar experience?
The Network 18-owned website Firstpost has been in the news recently for a few acquisitions and media movements. One of the first of which was initiating an integrated newsroom which included the Firstpost newsroom and that of the Forbes India magazine for content exchange and optimisation of workforce utilisation. The integrated newsroom would be headed by R Jagannathan. This announcement though, has been followed by news of the termination of employment of the editor Indrajit Gupta on May 27, 2013, and the resignations of Managing Editor Charles Assisi, Director Photography Dinesh Krishnan and Executive Editor Shishir Prasad.
Since that date, Gupta and Assisi have taken to Twitter to announce and discuss how they have lost their jobs “unilaterally and in a mala fide manner”. They and their supporters have also been retweeting an article discussing the “sordid saga” which appeared in Sans Serif, which lists out details of what allegedly transpired.
Explaining the incident, Gupta told Newslaundry, “I didn’t have an iota of knowledge about what was to happen in the boardroom that morning. I was told by Mr Jagannathan that I had become redundant to the organisation in the new digital newsroom and in fact I was a hindrance to the workings of this newsroom. I was asked to resign and accept a severance package”. According to him, he was denied his Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOPs) that he states are worth Rs 1 crore. He chose to be fired. His colleagues Assisi, Dinesh Krishnan and Shishir Prasad were “arm-twisted and coerced” into resigning owing to being “redundant” and a “hindrance to the integration” and were denied their ESOPs. According to Gupta, he and his colleagues entered a contract with the company five years back and “as part of their compensation package, monetary benefit (to vest over a period of 4 years from the date of joining) would be given but in the form of ESOPs”. Together, the company owes them Rs 2 crore.
In a later communication with Jagannathan, Assisi is learnt to have asked if being a “hindrance” and “redundant” in the new scheme of things was raised by Jagannathan as a result of Assisi raising the issue of ESOPs that was due to him. In a separate letter to Jagannathan, Krishnan too is learnt to have raised the same point saying it was obvious that this whole charade had been played out only to get him out of the company with a view to avoid meeting the promises. Also, according to correspondence shared with us, this episode could have led to monetary, physical and medical fallouts, such as work pressures leading to Assisi “being left a vegetable or dead”, false promises leading Krishnan to buy “a home and make a commitment to a housing loan institution…and put up the said house, which is the home I [Krishnan] live in, for sale” and Gupta despite having “undergone an angioplasty…following a punishing routine to build this institution”. Gupta does though, ask to be reinstated in his original role as Editor with “full pay and all benefits” and be permitted “to resume work immediately”.
Network 18 though, gives us a different picture. When we spoke to Network 18 COO, Ajay Chacko, he said, “I don’t know why they are making a big fuss about this issue. They have signed their settlement papers and accepted compensation. Now it’s a closed chapter. There is no breach of contract. They are resorting to mudslinging and this is all the fallout of the restructuring process which clearly didn’t go down well with them”.
In the meantime, the Press club of Mumbai has taken cognisance of the matter and has adopted a resolution on Sunday saying, “The method of ejecting them from the company was nothing short of shameful. Journalists are not only messengers of news and information, but are the collective voice of civil society. They have a special place in our democratic polity, especially in the current times of stress and confusion. Surely, this team of editors who has served Forbes India since 2009 deserved better”.
The Press Club will be writing to “Mr Mukesh Ambani, who has a special position of influence in the Media Group, as well as to the Network18 Group’s chairman, Raghav Bahl, to appeal to them to reverse this decision and to enter into discussion with the editors so that an amicable solution is found”.
The fight doesn’t end with the Press Club’s resolution. The editors will be taking legal action against Network 18 and may soon send a legal notice to the company. They are demanding, “reinstatement as editors of Forbes India with full pay and all benefits and clearance of full amount now due to them that was underwritten by the company”.
The possibility of a full-blown legal battle between the journalists and the media conglomerate poses a debate on the way the business of media is conducted. Strangely enough, the same editors who have had a long association with businessmen and entrepreneurs are today up against them. As business journalists they have been the cheerleaders of market-driven decisions which also included commenting on general HR policies of hiring and firing. Today, ironically, they are at the receiving end of the same mechanism.
If indeed they were redundant and a hindrance, wasn’t the company within its full rights to bid them goodbye. Indrajit Gupta says, “We don’t deny their business compulsions. But there is a way of doing things. It’s not about telling you that you are not needed in the company. It is about denying what was due to us. The company cannot deny us what is rightfully ours. They have failed to honour the contract”. Even the Press Council resolution takes into account the business compulsions of the company. “We don’t rule out changes in the business plan the Forbes management may have wanted to make; but there is a way of discourse and negotiation. Editors with 15-25 years of experience cannot be forced out with a gun on their head”.
Perhaps Network 18 too took this decision with an “eye on the future”. Media at the end of the day is an industry and the market is what determines decision. To claim that “journalists are the collective voice of civil society…this team of editors who has served Forbes India since 2009 deserved better”, is selective since the same logic is not extended to non-“white collar” workers. In a world of equals, the media needs to stop viewing itself as the first among equals. The Kingfisher employees, who were clearly told by Vijay Mallya last week that he won’t be able to pay them their current and due salaries, are at a loose end since August, to state just one example. They have no “severance package” in the offing nor do they have the option of fighting a legal battle against their employer. If indeed as the Mumbai Press Club says, the media is “the collective voice of civil society”, it needs to extend the same logic to others and not just crib and rally forces when problems come visiting itself. For, if you choose to live by the market, you should also be ready to die by it.