Is it better to be loved than to be feared? Or, to put it in the context of the hard-knuckled world in which corporate interests literally keep India’s famously free and active professional media outlets alive and kicking — is it better to be respected than feared?
The Tata Group has certainly managed to maintain their image as a business house that does good business by doing things in right and healthy ways. Compared to the likes of the Brothers Reliance who seem to control pretty much all information outlets these days, whether by privy purse or influence, the Tatas are almost literary in their dealings with the media. Which might explain why the whole rotten business of the Radia tapes — the stealth recordings in 2008-09 by the Income Tax Department of conversations between senior journalists, politicians, and members of corporate houses and the public relations manager-lobbyist hired by the Tata Group, Niira Radia — was so very Tetley Tea-spilled-on-one’s-crotch upsetting. That one incident made the Tatas seem almost like the Ambanis.
But then, who likes bad press? Especially if you do your business as decently and with as much a modicum of decorum as possible in this country? (It must be doubly enervating to take pains to not be a Reliance and still get criticised for some small supposed indiscretion on one’s part.)
Which is why, the news — a baby buzz in media circles really — of the Tata Group “partially lifting its ban” on four media groups this week on access to company information, events and its executives is such, well, interesting news/rumour/slash/baby buzz.
The “boycott” really started much before the Radia tapes, with the Tata Group unhappy about the way the The Times of India and The Economic Times — the two behemoths from Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd a.k.a. The Times Group — were covering the corporate house. The rather unflattering coverage of the Tata Nano didn’t help matters and the corporate house decided to not only block access to what it deemed as a “hostile” media house but also imposed an America-on-Iran-style advertisement sanctions on Times Group publications (and television channels).
The Radia tapes brought three other publications into the Tata-sanctioned unofficial no-fly zone: Outlook, Open and India Today. Allegations of Madhu Koda’s government in Jharkhand receiving bribes for iron ore mining rights from steel companies including Tata Steel and the March 2013 CBI questioning of Vice President, Raw Materials Security, Tata Steel, Partha Sengupta — who had been implicated a month earlier in the Augusta Westland chopper deal — didn’t make matters better for the Tata brand name. But “media cooperation” apparently reached a new low in the House of Tatas with the publication of a critical piece in Forbes India.
Prince Mathews Thomas’ cover story “Remoulding Tata Steel/Putting the Shine Back Into Tata Steel” (April 19, Forbes India,) was seen as devastating PR. A source tells me that the sacking of four senior editorial heads in Forbes India, including that of editor Indrajit Gupta came about as a result of the Tata Group’s reaction to this story. Apart from being critical of Ratan Tata’s acquisition of the UK-based Corus (now Tata Steel Europe), the article questioned the handling and management of Tata’s steel operations including the ongoing construction of a plant in Kalinganagar in Orissa.
The proverbial last straw on the camel’s back was the alleged suicide of Charudatta Deshpande in late June. Deshpande had resigned in April as chief of corporate affairs and communications at Tata Steel after the Forbes India story broke. According to a letter written to Tata Sons chairman Cyrus Mistry and Ratan Tata by friends and colleagues of Deshpande, he was being blamed for “facilitating” the Forbes India story and was “under enormous pressure” to “admit” to his complicity in “leaking” confidential company documents to the media.
Under Cyrus Mistry and Mukund Govind Rajan, who was appointed as the Tata brand custodian and group spokesperson in February this year, there are two options: to repair the “love” with the media, or to turn more “Ambani-esque”. With the “partial lifting” of the boycott against the four publications — the lifting of ad bans, especially with the Times Group is under negotiations — the company may have chosen the former (and smarter) route.
Last week, Outlook ran a cover story (The Great Gas Heist, July 15)in its latest issue on how the UPA government’s decision to significantly hike natural gas prices makes Reliance Industries Limited the biggest long-term beneficiary. The report, smashing as it was especially when coupled with the sub-story of the opposition BJP’s utter silence on the matter, carried a bigger, more eye-popping story: a national media publication had taken on Reliance. It was like someone calling a spade a spade when everyone has forgotten what a spade looks like.
Will the Outlook story and the Tata move to repair fences with the media in its “trademark” gentlemanly fashion result in a Less Cowardly New World in Indian business journalism?
The UPA-Reliance story in Outlook starts with an anecdote. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya is heard telling Niira Radia in one of the Radia tapes about how Mukesh Ambani told him, “Haan yaar, you know Ranjan, you’re right, ab toh Congress apni dukaan hai”. (Yes my friend, you know Ranjan, you’re right, the Congress is now my shop.)
Corporate India’s polite patch-up with the media, or the media publishing the occasional brave “real business story” notwithstanding, I’m guessing my bottom TCS shares that Mr Ambani would have been perfectly correct if he (or any of his fellowmen) had told Bhattacharya, “Media bhi apni dukaan hai”, bragging a wee bit about the symbiotic love-respect-fear relationship which corporate business houses will continue to maintain with the free and thriving media in India.