Rumblings at Vice India

While the US market is fed ‘cutting-edge’ content, will India serve as a dumping market for tame content?

ByAtul Chaurasia
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Rumblings at Vice India
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That Vice is a media giant with kickass content in the US is a given. That it created an identity and genre on the back of cutting-edge, uninhibited and provocative programming is clear to see. But is the best content and programming philosophy reserved for western markets, while a developing market like India is to be served a compliant, tame and watered-down version of the original in the name of “cultural and political sensibility”?

While that is a question that comes up owing to recently reported developments at Vice, an appropriate counter to this would be content that will shut us all up. While we hope that happens, here is how some other events have played out till now.

Vice Media’s joint venture with the Times group has had a rocky few months.

Pragya Tiwari, Editor-in-Chief, resigned at the end of January 2018. She was appointed in June 2017. The website was set to launch initially on January 1, 2018. This date was pushed to April 1 and has now been pushed by another two weeks, according to sources in the know.

A month after Tiwari’s resignation, Managing Editor Rishi Majumder and News Editor Kunal Majumder also resigned mid-March, 2018. Based on what sources from Vice told Newslaundry, the two later resignations were a direct consequence of differences with the management. The editor-in-chief’s resignation could possibly be for personal reasons.

According to one of the sources we spoke to, the relationship between editorial and management had been strained. Accusations of editorial processes having to negotiate committees and editing by non-editorial staff have been reported, as well as related to us by sources who do not wish to be named.

Newslaundry was also informed by sources still with Vice that the venture wasn’t exactly off to a great start to begin with, owing to “inefficient” editorial management. One of the reasons they cite for the team missing the initial launch date of January 1. Mails accessed by Newslaundry between the management and the then editorial team do not reflect any discord or talk of editorial inefficiencies. In fact, in these emails, there were at least two occasions where the senior editorial leadership of the Vice Media’s global operations praised the preparedness of the editorial team.

People in the know at Vice India say things started heading south soon after Pragya resigned. A scrutiny of allegations and documents make three importing things clear.

First, the management had apparently told the editorial staff that they didn’t want any of the stories “to invite a phone call from Amit Shah or a legal notice”.

Second, the management introduced legal vetting of all news stories.

And, finally, the management created a “Cultural and Political Committee” to clear stories, otherwise approved by editors, which could be deemed as being socially sensitive.

This is said to have led to the exit of the two Majumders earlier this month.

Self-censorship or fear of the “phone-call” is something the Indian media has lived with for decades. This should not come as a surprise to anyone in the industry and indeed we have seen resistance to such attempts at controlling newsrooms. What is surprising is that an entity like Vice whose entire existence is hinged on pushing the boundaries could be even more careful and compliant than Indian (legacy) media.

The ‘Amit Shah’ angle

The Shah-phone-call warning was brought up on at least two occasions. The first instance took place in early February, around the time Pragya Tiwari had put in her papers. CEO Asia Pacific Hosi Simon was in town and meeting with the editorial and marketing teams. During that meeting, Chanpreet Arora, CEO, Vice India, said they did not want any phone calls from the BJP president, according to at least two Vice staffers. With Pragya’s resignation in everyone’s mind, most journalists did not take it too seriously back then, one staffer added.

On March 12, almost a month and a half later, Arora brought up the issue again in a teleconference with the editorial team. Managing editor Rishi Majumder, news editor Kunal Majumder, were among the editorial staff attending that meeting.

The CEO apparently also announced that a legal team would vet all the stories planned for the launch, sparking resentment within the editorial team. Rishi and Kunal resigned subsequently, the former the next morning and Kunal the same evening.

The Cultural and Political Committee

According to members of the Vice editorial team, the management had been insisting for a long time that stories that are politically and culturally sensitive would have to pass a legal vetting process. According to a member of the team, such messages were passed on verbally and the editorial did not pay much heed.

But, on March 10 – a Saturday when the office was closed for work – Arora sent a mail to the legal team and some members of the editorial, informing them about the constitution of a “Cultural and Political Committee”.

Chanpreet wrote: “Sameera Kanwar (head of the video team) will decide the two names for this committee and the other two names will be decided by managing editor Rishi Majumder.” It is not clear from the mail if the committee would consist of only four editorial staffers or if the management would also be nominating members of its choice. The editorial did not take too kindly to this development apparently.

On March 26, however, the former managing editor, Rishi Majumder, did send a mail to the editorial team members, talking about the interference of Chanpreet Arora in editorial affairs and her controversial proposal of forming a “Cultural and Political Committee.”

Legal vetting

The Vice India website is planning to go live—on the revised date of April 15—with 60 stories. According to the Vice India news tracker, accessed by this reporter on March 20, 34 of them—having got the green tag after the legal vetting process—are ready to go live.

“All the stories are sent to a legal expert,” a staff member of the Vice editorial team said. “The expert replies with his opinion and suggests corrections. Only after that is the story considered ready for publishing.”

The first three stories sent were:

1)  A five-star hotel in Delhi still serves Beef (not Buff). The source of this information is a chef.

2)  ‘Gay’ Spa in Delhi

3)  Gay worker of ABVP

Vice had sent the stories to Mayank Mukherjee of the legal expert team. Mayank apparently advised many changes in the story which was the reason of resentment among editors. On the first story, Mayank advised that the interview will hurt public sentiment.

On the second story, Mayank said: “This whole write up is politically sensitive. This is violation of Section 377. Also there might be pressure to reveal the identity of the source.”

On the third story, Mayank said: “The name of ABVP should be removed from the masthead. The whole write-up is too politically sensitive. The parties which are mentioned in the write-up might create a situation of violence.”

In addition to this, the management of Vice India announced that the access of Story Tracker should be given to Mayank Mukherjee of the legal team. First, know what a story tracker is – It is an online Excel file in which is a record of every story – status of the story, whether it is published or not, whether it is edited or not, what the status of the image is, when it is scheduled for publishing etc. Typically news organisations give control of this tracker to editors and not lawyers.

Current employees at Vice have a different story to tell. Newslaundry was informed that the legal team had simply red-flagged some issues but that did not mean the stories were being censored or dropped.

Others aware of the lawyer’s feedback believed the conversation around the story was ongoing and that the story was still set to be carried. Sources in Vice say the legal team’s intervention has not led to any story being dropped or censored.

India – a dumping market?

This brings us to the larger point of what is news, what is content and what should the much-celebrated India market look forward to. Is India the dumping market as opposed to western markets? Typically “dumping” in the trade and economic sense refers to price discrimination by countries or corporations between local and foreign markets.

This practice not only adversely affects the local market but also disincentivises local industry. While in commodities, “dumping” has been observed and studied for decades, when it comes to intangibles like content we are at a phase where we could be observing a new type of dumping.

There is no doubt that some of Vice’s programming has made the world sit up and take notice. They take no prisoners and they don’t pull their punches – in the US. They set new standards and push the boundaries – in the US. That has given them an identity worldwide and one would hope their entry in India would set new standards in news reportage and documentaries.

India is the next frontier for everyone, from Facebook (largest user base) to Alibaba (through its investee companies). It is but logical for media giants to be part of this market. But will they push the market in a direction where the quality of the product improves or will they flood the market with substandard content to monetise a brand that they build elsewhere? Will we see India transform into the dumping ground for tame, lame and paid for fluff content? These are important questions since the largest players determine the direction of the market and the product.

News is a product and while in all other industries, the arrival of international names nudges the local manufacturing towards higher standards, this new kind of dumping risks having the exact opposite effect.

The old news model, while not perfect, had the discipline of giving editorial freedom and control for “hard news” – politics, crime, governance to editors — entertainment, features and softer news was often on sale. The new model one would have hoped would reclaim the news space entirely. However, if in a globalised world the market is sliced not through themes (of what pages are for sale and what are not) but rather geographies – India and the large immature markets are traffic generators, while the US is the brand builder. This is unhealthy for the media industry as a whole and one hopes that is not where this trend leads. Like stated at the top of this article, the quality of Vice India content can kill this theory outright. We’re standing by.

We have sent questions to CEO of Vice India, Chanpreet Arora, and Interim Editor Ankita Rao on specifics of the organisation structure and story vetting. Arora hasn’t answered to the mail sent on March 25. Rao has refused to talk on this. We will update the story once we get the answers from Arora.

With inputs from desk. The story has been updated with a line on the January 1 delay and the reasons cited for it.

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