Ranjona Banerji: When journalists get taken for a ride

30 Apr,2013

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The collapse of the Saradha Group in West Bengal has dominated TV time and newspaper headlines. A chit fund empire with a real estate front and close connections to the ruling Trinamool Congress in the state is certainly excellent news fodder. But there is another angle to this story which directly affects the media fraternity. The Saradha Group also owned a number of newspapers and TV channels. Most of those were abruptly shut down and scores of journalists and other employees left in the lurch with no salaries and no prospects. Through their work days, journalists probe and poke into other people’s businesses, looking for transgressions. But as a fraternity, we have been unable to protect ourselves from the shenanigans of our employers.

 

The Indian Post shut down suddenly and journalists fought against the management for years, to little avail. The newspaper was owned by Vijaypat Singhania – not a fly-by-night operator like Sudipta Sen of Saradha appears to be. The Ambanis bought the Sunday Observer and started the Business and Political Observer with great fanfare but as time passed realised that running a newspaper as a PR newsletter is counter-productive and shut them both down.

 

Conversely, a businessman – Rajen Raheja – has apparently been almost a model owner as far as the newsmagazine Outlook is concerned, which carved out a distinctive style for itself under the editorship of Vinod Mehta.

 

How is a journalist to know whether an employer is trustworthy or not? When the Bengal Post was started by the Saradha Group, I spoke to the editor about his owner. The editor assured me that the owner seemed like a straight guy – with this massive real estate business – and a leaning towards Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool. However the newspaper was going to be allowed to carve out its own editorial line. On speaking to other journalists at Bengal Post, it soon became clear that they had no clue about who their owner was. That is, hundreds of sceptical journalists – who have gossip about everyone else at their fingertips – signed up for jobs without basic background checks, forget due diligence.

 

This carelessness has cost us, not just our pockets but also our credibility. And in the old days, when we were paid a pittance, eking out a life with a Rs 75 annual increment under some government-controlled salary scheme to ensure that our employers didn’t diddle us, the shock was manageable. In most cases, we had very little to lose. The whole job was a weird adventure anyway and people picked themselves up and carried on.

 

The stakes changed in the 1990s with the contract system and the advent of television pushing salaries up. Now there is a lot more to lose. Journalists are no longer “jholawallahs”, hanging about with the dregs of society. There are EMIs, expectations for children and better lifestyles. Perhaps the fraternity cannot afford to be so callous about who starts newspapers and television channels and increasingly, websites. Just about everyone who holds out the promise of a “New York Times” style paper need not be trustworthy.

 

Curiously, the plight of the journalist is not much of a concern for other journalists. I don’t what that says about us really.

 

But as a matter of interest, here’s Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta on owners of media houses. For what it’s worth, I found the argument confusing and convoluted. http://www.indianexpress.com/news/national-interest-mere-paas-media-hai/1108319/0

 

And here’s former colleague Seema Guha, who worked for Bengal Post on the mysterious Sudipta Sen: http://thehoot.org/web/home/story.php?storyid=6736

 

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Ken Auletta of the New Yorker did a massive article on The Times of India and the Jains who own it. Here’s a response from the Times of India’s executive editor. Make of it what you will.

 

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