Ranjona Banerji | Times@175: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

08 Nov,2013

By Ranjona Banerji


The word “sesquicentennial” was not familiar to most in Bombay when The Times of India splashed it all over the city in 1988. But since my school in Calcutta, La Martiniere for Girls, had celebrated its 150th birthday a few years before, everyone in that city knew what it meant. Those 150th celebrations of the Old Lady of Boribunder were a massive announcement in a sense of a new Times of India. Not so much an old lady but of a group that would transform the Indian media scene – in both good and bad ways.


Although I did a story on the 150 year celebrations for the now defunct Bombay magazine, I must confess I remember very little about what happened. Except for the takeover of Victoria Terminus with massive artworks carefully placed between its ornate columns. Situated across each other, India’s most famous railway station and India’s most famous newspaper have long dominated Bombay’s skyline with their Indo-Saracenic architecture, control of commuter and long-distance travels and of course, people’s minds.


But the sesquicentennial celebrations were actually a message to the world that The Times of India had transformed itself. Samir Jain, elder son of Ashok Jain, would now run the paper as his own – unlike his father who had left it to editors and journalists. In the early 1980s, I worked for a while with an advertising agency which handled Bennett Coleman accounts. There were no Jains in sight when you visited the Old Lady in those days. And of course there was Girilal Jain, the editor who was synonymous with The Times of India and ultimately the apparent cause of Samir Jain’s distrust of editors and journalists.


Girilal Jain (no relation) was sacked in 1988, ostensibly for his pro-Hindutva leanings. But some of those stories about his disdainful treatment of Ashok Jain and Samir Jain’s anger at that must have played a part. After Girilal, no editor would be allowed to reach such dominating heights. The subtle hand of the young owner would be felt everywhere. Soon, his younger brother Vineet would make his own mark on the group.


The Times of India has done a lot of damage to the media in general with its subsequent treatment of journalists, with putting marketing above newsgathering and by introducing money-gathering practices like Medianet which is essentially legitimising bribery. However, it also took media in India into the contemporary world and set the standard for all other newspapers. Over the last 25 years, as it now celebrates its 175th anniversary, The Times of India remains the country’s most-read newspaper and continues to mean all things to all people.


I worked for The Times of India’s Ahmedabad edition from 2001 to 2004. In that time, I saw the best and worst of it. The support given to us in the editorial office during our coverage of the Gujarat riots of 2002 was remarkable and commendable. And it was also most welcome as the local government and civil society turned against us for the newspaper’s decision to be fair in its coverage of the riots and our refusal to give in to the sentiments of the Hindu majority. The newspaper’s management in Delhi dealt with most of the anger and the threats to the group.


However, it was also during my time in Ahmedabad that Medianet was introduced and that led partly to my decision to leave the group. Sadly today most other media houses have followed the Medianet example, where people and corporates can get positive or useful news about themselves printed in the glamour sections of newspapers. Journalists either have to give in or find some other place to work. What happens there is not really journalism anyway.


Yet in these 25 years there has been a lot of hard work and massive growth. The Times of India has complete control over Mumbai, its flagship edition, plays a neck and neck race with the Hindustan Times in Delhi and has editions which are either ahead of the others or serious contenders in major cities in India. Times Now is one of India’s most popular news channels. Radio Mirchi rules the FM waves. Indiatimes hogs internet space, especially for NRIs.


Given the newspaper’s oddly distrustful relationship with culture and cultural activities since 1988, I doubt that Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus will be festooned with major artworks by Indian greats again. Perhaps Katrina Kaif and Hrithik Roshan dancing all over the building would be more appropriate? They can pay the newspaper to do it too.


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