August 15, 2020
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Of Press Pupperty

A hard look at the unsavoury world of small print

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Of Press Pupperty
Good News,Bad News
By P.Tharyan
Punnoose Tharyan Rs:295;Pages:336

INDIAN journalists write about everything under the sun except what goes on in their own profession-largely out of a fear of being blacklisted by the powerful press barons and banished to the uncertain wilderness of freelance writing. It's understandable then why Tharyan, former editor of The National Herald, waited to retire before reminiscing about his forty years in journalism. Anecdotal and insightful, this book is a no-holds-barred inside story of our newspapers. It leaves one sad and depressed.

The steady decline of the Indian press has followed that of the nation's public life. It's easy to romanticise the past but pre-independence journalism was distinguished by an idealism and patriotic sacrifice, very rare now. Editors led simple lives and didn't have bank accounts, while newspaper owners remained invisible in the background, untouched by commercial greed. The British rulers were ruthless with nationalist papers, sending their editors to jail, confiscating printing presses. There were great editors then: Kalinath Roy, Syed A. Brelvi, K. Subba Rao, Kasturi R. Ayyangar, S. Sadanand, Pothan Joseph and B.G. Horniman, a Briton who threw himself into the freedom struggle. The legendary Annie Besant, also a foreigner, edited New India, voice of the Home Rule movement.

Tharyan also points out that though British-owned newspapers like The Times of India and The Statesman were imperialist and racist in their policies, they maintained high professional standards. Their British editors did not take orders from Viceroys or Governors, much less bureaucrats with white skins. James Augustus Hickey, who founded The Bengal Gazette in 1780, for instance exposed corruption in the East India Company and even took on the formidable Warren Hastings for his misdeeds, preferring a Calcutta prison to compromising on his journalistic principles. Ironically, when British newspapers changed hands after independence, the Indian owners quickly forsook all professional ethics and made money-making their only aim.

The author writes about M. Chalapathi Rau, the first editor of The Herald, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, with deep anguish. Highly principled, Rau drew a lower salary than that of his senior colleagues but he was 'blindly' loyal to the Nehru family. The Emergency was the paper's 'most disgraceful period' when this lauded 'doyen' did not write a single word critical of Mrs Gandhi. Surrounded by sycophants, Rau was ultimately sacked humiliatingly by Yashpal Kapoor, Mrs Gandhi's personal clerk who had been made managing director.

Reading Tharyan's memoirs, one can see why the Indian press surrendered meekly and ignominously to Mrs Gandhi during the Emergency. Excepting three or four, post-independence newspapers are owned by purely market-driven business interests and

edited by men of straw. The author writes extensively about the high-level intrigues in leading newspapers, the utter servility of well-paid senior journalists who act as errand boys for proprietors and the unabashed domination of the editorial department by managerial underlings. The close links binding press barons, editors, influential politicians, bureaucrats and plain crooks are detailed. Is it any wonder then that the late publisher of a 'national' daily was involved in a huge foreign exchange scandal and desperately diverted public attention from his predicament by ordering his hacks to write about human rights violations in the country.

Tharyan is right in calling free press in India an illusion. Technology has improved, even small-town papers are now glossies. But credibility is gone. The press trades in trivialities and has degenerated into an extension of Bollywood. Pornography is purveyed without inhibition. The author died last April, but Good News, Bad News will remain the liveliest and most honest survey of Indian journalism to be published so far. It shatters the myths spread by the newspaper establishment about itself.

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