News agencies, whether in India or in other parts of the world, are oceans of faceless journalists, thanklessly feeding the news cycle with staid but solid copy from places the boldfaced names of the media world wouldn’t be caught dead in. Rarely are the bylines of their stars known to the newspaper reading class; obscurer still are the shenanigans that take place in the boardrooms that run their newsrooms. But make no mistake, the power of news agencies in shaping the discourse is immense. And so, it appears, is the desire of governments to control their levers.
At 11 am on Friday, February 26, when the directors of India’s largest news agency, the Press Trust of India (PTI), assembled at the offices of the 67-year-old agency in Delhi for a board meeting, it was expected to be the sort of clubby congregation that fatcat media barons have before breaking off for a leisurely lunch followed by a round of golf. Except that it turned out to be anything but. An animated discussion on the Narendra Modi government’s bid to interfere in its affairs broke out and, in the end, there was a show of hands resolving to maintain the agency’s editorial independence. “[Former BJP president] L.K. Advani famously said that when newpapers were asked to bend during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, they crawled. This time, when PTI was indicated to crawl, it stood up strongly and defiantly,” said a board member, as news of the proceedings leaked.
At the heart of the shadowboxing is the editorship of PTI. It’s an agency owned not by the government, but by 98 newspapers from across the country. Maharaj Krishen Razdan (aka M.K. Razdan), who joined the agency in 1965, has been its editor-in-chief for two decades now. He has also been its chief operating officer. But he is 71 years old, and had indicated that his administrative burden should be eased. At a previous PTI board meeting, therefore, it was decided to look out for a CEO who could replace Razdan in the medium term.
But one thing led to another last week, and soon one board member, whose family is known to have political links—from the BJP to Samajwadi Party—was mentioning the names of three Delhi-based journalists as claimants for the editorship of PTI. “The editorship was not an item on the agenda,” said one board member. “The three-member nomination and remuneration subcommittee, headed by Mahendra Mohan Gupta of Dainik Jagran, had been tasked to find a CEO or COO. In fact, the nom-rem panel (whose other members are Riyad Mathew of Malayala Manorama and independent director Jimmy F. Pochkhanawalla) had not even met to discuss the issue. There had been no ad in the papers or on PTI’s website or on LinkedIn calling for candidates. So these names came out of the blue.”
The proximity of politicians to journalists and vice versa is well known, but as the PTI meeting progressed and members quizzed their colleague, the imputation became clear—some powers in Modi Sarkar were trying to pre-empt the PTI board’s decision on Razdan’s successor by floating their own names. “The board member mentioned finance minister Arun Jaitley as having approached him directly. Some others also spoke of Jaitley’s interest in the issue, but only in private conversations,” said the board member on condition of anonymity, without divulging the names of those who mentioned the minister’s name.
Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of The Wire, an online news publication, wrote that the three candidates whose names were floated—columnist and TV commentator Ashok Malik, Hindustan Times executive editor Shishir Gupta, and Financial Chronicle associate editor K.A. Badrinath—“are all well-disposed towards the Narendra Modi government and the ruling BJP”. Malik was recently decorated with the Padmashri. (A few months ago, The Sunday Guardian, formerly edited by BJP spokesman M.J. Akbar, had reported the name of Swapan Dasgupta. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan last year.)
The chairman of the PTI board, Hormusji N. Cama, told Outlook, “In all fairness to the man (Arun Jaitley), if he wanted to push someone, he could well have called me. But I did not get any call from him.” Efforts by Outlook to reach Jaitley for a response were in vain.
Sources close to Mahendra Mohan Gupta, whose family runs the world’s largest circulated newspaper, the Dainik Jagran, dismissed the suggestion that anything was amiss in the board member floating the names of the three candidates: “Does any newspaper or magazine advertise for the post of editor? There are, as such, only a handful of professionals available for such posts and only recommendations and word of mouth work.”
Notwithstanding the fact that Jaitley is both finance minister and information and broadcasting minister, the mention of political nominees for the PTI editor’s job had a catalytic effect on the board meeting. The straight-talking Cama cut to the chase. According to those present, he said, “Anybody who applies for the editor’s position with a recommendation is automatically disqualified.” And hearing this, all hands went up. (Of PTI’s 16 directors, only three were absent from the meeting: Viveck Goenka of The Indian Express, Aveek Sarkar of Ananda Bazaar Patrika, and Sanjoy Narayan of Hindustan Times.) Vineet Jain, managing director of the Times of India group, who attended the meeting, is known to have backed the chairman’s resolve to keep PTI independent, but when congratulated by a journalist on Twitter for his “firm stand”, he furiously back-pedalled: “I took no stand. Misinformation.” However, Goenka told Outlook: “Internal deliberations of the PTI board ought not to be a matter of public speculation. In any event, I do not believe that the PTI board will be subjected to political pressure.”
What is clear is that two of the three aspirants did go to Mumbai to meet Cama, whose family runs the Gujarati newspaper Bombay Samachar, also Asia’s oldest. At the board meeting, when some members asked why he had met the candidates if he was so against political interference, the PTI chairman is learnt to have quipped: “To find out who had sent them!” Badrinath avers that two members of the board had called him to ask if he would be available for the PTI editorship. “Would anyone say no to such a proposition? I did not apply. PTI called me. I was initially supposed to meet Cama in Delhi, but it just happened that I was going to Mumbai for a story and so I met him there instead of Delhi,” he told Outlook. Malik too was quoted as saying, “I did not apply and was not asked to apply. A PTI board member contacted me and asked me if I would be interested. He clarified he was not offering me the job but making a tentative inquiry for a shortlist. He then asked for my CV.” Shishir Gupta, who reportedly was the last entrant, declined to speak to Outlook. But at least one of the three aspirants, confident of landing the PTI editorship, is learnt to have offered a job to a senior editor even before the board met last Friday. A top editor with pronounced BJP leanings said, “All three candidates have worked under me at various points of time, but none of them are suitable for an editor’s role. Certainly not PTI’s.”
Some board members told Outlook the matter of a CEO’s appointment during the February 26 meeting was just a ruse, the real purpose of some members was to push their candidates for the editor’s post. “In the guise of discussing the CEO’s appointment, this whole game was played out and names were recommended. If there was really no political influence, how come the names of these three journalists were recommended by the board member? Obviously, he must have been asked to do so,” they claimed. There could well be another possibility—that some board members may have been trying to please their political masters without the latter’s knowledge.
What then is PTI’s roadmap? Says Cama: “Razdan’s term is coming to an end, he has to groom a successor. The person can be an in-house candidate but merit will be the only criterion. We are not so much looking at the editorial side; our need is more for an administrator. We have always valued our independence and let me assure you we won’t allow political influence or interference.” A new search committee has been formed, comprising Cama, Mahendra Mohan Gupta, Riyad Mathew and K.N. Shanth Kumar (of the Deccan Herald group).
The deeply embarrassing disclosure of political interference will not go down well with the Modi government, which was perhaps hoping to quietly “control the headlines” in the hinterland of India serviced by PTI, with its own man at the helm. Thanks to a very private rebuff by the PTI board going public, it is unlikely a similar misadventure will be attempted so brazenly, especially with at least 12 of the 16 board members ill-disposed to political interference at a collective level. Then again, with three years of Narendra Modi’s tenure still to go, who is to say what the future holds?
By Bula Devi in New Delhi