The recent sacking of Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor of Open magazine, has caused questions to be asked again about the extent to which owners seek to control editorial content in their magazines and newspapers. Last month, after the controversial removal of Siddharth Varadarajan from the editor’s post at The Hindu, TEHELKA published an interview in which he expressed some residual bitterness at the manner of his departure and considerable pride in his achievements in his 20 months at the helm. Varadarajan was the first ‘outside’ editor in The Hindu’s distinguished 135-year history.
N Ram, chairman of Kasturi & Sons Limited, the publishers of The Hindu, has once again appointed close family, N Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy, to key editorial positions, an apparent reversal of the decision to ‘professionalise’. Speaking to Shougat Dasgupta, Ram explains why it would be a mistake to assume that the ‘family’ cannot also maintain the highest professional standards.
In TEHELKA’s interview with Mr Varadarajan, he categorically denied suggestions that he was informed that his performance was under review or that he had violated The Hindu‘s long-held editorial values. Can you describe the process that led to the decision that he should be replaced as Editor?
All the key issues relating to editorial performance and the then Editor’s responsibility for these were raised with him directly, from time to time, over a period of more than six months. We wanted him to do well and in that spirit I myself spoke to him several times about all these issues. So did some other directors. There was one occasion nearly half a year ago when I spoke my mind as directly and bluntly as I thought appropriate in a friendly conversation, letting him know where I thought he and the editorial team were going wrong and how they were deviating from our values. Let me also tell you that there are confidential email exchanges on some of these key issues.
What were these issues? Editorialising in news reports, editorialising in the guise of news, which is strictly prohibited by the binding Code of Editorial Values adopted by the Board of Directors of our company in 2011 and displayed on the home page of The Hindu’s website. The Editor being away from our headquarters and most important edition centre and market, Chennai, far too often and far too long, sometimes for events in India and abroad that were peripheral, or completely unrelated, to the work of the newspaper. Weakening local coverage in key edition centres, especially our home base, and undertaking campaign journalism. Going for a surfeit of personalised columns at the expense of news coverage when space was under great pressure and pagination was being reduced. A lack of attention to detail and a failure to put in place an orderly system of editorial decision-making, which was aggravated by the fact that the Editor was frequently away from the headquarters. Letting strongly held personal opinions and prejudices get in the way of professional news coverage, so that it became impossible to keep the necessary professional distance in covering and presenting the news. Going for ‘soft design’ – chaotic, loud, sometimes garish, lacking any internal consistency or logic – and virtually doing away with the pure design that Mario Garcia, one of the world’s leading newspaper designers, and his team, working with our designers, had put in place for us. Making a number of inappropriate or maladroit editorial appointments, which culminated in the appointment of a totally unsuitable Executive Editor in the national capital. Resentment grew in some of our major news bureaus and a divide began to appear between the long-timers, who had spent decades of their professional lives with our newspaper and were familiar with its core values, and some of the higher-paid new-comers, often for no fault of the latter.
At the 20 August 2013 meeting of the Board, several Directors raised or flagged these urgent editorial issues and wanted this to be communicated to the Editor and also simultaneously to other senior members of the editorial team. This has been recorded in the Board minutes. As the one who chaired the Board meeting, I briefed the then Editor in detail, on every one of the points of criticism or complaint, almost immediately after the meeting. When I mentioned that some of the Directors wanted a clear message to be communicated to him and to other senior editorial staff simultaneously, he pleaded with me not to allow this to happen, as that would send the wrong signal down the line and also have a negative impact on morale.
Then there was the question of sending regular reports on editorial performance to the Board of Directors, which meets once every two months. This was a requirement under the Delegation Policy we had adopted.The record shows that the then Editor did not take his reporting requirement seriously at all: more often than not, his reports, hastily written, seemingly written on the fly, arrived too late to be of any use in Board meeting discussions. Sometimes the reports arrived late in the night before the Board meeting. This was certainly in contrast to the financial or business information regularly presented and discussed at Board meetings. It seemed to communicate an attitude, a state of mind, and I spoke to the then Editor about this more than once. I believe some others also did.
So I am puzzled to hear from you that the former Editor “denied suggestions that he was informed that his performance was under review or that he had violated The Hindu‘s long-held editorial values.” You might have noticed that not once have I mentioned a name while responding to your question. That’s because I believe there is nothing personal about all this. I wish to speak only on the issues behind the change.
Why, in your view and that of the board, was it necessary to replace Mr Varadarajan?
My short answer to this question, in light of what I have explained above, is that the very character of The Hindu, including its core editorial values, was being changed and that the process had gone too far for ‘reform’ to be attempted. The Hindu, founded in 1878, is one of India’s most respected, most widely read, and successful newspapers. It has changed continuously with the times, editorially, technologically, in its business methods, but the core values have not changed. They cannot be thrown out of the window in the name of spicing up the newspaper.
There have been rumours, circulated allegedly by Mr Varadarajan’s successor, that part of the reason he was replaced was the editorialising of news. That Narendra Modi was persona non grata on Page 1. Is this accurate?
They are not rumours but on-the-record responses to specific media questions, which you can look up. The point is that persistent editorialising in the guise of news showed scant respect for our Code of Editorial Values. It got to the point of no return and was completely unacceptable. So was the habit of letting personal opinions or prejudices interfere with the necessary professional distance in news coverage and presentation that I spoke about earlier.
When appointing Mr Varadarajan, much was made of the ‘professionalising’ of The Hindu. By removing Mr Varadarajan from his post have you abandoned the ‘experiment’ and reverted to appointing family members in key editorial positions?
We, and in particular I, realized that we had taken the wrong turn. When you take a wrong turn and go on for quite a while down that road, you don’t do course correction, you do course reversal. Conceptually too, we had made a serious mistake in assuming that ‘professionalisation’ meant keeping all shareholder Directors – who happen to belong to a large and diverse family, actually about fifty shareholders – away from top editorial positions. I would argue that the present Editor-in-Chief and Editor are as professional, that is, as schooled in journalism, its professional values, methods, and techniques, and as experienced as they come. So it would be more appropriate to speak here of shareholder or ‘family’ Directors who are professionally qualified and experienced, and outside professionals. We have two professionals in place at the helm, so why should we concern ourselves with hypothetical or speculative questions?
In his TEHELKA interview, Mr Varadarajan spoke of an important investigative story he was editing, “a blockbuster story involving RIL, Mukesh Ambani and a private media company”. He worried about the fate of that story. Has the story been killed?
There was no blockbuster story and the journalist who was working on the story herself is now of the same view. As I suggested in a tweet in response to somebody’s question on this, if there was a blockbuster story, why did the then Editor not publish it? For argument’s sake, if The Hindu doesn’t see either a blockbuster or a story in it, why not give it to TEHELKA and let readers decide on merits? By the way, I can tell you that a well-investigated and document-backed story concerning Robert Vadra’s land deals was held up for a pretty long time, for reasons I am not aware of, before it made it to print. That was when the former Editor was in charge. Why the significant delay? I don’t know but I am glad the document-backed story made it to print eventually. Again, there is nothing personal here. The point is that serious journalism is a discipline of verification, of methodological rigour when it comes to fact-checking, contextualising, and making a call. You have plenty of the other thing, journalists and media organisations believing that investigative journalism is all about stings, sensationalism, making a quick splash, and moving on to the next episode. Serious investigative journalism is not soap opera! I know how long it took for us to get towards the bottom of Bofors.
Had Mr Varadarajan still been in charge, would the story have run? Did he have the final say in all stories, or did the board discuss editorial decisions with him?
Would it have run had he still been Editor? I don’t know, you should ask him. It wasn’t published when he was Editor. I believe the story was in the making for quite a while, it wasn’t as though the then Editor was about to publish it and suddenly found himself without a job! As for your question whether he had the final say in all stories, yes he did. He had all the say. There was not a single instance where the Board of Directors discussed any specific story, or any category of stories, with the then Editor. I believe the former Editor has gone on record somewhere to the effect that there was never any directorial interference with his editorial decisions. It was good of him to make that clear.
Mr Varadarajan described The Hindu‘s institutional culture as “sycophantic”. How would you describe The Hindu‘s institutional culture?
There is sycophancy in most organisations. But it would be a slur, and also unserious, to characterise our institutional culture as ‘sycophantic’. We don’t encourage sycophancy, or yes-people. Sometimes I feel there is too much deference, in form, too much of ‘sir-ing’, although not in content. But I am pleased to say that many of our people stand up for what they believe to be professional and right. As for respecting differences in views or opinion, a long-held and continuing editorial tradition of this newspaper is that when an editorial writer doesn’t agree with a position the Editor wants him or her to take, he or she can opt out of the writing assignment. I believe this rule for editorial writing, set in stone by a ‘family’ Editor seventy or eighty years ago, is exemplary. Tell me, how many newspapers practise this?
Would you acknowledge that The Hindu became a better, sharper newspaper in Mr Varadarajan’s time as Editor?
No, neither better nor sharper. As I said, the character of the newspaper had begun to change – in a direction that neither we nor the great majority of our readers wanted or appreciated. There were, and are, plenty of indications of that.
What was the difference, if any, between The Hindu as run by an ‘outside’ editor, unconnected to the family and The Hindu as run by the family?
I refuse to have this reduced to an issue of an ‘outside’ versus ‘family’ Editor. But I can say the difference between then and now is not one of degree, it is qualitative. You can already see that editorialising in news reports has stopped as a permitted practice. The necessary professional distance in covering and presenting news has been restored. As a former Editor-in-Chief, I notice that the ‘NGO-isation’, the lack of focus and character, of the opinion pages has been replaced by hard-nosed, incisive, and focused articles on subjects that matter. It’s no longer ‘Pro-Con’ on every conceivable issue, big or small; that’s the intellectual trap of ‘false balance’. The Editor-in-Chief has gone on record to the effect that The Hindu is editorially opposed to Hindutva but is committed to maintaining a professional distance in covering and presenting news. There are plenty of insightful and hard-hitting editorials. The Code is being honoured scrupulously. In design, as I tweeted, pastiche and mishmash are out, the Garcia pure design is back. This return to pure design, to a clean, aesthetically appealing look and feel, with “easier navigation and focus on the content, removing clutter and chaos in the pages,” was announced on the front page and Mario even wrote about it in his professional design blog. All this is the qualitative difference between then and now.
With another recent high profile editor’s departure, there has been much discussion about owners’ interference in the editorial content of magazines and newspapers. Should owners have influence on editorial content?
My answer to your question is in Paragraph 9 of our Code of Editorial Values: “There is no wall but there is a firm line between the business operations of the Company and editorial operations and content. Pursuant to the above-mentioned values and objectives, it is necessary to create a professionalism in the editorial functioning independent of Shareholder interference so as to maintain an impartiality, fairness, and objectivity in editorial and journalistic functioning.” The Board of Directors can appoint and remove Editors, it is entitled to periodic reports from them on editorial performance, but it cannot interfere in editorial functioning or determine editorial content. That’s our binding Code.
Does it matter if editorial content affects an owner’s interests or makes him political enemies?
It obviously matters, if the owners can be cowed down by a government or by powerful political players, including those who send toughs to newspaper offices. But when a politician puts pressure on an owner, he or she has the option of standing up to the pressure, the way the publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger Sr, stood up to the White House on the Pentagon Papers or the way the publisher of The Washington Post, Katharine Graham, backed the Watergate investigation all the way. And we in The Hindu have our Bofors investigation, during which I believe I stood up to political pressure.
Finally, do you think The Hindu might appoint an editor from outside the family in the near future?
We have an Editor-in-Chief and an Editor in place; both are professionally qualified, experienced, and schooled in our values. It is pointless for me to answer speculative questions about the future. What I can assure you is that we have a stable and upbeat editorial environment, our journalists are happy, and I believe our readers appreciate the visible change in the pages.