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Press Ganged

India -- the promised land of journalism -- is reeling from scandal, corruption, and sleaze.


MUMBAI — A few years ago, editor Tina Brown — still fresh from the launch of her then-new venture, the Daily Beast — came bearing advice for the Columbia Journalism School Class of 2009. American journalism was suffering an "earthquake," she told the students in New York — but those sitting before her didn’t necessarily have to feel its tremors.

There was still a promised land of journalism out there, Brown told them, but to find it they’d have to head east — to India, where literally tens of thousands of newspapers were scrapping for new readers; where reporters from the 400-plus news channels jostled one another for the best shots; where the disruptions of the Internet publishing were still in the future.

Yes, Brown said, if she were a young, aspiring journalist, she would pack her bags and head for India. "There’s tons of highbrow newspapers in India, terrific magazines," she said. It’s a place to "learn about other societies and other ways of doing journalism."

Had these students taken Brown up on her advice, and actually come to India, they might have found the picture a sight less rosy than she had promised.

These earnest American J-school grads would have witnessed the time an industrialist-lawmaker sent representatives with a hidden camera to record extortionate business reporters demanding money in exchange for not carrying critical stories. Or the night one television reporter in Guwahati asked a crowd assaulting a woman to move to a well-lit area because his camera crew had just arrived. The class of 2009 would have learned, as many news networks did this fall, that a seemingly benign comparison between the current prime minister’s speech and one by a prime ministerial candidate violated Rule 6 of the Cable Television Networks Rules, according to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. (The ministry issued an ominous advisory reminding networks they were duty bound to not offend good taste.)

The news business in India may be buzzing with life, but a number of recent high-profile, ugly affairs among its supposedly leading lights have shown, once again, that its soul is in crisis.The news business in India may be buzzing with life, but a number of recent high-profile, ugly affairs have shown that its soul is in crisis.

The case that most recently dominated headlines across India was the arrest of the charismatic Tarun Tejpal, the editor of Tehelka, one the country’s top investigative magazines, on charges of raping a colleague. The feisty magazine has been sent reeling — six journalists, including the managing editor, have resigned in the wake of the accusations — and now, with its biggest investor threatening to pull out, Tehelka faces an uncertain future.

But, incendiary though it may be, the Tehelka case may say less about the state of Indian journalism than the recent eviction of Siddharth Varadarajan from his position as editor-in-chief at the Hindu, one of India’s leading English-language dailies, based in Chennai. The family behind the paper, the Kasturis, who have a penchant for nasty internal rifts, recently put their differences behind them in order to oust Varadarajan, the first "professional" editor in the venerable newspaper’s 135-year history. He lasted for little more than two years.

"Professional," a reporter at the Hindu told me, meant "editorial distance from the owners. ‘Professional’ was supposed to be someone finally putting space between the family and the newspaper’s actual output." Before Varadarajan was appointed in 2011, "the actual ability of editors had never been tested," she said. "Editorship was simply inherited."

Professionalism, as the world generally knows it, remains something of a rarity in Indian media. By and large, India’s bustling newsrooms are populated with young practitioners who’ve learned the trade on the fly. J-schools exist, but they "have faculty that probably hasn’t stepped foot into a newsroom in years, if not decades," said Raju Narisetti, a vice president of strategy at News Corp. who founded Mint, an Indian business newspaper. They will find employment, but little further training on the job. "I do remember from personal experience an age when editors and senior journalists were willing to spend the time and effort to teach, to mentor, to push, to work with young journalists and help them develop their skills," Prem Panicker, the managing editor of Yahoo India, told me. "I don’t know of an editor — any editor — today who can be bothered."

Out of this not particularly promising soil, a few good reporters do grow, but a large number of them wind up working for media organizations that aren’t exactly committed to rigorous journalism. The proprietor of the Times of India, the country’s largest English-language paper (also family run), for instance, told the New Yorker last year, "We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business." He continued, "If you are editorially minded, you will make all the wrong decisions."

Before Varadarajan was named editor of the Hindu, he’d spent time as its associate editor. He had once taught economics at New York University, but at the newspaper Varadarajan had a broad mandate — he wrote about business regulation, national and strategic affairs. (He has something of a pedigree: his brother, Tunku, is also a journalist, and was once the editor of Newsweek Global.) In 2011, his ascension to the top of the paper’s hierarchy was endorsed by a majority of the board of directors. "What we wanted to do is to professionalise (sic) and contemporise the daily," said N. Ram, then editor-in-chief, in making way for Varadarajan. Observers, at the time, however noted that the appointment may have been driven less by such seemingly pure motives, and more by inter-family squabbling, as one family branch maneuvered to block another faction.

By any reasonable account, the Hindu under Varadarajan began to invest in deep investigative reporting; its correspondents unearthed suspicious transactions between a large real estate company and Sonia Gandhi’s son in law, and filed detailed accounts of India’s Central Monitoring System, a comprehensive surveillance tool, that, as the Hindu  correspondents explained, has no clear legal limitations. Varadarajan’s Hindu had a sharp front page that eschewed fluff, and made exciting young hires, including those focused on data journalism (this move, in particular, was seismic for a newspaper that once believed in putting kids at a science fair on the front page).Ram — who has penned lengthy essays on the need for improved standards in Indian media — put his daughter, a mint-fresh J-school grad, on the Hindu‘s front page.

Those who worked at the paper un
der Varadarajan say they found an editor who was open to ideas, responsive to criticism, and less likely than his predecessors to make befuddling news choices, including many inclined toward self-promotion. Under Ram, the Hindu published a story in February 2009 about Tibet’s rapid development, which, in the first paragraph quoted a "prominent Indian journalist" who rejected "Tibetan independence propaganda." The second paragraph revealed that the prominent journalist was Ram himself (who is an unabashed supporter of China’s rise). Even more infamously, some years before Varadarajan’s appointment, Ram — who has penned lengthy essays on the need for improved standards in Indian media — put his daughter, a mint-fresh J-school grad, on the Hindu‘s front page for her achievements: "Vidya Ram, 27, from Chennai was designated the top student in the Class of 2007 of the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University, New York." No word on what the well-educated Vidya might have made of her father’s decision.

At last count, there were more than 80,000 registered newspapers and about 400 regional and national news channels across India. But with this proliferation has come concerns about the quality of the journalism being produced. Developing a professional Indian Fourth Estate — one with editorial independence, one that adheres to widely accepted ethical and editorial standards — still faces an abundance of hurdles.

The Indian media landscape is a tangle of conflicting interests. Media outlets, such as the sprawling Network18 — which runs CNBC and CNN-IBN in India — and NewsX, are financed by big corporations with other pressing interests, such as telecommunications and petrochemicals; a large number of news organizations, including News 24 and the Sun Group, have close links with powerful political players. Western media, too, may see conflicts of interest at times, but in India, the best practices in ethical standards seen in the international journalism are unevenly applied.

Journalists have few protections from corporate and advertising pressures: "Corporate ownership makes you constrained in writing about owners and their interests, and maybe their friends as well," said Govindraj Ethiraj, the former editor-in-chief of a locally-run Bloomberg News channel in India, who later left to found an independent, donor-funded journalism site. "Perhaps you’ll get one critical article in, and then the message will come from above," said Ethiraj. Then there’s pressure from political quarters to change news headlines and hold back inconvenient stories, according to news correspondents who spoke with me on condition of anonymity. Politicians may have close connections with media owners (or may own media themselves), threaten to scuttle business contracts, or even dangle the tempting carrot of state-sponsored advertising (state governments altogether spend around $300 million on advertising annually). Employees at one of India’s largest news channels told me about instances when the editor took calls from a top government official in private, and returned to the news pit to suggest new, less incendiary, headlines. This was a frequent occurrence, they said.

There are casualties. In November, political duress led to the noisy departure of a high-profile editor: Hartosh Singh Bal, who led the politics desk at Open, a newsweekly, was fired at the behest of the magazine’s owner, according to its editor, Manu Joseph. In an interview with The Hoot, a media website, Joseph said that his boss — Sanjiv Goenka, whose businesses include energy and retail — complained, "because of [Hartosh] I am making a lot of enemies … political enemies."

Occasionally, some publications decide to raise the bar. When Narisetti of News Corp. founded Mint, a financial newspaper with headquarters in New Delhi, in 2006 (full disclosure: I worked there for a year until August 2007), he introduced a number of journalistic best practices, including requiring that stories from anonymous sources had to be confirmed by at least two other sources if the account was to pass muster. He put in place a code of conduct — a curiosity in Indian media at the time — that included, among other things, rules on dealing with public relations executives and accepting gifts and junkets. One of the first dismissals for violations of the code occurred before the first issue was even printed, which is to say, the code was taken seriously. But while Narisetti lay down internal standards, he said he found the constant external pressures exerted on journalists and editors sapping. (After leaving Mint in 2008, he spoke to the New York Times, which reported this about their conversation: "He said he left earlier than he expected because of a ‘troubling nexus’ of business, politics and publishing that he called ‘draining on body and soul.’")

In an interview over email, Narisetti told me that the coopting of journalists by the business side in Indian newspapers was unparalleled. "There are problems everywhere, but most such issues tend to be exceptions, sporadic and often fixed, unlike what I encountered in India," he said, calling it "a culture that is perpetuated and reinforced when industry leaders embrace policies that destroy even rudimentary church and state guideposts."

At the Hindu, these lines were blurred to the point of abstraction. The former editor, N. Ram, had ascended to become the Hindu‘s group chairman, and justified the move to remove Varadarajan in a letter to five directors, advocating greater involvement by the family: "The ‘Hands off management’ approach had denied the company the benefit of the rich experience and talent on the Board," it said. It was "out of line with the editorial and business values that the 135-year-old institution had always stood for … the course we had embarked on was proving to be disastrous."

But outside the Hindu — including among high-profile Western journalists — Varadarajan’s departure was viewed as a loss for the paper. "The Hindu was a far better paper under [Varadarajan]. It is a great loss for readers," tweeted Lydia Polgreen, a New York Times editor and former India correspondent. "The family wins but Indian journalism loses," wrote the New Yorker‘s Jonathan Shainin (a former editor of mine at the Caravan).  Senior television correspondent Rahul Dev told the cable news show The Big Picture that the dismissal "gives us a clear signal that the owner families in Indian media … they are still uncomfortable with professional leadership — independent professional leadership of their family-owned properties."

"We saw it as a progression toward professionalization of family-owned media businesses," he said. "This is a step back."

Bal’s firing at Open, which came soon after Varadarajan’s sacking, led to an immediate outpouring of angst about the worrisome direction India’s media had taken. Sreenivasan Jain,
a managing editor at the news channel NDTV, tweeted, "What on earth is going on with the media?!" A former editor of Forbes India, Indrajit Gupta, surmised on Twitter, "It is perhaps more to do with the lack of values and the inability to handle political pressure."

The Kasturis, meanwhile, maintain that Varadarajan’s exit doesn’t mean an end to quality journalism at the Hindu. "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," Ram told Tehelka, in the days before the magazine wound up in the throes of its own crisis.

Since Varadarajan’s departure, however, the Hindu seems to have returned to its old ways, judging by the glowing coverage it gave to a speech by Ram at Mahatma Gandhi University. "Referring to Mr. Ram," the piece read, "the [University] Chancellor said he embodied all that was expected of a true journalist as he epitomised the qualities of a journalist."

But Varadarajan’s departure, Hartosh’s sacking, and the troubles at Tehelka all come at a delicate time. The forthcoming elections — featuring the authoritarian Narendra Modi on one side, and Rahul Gandhi, the scion of a dynasty perceived as remarkably corrupt, on the other — have polarized public discourse. The effects of these elections, seen as pivotal for the direction India takes, have been felt within media organizations and without. Every editorial statement, and every journalist, is under scrutiny for any political leanings. Established journalists are routinely described as "paid media" — a phrase that somehow packs in leaning, bearing, and blunt insult. In effect, readers have formed their own narratives, especially online, where the media are viewed as susceptible to sway. Bal himself recently told the New York Times that "The ability to influence media, the attempt to do so — that is changing rapidly. I think it is worse now."

Today, the Hindu, one of this country’s most esteemed papers, faces the 2014 elections without its finest editor in recent memory. Open is without a straight-shooting political editor who kept the right and left satisfied with his balanced assaults on both sides. And who knows how damaged Tehelka is by its editor’s assertion that the allegations against him are a political conspiracy?

So yes, come to India, Tina Brown — now that you have some free time. It would be an eye opener, for you or any young journalist.

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