Saturday, March 29, 2008

How the Times of India turned news into a commodity

Anuradha Kher

In March 2003, Bennett Coleman and Company, India’s largest media house launched a controversial business idea called Medianet. Medianet was designed as a service allowing companies to buy editorial space on the pages of its flagship newspaper, The Times of India (TOI). The launch of the product was bashful. The newspaper published a 1000-word article on the benefits of this service which it credited itself with being an innovator of.
“The sluggish fear change. The reactive respond to it. The proactive create it. At the Times group, we pride ourselves upon being at the cutting edge of the third category. The role we envision for Medianet is that of an auditor, regulating the media’s burgeoning interaction with the PR sector,” the article claimed.
It went on to say that Medianet would fit in well with the new trends in media buying. “Advertisers seek to make themselves heard over the cacophony of a million voices, all competing for the consumer’s attention,” the article said. (
In this manner, the premise for Medianet has been that advertisers no longer want to settle for standard advertising measures. A simple ad in the newspaper or even repeating it often is no longer enough to drill the message into the reader’s minds.
So the TOI argues that Medianet is actually the next stage in contemporary news gathering. The group believes that today’s readers don’t just expect news about politics or society or business issues. They also expect an editorial line on contemporary issues like fashion, entertainment, and lifestyle. So instead of sticking to the traditional age-old methods of reporting on these categories, why not get the advertiser to give the news and pay for it as well? Everybody wins. But while the Times Group may have counted on readers and journalists being less aware, the reaction to Medianet indicated the opposite.
Many journalists including Radhika Dhawan of BusinessWorld began questioning whether the news gathering process should have any less integrity because it is a fashion trend being reported on and not a politician’s bank balance. How can a reader see the difference between news and articles that are paid for?
Thus was unleashed a debate on journalism ethics that India’s print media had not seen in the longest time. It began with editorials and articles like Dhawan’s in major newspapers and ended in the blogosphere. What gave rise to such anger was that the TOI had always been associated with truth and news. It was the ultimate betrayal and coming from one of the biggest media houses in the country, this was expected to set a very dangerous trend.
To give perspective of the role of the Indian media and its ethics, it’s important to know that any respectable Indian publication and its journalists strongly abide by the sacrosanct separation of editorial space and advertising. Journalism schools in India teach the same principles as those taught by journalism schools in the United States. To illustrate, ‘Journalism of courage,’ ‘Let truth prevail,’ and ‘Let there be light’ are some of the mottos of Indian newspapers. In this largely illiterate nation, news is put on a pedestal.
To understand the damage done by Medianet it is also crucial to note that India, the world’s largest democracy, like the United States depends on its newspapers to inform people of the rights and wrongs committed by the government. It is considered the fourth estate of Indian democracy. Vibhuti Patel, editor with Newsweek International explained this best in a book called ‘Rape of News’ written by journalist Sunil Poolani: “The press in India has historically wielded much power — toppling governments and holding them accountable.” Examples include its crucial role in the Emergency (the 21-month period, when President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, with advice by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency under Article 352 of the Constitution of India, effectively bestowing on her the power to rule by decree, suspending elections and civil liberties. It is one of the most controversial periods in the history if independent India), in the Tehelka cases (the newspaper launched a successful sting operation uncovering corruption in India’s large defence contracts), and in exposing corrupt politicians and several scandals. Hence he says “it is a shame that the TOI is choosing to compromise that power simply for filthy lucre.”
And in this backdrop, Medianet naturally ruffled more than just a few feathers.
In an email interview, Poolani, journalist and author of the book ‘Rape of News’ said, “Medianet’s contribution to Indian journalism is that it has converted it into a product. So the readers do not buy papers for news or views, but for cheap gossip and titillation. You do not read about farmers and laborers, who constitute 80 per cent of India’s population, but about how Angelina Jolie’s panties were stolen and who sniffed them.” Poolani is outraged. “Medianet is unfortunate, it is infuriating, and it is unheard-of. So either you boycott the papers in question or keep quiet and read the sham,” he said.
Patel also asked in the ‘Rape of News’: “How can a news publication report in an objective, unbiased way if it is accepting money from corporations? How is this better than check-book journalism?”
Meanwhile, the blogosphere too was rife with the Medianet story.
When one of the few noted Indian media critics, Pradyuman Maheshwari, criticized the Times of India on his Mediaah Weblog in early 2005, the Times looked to squash him with a seven-page legal threat for libel. The threat worked, and Maheshwari decided to close his site. As the editor of Maharashtra Herald, a daily newspaper based in Pune, India Mahaeshwari didn’t have the resources to fight back.
He started the blog in July 2003, as a critical look at the Indian media business, with commentary and gossip. When Maheshwari posted 19 blog pieces related to the TOI, the company threatened to take legal action. Maheshwari later said that much of what upset the paper was his criticism of its Medianet initiative. Finally Maheswari had to shut down his site because it did not work for him financially.
Despite this, the Indian blogosphere jumped into the media criticism bandwagon. One anonymous blogger quickly set up Mediaha, a blog that contains the 19 blog posts in question, as well as the seven-page legal notice from the TOI. Another blogger, Sruthijith K K, a student who works at a public policy think tank in Delhi, launched a blog to follow the Mediaah/Times battle, while starting an online petition that quickly garnered 200-plus signatures. And another blogger, who goes by the online name Quetzal, ran a protest post on his blog, which is ironically hosted by the TOI itself on its blog-hosting service O3. (
Unfortunately, after the initial uproar, the controversy all seems to be forgotten. Poolani said, “The paper believes this; spread lies, and more lies, and one day it is realized as truth. Sadly this does seem to be happening with the readers of TOI.”
Another journalist Aakar Patel, chief editor of Midday, a Mumbai based daily paper, wondered in ‘Rape of News’: “In the long term, this sale of news space is severely damaging to the credibility of news reporting and its delivery, and I do not think too many papers will wish to follow suit.”
But Poolani raises an important point. This trend is likely to push competitors to follow suit. In this day and age, journalism has become all about supply and demand. So as long as the readers don’t boycott TOI, and their revenues keep rising, other publications have no reason not to follow the model. “At least two major business magazines in English are selling, including their cover stories, almost every issue if the get paid,” says Poolani.
“If Indian journalism has embraced crass commercialization, the American media is obsessed with Bush’s antics or the intimate details of Clinton’s personal life. Both are ideologically corrupt.” he adds.
Whether or not more newspapers and TV channels will follow suit, is still unknown. But if PBS media critic, Mark Glaser is right in assuming that “Medianet actually gave rise to media criticism,” maybe it may actually do some good for the Indian media in the long run. (

Sources: Rape of News by Sunil Poolani

Friday, March 28, 2008

A Bitter Bengali Delicacy


Saikat Majumdar


Price: 295; Pages: 293

By Sunil K Poolani

The title of the book could not have been more apt. Like silverfish that nibbles away precious printed words, leaving a whitish trail, Calcutta, the city of neither joy nor love, gnaws the already-pathetic and morose lives of the two protagonists, separated by two centuries, in Saikat Majumdar’s debut novel.

Silverfish is melancholic testimony of a debauched land (in this case Bengal) inundated and infested not just by age-old religious stupidities (as in a parallel plot that vivifies the life of Kamal) but also of a skewed polity in the name of a redundant ideology called communism (as in the other narrative in which the ‘hero’ is Milan Sen).

Though Majumdar has a cogitative and distinguished style, the novel in question is quite remorse and disturbing most times. The novel oozes of sadness throughout and a reader is forcibly dragged into a web of hopelessness and dejection, most of the time sympathising with the shadow characters in play — be it the early eighteenth century in which Kamal’s story is set or of the present-day Calcutta.

In fact, the City of Calcutta is what contributes to the dissoluteness of a character and instance. One is tend to believe that though the novel discusses the eras separated by a couple of centuries, the whole trials and tribulations remain the same — and there is no escape from the deep void all the characters are unwittingly immersed in.

Take Milan’s character for instance. Throughout the novel he is trying to unknot the red tape in the labyrinthine corridors of Calcutta babudom. He is, hopelessly, trying to plead for a pension cheque (that is rightfully his). He is always shown the door, or the buck is passed, and he goes around in circles. His groans his way to the Calcutta school district office almost every day, most of the time in an empty stomach, using the most infamous public transport system ever invented by man.

This is the present-day Marx-loving, IMF-hating Calcutta. A right-minded Milan has no space in this world. He is rebuked and rebuffed even by his ex-students for not being a commie sympathiser, or for not singing hosannas to a distorted ideology which is passé all over the world. In the end he is left with nothing: no pension, passing of his wife, his only son’s loss of job, and, in the end, an unsung death on the mean alleys of Calcutta.

Revolving around his life are some great characters although all of them remain just sketches: Ila and Gutam, Milan’s ever-suffering and uncomplaining wife and son; Sabeer and Moidul, a sorry Muslim family who were targeted by political goons; Shirin, a US-based student who remains Milan’s only hope (for selling a ‘rare’ manuscript that could make him rich) in the twilight of his uneventful life.

Now coming to the parallel plot, that of Kamal, she is married off to a middle-aged man from the richest family in Calcutta when she is barely in her teens. Children at that age should be playing with dolls (well, she does that too clandestinely, with Suhasini, the daughter of a servant) but Kamal is thrown into the web of marriage, sex and childbirth.

It is early eighteenth century and though the orthodox beliefs (barbaric, nevertheless) are still in vague, it is also the time of social enlightenment: abolishment of widow burning being the highlight. So when Kamal is in her twenties and her husband, who had several wives and concubines, dies due to an amoral lifestyle of wine and women, Kamal does not have to join her husband in his pyre, alive. But the life she was instead offered is equally, if not more, gruesome: living a life of abstinence from meat and sex, cooking her own food and wearing white clothes with a tonsured ahead.

What makes Kamal’s life roll ahead is her life-long love and devotion to her son, Sushil (who is shot by the British police for protesting against their policies), and her perennial thirst to read and decipher letters that is a strict no-no in the badralok family she belongs to.

Silverfish, no doubt, is a brilliant debut and as Amit Chaudhuri says in the endorsement, “this is a book to cherish for a very long time, for its descriptions and evocations as well as for what it tells us about the ebb and flow of human expectations.”

I have two minor complaints. One, the two narrations in the book (that of Milan and Kamal) are printed in two different fonts; the font used for Kamal’s narration is irksome for the eyes. Two, the book should have been properly edited: you have sentences like “Without the I.V. equipments (sic), he looked bare, reassuringly normal.”

-- btw

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

True Stories from an Unreported Land

By Sunil K Poolani

The western media, primarily American, have made us believe that ‘rogue’ Arab nations are countries like Afghanistan, Iraq and even Iran. Since ‘embedded’ journalists from these western countries have to respect the interests of their media barons, who eventually have to honour the respective governments they belong to, what you see in print, web or television is nothing but a set of concocted reportage.

If the Americans can create Osama bin Laden, which Bush & Co think has metamorphosed into a Frankenstein monster, anything is possible; the primary reason, anyone with a two-bit brain will tell you, is the western countries’ thirst for oil. If that is the case, why Saudi Arabia is spared, one might ask. The US and its allies will not touch the Saudis for the simple reason that not only does the country have vast resources of oil which can keep the whole world running for decades to come.

Joy C Raphael, 54, a veteran journalist who was a senior editor with Riyadh Daily for 14 years, has penned a book titled Omnipresent Osamas: True Stories, in which he has vividly and systematically investigated and analysed the unreported and unrecognised terror the muthvas (the Saudi religious police), with the silent blessings of the rulers, heap on millions of non-Muslim expatriates.

This book bears out a nosey scribe’s courage and conviction to venture into risky truths in a place like Saudi — especially at a time when religious fundamentalism, along with cold-blooded terrorism, is gathering momentum, destroying the very secular fabric of the whole universe. It also shows how the Americans can get away with practically anything that is forbidden to the Islamic culture in Saudi Arabia, but if a hapless labourer from Jakarta commits the slightest of a ‘crime’ s/he ends up decapitated.

Eventually, Raphael discovers that the Osama of the bin Laden dynasty is just one offspring of a perverted system that has bred a million Osamas. Excerpts from an interview:

What really prompted you to write this book?

When I went to Saudi Arabia in 1987, I was shocked by the stories of rights abuses. Countless workers were not getting paid for months together and were living in absolutely sordid conditions. Many were not allowed to go on vacation for years together. I met many of them and even took a few to the Indian Embassy. At the same time I heard of the muthvas and their atrocities. Terrible. And then I decided to record what I heard and saw and write a book some day. That is Omnipresent Osamas.

Were you, too, a victim of the muthvas reign of terror in Saudi Arabia?

I was not a victim of the muthvas. But I met several victims. I also met the relatives of some Christians who were arrested, tortured and detained. Omnipresent Osamas is full of their cases.

Can you, briefly, narrate a couple of first-hand observations in which the highhandedness of Islamic zealotry caused mental and physical damages to hapless expatriates?

Even Muslims were targets of these zealots. Once I met two of them who were tonsured for not going for evening prayers. The cases of mental and physical damages caused to the hapless expatriates can run into volumes…

If religious brutality is at its pinnacle, why doesn’t any country (which includes the ‘world policeman’ USA) object to it, and, in most cases, turns a blind eye towards Saudi Arabia? Is it because of the oil money power Saudi possesses or is it because America (read Bush) is in cohorts with the Saudi regime?

Many countries have taken up the matter. The Americans have their annual State Department report that has castigated the Saudis for their abysmal rights record for years. The lack of religious freedom has been highlighted by them. The Saudis don’t care for global opinion. Look at the protests during the recent state visit of Saudi King Abdullah to London. The Saudis do not care. They have enough oil money power. And the West needs their money.

And what stops the media, belonging to the western or eastern world, from reporting what is really happening in Saudi?

Certain responsible western media do report on what is happening in Saudi Arabia. But the muthvas and others care two hoots for these reports. The muthvas are a law unto themselves. They are omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient. Even the government is afraid of offending them and only goes after them when these zealots exceed all limits.

-- Deccan Herald

Monday, March 24, 2008

56, Lane No 70

M P Narayana Pillai

Translated from the Malayalam by Sunil K Poolani

56, Lane No 70, is the title of a door in Bulandaar. The door opens into a corridor soaked in darkness. The corridor ends at an iron-grilled window. Beyond the window there is a yellow-coloured compound wall. The wall blocks the light meant for the corridor.

Near the window, the light resembling the sunrays, which pass through an uncut window, harbours at daytime. In that light sits a girl with curly hairs and big eyes, stitching children’s costumes. When the darkness spreads from the corridor to the window, with the aid of crutches, she deposits all the shreds of cloths into a bag and disappears into the darkness.

‘The heroine of a shadow play’, that’s what hornbills call her.

The hornbills stay in the thirteenth number room on the second floor.

In the centre of the corridor, on the left side, light could be seen spread across. While aiming at the light the legs would entangle a staircase. Along with it a strong smell of marijuana, rotten jasmines, urine and sambrani.

From the roof of the fourth floor hangs a serpentine concrete staircase. Venturing up, the second floor’s red bricks could be seen protruding into the steps. Take two steps, and there is the thirteenth number room where the hornbills reside. Thirteen hornbills. Thirteen symbols of thirst.

Foras Road and Grant Road receive a downpour. The hornbills quench their thirst from the rainwater mixed with orange-coloured dust and motor smoke. The cheap illicit brew helps hide the water’s dirt, saltiness and oiliness.

With the help of the crutches, the heroine of the shadow play starts her sojourn to sell kids’ clothes on the streets. By the time she returns her face would be sweltered thanks to the blistering sun. Like a sweltered raat ki rani.

The hornbills compare her to the flower, raat ki rani, the queen of the night; the white-petal flowers on which the autumn’s first rain dews throb... On the rain drops the sky reflects.

Around that time, the father, Ramdhani, who introduces himself ‘Gwala’, could be seen sleeping below the stairs on a yellow towel printed ‘Ram, Ram’. He reached Bombay from a rustic Bihar village with two oxen; a milkman. But he ceased to be a milkman for many years. He was a watchman at Gijibhai’s mill. One day, tangling his uniform on the mill’s gate, he walked down to Bulandaar in his underwear. What then left were poverty and the name Gwala. The wife fell down at the entrance of Arthur Road Hospital, and breathed her last. The last spring cleansed by cholera.

Against 56, Lane No 70, there is a lamppost. Also a red signpost that claims that the thirteenth number bus would halt there. The thirteenth number bus starts from the seashore where eagles feast on the naked, dead Parsis. The destination is an electrified crematorium.

‘The survival act of the survival’, that’s what the poet hornbill termed the movement of traffic on Lane No 70. ‘Survival of the fittest.’ Reminding the chariot race that apparently happened in Rome. The race is not based on speed, but strength. Colliding each other and collapsing, the vehicles pace ahead. The weapon of the thirteenth number bus is the First World War’s ‘smoke-screen’. An immaculate life-and-death moment of the vehicles on the street. The thirteenth number fills the sky with black effluents. Seconds later, once the screen of smoke recedes, all the vehicles will be on the streets.

Where is the thirteenth number?

The hornbills start their journey in the first trip of the thirteenth number towards the crematorium. The dawn might have descended by then. The sot-stained trousers and shirts of the machines. When they return at ten in the night the sot would be decorating their faces and bodies. In one corner of the room, in the sodden light of the kerosene lamp, they take their bath from the water filled in earthen pots. Then the carbolic smell of the cheap, red soap would fill the room. And they go to sleep pressing their faces into oil-stained pillows.

Around that time, in the light of the candle erected on a trunk-box, on an ink-spreading paper with the help of a violet pencil, the poet-hornbill could be seen scribbling something. ‘C Vasu is the ever-pristine poetic hub of the poet-hornbill.’

If the trunk-box is removed one could see, on the cement floor, scribbled by an iron rod, the name of C Vasu.

Years ago, in the monsoon season, the poet, who was finding solace in the veranda of a shop, was brought into this room by C Vasu, and gave him place to lie down.

C Vasu was a welder who earned twenty rupees a day. Died due to a cough called tuberculosis. The poet had to borrow the thirty rupees meant for the electric crematorium. C Vasu couldn’t repay that dept in the form of currency. That’s how this room came into the hands of the poet.

The personal properties of the hornbills are thirteen iron-boxes, thirteen pillows and thirteen earthen pots. And the public properties are the kerosene lamp and the thirty rupees.

The poet is the caretaker of the thirty rupees. Even if hunger threatens to kill him he would refuse to touch that money. It is meant for the needs after the death. The charge that is to be paid at the electric crematorium. Things shouldn’t fail to happen without those thirty rupees.

Ramdhani’s snoring and the chariot race on the road outside would continue to break the night’s tranquillity.

Apart from the flower called raat ki rani, Ramdhani has seven offspring. When five of them reached the age that made them capable to prey, they were scurried away. The remaining two get beaten up by a bamboo stick, and driven away, every dawn. But once dusk falls, they seek the same abode. Two dry wheat rotis each would be kept for them.

One day they would fail to turn up. That day this practice will be stopped.

The city is the world of the banished people from the country. Hunger banished them. They live on in the faded dreams of a lost spring.

The hornbills on the ornamental, twisted coconut leaves that adorn religious functions, and the oil-soaked, untied hair; Ramdhani on the baang mixed in badam sharbat, and the Bhojupri songs, which praise Lord Ram, and are sung in the shade of a lone mango tree in the centre of wheat fields.

The handful of flowers that Ramdhani brings every evening to 56, Lane No 70, is what announces the spring in this desert-like city. There is a picture of Lord Ram in the darkness that surround under the staircase. A picture that shows a hunting scene along with wife Seetha and brother Lakshman. The flowers are meant for there.

The only person who celebrates Holi at 56, Lane No 70 is Ramdhani. He bustles in and out of all the rooms with a paper packet that contains saffron. Sometimes he goes down the streets and sings a couple of ribald songs. And returns in the noon and would take some baang. And dream of Lord Ram.

The year he drove away his last son. The hornbill with a long beak and firewood on his head stopped Ramdhani who was venturing into the thirteenth number room with saffron. Somebody is sprawled on the floor. Red eyes. A kerchief tied around the neck.

The face has started sprouting boils.

The same morning he was taken to Arthur Road Hospital.

A sore called small pox.

All of a sudden silence overwhelmed 56, Lane No 70.

The hornbills were reduced to twelve. In three-four days, the hornbills’ number came down further.

One morning, one of Ramdhani’s driven-away sons was seen lying down the lamppost, with boils. A few minutes later, a municipal vehicle came and took away the body.

The fifteen-year-old raat ki rani clamped on to her crutches and wept.

The poet said the return has begun.

The same day the eighth hornbill too headed towards Arthur Road.

The last news of the first hornbill who had gone to the hospital arrived that day. He wouldn’t require the thirty rupees, the common property. That expense will be borne by the hospital. On that day’s mail there was a letter, bearing a pencil-written address, arrived for him. The five hornbills opened it. He has got a son.

Suddenly, the poet ran his fingers over his face.

No problem. They are pimples.

The rest of them looked at each other with suspicion.

One of them sold his wedding ring and drank that night. Drank till surpassing the knowledge that he is alive.

The trust is losing, the poet said.

The poet was ready to spend the common property of thirty rupees, the charge meant for the electric crematorium. The poet went to the slums where Dravidian stonecutters from Salem live, and brought back marijuana. He sent Ramdhani to get some baang. Some hornbills went and beaked their way back with illicit brew. Vinegar, spirit, ammonium sulphate, aspro, tranquillisers, potassium cyanide… like sparrows bringing the twigs to build their nest, they collected all these by evening.

Ramdhani brought saffron, to celebrate a new Holi. In the menstrual blood where beliefs were shattered.

When saffron was smeared the contempt towards pimples got receded.

Alcohol made the small pox look like malaria, jaundice, warts or pimples.

When the baang that looked like leaf-ground chutney went inside his abdomen Ramdhani became an animal and stood on four legs. The hornbills forcibly opened his mouth and poured into it arrack from a tumbler. Then he became a snake that has had its prey and lied down calmly. The hornbills took him and laid him on the terrace. Like Garuda placing the rattlesnake on the branch of the tree.

Alcohol helped the poet to talk more and more. Four hornbills listened to him carefully.

The poet had indeed loved the raat ki rani. Not any more.

When they heard that, the four went down. They caught hold of the heroine in the shadow drama who was stitching near the window. She tried to wriggle out. Kicked them with her helpless legs. She was drawn up the staircase. Two stretches were seen abandoned on the staircase.

The poet could decipher one more thing. C Vasu has ceased to become the poetic hub. And C Vasu is not something that he loathes or loves.

And the poet noted that beliefs and relationships depend on the flow.

Still they ran their fingers over their faces. Seeking a pimple called small pox.

(First appeared in Janayugam Onam Special, 1964)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Reporters' Song

Yeh meetings yeh stories yeh feature ki duniya
Yeh insaan ke dushman, Quark ki duniya
Yeh deadlines ke bhookhe, editors ki duniya
Yeh page agar ban bhi jayee to kya hai.

Yahan ek khilona hai sub-editor ki hasti
Yeh basti hai murda reporters ki basti
Yahan par to raises se inflation hi sasti
Yeh appraisal agar ho bhi jayee to kya hai?

Har ek computer ghayal har ek news hi baasi
Designers mein uljhan photographers mein udassi
Yeh office hai ya aalame management ki
Circulation agar badh bhi jayee to kya hai?

Jalaa do, jalaa do ise, phoonk dalo yeh monitor
Mere naam ka hata do yeh user
Thumahra hai tumhi sambhalo yeh computer
Yeh paper agar chal bhi jayee to kya hai?

(Well, friends, as my new friend Salil Tripathi said, I should be mentioning the source of this great song; well, a friend of mine who works with the Times of India group, Nirmal Menon, had sent me the post and we have to admit that the source [or the author] of this magnum opus is not yet known. We salute that guy [or is it a gal], though.)