Public resignations are needed in media today
They force us to question the meaning of this profession in the first place, and help us renew our vows.
- Total Shares
On a cold, rainy morning in the first week of January this year, when I returned to Delhi leaving behind the sands of Rajasthan, I was met with a jolt. It came from a line in a letter that Rahul Pandita, former opinion and special stories editor at The Hindu, had written to the newspaper's editor, Malini Parthasarthy, indicating his resignation with immediate effect. It read: "I am a hardcore journalist and I came to journalism with a certain anger, with a certain cockiness."
The letter had by then gone viral since Hartosh Singh Bal, political editor at The Caravan, who has had his own share of famous falling out with Open magazine and subsequent termination over various editorial differences, had published it in his magazine website, and also called it "revelatory" in a tweet. Pandita's rather public exit from The Hindu has raised eyebrows obviously, but media insiders say this wasn't unexpected. Previously, the newspaper had seen two of its most brilliant journalists - P Sainath and Praveen Swami - leaving the organisation citing differences with the current editor, Parthasarthy. Moreover, this appears to be a chronic illness in the paper ever since Siddharth Varadarajan, its first "outsider" editor, left with this note: "With The Hindu's owners deciding to revert to being a family run and edited newspaper, I am resigning with immediate effect."
However, The Hindu isn't the only media body afflicted with this syndrome. A number of organisations, big and small, print and television, champions of new and old media, are witnessing a massive churn that starts right at the top. Journalists, especially those who are known by and respected for the dint of their stories or the breadth of their analyses and the impact thereof, who ask difficult and unsettling questions that may not be favoured by the owners or board of trustees propping up the newspaper or news channel, are leaving organisations they have been associated with for years. Even top television journalists who had reported from the dark side of the moon during the prime minister's America visit in September last year felt the pinch of nursing an interrogatory spirit.
What is going on? Everywhere there's a rallying cry from eminent journalists, particularly of the left-liberal variety, that there's just too much "curbing of freedom". As Pandita writes in his resignation letter, "An op-ed editor, the way I see it, has to be given some broad guidelines in the beginning and then left free to run the page. But there is absolutely no freedom for the current editors to do so."
Shortly after he was made to go, Hartosh Singh Bal, in a November 2013 interview to Ellen Barry of now defunct "India Ink" blog of The New York Times, had said, "There is a great lack of transparency in what happens within the media." Manu Joseph stepped down as Open editor in January 2014, and since then the magazine has undergone a complete makeover, as it were, ideological and otherwise, with gushing profiles of Amit Shah and "secular" achievements of other stalwarts in the ruling party frequenting its covers.
Political differences aside, there's a strange and ungraspable kind of Hobbesian air choking Indian media at present. A powerful Delhi editor of a leading national daily was unceremoniously removed recently. There are accounts of editors or owners taking a beat editor to lunch or dinner one day and emailing the termination letter hours later.
Journalists who question too much are being systematically sidelined. Many of them, particularly a bunch of female journalists, have taken to freelancing now and are syndicating their explosive columns for leading opinion websites. Such gutsy journos, who, media insiders say, are entertained for "shock value" are, however, outnumbered by those who prefer to function independently within a larger unit. Political and opinion editors, who, alongside publishing their own ideas on topical issues, also like to mentor juniors or curate meaningful articles from important members of the civil society, are facing the heat. There's just no leg room for leaving an individual imprint on a newspaper or newschannel, unless it's of the prime time shouting marathon variety.
Editorial tutoring and bottlenecking are strangling the independence of media. While founders like Raghav Bahl, former managing director of Network 18, are busy scripting fresh chapters in history of Indian media, their primary focus is on the architecture of the new media companies, Quintillion Media Pvt Ltd in Bahl's case, and not the ethical standards that they would like to uphold. While terms like vertical and horizontal integration, cross-media connectivity, full spectrum coverage, listicles and live streaming have colonised the media lexicon, words such as ethics, honesty, transparency, impartiality and conscience have been relegated to the trash bin of time.
It is this context that a public resignation over such "ego clashes" with the management attains importance. If self-respecting journalists, who feel the claustrophobia of an excessively nosy management, are compelled to put it out in the open the causes and clauses of their conflicts, it should be seen as sign of a sick body trying to nurse itself back to health. Whether it's ground zero reportage or editorials on national and international churns, whether it's commissioning articles deemed too unsettling or allowing provocative voices from all segments of the political spectrum to be heard, a mere contractual employer-employee relationship cannot suffice to further the cause of journalism.
Public resignations, therefore, are more than pulling the plug on unscrupulous practices or generating shock waves. They force us to question the meaning of this profession in the first place, and help us renew our vows, as it were, to allow the fourth estate survive somewhere in the belly of this massive media machine.