The prime minister holds office at the pleasure of the President.
A newspaper editor holds office at the pleasure of the owner.
No wonder Dileep Padgaonkar thought it fit to draw parallels between his job as the Editor of The Times of India and the prime minister’s.
In a widely reported magazine interview some two decades ago, Padgaonkar had said he was doing the “second-most important job in the country” and he had no interest in the first.
Even making allowances for hyperbole, an affliction that is common to all journalists, from the lowly hack to the vaunted editor, this statement is sure to have put his employer in a quandary.
Samir Jain possibly wondered that as the paymaster he ranks above the editor but heck, in Padgaonkar’s scheme of things he did not figure anywhere! Or maybe he thought that was one helluva promotion for his newspaper.
Whatever it was, shortly afterwards Padgaonkar did not have that job. The nature of the job itself was changed, and incumbents since then either didn’t feel the weight of the job or they have learnt to keep their mouth shut.
Why am I saying all this? Because newspaper owners are a bit difficult to fathom, and I am only talking of the non-playing ones here.
And where the owners are also professional, qualified editors, as in the case with the The Hindu of Chennai, it gets even more difficult for outsiders who are not part of the ecosystem to figure out the lay of the land.
I usually don’t write on media and journalists, because we find that very often the shoe comes and sits on one’s own foot.
Still, for those of us like me who have grown up in Chennai at a particular time, The Hindu is not just a newspaper. It was at once our teacher (it taught me, with my early Tamil-medium schooling, English), our window to the world (it always had superior international coverage, nothing new about it), bulletin board (the joke used to be that if your obituary did not appear in the newspaper you were not dead), oh, it was everything to us.
I remember, in late 1984, when I was called for a job interview by the Times of India in Mumbai, a newspaper I had never seen till then, I hastened to the local ToI office in Gemini to go through their archives (it was this act, and not any hidden talent in a commerce grad, that got me the job, I believe) and being surprised by what I saw.
But, but, this doesn’t look like The Hindu, I remember telling the man there, who could only grin back wryly.
The point I am trying to make is, yes, The Hindu is different, and I don’t mean in appearance alone.
And, judging by the tumultuous events of this week, I don’t think it has changed much. It continues to be different.
I could’ve foretold long ago that the change initiated by N Ram two years back, of shifting the editorial control to non-family journalists (I consciously desist from using the phrase ‘professional journalists’), was doomed to failure.
Because, unlike with other newspapers, at The Hindu, the Family, right from the beginning, were not mere proprietors. They were also its editors, and judging by the paper’s connect in its catchment areas, or its target group to use a current phrase, the Family members did a damn good job!
It’s only when you understand that the Family had invested themselves both financially (as owners) and intellectually (as journalists) in the newspaper for over a century, can you even get a modicum of their deep attachment to the newspaper. Heck, ‘visceral connection’ or ‘umbilical link’ doesn’t come anywhere close to what they must feel for the newspaper.
Given that, it was inconceivable that the Family could have taken a hands-off approach to the newspaper for long. They are not banias (with no intent to hurt any community) in it for the money. Each member of the family has specialised in the newspaper’s various functions, collectively they all run it, and that’s the way it has always been. And that’s the way it will be going ahead.
Given this, why did N Ram decide to bring in non-Family journalists two years back? I have no idea. Possibly he meant well. Perhaps he felt that an outside perspective could help the newspaper when it was being hounded by the cash-rich Times of India. Or, perhaps, as critics say, he only did it to stymie other members of the Family with whom he was involved in a nasty tussle for control.
Whatever, but it’s taken him not too long to realise his folly. Again, I have no idea why he went back on his previous decision. While no one can question the owner’s right to change the setup in the newspaper he owns, I only wish in this instance it was handled better.
All of which brings me to the interface between the editor and the owner.
An editor’s, or journalist’s, lot is unusual. He is unlike any other employee. The newspaper is his intellectual creation – subject, of course, to the thin red lines drawn by the owner – and it is him, his worldview, being put out day after day, to acclaim or ridicule as the case may be. No wonder, most develop a bloated self-image in which they see themselves as bigger than the newspaper, or the owner.
Which is a tragedy, because ultimately the journalist is just another employee, with no stake in his creation. And, despite what assorted sycophants may say, is not irreplaceable either, however big he may be. The travails of Girilal Jain post-retirement or, more recently, the ouster of MJ Akbar from the Asian Age, are always there to remind us of that.