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Print media's best kept secret

October 25, 2005 09:51 IST

The Prime Minister's remarks in Chandigarh about the media some weeks ago have led to some attempts at introspection by some important editors. Here is one more bone for them to chew on.*

It pertains to a systemic flaw in the print media. But it would be surprising if any editor, past and present, considered it as such.

The flaw is this. An institution that is regarded as an integral part of democracy, liberalism, freedom, etc. can itself be subject to the worst forms of dictatorship. It is, if you will, a nasty version of Russell's Paradox.

This is because there are no fetters, other than self-imposed ones, and the ones imposed by the owner of the paper, on an editor's ability to do exactly as he pleases. The power is thus virtually absolute.

Not just this. With the advent of the editor as a manager of the business side as well, these powers have become even more concentrated.

This was ok in the old days when a newspaper would be started by someone using his personal capital and with the intention of espousing a particular view. He was the owner and editor, and rightly enjoyed absolute authority and power.

He was also there to push a line. This is what lent the editorial its importance. It was the vested interests' way of getting their views known without being held directly responsible.

Things gradually changed, especially in the last quarter of the 20th century, when the newspaper came to be seen as just another business in which the moneybags invested for returns. This led to disconnecting the editor from the owner. The separation meant the emergence of two distinct identities -- owner and professional editor.

The owner was concerned with the commercial aspects. The editor's role was to be professional within the limits prescribed by the owner.

These were generous in some cases and restrictive in others. Thus the editor became an employee. But his old powers did not change.

This, if you ask me, is the key issue that the print media needs to think about. This power is often misused and in more ways than the usual.

This is not to take away from the hard work and long hours that go into the job, not to mention the responsibility that comes with it. After all, who is the first person you complain to?

Being an editor can be a real nuisance as well, and taxing in many other ways, not least of which is the responsibility of increasing circulation by improving the "product". It is not, by any means, an easy job. But which top job is?

Nevertheless, such a concentration of powers is rare. Egos are therefore the size of zeppelins. I have seen them inflate, and sometimes deflate.

I have been privileged to work with editors who, without exception, were extremely hard-working men of excellent judgment about public issues and, more importantly, about their own limitations. They were also intellectuals in the real sense of the word, well-read, thoughtful, open to ideas and not unwilling to initiate and participate in interesting debates.

But upstarts (defined as dedicated to personal advancement alone and not to public causes) also abound. Indeed, I would say that they are the rule increasingly.

There are three other aspects that need to be noted. One is the emergence of the editor who starts off as an employee and becomes a part owner. The second is the editor who becomes an MP or MLA but continues to be editor as well. And the third is the length of time a person serves as editor.

There are several editors now in the first two categories. The public has the right to know about their financial and political interests directly, by full disclosure, and not through inference from the coverage and the editorials.

The third aspect, the tenure of an editor, poses an interesting conundrum. If a man is good, should he serve only a fixed term? Why should editors be an exception?

Look around you and count how many editors have been there for over 15 years. This has happened because young owners, when they took over from their dads, wanted someone in their own age group.

As regards the concentration of powers in the editor, one may well ask: given the nature of the work, is it not a necessity? But then, is journalism uni-focal like sport or war?

In any case, excessive concentration of powers is always bad because it impairs the judgment of even the best people. Much depends on the individual, of course.

But I have yet to come across an editor who, as time went by, did not begin to suffer from increasingly poor judgment in one way or the other. The increments may be tiny but they do add up.

But who will reduce the editor's powers and what is the best way of doing it? I think this is what needs to be debated, and not why the media got this story or that wrong.

These are random errors that can't be eliminated, and can only be minimised. But what about systemic faults?

*A fuller version of this article is included in a commemorative volume on Prem Bhatia to be published by the Prem Bhatia Foundation.

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan