-By Sanjay Jha
” Mother Teresa never reads the newspaper, never listens to the radio and never watches television so she’s got a pretty good idea of what’s going on in the world”.
I read this morning’s The Times of India ( July 28th 2009)and choked in acute amusement ; outlined on page 18 of my regular daily newspaper ( along with Indian Express the best accompaniment with my morning Lipton Green Label) was a noticeable heading ” Editorial content most trusted by consumers”. I thought that was such a preposterous copy; shouldn’t that be the cardinal truth? The logical fact? Or did one expect full-page advertisements by cash-rich brands to carry greater credibility with customers?
I write this piece because the Indian media is perhaps got to do some serious and transparent introspection instead of feeding us with their typical nonsensical verbiage .
In the late 1990s I briefly dabbled in creating a ” strategic consultancy in integrated communications” firm, essentially a public relations company called Capital Images PR ( but the majority were too embarrassed to define themselves so) . Public relations was considered a dubious fix-it operation, meant for retired sleazy hacks and corporate communication drop-outs and had a shallow reputation. In Delhi, of course, everyone wanted to be a lobbyist which meant hanging around shadily for festive seasons to distribute gifts and fix appointments. For that precise reason of gross neglect, I saw a great business opportunity to bring in best practices , research trends, look at investor relations management, media training, reputation audits etc. One year later, I was as disillusioned as a crocodile being fed low-fat porridge for breakfast.
The high profile corporate customers ( and we worked with some outstanding blue-chip MNC accounts and Indian behemoths) all wanted their mug-shots on the front page no less, under any circumstances. It was an astronomical travesty of reality . Even if the CEO just as much as uttered some standard homilies, he thought it should quadruple his market capitalization and deserved breaking news status. My team of hard-working blokes would burn the midnight oil for “chasing” inane badly drafted amateurish press releases coming from ” corp com”—-corporate communications. It was the most bizarre experience of my life, and was accentuated by that crazy business called event management. Everyone was perennially “pushing press releases” —-I know it sounds like a kinky disposition, but the whole firm was obsessed with that obtuse occupation.
There was nothing remotely strategic or vaguely intelligent about the PR profession ( it may have changed now) ; it was pure donkey -work and the only area demanding creative deployment of grey cells was in choosing ” gifts” to be handed out during press conferences. One company even wanted to hand out sleek table-fans even as my mind whirled in circles at some incredible speed of rotation. I heard strange stories of how the media and the corporate clients would occasionally strike a bargain deal over some extended beer sessions at the Harbour Bar. Hugely frustrated and thoroughly disgusted, I let my first entrepreneurial effort voluntarily vanish into obsolescence. We stopped renewing client contracts, business development meant block progress, and we encouraged employees to seek alternative engagement with dim-witted options that the industry offered. The only contemporary I met was Dilip Cherian but that was because his Perfect Relations firm had done some work for my wife’s family business. It was to be the best decision of my professional life , soon confirmed by the mighty respectable The Times of India group.
The TOI always considered revolutionary in terms of ad sales packaging saw a brilliant revenue opportunity in the desperation of PR professionals and the maddening megalomania of corporate bigwigs. So they did the unthinkable in the history of news media , they began to ” sell” editorial space for an astronomical fee. It was a shockingly flagrant innovation but to give TOI full credit, they had no compunctions about it. Selling ad space was always their forte, now they were even auctioning editorial content. And they sold these hamburger package deals with great panache. It was not treated as an advertorial as it had full editorial endorsement .The client even created their own content, but the reader would never be aware of the origin of the paid output. I think the Indian media’s general and ethical standards touched its lowest nadir with that one intrepid master stroke of selling . I believe now it is industry-wide practise in both print and broadcast media and is so customary that no one even allows a fleeting frown on their crease on matters so insignificant. As Oscar Wilde put it, ” Newspapers have degenerated. They may now be absolutely relied upon”.
Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN IBN ( one of the few cerebral heads in a virtual fashion business that news channels have become) has done an excellent piece on the late TV anchor Walter Cronkite, but has failed to mention one crucial point that Cronkite stood against; the “infotainment” nature of modern-day news dissemination. I would have loved to hear Cronkite’s views on ex-Indian Express editor Arun Shourie who pulled off the mightiest deceptive coup in journalism when he was actually clothed in RSSs khaki-knickers. Just check our TV channels and tabloids today and it is full of such pasteurized excesses of the puerile variety , it is an insult to an average person’s intelligence. Almost every day there are scores of politicians, sports stars, Bollywood types, TV folks, just about everyone blaming the media for misquotes, exaggerations and gossip-mongering . Worse, calculated fabrications. Clearly , everyone in the news business is just getting manic about a ” story”. Go read Harry Potter, folks!
The tragedy of the Indian media is that thanks to their relentless pursuit of mindless TRP numbers they are now being manipulated by all vested interests. So actor Aamir Khan calls a press conference to talk about his sixteen-pack abdomen muscles for Ghajini , and then sarcastically sniggers that the media today has become so cheesy and cheap. And Hindustan Times keen to charge the TOI bastion in Bombay has enrolled Bollywood stars as weekly columnists. Honestly, it is a scam of epic proportions matching their tactless, ham-handed and outrageous “launch” strategy of revealing Salman Khan-Preity Zinta taped conversations that boomeranged big-time. . I await the day when Mallika Sherawat becomes the full-time editor. Mint, anyone?
After I graduated, I had this massive urge to study at the Times School of Journalism and become a journalist. But then I read somewhere, no news is good news; no journalists is even better news.