Monday, November 22, 2010

The new generation of power brokers: A matter of shame?

O, what a fall there was, my countrymen! And then I, and you, and all of us fell down, whilst bloody treason flourish’d over us…

I was reminded of Mark Antony’s words in Julius Caesar as I listened to the audio tapes and read the transcripts of what Open magazine (Open Media Network) refers to as the X-Tapes. “Tell me what should I tell them,” urges Barkha Dutt; “What kind of story do you want?” asks Vir Sanghvi; “I am there, you want me to speak to anyone…” says Suhail Seth; “Tell Sunil Mittal, you have to work with Raja for another five years…” says A. Raja… Who are all of them speaking to? To Niira Radia (super PR woman, I must hasten to add), head of a PR agency called Vaishnavi Communications.

For all that, PR practitioners interacting closely with journalists and media folk is nothing new. Indeed, an effective PR person is often one who can get a senior journalist for lunch, discuss what can form part of the copy, emphasize key messages, talk in detail about the PR strategy, and finally get most of it, if not everything, published, broadcast or telecast. A lot of all this of course takes place in corporate circles, there is a lot of effort by entrepreneurs nowadays to get journalists to write or say something positive about them. However, moving the pawns on the political chessboard, what is referred to as lobbying in the United States, has not really come out in the open yet here. The X-Tapes has suddenly changed all that and you can’t but wonder how journalists can get so crass as to get involved in recommending or suggesting removal of ministers.

I remember being part of the team that launched the Durex condom in India for the TTK Group about 14 years ago. I had spoken to many journalists in the metros, stressing key messages of the PR campaign, nudging them into carrying stories that conveyed the right message. But I never forced any issue; there was no exchange of money. If anything was given, it was a pack of assorted condoms for those who wished to take it. My bosses were very clear that no money would be paid to get stories planted. No gifting cheques or sending gifts home. I still remember an upstart in Delhi, from Cosmopolitan magazine, who asked for a second pack in the midst of everybody. Of course, we gave it to her, but that was it. There were no calls made to journalists to press for coverage. If an article appeared, well and good, and if it didn’t, fine. Later, when I switched to writing-editing, I would look back at that innings with amusement.

All that was harmless though, almost fun. Television has changed the paradigm forever. During the 1970s-80s, when Doordarshan ruled the roost, even newsreaders were superstars. There was a time when I would wait for Komal G.B. Singh and Sashi Kumar to appear at 9pm, or Tejeshwar Singh and Minu. Of course, decades before TV, there was All India Radio who had people like Melville D’Mello, Sushil Jhaveri, Surojit Sen and Lotika Ratnam reading the news. Impeccable pronunciation and minimal error. They were all heroes of another era, giants, when there was no competition in media; AIR and DD were (and still continue to be) state-owned.

It was Pronoy Roy’s The World this Week that brought the first private news programme on DD. The economist and chartered accountant soon charmed viewers with an easy-going style that was all his own. It provided Roy the stepping stone to success. NDTV arrived and with it came a host of young presenters, with Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Vikram Chandra, Sreenivasan Jain and Arnab Goswami making a mark. With television giving all of them visibility like no other media, they quickly turned stars. Times had changed dramatically, too, and they were pitch-forked to the forefront of Indian politics, hobnobbing with top bureaucrats, ministers and even the Prime Minister at times.

Ambition perhaps got the better of a few of them, as greener pastures beckoned. Rajdeep and Arnab took charge at CNN-IBN and Times Now, respectively. Their felicity with words drove them to stage prime time shows with the Who’s Who of Indian politics. At NDTV, Barkha took on that mantle. Somewhere along the way, they became larger than life figures. Proximity to the country’s powerful was an elixir. And the power they wielded was visible in millions of homes worldwide. Today, there are many viewers who switch off the television set when some of these big names appear. They are absolutely fed up watching the same people debate the same points over and over again. But that’s another story.

Now, with the Open X-Tapes out in the public domain, the question is: whither journalistic ethics and professionalism? The people who preach everyday have been caught red-handed. It is inconceivable to imagine the editorial director of Hindustan Times, Vir Sanghvi, seeking advice from a PR agency head on how to frame his column, or the managing editor of NDTV, Barkha Dutt, plotting moves on the political chessboard even before getting up from bed. Today, it’s a game of high stakes. And sadly, some of the real power brokers happen to be journalists and PR practitioners.

Radia’s connection is not as surprising. After all, PR people are known to network and do not have a very clean image. With her sheer reach and power, she has dwarfed everybody else in the business. The Public Relations Society of India comprising of a motley group of people in its various chapters talk about how PR should be managed and run and often get the so-called experts to lecture them on the niceties of it. Radia could easily teach them a lesson or two.

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