Monday, December 27, 2010

Yes, life begins at 40... there's so much to look forward to

Birthday parties are usually associated with children. In the good old days, birthdays of many children would pass by without much notice; perhaps just a special meal cooked at home and payasam thereafter. I remember being given money to buy one or two books and during the more prosperous years for the family, I would have got a new shirt or trouser. In any case, birthdays were different then in a sense – one really didn’t bother too much about celebrations as such.

Coming to more recent times, I remember my daughter and some of her friends all excited and raring to go days ahead of their birthdays. The menu would be decided well in advance, they would accompany parents to pick and choose take-away gifts, insist on buying balloons to decorate the house, and anything else that caught their fancy. At these parties, after the customary cake-cutting ceremony, singing of ‘Happy birthday…” and partaking of the varied fare on offer, the children would play music, dance and invent games of their own. They were too young then to call it a birthday bash, but a bash it would be nonetheless. Of course, once they grew up, the excitement of celebrating birthdays suddenly died down, almost imperceptibly. Now they wanted to take their friends out for high tea or lunch or dinner, or a film if there was a good one playing. Gradually, the friends circle would diminish in size and only the close ones actually got together during birthdays.

If the children have lost some of that early excitement to celebrate their own birthdays, they sometimes go out of their way to organise celebrations for parents. A neighbour’s grandson has just arrived from California on a week’s holiday. The reason he’s here is not because of the New Year but because he and his sister had planned a celebration for their parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. In the last couple of years I’ve been invited to quite a few such celebrations and for the lucky couple it’s almost like being married all over again.

Some children pull out all stops to celebrate the birthday of their parents, too. One such was the 75th birthday of city chronicler S. Muthiah, when his two daughters organised a do at the Madras Club. And then five years later, it was an even bigger event at the same venue when he turned 80. Great occasions both, to not just celebrate but also to bond, for fellowship and reviving old ties. I am all for such celebrations.

Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised one afternoon when my former colleague Bishwanath Ghosh called to invite me for his 40th birthday. It was almost like he was getting out of his teens and entering the heady twenties, as twenties are meant to be. So, how does it feel to be 40? No change as such, he said at the party last night, but I’m sure he must have had a special feeling run through him, backed by a new fair wind and maturity.

It was a party that saw some of the well known names in journalism in Chennai, young and old, turn out; there was a well known doctor as well, a couple of printers, and a young colonel heading to Kargil. He even invited me for a holiday there… may be some day! And as the booze flowed and the spirits soared, most of the talk centred around ethics in journalism, developments in some of the local mainline newspapers, general gossip about the news publishing business, and local politics. It was I would say time well spent.

BG has had a fairly successful launch of his first book, Chai Chai. That has motivated him to get going on a second, based on Madras and its growth. His fondness for research, the old and the new, and felicity with words could soon establish himself as an author of note. Not everybody is qualified to write a book. You may be a good writer-editor but that’s not qualification enough. I have noticed that BG has that extra in him that could mark him out if he pursues his interest with great discipline.

If he does so, I’m sure he need not spend his afternoons and evenings editing dreary and clumsy copy for a newspaper. Instead, he could, like he says he sometimes dreams of, spend that time in a cozy study at home, writing delectable prose… and emerge whenever he feels like to embrace the air outside or to draw inspiration from a swig of wine or a puff of smoke…

When I returned, my wife gave me a quizzical look and asked why I had done nothing to celebrate her 40th birthday, which is several months past... It's a question that is likely to keep popping up every time she is about to hit a landmark year, I'm sure. Thank you, BG!

Pictures show BG flanked by Arun Ram (metro editor, TOI) and yours truly; BG's big moment, with wife Shuvashree, friends, relatives and a host of children; yours truly with S. Muthiah, P. Chanda and a friend; and with Priya Selvaraj, Adithya and Shuvashree.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Namma Arcot Road: Spreading the Christmas cheer

Hotel Green Park created its own buzz for Christmas... thanks to Ravi and Rohit and their team,... Magic Sharma, and of course Chef Thangappan who laid out a mouth-watering spread for visitors...

There were Christmas carols and Jim Reeves' specials... the two gentlemen you see in the last picture were immersed in their own world... oblivious of visitors who passed by them....

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Namma Arcot Road Road: Spreading the Christmas cheer

And then there was a game of Tambola for parents... Jeeva Raghunath lays down the rules... most people's head are bowed down, engrossed in that slip of paper... Bina Radhakrishnan comes forward to receive a prize... Shivani won the 'full house' prize...

Namma Arcot Road: Spreading the Christmas cheer

I find it always so very interesting to watch the faces of children and how they react... look at the excitement visible on some of the faces here... at the Namma Arcot Road show at Hotel Green Park children chose not to be just watchers... they put up a skit and tried to entertain.

Namma Arcot Road: Spreading the Christmas cheer

A session dedicated to reversal of roles - please note: no fathers / daddies to be seen. Mothers as usual... but one of the things that came out clear was that parents seem to be putting too much pressure on children... and when children get the least opportunity they will come out, all cylinders firing...

The mother-daughter duo in the top picture won the first prize... the event was judged by Darina who is seen standing alongside Jeeva Raghunath.

Namma Arcot Road: Spreading the Christmas cheer

Magic Sharma tries to catch the attention of a toddler; he then quickly gets into his act... and enthralls children and adults alike... look at some of their faces...

Namma Arcot Road: Spreading the Christmas cheer

Jeeva Raghunath gets the children to warm up, even as a yellow bear ambles in; more children arrive and half an hour into the show it's almost a packed house...

Namma Arcot Road: Spreading the Christmas cheer

Coordinators of the Namma Arcot Road initiative have been organising an event the last Saturday of every month the past few months. This time, the last Saturday happened to be Christmas and so what better than providing an evening of fun for children and adults.

That is what the coordinators planned to do in the beginning of the month and who better than storyteller Jeeva Raghunath to spice up an evening for the little ones… as much as she is popular with adults, too.

The venue was Hotel Green Park in Vadapalani; the GM and staff there are always so helpful and willing to please… and under Ravi and Rohit’s leadership they pulled out all stops to make it a happening evening.

This series is a sort of pictorial essay… since pictures with children really do not need too much of text to go with them.

Jeeva gets set for the evening; introduces Santa to the first lot of children who have arrived; Santa offers gifts as the little ones are overawed; and the Namma Arcot Road team providing the flavour of the evening…

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Restoration of a city's roads - is it asking the civic authorities too much?

After the rains, the roads in Chennai have become a nightmare for drivers and pedestrians. The topping has eroded completely in many places, the number of potholes, like the 2G Spectrum scam (spectrum has become a bad word these days, hasn’t it?), have too many zeros to really count. New places are being dug up but no real intention is being shown to level areas that lie battered and to make it a little easy for drivers and pedestrians.

This is not something new to Chennai. It happens every year, and you can predict the state of roads better than you can the monsoon. You can also now predict with reasonable accuracy that nothing much will be done for quite a while to improve the pathetic condition of roads. After all, how much does the civic administration really care? If they did, the scene on the ground would have been different. So, while politicians, administrators, civic officials and staff and all those who matter in government travel in chauffeur-driven cars, those who are not as fortunate, and they constitute the majority in the city by far, have to grunt and groan as they try and find their way in the midst of potholes, gravel, large stones and clumps of mud and sand.

The surprising part is that despite reports about all this appearing in the newspapers almost on a daily basis and some television channels showing footage of the terrible condition of roads, the civic authorities do not appear eager to do anything. For example, the terrible state of most of the roads in KK Nagar, Arcot Road, Valsarawakkam and Alapakkam have been written about in local papers and even in the mainline newspapers.

Local or neighbourhood papers may not have much of an impact unless copies reach people in government who matter. Distribution has always been a problem for local newspapers and I’m not quite sure whether these papers actually reach the hands or tables of the local councillor the Corporation commissioner, the Mayor, the ministers in government and the offices of the Chief Minister and Dy Chief Minister etc. A few of the papers regularly report about the abysmal civic conditions, with pictures to boot, and it will be good if the publishers and editors of these papers ensured that copies reached the right places.

Coming back to the point I was raising, of media reports failing to stir civic officials into speedy action, NDTV Hindu had recently run a two-minute clip on the bad conditions of roads in KK Nagar; the clip appeared during the news programme through one whole day. It even showed the concerned councillor ensuring the reporter that restoration work would start once the rains stopped.

Now, it’s been a while since we’ve had heavy rain and many weeks have passed since that clip was telecast. But what has been the action on the ground? The pictures will tell you the story. In some parts the roads have got worse. I could have taken another 20 or 50 pictures like these but I really didn’t have the enthusiasm or courage to drive through Nesappakm, Valsarawakkam, Arcot Road and Alapakkam. It’s like a boat ride in many of these places. And I pitied my car tyres as well.

I think there is a strong need for follow-up stories by media on civic issues. Unfortunately, thanks to pressures and competition, newspapers and television are not finding the time to do that. But if they did, things might be different.

The first is a picture you will see these days – of a cart laden with mud and broken bricks, pulled by an ox, passing by some streets and workers dumping clumps on the battered parts; the second is one end of R.K. Shanmugham Salai – now how on earth are you going to drive past that? The third is a portion on Alagiriswamy Salai I passed just after the workers had done their bit – so who is going to even this out? The next one, if I had a better camera or had spent more time over taking the picture, I probably would have won some award – two craters and a heap of mud and broken bricks right outside the gate of Padma Seshadri School. And the last one is a scene at the junction of Lakshmanaswamy Salai and Alagiriswamny Salai. Yes, the workers must have come later to do the patchwork but for long hours the heap remained.

Is this the way the crores of rupees allotted for restoration work are being or will be spent? I hope not.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Old colonies disappear fast in KK Nagar as builders take charge

It’s difficult to believe today that not too many years ago – in the early 1970s – there was really no proper approach road to KK Nagar, that there were hardly any buildings that dotted the landscape, and that most of the area was made up of paddy fields and poromboke land.

Gnanasundaram, who runs a provision store, and who arrived in KK Nagar in 1972, one of the first, recalls how he could make out people walking from Ashok Pillar – there was no building or construction to destroy his field of vision. Indeed, every night there would be two men at Pillar, stopping strangers heading towards KK Nagar and MGR Nagar, to verify which house they were going to visit, at times even accompanying the stranger to the designated place to ensure he was not lying. Gnanasundaram says every street had no more than a dozen families, and every evening two residents volunteered to keep vigil through the night. Today, he doesn’t even know half his neighbours.

The development of KK Nagar began in the early 1970s when the Tamil Nadu Housing Board set up flats near Pullayar Koil. In the mid-1970s, Housing Board flats (the HIG type) came up on what is today Anna Main Road – Sowbhagya, Sangeetha and Ashok Colonies. Soon, similar buildings came up on Rajamannar Salai, PT Rajan Salai and other places in KK Nagar. The establishment of Padma Seshadri School in KK Nagar in 1975 gradually led to more people taking up residence here and many moved into these Housing Board flats because they found them roomy and convenient.

Earlier, the trickle began when a few of those who had invested in the flats moved in. With lack of proper civic infrastructure, not many were willing to set up home with families. But the school soon changed all that and as it happens with development, other buildings came up, smaller schools, doctors’ clinics, pharmacies and more petty shops.

AR Nair, a long-time resident of the area who moved into Sangeetha Colony in 1976, immediately after the flats were ready for occupation, says he often had to go to Ashok Pillar to catch a bus to office. The bus service from the KK Nagar bus depot was skeletal. He stresses that the flats built by the Housing Board then (during the Emergency) were of very good quality because there was a fear then of resorting to corruption or producing shoddy work. He adds that most of the flats were south-facing and built based on an excellent plan, so that there was adequate ventilation, the bedrooms had privacy, there was a puja room, the kitchen had a storeroom and a cleaning area, all of which you do not see in the houses of today. More than anything, all these colonies had huge open areas ideal for walking and playing games and the early residents built up a rare bonhomie that continued over the years.

Sadly, over the years, maintenance has been very poor in most of the Housing Board colonies with the result that what was once a splendid place residents could show off to friends is today a place you would rather hesitate to call your friends. For, not only do the fa├žade of many of these buildings tell a sorry tale, the interiors have also suffered damage, with leaking roofs, plaster peeling off walls and solid crack on several parts of the construction. In some cases, it has become dangerous for residents with cracks on the foundation structure as well.

No wonder then that many of the old-time residents in almost all the Housing Board colonies in KK Nagar have decided to open the doors to private builders who are only too eager to capitalise on the opportunity.

Some of the offers are indeed tempting. You get a new flat of about 1,600 sq ft built-up area (old flats are about 1000 sq ft), a down-payment of Rs 20 lakh or thereabouts, the builder pays you rent (Rs 12,000 at least) for the construction period, and, significantly, happily does all the paperwork for you. What comes as part of the construction are the watchman’s room, a community hall, overhead water tanks, underground sumps, air-conditioners…

Housing Board flats on Rajamannar Sali and PT Rajan Salai were among the first to give their nod for the transformation. As other residents noticed the change and with builders pushing the sales pitch, residents of Sowbhagya, Sangeetha and Ashok Colonies followed suit. However, the going has not been smooth in some places. Petty quarrels, jealousies and egos have caused a lot of heartburn for some. Sad for colonies whose residents have bonded well.

In Sangeetha Colony, for example, one of the blocks was stopped from going ahead with demolition-construction by some of the other residents in the colony. They were against a compound wall being built as it would hinder their movement into and out of the colony on one side, so they said. The argument was of course specious. A case was filed and the matter still rests with the court, after more than three years. Today, ironically, the very people who opposed demolition-construction are in the forefront, talking to builders and finalizing plans for reconstruction of their own blocks.

There are also stories doing the rounds that extraneous forces are trying to stall progress in some cases in an effort to drive monetary bargains and make a fast buck. But these are unsubstantiated. Whatever it is, people who have seen KK Nagar grow from within the windows of their homes in these colonies have finally decided to move with the times. They know that, commercial aspects apart, living in an ill-maintained block is courting disaster. For builders, it’s like manna from heaven… things have never looked better.

Pictures show an old Housing Board building demolished and construction going apace; a typical signboard that builders display; another construction nearing completion; the new that has replaced the old; and some old Housing Board blocks on Rajamannar Salai awaiting the right opportunity.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Media has tasted the fruits of paid news: T.S. Krishnamurthy

In the context of Radiatape, it may be interesting to know about former chief election commissioner T.S. Krishnamurthy's take on 'paid news'. Krishnamurthy, who retired after spending 36 years in the civil service, was addressing members of the Public Relations Society of India, Chennai Chapter some months ago. The first revenue officer from the Indian Revenue Service to become secretary to the Department of Company Affairs, Krishnamurthy was appointed election commissioner in 2000. Between February 2004 and May 2005, he was India's chief election commissioner.

Paid media is a dangerous phenomenon threatening the integrity of democracy in India, according to Krishnamurthy. According to him, some journalists are falling prey to temptation and making money on the sly. In a country which was once proud of its values, where leaders sacrificed their lives for freedom, it is an unfortunate occurrence, he says, and calls for speedy action to remedy the ills.

Paid media in the present political scenario would almost seem like a topical subject, having gained a lot of importance in recent times. “‘Paid news’ itself is a misnomer, because all news is paid for – by management, by shareholders of a company who own it, or subscribers to newspapers and television channels. Whatever it is, this particular expression has gathered momentum in recent times to mean it is paid for clandestinely, more to masquerade as news, and the person who pays the money may be visible or invisible. It is prevalent all over the world in a different garb,” said Krishnamurthy, giving the example of lobbyists abroad who lobby through media for their own particular interests.

Krishnamurthy made the point that in India, paid news had a special connotation because there was a ceiling on the expenditure of candidates. The objective was to ensure that a person who spent money on getting elected did not have undue advantage over an opponent who was not affluent, according to him. He added that to offer a level playing field, the Election Commission, under the Representation of People’s Act, had been prescribing ceilings. “The history of ceiling on expenditure has gone through rough weather; it has varied depending on inflationary conditions. The law provides many loopholes,” said Krishnamurthy, adding that there was no ceiling on the expenditure of political parties and expenditure incurred by associates and friends was not included in the ceiling.

To improve matters, to plug loopholes, the government brought about an amendment but it brought a fresh set of problems, according to Krishnamurthy. For instance, there was no limit on the number of party leaders who could canvass for a candidate. This was brought to the notice of the government, he added, and lauded the media for playing a significant role in bringing to light various ills plaguing the election system.

Krishnamurthy referred to the post-Independence period and to India’s Constitution – the longest written one – that was framed to nurture, protect and preserve democracy in the country. He spoke about India’s first general election, in 1951-52, when there were only newspapers and radio and candidates reached out to voters through posters and at public meetings. Krishnamurthy estimated that there were thousands of television channels across the country run by different cable operators. “It is just impossible to regulate all of them,” he said and referred to persons owning television channels being associated with political parties. “They were merrily carrying programmes that had subtle political advertising,” he said, recalling his experience. It was thus a clear infringement of the Election Commission rule that no political advertisement be carried on electronic media. He mentioned a Tamil channel telecasting a mythological story that had political overtones.

Krishnamurthy said that it was the duty of the district election officer to regulate advertisements of political parties by getting them screened and cleared by the local constituency committee. Such a proposal sent by the Election Commission to the Supreme Court was indeed approved by the latter and was supposed to be in operation. However, on the ground, it did not make a major difference because there were a number of serial programmes that could not be regulated, although to some extent it arrested the misuse of media.

In the 2004 elections, the aspect of ‘biased media’ became more pronounced, Krishnamurthy said. He pointed to a feature in India’s leading weekly magazine called Impact that consisted of paid news – paid for by the government or state. “The payment would be made after the elections. It acquired new heights in the 2009 elections and subsequent by-elections.”

Media was once considered the fourth pillar of democracy and 20-30 years ago journalists took pride in being independent or neutral, though there were occasional offenders, Krishnamurthy said and added that during the Emergency the media played a significant role and asserted its authority. Two or three newspapers even blanked out editorials to send a silent message to the government, that curbing the freedom of the press was not appreciated. Press freedom was thus “jealously and zealously” guarded by the journalist and the media. It was, according to former chief election commissioner, “the best period for media in India”.

“Over the years journalists got tempted by certain developments. Not only were journalists making money on the sly, there was also management and corporate lobbying. They started contacting political candidates. Payment was very often clandestinely made to individual journalists, or made in kind. The media has tasted the fruits of paid news,” said Krishnamurthy and gave the example of a Bombay-based newspaper that did not disclose information sought by the Election Commission. “They have started systematically exploiting the loopholes. It’s a pity that this development is undermining democracy. In a country which was so much proud of its values, where so many leaders sacrificed their lives for freedom, it is unfortunate. This has become popular because there has been a media boom, high growth of literacy, influence of print and electronic media, and the price for paid news is becoming more and more attractive”

At the time of conducting elections, the media plays a very important role in disseminating information about candidates, about political parties, manifestos and arrangements made for the conduct of elections. “The Code of Conduct for political parties (remains in force from the announcement of elections to the announcement of results) is not law but an agreed method to provide a level playing field, in particular to arrest the tendency of the ruling party to influence elections,” said Krishnamurthy.

In 2004, which was known as the E-election thanks to the use of electronic voting machines, all forms of media were used, every known method of communication was exploited, he said, and added that he had not quite seen the kind of political activity displayed in India, in countries he had visited – Mexico, Russia, the US and African countries. “Even in Zimbabwe, there is a restriction on the size of posters. We thought of bringing the rule here, but met with opposition,” he said. In Mexico, candidates reached out to voters through television and small posters. In the US, television played an important part, though not to the extent it did in India.

“Channels here are becoming a law unto themselves,” Krishnamurthy said, pointing to the kind of media biases – innocent biases (ignorance), informed biases (certain information is deliberately fed through journalists or government), and influenced biases (people in remote areas being easily swayed), which he termed “most dangerous”. Over a period, such misrepresentations began to take an important role and influenced the minds of voters. Even corporates were willing to support the trend, he said.

Wrapping up his speech, Krishnamurthy said paid media was a dangerous phenomenon threatening the integrity of democracy. “Media can play a constructive role during elections to enhance the quality of democracy in this country. Unfortunately, in the last few years under the influence of globalisation, media seems to have degenerated, undermining the quality of democracy,” he said.

Although one suggestion was to make paid news an electoral fraud, a misdemeanour, a legal provision might not be effective, Krishnamurthy said. “It will take five to ten years to arrive at some finality; especially in the case of paid media, it is very difficult to substantiate the truth. Very often the payment part is camouflaged, unless you can prove by circumstantial evidence.”

Krishnamurthy wondered whether it would be possible to provide more teeth to the Press Council. “Self-regulation is desirable for media but I find in this country self-regulation does not take off easily because each person has his defence. The sooner we take steps to stop this (paid news), the better it is for our democracy,” he said and urged a few voluntary organisations to support independent journalists with recognition for displaying integrity in presenting news. He named the government, the press and the public as stakeholders in the exercise to purge the system of corruption.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The onus is on the PR person to stick to the straight and narrow

Corruption is as old as the hills, as old as the oldest profession in the world. No country is devoid of it; it varies in degrees. Unfortunately, India happens to be one of the top ten countries where corruption is the most rampant. Corruption in the media in India is also nothing new. It is not as though the Radia tapes have opened out a whole new world that was hitherto unknown. What it brought into the focus was the fact that even some of the superstars of media were dabbling in dangerous territory.

When I was heading the PR function of a large south Indian corporate group some years ago, I had conducted press conferences in all the metros. I had come across fake journalists, those who brandished fake visiting cards to gain entry and helped themselves to dinner and cocktails. At the time I wasn’t as mature as I’m today, and perhaps not as bold. So, many of these characters easily got away. It was much later that I made it a point to debar entry to press conferences of all suspicious ‘journos’. The sad part is that no PR and corporate communication person makes an effort to weed out the corrupt. For many, the more numbers at a conference the merrier. The management (of companies) in most cases is in the dark or has no clue.

I have had senior reporters asking me (especially in Bombay and Delhi) what was the gift they would receive if they attended. I made it a point not to dish out gift cheques or cash in envelopes. The PR agency suggested gift coupons. But I managed to override that and insist on gift hampers – products the company manufactured. I would tell my assistant to present the hamper to reporters as they left; most would accept, few would refuse. But the worst lot was the one that wanted the package to be sent home.

Radiatapes or not, this is the sort of malaise that all well-meaning PR practitioners and communicators must strive to eradicate. And this is what I emphasised to the participants at the CSIM-organised media workshop (refer previous blog). More than learning the nuances of good communication, it is imperative to work the right way – to be devoted to credibility, transparency and ethics. Nobody should be able to point a finger at you for a reason you cannot convincingly explain. At the end of the day, when there is credibility, there is goodwill and respect. And when you have all of that, you find communicating easier and more satisfying.

I also spoke about the cut-and-paste culture that is so much a part of writers and editors today. Plagiarism was just not on, I stressed, and said that despite computers and mobile phones, a good reporter must be prepared to do enough and more legwork. Sifting through an overload of information is difficult but what comes easy in life! There must also be a commitment to achieving perfection, to excellence, to give off your best.

Making words work is not enough for a journalist or editor. It has to be accompanied by a broad grasp of the ever-changing media scene, a thirst for acquiring knowledge, and a pledge to remain above board and earn the respect of all people. This was the overall second message I tried to hammer home.

Pictures show participants settling down before the commencement of the workshop, and the head of an NGO making a point.

Friday, December 10, 2010

To communicate effectively, understand first how media functions - it's a whole new world out there

I’ve always loved the occasional lecture session with students. During my career in the insurance industry, I had volunteered for selection as a faculty member in the General Insurance Corporation’s vocational course, a pilot project that ran for about four years. The two years I spent teaching students various aspects of insurance were indeed very satisfying and it was with regret that I got back to the operational side.

When years ago I decided to enroll for a journalism course at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, it was passion that drove me. I didn’t miss out on a single class and didn’t mind being the eldest in an intelligent and smart batch of 25. Those days, the Bhavan had stalwarts such as S. Muthiah and A. Padmanabhan who made it such a pleasure listening to lectures on reporting, writing and editing.

On of the friendships I forged then was with M.R. Krishnamurthy, who had retired from The Hindu and lectured us on editing. Perhaps because I was the senior-most or perhaps because I was friendly, I do not know, but MRK took a liking to me and would often accompany me to have coffee opposite – at the Karpagambal mess as it was called then. And over coffee we would talk about many things connected to journalism. He would call me home and his wife would treat me to hot, steaming filtered coffee and he would request me to accompany him to the bank sometimes. One of his sons, K. Venkataramanan had served as foreign correspondent in Sri Lanka for PTI before family circumstances, I assume, brought him back. He was my colleague at The Times of India. In later years, MRK was stricken by Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s and it was a sad ending.

I mention MRK here because probably without his initiative I might not have got into the academic side of journalism and media. In 1997, he said he had had enough of it at the Bhavan and would I take his classes the following year onwards. That was how my journalism lectures began. The Bhavan innings lasted more than five years and I went on to help set up the Photojournalism Academy at the Jai Gopal Garodia School in Anna Nagar and also SRM University’s post-graduate diploma course in journalism. At various institutes and forums, including summer camps conducted by the Mylapore Times, I have lectured to a motley group ranging from Plus-2 students to housewives and businessmen.

So, when Banu Marie, who heads the communication function at the Centre for Social Initiative and Management (CSIM), said she wanted me to inaugurate a two-day workshop at Asha Nivas for senior NGO staff and development workers on the aspect of Improving Media Relations for Development Communication I readily agreed. CSIM is a learning centre that provides training on concepts of social entrepreneurship among practitioners and individuals interested in social development. Its Centre for Media and Development Communication aims to train development professionals and social entrepreneurs on acquiring media and communication skills.

I decided to first take the participants along a broad sweep of events that had changed the media landscape. When I grew up my generation had the radio, the newspaper and lots of books for company. Yes, listening to the radio was not boring then – there was Vividh Bharati, and Ameen Sayani; there were Sushil Jhaveri, Surojit Sen and Lotika Ratnam who taught you what good diction was while reading out the news (Jhaveri’s narration was sublime poetry); there were Anand Setalwad and Suresh Saraiya who brought a different rhythm to cricket, and Ashish Ray who brought alive the happenings on the Calcutta football fields; and, of course, Melville D’Mello… who can forget him!

Youngsters like me learned communication from these people – just by listening to them. I remember waiting for the Bournvita Quiz Contest on radio on Sunday afternoons at 12.15, only to listen to Ameen Sayani. The only newspaper I read was The Statesman, highly respected then for its impartiality and editorial standards. Those days, I do not think there was PR or corporate communication as we know it today. And, therefore, the playing fields were cleaner and journalists were role models.

Today, Chennai has four English newspapers, Bangalore and Kolkata have six or seven, and Mumbai and Delhi have more than ten – newspapers from reputable stables. I wonder how many listen to the radio news in the cities; I don’t. Because the Jhaveris and Sens have all gone. FM channels rule; there may be more than 200 of them. And an equal number or more of television channels. We all know the kind of fare many of the channels deliver. On prime time, it’s virtual anarchy on the major channels with the presenters allowing the panelists to slug it out and enjoying being the brutal referee. They assume viewers enjoy the slugfest but the reality could well be different, especially with Radiagate.

The image of the PR person has always been tinged with negativity. Some are even called fixers or wheeler-dealers. We all know the reason; after all, there is no spark without a fire. Most PR practitioners continue to be yes-men or -women for their bosses and hardly have an identity of their own. There are very few who do, those who bring some sort of sobriety or balance to the conduct of affairs.

My first message to the participants: Have an understanding of how media functions today, the media mix as it were; unless communicators understand the dynamics of media, the way today’s journalists operate, it is difficult to succeed. Each media needs different treatment. A press release meant for the print media will not do for a television reporter, for example. Communicating online is totally different. Journalists, too, are no longer the journalists of old. Today, the reporter has to often double up as a sub-editor; the copy has to be clean and print-ready, the reporter is asked to take pictures or videos and not rely on the staff photographer. Stories are expected to be filed from the site – some reporters are given laptops and notebooks. Indeed, may of the reporters from The New York Times function this way. The Mint reporters in Delhi, too. Of course, not all newspapers function this way in India, but they will very soon.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Is it too much to expect the city administration to do its homework well?

When it’s summer, you look forward to the rain. The first monsoon showers are always welcome but when it drizzles and pours, in interludes, almost non-stop for two days and more, you get depressed and weary. Perhaps if you were retired sort, had nothing much to do, loved the company of books, had grandchildren by your side, and lived on the second floor, life in Chennai during the monsoon may be livable.

But if you have work to do outside, have planned meetings with people, hate stepping on sticky muck on the road, and have no driver, you feel like a prisoner. Well, it’s house arrest really and you reach out for books you haven’t had time to read in long time, even as you make several visits to the kitchen and raid the storeroom, hoping to find a tasty morsel of food that’s been deliberately hidden from you. And then you suddenly realise that the larder isn’t well stocked at all, and indeed the stock of whatever you’ve managed to find is just not enough for a rainy day.

Well, I’ve been catching up on my reading, wishing at times that I could have had made it to the launch of B.G. Verghese’s book (First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India) a few days ago. It had not only rained that day; at 5.30pm, an hour before the programme, a part of the road on Eldams Road caved in, and you can imagine how chaotic the traffic might have been. It was. For two hours and more, vehicles inched their way forward.

Today, there is the launch of Ramachandra Guha’s book (Makers of Modern India), but with the roads as they are and after seeing pictures on television of areas in Egmore and Nungambakkam flooded, I just didn’t have the gumption to drive all the way from KK Nagar. Coordinators of Namma Arcot Road: please note. It might not be a bad idea to get Guha some day to talk at Hotel Green Park.

About three weeks ago, I had sent Sanjay Pinto (NDTV-Hindu’s executive editor) an email, stating how terrible the condition of many roads in KK Nagar were (you will find pictures on one of my earlier blogs). Sanjay quickly got his reporter to do the story, which was telecast during news hour through the following day. The reporter had got the local councilor to respond and he assured that dug-up portions would be leveled and sore sights would disappear once Corporation workers saw sunny days.

Of course, several sunny days came and went after that telecast. Work at one end of Alagiriswamy Salai did begin, but at the end of it all, the area continued to look as if it had been shelled. Even on a sunny day it took courage to drive over the ‘leveled’ area, but you had little choice. You felt like you were in a boat, bobbing up and down. Now, with incessant rain, and the streets leading to the spot waterlogged, I’ve not dared to venture to have a look. The unfinished work, or shoddy work, as well as the pathetic condition of many roads in the area has only whetted my appetite to take more pictures, perhaps tomorrow. There are many calls I received today - from Perambur, Velachery, Egmore, Purasawalkam. Friends and frelatives shared similar stories.

Monsoon arrives every year. There are floods every year. And it’s the same story (flooded streets, marooned houses, waterlogged homes) each time. Of course humankind cannot fight against the vagaries of the weather, but surely the administration of a city (which chronicler S. Muthiah repeatedly stresses is “the first city of modern India”) must set the bar higher and ensure that flooding does not occur, that roads can be used without the fear of falling in dirty water or drowning, that clogged drains are thoroughly cleaned, and that when the rain comes life in the city can go on as usual. When will our city administrations change and become proactive, rather than responding to news stories in mainline dailies or on popular TV channels? Surely, isn’t there greater satisfaction in accomplishing something for the welfare of the people than in being hauled up and then tying to make up for negligence and indifference?

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

"Pathetic" Barkha performance, says N. Ram, calls for the media ethics bar to be raised higher

Forget about the Radiagate, it may be easily be said. But for all well-meaning journalists in India, Open Magazine’s expose, what it calls the X-Tapes, has not only come as a rude shock, it is also a defining moment, a turning point in a profession that many within and without consider almost sacrosanct. So, change must come, change for the better, discarding all the rotten apples and the muck that has come to stay. Will it be possible at all, is the larger question.

There is no doubt that with media gaining an unsavoury hue in recent weeks, the focus by editorial heads, for the short-term at least, will be on cleaning the stables although several horses may have already bolted. Another pertinent question is whether the clean-up operations will continue for long and whether after Radiagate has moved from the front pages of newspapers, some journalists will be tempted again by lure of proximity of power and perhaps money and other attractions to “string a source along”… to no actual good as we have all seen.

If any editor hit the bull’s eye in post-Radiagate discussions, it was N. Ram, editor-in-chief of The Hindu. Both in Karan Thapar’s programme on CNN-IBN and on a late night programme yesterday hosted by Rahul of Headlines Today, Ram was categorical. He called Barkha Dutt’s performance on NDTV’s extraordinary programme, or defence of her position if you will, “pathetic”. Few will disagree with him. For, Barkha chose to ride the high horse and had just no intention of admitting her mistake, going only so far as to say it was a “learning experience”. The tone and tenor of her voice and what appeared as almost contempt for Manu Joeseph and the Open Magazine story, deprived Barkha of an opportunity to regain people’s hearts. We still remember her reporting from Kargil, don’t we? But that was quite another Barkha, another time.

On Headlines Today, Vir Sanghvii, much senior to her, was calm and composed. He adopted a sober tone, seemed humbled by the experience, did not argue with the moderator, and although did not admit he had done something terribly wrong, did seek an apology from viewers, and readers of his column, if they felt he had strayed. Ram felt the explanations (Barkha’s included) were all a “cover-up”.

The difference between the two telecasts couldn’t have been starker. While Barkha hardly allowed anybody to speak, the moderator, Sonia Varma, never gained control. You probably couldn’t blame her… she is after all junior to Barkha in the NDTV pecking order. What was more surprising was that none of the panelists (Dilip Padgaonkar and Swapan Dasgupta), save Sanjay Baru in patches, was able to pin Barkha down.

The Headlines Today discussion was far more refined. Nobody spoke out of turn. It was clear that M.J. Akbar and Prabhu Chawla had a lot of respect for Ram. And no wonder. Because Ram has been clear in his stance fright from the beginning. On the Karan Thapar show and last night, he stressed that were the tainted journalists employed by the BBC, The Guardian or The New York Times, they would have lost their jobs. That, I presume, means that The Hindu, too, would not or will not tolerate such behaviour. Why can’t we set the bar higher, Ram asked. He went on further to emphasise that all journalists must be governed by a code of ethics, or by codified rules. Therefore, anyone trespassing the line has no place in the profession.

Unless such steps are taken, unless there is a continuing debate among senior editors, publishers and those who matter about journalistic ethics and what constitutes right and wrong, unless mechanisms are put in place to redress reader’s or viewer’s grievances and to admit and correct mistakes, not by one or two newspapers, but by the newspaper publishing and Indian television world in general, I do not see much hope. Unless corrective steps are taken earnestly, once the Radia Tapes pass into history, you may still have a journalist willing to plant a story for a price.