Over the past decade, many prominent Indian media houses have staked their prestige on mega-events where advertisers sponsor speakers ranging from Indian politicians to out-of-office US statesmen. In recent years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has easily been the marquee draw at such events. Though questions have been raised about the dangers of breaching the wall between editorial and business, for much of the industry, these events are seen as a win-win proposition. They attract prominent speakers who create sound bites for big media brands, in return for a platform and wider publicity, with sponsors more than willing to go along. However, recent incidents, featuring two of India’s largest media groups—the Times Group and the HT Media group—have highlighted how such mega-events imperil editorial freedom.
In March this year, Modi pulled out of the Economic Times Global Business Summit at the very last minute, citing “security concerns.” Along with him, several ministers and senior bureaucrats also withdrew from the event. The decision caused a huge loss of face for the Times Group. Given the largely favourable coverage of the government in the group’s publications, it was difficult to fathom the reasons for the government’s step. Subsequent events seemed to carry their own message. A journalist critical of the government, Rohini Singh, left the Economic Times, and a spoof on Modi, which ran on one of the group’s radio stations, was soon taken off the air. (Singh went on to author a story for The Wire on the finances of Jay Shah, the son of the Bharatiya Janata Party president, Amit Shah.)
Then in September this year, shortly after a meeting between Modi and the HT Media owner, Shobhana Bhartia, in which she sought his presence at an event, the media house announced the exit of Bobby Ghosh, the former managing editor of Quartz, who was serving as the editor-in-chief of the Hindustan Times. Shortly after the announcement, the newspaper discontinued an initiative it termed the Hate Tracker, which collated information on hate crimes in the name of religion or caste.
The nature of the pressure Modi brought to bear on these large, profitable media houses is important to understand. Neither of these groups is financially dependent on the government or media summits for their profits; what they were afraid of was the signal that would go out to the corporate world as a result of Modi’s absence from their respective events. Big media in India relies largely on advertisements, and as a result is beholden to corporations. And in India’s partially liberalised economy, corporations are beholden to the government. For a government that wants to control the Indian media, it is much easier to do so through corporations rather than to concern itself with individual journalists.
As chief minister of Gujarat, India’s most industrialised state, Modi had already shown corporations their place. In February 2002, he had presided over an administration that largely stood aside as Hindu mobs killed Muslims in one the worst incidents of ethnic violence in modern India. A year later, at a meet of the Confederation of Indian Industries, or CII, attended by Modi, two of India’s leading industrialists, Jamshed Godrej and Rahul Bajaj, voiced concerns about the atmosphere in the “state of Mahatma Gandhi.” A furious Modi ensured that industrialists from Gujarat formed a parallel body called the Resurgent Group of Gujarat, or RGG, that took on the CII. Within a month, the director general of the CII flew to Gujarat to apologise to Modi. Eventually, the endorsements from some of India’s most respected industrialists, including Ratan Tata, paved the road to his national acceptability.
As the corporations fell into line, so too did much of the media. Modi’s 2014 prime-ministerial campaign was driven by positive media coverage that tended to downplay the 2002 ethnic violence as well as the continued marginalisation of the Muslim minority in Gujarat under his watch. It is a lesson Modi has built on.
Media summits tend to facilitate a too-easy interaction between media, government and corporations which carries the danger of enabling conflicts of interest and an erosion of journalistic values. They have also increasingly become fundraising tools that all media houses rely on. Last year, The Caravan organised the first edition of an annual event, called The Bridge Talks, aimed at “challenging the conventional thinking and emphases surrounding gender empowerment.” It featured, among others, the BJP union minister Maneka Gandhi, the BJP spokesperson Meenakshi Lekhi, the Congress politicians Mani Shankar Aiyar and Sachin Pilot, and Rohini Nilekani, the philanthropist and wife of the Infosys founder Nandan Nilekani, who was a Congress candidate in the 2014 general election. The event was thus in principle exposed to the same pressures, if at a much reduced intensity, to which the Economic Times and the Hindustan Times proved vulnerable.
Such events are not without problems even at organisations seen as setting worldwide standards for media independence. Over the past decade, the New York Times has set up a separate section for such events, termed NYTLive. According to a document on the paper’s editorial standards, “What occurs on a New York Times editorial stage is live journalism—it is as much a part of our reportage as interviews conducted over the telephone or in the street. Moreover, what occurs on a New York Times editorial stage is part of our news report, and is held to the same standards as what appears in the print paper or on NYTimes.com.”
Control, at least in theory, lies with the editorial team. While the senior editor and senior vice president of NYTLive are in charge of choosing moderators and speakers for editorial conferences as well as choosing panel topics, the document explicitly states, “Ultimate authority—and veto power—for panel topics, moderators and on-stage speakers lies with the newsroom’s leadership.” The document also emphasises that “Authority over other aspects of events—including sponsorships, audience development and related topics—lies with the Senior Vice President of NYTLive,” yet, “The newsroom leadership may veto decisions that risk undercutting The Times’s reputation for objectivity and impartiality.” The document maintains that “Sponsors or underwriters will not have any influence over the content or who appears on an editorial stage,” and that “In situations where a solo sponsor might undercut The Times’s goal of impartiality, multiple sponsors will be found.”
Individual journalists have the freedom to decline to be part of such events. “Reporters, editors and columnists are encouraged to appear on New York Times stages,” the document states. “However, they are also free to decline. Reporters will not be asked to solicit the participation of a speaker or participant, nor will they participate in or contribute to any content designed or presented by sponsors.”
Despite this clear policy, in June this year the Columbia Journalism Review ran a piece titled “In the digital age, The New York Times treads an increasingly slippery path between news and advertising.” Among other issues, the piece details the role of the journalist Charles Duhigg, who co-authored a 2014 report for the paper, titled “Innovation,” which looked at the challenges the paper faced in the digital era; Duhigg went on to become the newsroom leader of NYTLive. Duhigg, the Columbia Journalism Review reported, who had authored a book which had a section on General Electric, was, along with the paper’s advertising executives, part of discussions with GE for a potential business collaboration that did not finally materialise. In another case, after a contract was signed with ADP, a data-processing company, the report noted, “Duhigg recalls a lunch with ADP executives, part of what he called a ‘reporting exercise’ to learn more about the company. (No Duhigg story about the company ever appeared.)”
By the standards of the Indian media, such transgressions are not just minor, they are unlikely to be seen as transgressions at all. Yet, they illustrate the fact that even at the New York Times, the dividing line between editorial and business can be crossed. In such a climate, the question of the ethical principles that guide a media house’s approach to such summits becomes of critical importance. The clear editorial guidelines for such events at the New York Times ensure that journalists both within the organisation and outside it can use these guidelines to point to the organisation’s failure to meet the standards it has set for itself. At The Caravan, while editorial staffers are encouraged to participate in programming and attending the events, such attendance or involvement is not mandatory.
At both HT Media and the Times Group, as well as at the India Today Group, which started hosting its “conclaves” as far back as 2002, there are no clear lines demarcating editorial operations from such summits. While a separate division handles these events, informally journalists at all these organisations are drafted to handle many aspects of the summit, including inviting guests, with some being tasked with hosting conversations. Events at organisations such as HT Media and the India Today Group involve reporters at all levels. Beat reporters are often asked to extend invitations, and are required to attend to guests from their beats at the events.
It is one thing to encourage journalists to invite speakers and guests with whom they share regular professional contact, but quite another thing to expect them to invite the very public figures they are supposed to question in their reporting. A reporter who is made to escort a politician at such an event and who must stand in attendance while the politician speaks to the editor or the owner, is unlikely to consider pitching a story critical of the individual in the future. Moreover, the need to ensure that guests in power return for future events leads to on-stage interviews and discussions that are public-relations exercises at best. And although an event such as this may certainly lead to increased access to the politician, it is usually with the unspoken understanding that the publication will hesitate before pursuing stories that could harm the politician in question.
Five years ago, the Carnatic singer TM Krishna raised a pertinent point in a piece for The Hindu. “Let’s not forget that a lot of money is involved in these events,” he wrote. “Why should we care so long as it is private money? But we should, as these are the same institutions that question the way public money is being spent. When such questions are being raised, every citizen has a right to question private practice too. Huge corporate houses back many such events and some speakers are chosen due to the financial support available for them, bringing into question even the basic integrity of such events.”
Yet, one cannot escape the fact that the economic pressures on media and publishing have made survival in the industry difficult over the past few decades. Print subscription revenues have either fallen drastically or at best remained stagnated, and online subscription remains a distant dream for most publishers. At the same time, advertising revenue has been shifting to digital media at an ever-increasing pace, much of which is being cornered by Google and Facebook. The rest is being fiercely fought for by legacy publishers as well as millions of other digital sites. Given this competitive business environment, publishers have to create alternate revenue streams to continue investing in meaningful journalism. However, if such new enterprises, events included, threaten the basic integrity of the media houses, then it grossly undermines any media’s right to question unethical conduct in politics and society at large. The need for clear editorial guidelines for such events is evident, and as the Columbia Journalism Review article on the New York Times illustrates, the need for the media to report on the media in the same way it reports on the rest of the world is essential if media ethics are to have any meaning.
Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada. He was formerly the political editor at Open magazine.