Letter from N. Ravi, Editor, on the recent happenings in The Hindu
April 20, 2011
Even as we are entering the second, and what might turn out to be a prolonged, phase of conflict and turbulence in the institution, I write to seek your understanding.
In a shocking display of bad faith that has left me deeply anguished, N. Ram and some of the directors at the meeting of the Board on April 18, 2011 have sought to remove me and appoint as editor Siddharth Varadarajan who joined The Hindu in 2004.
You are all aware that I have been working in a wholly professional capacity for several decades ever since I joined the newspaper as a reporter in 1972. During this period, I have been fortunate to enjoy your cooperation and help in taking the newspaper forward. After 1991 when I took over as editor, our team transformed The Hindu from a Chennai-centred daily with just one page of local news to a well recognized national newspaper with extensive local and state coverage spread over four pages, and attractive features. We started a lively engagement with the leading issues of the day with extensive coverage and diverse viewpoints. We sought to uphold editorial integrity, seeking accountability from institutions and public officials without fear or favour.
Though the economy then was not so buoyant as during the later period, between January 1991 and June 2003, the circulation of The Hindu increased from 4,52,918 copies (July-December 1990) to 9,33,458 copies (January-June 2003) or by 4,80,540 copies or 106.1%. In the more recent period, The Hindu has been losing market share, and from being level with the Hindustan Times, it has now fallen far behind that newspaper. Findings from the most recent market survey present a depressing picture of reader perception of unappealing content and a pronounced bias towards the left.
It is a matter of public record that N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief, was to retire on May 4, 2010 on turning 65 and I was to take over as Editor-in-Chief under the arrangement agreed upon. However, in a shocking display of bad faith, Ram went on to renege on his commitment to retire and the whole process of editorial succession came to a standstill.
During the conflict created by Ram’s breach of faith, Ram and a group of directors on the Board removed the powers and responsibilities of N. Murali, Managing Director in a vindictive move that was overturned by the Company Law Board, Chennai Bench that also came out with a severe indictment that their action was lacking in probity, good faith and fairness. Barely four months after the indictment, Ram and his group of directors have turned on me with the same lack of probity, good faith and fairness and have sought to remove me and impose a plan of editorial succession that is totally at variance with the longstanding tradition and practice in the institution and is also contrary to the directions of the Company Law Board.
Almost a year past the agreed retirement date, his position having become untenable in the face of the Company Law Board order, Ram seems bent on taking all the editorial directors—most are in their 50s--into retirement with him with a scorched earth policy to ensure that no one in the family succeeds him. Instead of coming up with a succession plan, he and some of the other directors have come up with a plan of wholesale removal. In a sudden change of rules and under the specious plea of separating ownership from management, along with my removal as editor, Nirmala Lakshman is to be forced to “step down” as joint editor and Malini Parthasarathy as executive editor.
Apart from the basic unfairness of the removal, the move seeks to entrench several of the distortions that have crept into the editorial framework since 2003 when Ram was appointed Editor-in-Chief by stealth over the protests of four of us. Among the issues that I have raised with the other directors during the discussions in the Board and outside are: the unmerited coverage of certain political favourites on specific directions; excessive coverage of the activities of the left and some of its leaders; for reasons that are bound to emerge sooner rather than later, turning the newspaper into an apologist for A. Raja through the 2G scam coverage, remaining deafeningly silent on his resignation in the face of mounting evidence even when demanding the resignation of Suresh Kalmadi, Ashok Chavan and Yeddyurappa in similar circumstances; pronounced pro-China tilt, blacking out or downplaying any news that is less than complimentary to the Chinese Communist regime; and contrary to the practice in any mainline newspaper, the Editor-in-Chief indulging in an unceasing self-glorification campaign, publishing his own ribbon cutting pictures and reports of his activities and speeches with a regularity that would put corporate house journals to shame.
The Hindu as an institution had in the past valued its editorial integrity over all else. In the recent period, editorial integrity has been severely compromised and news coverage linked directly to advertising in a way that is little different from paid news. A meaningless distinction has been sought to be made between walls and lines, and the walls between editorial and advertising are sought to be replaced by “lines” between them. Very recently, those of us who were not privy to the deal making learnt to our shock that a major interview with A. Raja in defence of the telecom licensing policy published on May 22, 2010—that was referred to by the Prime Minister in his press conference--involved a direct quid pro quo in the form of a full page, colour advertisement from the Telecom Ministry that was specially and hurriedly cleared by the Minister personally for publication on the same day in The Hindu. The contrast between such a deed and pious editorial declarations including the campaign against paid news cannot be starker. To continue with such practices, the editorial structure is sought to be changed, with the editor being made subordinate to an executive board comprising a majority of business side executives. The undermining of the primacy of the editorial function is an attack on the very soul of The Hindu. In the context of these distortions that have crept into actual practice, the high sounding code of editorial values that is sought to be publicised now would seem no more than empty rhetoric.
This round of turbulence comes at a time when all manner of investors are looking to gain influence and control over the media, and competition is increasing with newspapers striving to attract the attention of readers through better, more contemporary and enriched content. As part of the journalistic team, all of you have contributed so much to the growth of The Hindu and are vitally interested in the task of moving forward in a highly competitive environment even while observing the highest standards of editorial integrity. I feel strongly that when a distorted picture has emerged based on selective leaks, information on the happenings cannot be restricted to the confines of the boardroom and all the journalists as stakeholders need to be taken into confidence.
It is in this spirit that I am sharing my views with you all. I also write to you with the confidence that the unfair and untenable move will not be allowed to prevail. In the task of upholding the editorial principles that are so dear to all of us, I appeal for your support and understanding.