Instituting awards is a brand building exercise that several media houses indulge in. Others have created annual events or leadership initiatives that sport their brand. Between them these three categories are subscribed to by several leading publications and TV channels in the country: The Times of India, the Hindustan Times, the Hindu, the Indian Express, the Economic Times, Business Standard, Business World, Statesman*, India Today, Rajasthan Patrika, Outlook, Screen, Filmfare, NDTV, CNBC TV 18, CNN IBN and Star Plus among others. The Telegraph in Calcutta has awards for school children. All these awards end up honouring almost every category of human activity barring perhaps barbers and undertakers.
What is tiresome about the brand building is its regular conversion into front page news or special telecasts. I mean why should the Indian Express treat us on the 14th January morning to a four-column first lead on Shahrukh Khan and Katrina Kaif rehearsing just because Screen, the film publication from the Express stable is giving awards to the Bollywood crowd?
The Express does more than one annual exercise in brand building. It has the Screen awards, it had the B D Goenka awards, which were then reinvented a few years ago as the Ramnath Goenka awards. More recently it began its Express Addas which are frequent, and always figure prominently on its front pages.
Given its journalism-of-courage hype, the field of activity it chose to honour with its awards was journalism. That ensured that all the media houses whose journalists won these then ended up amplifying the Express brand.
All the awards mentioned by the brands listed above are sponsored events, and by and large people have not bothered too much about that, treating it as a matter between media brands and their sponsors. When you have an event, you will have sponsors. Until a couple of days ago when the Indian Express announced its journalism awards and their sponsors, and some people sat up and took notice.
They began an email campaign would have us believe there could be an unsettling side to brand-building. They cite the awards’ sponsors named and suggest a back history of coverage which was helpful to the sponsors. When the paper began running large front page ads announcing its awards on January 10 a signed letter went out from ten individuals, most of them representing environmental groups in Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh, asking whether there was conflict of interest or the suggestion of a quid pro quo in the fact of the Jaypee Group and Mahyco Mosanto being among the sponsors.
The former, it said, “is India's largest dam building contractor, largest private sector developer and plans to develop many more including in the North East India, which was the subject of Indian Express campaign in Oct 2010.” See this article on the Hoot, on that campaign. The author is one of the signatories to the letter on the awards sponsorship. The hydro power dams in Arunachal Pradesh which are the subject of that campaign are, according to the letter writers, to be built by the Jaypee group. Jairam Ramesh had differed with his government on the wisdom of going ahead with these, the Express took him on in a series of articles and editorials published between October 8th and October 22nd 2010.
The email asks, “The Indian Express campaign in Oct 2010, willy nilly helped the Jaypee groups’ interests. And now Jaypee is sponsoring the IE Journalism award. Shall we call this conflict of interest or quid pro quo?”
Among the signatories to the email titled “There is a conflict of interest here, sir” is lawyer Prashant Bhushan who is part of team Anna. The Anna Hazare Lok Pal campaign was fiestily attacked by the Express last year on a number of grounds. Bhushan’s father is the subject of another Express story last fortnight which says he evaded stamp duty on a property purchase in Allahabad. The paper has broken the stories which discredited members of Team Anna. No love lost there, then.
Other signatories include supporters of the Narmada Bachao Andolan which opposes the Sardar Sarovar project, again being constructed by the Jaypee Group. The letter writers suggest the paper pick less tainted sponsors: “More recently, in January 2012, India’s market regulator Sebi fined Jaypee Group Rs 6 million for illegal practice of insider trading. All these facts are very much relevant for any business group to sponsor awards for excellence in journalism, particularly when the awards are also for ’ethics in reporting’.
Then they move on to another sponsor of the same awards whom they also consider tainted. “Earlier in January-February 2010, when Jairam Ramesh held a series of public hearings to get a cross section of views on Bt Brinjal, Indian Express had launched a campaign against Jairam Ramesh and FOR GM crops. It is clear that the campaign hugely benefited GM crop companies and the biggest among them in the world (Monsanto) has an Indian arm Mahyco Monsanto, which is the biggest GM seed company of India. Mahyco Monsanto now is one of the sponsors of the Indian Express Excellence in Journalist awards.”
The paper’s critics are careful to end their accusatory email with the following: “We would like to clarify that we are not raising any doubts about the genuineness, independence and excellence of the jury or those journalists who may get this award.”
A newspaper has a right to campaign on issues it believes in. It also has the right to pick any sponsors it chooses. But in a country where conflict of interest questions are seldom raised, it is also good to put such doubts squarely on the table.
And if Justice Katju has any time to spare after fretting about porn stars, or the promotion of Urdu, or who should get the Bharat Ratna, he should be looking at what a print media regulator can do about issues like this. Provided somebody files a complaint.
Ravindra Kumar, Editor and Managing Director, The Statesman Ltd. has sent the following clarification.
The reference to The Statesman was in the context a little unfair. The Statesman Awards for Rural Reporting, in existence since 1979, do not and never have sought sponsors. The C R Irani Award for Environmental Journalism instituted last year is supported by the C R Irani Foundation, a not-for-profit body that seeks improvement in journalistic standards through various initiatives.
All expenses incurred on the awards function - the modest prize money, the fares and accommodation expenses of award-winners and of guests who participate in the panel discussion that follows the awards ceremony - are met by The Statesman. Journalists of The Statesman are not eligible to participate. The judging is done by independent senior journalists; the only role we play is in arranging to send copies of entries and translations (where required) to the judges.
I hope you will have no difficulty in accepting that it is unfair to these awards to mention them in the context of a piece on possible conflicts of interest in awards instituted by other media houses.
Clubbing the Statesman with the others is regretted. Editor