Dipped in Witriol
This is a scoop that deserves more than an ice cream. For those who didn’t know, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry -- with inputs from the consultants Makhanjee &Company (MnC) -- recently put together a paper--Strategies In Media Management For The New Millennium. This top-secret report was distributed to select ministers, senior bureaucrats, top corporate honchos, and senior MPs. It wouldn’t have caught any public attention but for the fact that the PA to one of the recipient ministers sold copies of it as trash (along with old newspapers) to the raddiwala, who in turn gifted it to his journalist-friendly nephew who hawks secret documents in Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar market. Details of the report did make it to some papers but interestingly, Rahul Gandhi’s aide and Congress MP, Meenakshi Natarajan, who drafted the yet-to-be-tabled Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill 2012, borrowed substantially from it.
Predictably, the I&B Ministry has denied the existence of the report and sees a devious foreign hand behind the so-called “leak.” Here is what it said in a press statement: “We believe in a free press. Which is why a report emerging from Sarojini Nagar, if it existed in the first place, makes us suspicious. We have written to Washington to see if there is a Pakistani hand involved. We reiterate that we respect press freedom, and our campaign against (anti) social media should not be mistaken for restricting freedom of expression.” In an aside, the bureaucrat who read the statement declared that under the Constitution all Indians are free to make faces.
While the government is in denial, the veritable chairman of MnC, Mark–Mahesh-Mazhar-Makhanjee (his father was all for secularism provided there was money in it) has been rather forthcoming. In this interview he details the conclusions arrived at in the report which he claims he wrote in the company of four of his associates and the tea boy at MnC’s headquarters “somewhere in the western sector.” Excerpts:
Q: Mr Makhanjee, it’s said that your report has deliberately not been distributed to some ministries—rural development, panchayati raj, labour, social justice and empowerment, and women and child development…
A: Well, all these ministries are now irrelevant. In a liberalized economy there is no point in being bothered about the aam admi (or the Mango Man, to borrow a phrase from Shashi Tharoor). Moreover, these ministries don’t require any media strategy because those who cover them file stories without any prodding or persuasion. You know that sob, sob stuff about the trials and tribulations of rural folk and those living below the poverty line. To put it crudely there is nothing sexy about the kisan. Montek Singh Ahluwalia will vouch for this. And also the fact that in a family of eight it looks better on the balance sheet if three are adequately fed and looked after while the rest are allowed to starve.
Q: What would you say is the most major finding in your report?
A: Well, our studies have exploded one myth. Unlike in the past, there is no point in cultivating reporters who frequent press clubs. Today, one must recognise, is the age of club class journalism. In Delhi, to be a journo of any reckoning one has to be seen in the bar at the India International Centre or better still at the Gymkhana or the Habitat Centre. In Bengaluru it’s the Bangalore Club and so on. Our study also found that the big daddies have gone one step ahead and migrated to the five stars. So, in today’s context when we say corridors of power the reference is to lobbies of fancy hotels also frequented by middlemen and flunkeys of politicians.
Q: How do you explain the decline of press clubs?
It’s all about the quality of people who come there. There are these earnest idealist chaps who think they are committed to the truth and all that bakwas. In the days of Nehruvian socialism, such guys documenting the lives of the Mango Man were relevant. But today they are a hangover from an era long gone. Then there are those who just come to get drunk and there is nothing to be gained by plying them with whisky. Which is perhaps why no PRO worth his Bloody Mary or Angostura bitters can be found at any press club. These days one has to corner the men at the top—namely the owners, editors, and senior journalists. And to influence them one has to go clubbing to the real clubs or hit the five stars.
Q: Could you tell us how a PR person can work on senior journalists?
A: When the temperature is akin to Srinagar in spring and the ambience rather relaxed one can impress upon the man across the table that he has a very important role in nation building. That the old Keynesian theory about government controlling the private sector should be jettisoned and corporates should be given a free run. And national causes such as mining, setting up of nuclear plants and promotion of genetically modified food must be promoted. Expressions like fiscal discipline must be used to drive home that hike in fuel prices is actually a positive step, rendering people jobless a bold economic move and cutting subsidies good for narrowing the deficit. In short, a welfare nation is doomed not to fare well even though the Mango Man will be better off.
Such indoctrination, our research reveals, goes well with several rounds of that divine rum-based drink -- Planter’s Punch. Please note the symbolism. You plant ideas and make the big man feel as proud as punch. If executed well, this strategy can work. Unfortunately, at present, it is not implemented in the true spirit. What I’m trying to say is that there is no point in hosting a journalist at a fancy restaurant and discussing cricket or the sex lives of ministers. One has to be more focused.
Q: What about perks?
A: That goes without saying—preferential shares, money in tax havens, and holidays in Europe. We have even recommended using the services of the underworld to facilitate hawala transactions. Also you promise ads that keeps the owners happy. As for ordinary reporters, free petrol and an occasional gift, we believe, will do the trick.
Q: But how can you presume that all journalists will be susceptible to such corrupting strategies? Can you paint the entire community with one brush?
A: I recognise that there are those goody-good types who don’t have a passion for fancy cars or holidays in Nice at someone else’s expense. For such anti-market forces and troublesome reporters, we at Makhanjee have two solutions—frustrate them by shooting down all their story ideas by dismissing them as having no reader interest. Alternatively, sack them in the name of downsizing or because they are either too old or odd or too young for these troubled times. A lean and not so mean outfit makes for good economics too.
Q: Have you addressed the issue of scams that keep surfacing every now and then?
A: Yes, we have strongly recommended regulating print and electronic media to ensure that only scams of national interest—like the ones involving Opposition-run State governments—will get media attention. CAG reports and accusations made by anti-nationals against the government must be blacked out. I hope the Bill that Meenakshi Natarajan has drawn up is cleared by Parliament for the good of the nation.
Q: Wouldn’t all this be seen as gagging the media?
A: Not gagging but co-opting the media in the great nation-building exercise. Let our corporates thrive and let the GDP grow even if poverty alleviation is slow. Let a thousand nuclear power plants bloom as India marches towards a New Clear Day…