MUMBAI - It's
official: the world's largest-circulated English daily
has been involved in some shady business. Exposing a
long-known trade fact, a leading Mumbai English tabloid,
Mid-Day, last week published the "rates" for purchasing
editorial features in the Times of India. The Times has
not issued a denial, and the rogue rate card seems to be
the latest indicator of rotting media ethics and
tolerance in India for corruption.
ranging from US$45,000 to $66,000, the Mid-Day story
alleged, one could buy a news feature plugging their
business, get interviewed (the business owner supplies
the questions and answers themselves) and have their
picture published on the much-scorned Page 3 of the
Bombay Times, the city supplement of the Times of India.
In the United States or the United Kingdom,
uproar would have erupted after the expose. But the
Times of India (TOI) was not even pressed to explain the
allegation to its 4.5 million estimated readers, or to
any regulatory body. Instead, some attempted to defend
the indefensible. Shobhaa De, novelist and acidic
columnist, incredibly called the TOI move "brave" and
the "future of journalism", never mind the reader being
taken for a ride, if not criminal fraud, with no
distinct boundaries marked between news and
In a brazen display of contempt
for the basic tenets of journalism, the "service"' meant
that the clear divide between advertisement and
editorial was blurred for a negotiable price. The Times
of India is already infamous for often plugging its own
businesses, such as its search engine and web portal, in
its news pages.
The demarcating line and
supposed safety valve against legal complications is a
microscopic "m" in 8-point type, like a copyright sign,
that the reader is to infer as "Medianet", a created
subsidiary that "buys news features" from
publicity-hungry individuals and corporates. Apparently,
the TOI group established Medianet to cut out crooked
journalists and take the cut for itself. Credible media
houses generally sack bribable hacks, but here the media
house happily joined the racket.
Medianet rose up the TOI ladder so much that its chief keeper, Vinita
Mangia, took over as editor of Bombay Times this month.
The move makes Rupert Murdoch's Fox News a glowing
paragon of journalistic virtue in comparison.
Such dubious, if not downright crooked, business
practices increasingly infect the English print media in
India - that usually is never short of pompous
posturing. Cutthroat competition drives the world's most
populated print media industry: according to March 2004
figures from the Registrar of Newspapers for India,
8,141 English dailies appear among a total of 55,780
newspapers reaching 142 million people, at a growth rate
of 23.21 percent compared to the previous year.
and stricter standards of management could clean up India's
largely family-owned media houses that often hob-nob
intimately with political parties and industrial groups.
Successive chief ministers of Maharashtra state often
drop in for luncheon meetings with Times of India top
brass in Mumbai. But inevitably, the Times of India
group has also been one of the most vocal opponents of
substantial foreign direct investment (FDI) being
allowed in Indian media, even though it used the
just-voted out Indian government's 26 percent FDI cap to
hive off its leading magazines to the BBC.
foreign marriages such as tie-ups between India's
Business Standard with the Financial Times raise hopes
for better pay scales and professional standards in
Indian journalism. Presently, leading media groups are
being accused of running rackets such as the
exploitation of governmental newspaper subsidies: they
are alleged to register new publications, inflate
circulation figures, apply for subsidized newsprint for
them, print a few token copies and sell the rest of the
newsprint in the black market.
of circulation figures is also an ongoing practice, as a
senior newspaper professional explains: companies will
deliberately increase pages to make the newspaper's
weight more profitable to rathiwallahs (waste
paper vendors) who buy copies in bulk and make more
money selling it as waste paper than selling at the
artificially-lowered cover price. Circulation figures
get a fake boost.
Such tactics are known and
ranted about in trade circles, with the occasional angry
protest or a scathing editorial moaning about dirty
tricks without much effect. Characteristically
unabashed, TOI justified its editorial hawking as
"edvertorials" where the editor supposedly controls the
paid content, as against conventional "advertorials"
which the marketing department sells in clearly
separate, marked space and sometimes different fonts.
Founded in 1838 as "The Bombay Times and Journal
of Commerce", The Times of India (called so since 1861)
has consistently starred in many other recent media
controversies, the latest being a run-in with its
competitor in New Delhi, The Hindustan Times, over
circulation figures. In a major power shift in the
1990s, the new generation of marketing whiz kids
systematically crushed perceived editorial uppityness.
management undertook moves that suggested it
considered selling newspapers as requiring the same
expertise as selling toothpaste, and editors and
journalists as dispensable as used tissues. The prompt
result from marketing bulldozing into editorial
territory was bright young journalistic hopefuls such as
Rajdeep Sardesai leaving TOI in a huff to carve out
successful careers in satellite TV news, with companies
like New Delhi Television (NDTV).
In a peculiar
mission to show just who is the boss, Times of India
owners Bennett, Coleman & Co, India's largest media
group, went out of its way to put its editors in place.
A former editor of the Bombay Times and a current
columnist told this correspondent that she was flown to
New Delhi, along with other editors in the group, for
the express purpose of being categorically informed that
they need the TOI group more than the TOI group needs
Under such remarkable working conditions
and tactics, the TOI hit new profitability but also
steadily plunged to new depths of editorial disrespect .
During the India versus Pakistan cricket series in
March, it reached giddy heights of facetiousness, with
lunatic front page headlines such as the screaming
"Karachi Captured" after India won a match there.
But unlike with toothpaste, respect for the
truth feeds a newspaper's long-term life and TOI is fast
losing respect, despite being ranked one of the world's
six best newspapers. With millions of Indians having
grown up with the TOI, its growing crisis of credibility
is like watching an old friend become mentally
unbalanced from an addiction to greed and power.
There's a dark, murky, fascinating and edifying
media story to be told of the rise and imminent fall of
the Times of India, once called the "Old Lady of
Boribunder", now being hooted as the "Sold Lady of
Raja M is an independent
writer based in Mumbai, India
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