One side fits all

An authorised biography of the Times of India media group is revealing in spite of itself. The central message Bachi Karkaria seeks to deliver through her book on the inside story of the Times of India group is summed up quite succinctly at the end of one of its shorter chapters. This is the chapter she aptly calls “Fall of the Wall” and this is how it ends:

“He stuck to his guns, icons tumbled from their pedestals, the revenue-earning departments became the new stars — and strutters. Over the years, editorial learnt to genuflect to the bottom-line, management valued the intellectual equity of editorial, and the hierarchies settled into an easy and more even relationship.”

No prizes for identifying the person Karkaria refers to as the one who stuck to his guns. This is none else than Samir Jain, the vice-chairman of Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd, which has been bringing out the Times of India for more than a century and a half, and added several other publications to its portfolio in the last 50 years. Jain has been described variously in the book, but in this chapter, Karkaria comes closest to calling a spade a spade. The man who changed the publishing paradigm in the Indian print media “had little time and less inclination to pander to the elaborate mystique that editorial had conveniently built around itself”, says Karkaria. It was Jain who declared that a newspaper was nothing more than a business, and should be “sold like a cake of soap”, a view considered “nothing short of blasphemy”.

The remaining chapters of the 325-page elegantly produced book (though it could have done with better editing) are woven around this message of how the Times of India group managed to bring about a fundamental transition in the way a newspaper company used to be run in this country. The tone of the book is irreverent. This is less evident when Karkaria describes the top managers the group has produced in large numbers — the triumvirate of Arun Arora, Pradeep Guha and Vijay Jindal included, and certainly more pronounced when she narrates the many idiosyncrasies and peculiar character traits of the large number of senior editors, all of whom at the end of the day had to bow to the wishes of Samir Jain.

That is a bias and perhaps understandable. For, make no mistake about it, this is a book about Samir Jain, his ideas of what a newspaper and newspaper company ought to be, his anger (thumping the teak table when questioned by a senior editor on how M F Husain’s death was to be be covered, if indeed the newspaper under his directions had to avoid writing about art), his generosity (gifting a pair of Gucci shoes to his top managers on returning from a foreign trip or presenting to Pradeep Guha a work of art that had adorned his office soon after his favourite manager had showered profuse praise on it) and cost-saving measures (advising his managers to plan their travel to take the cheapest air route or to carry tea bags while on tours to avoid paying for the tea that they might order through room service).

That, unfortunately, is also the book’s primary failure. Karkaria is a competent raconteur and has a nice turn of phrase. However, she only manages to tell these anecdotes and stories about Samir Jain, without providing any insight into his corporate thinking that has made Bennett, Coleman the most profitable media house in the country. You will be regaled with stories of how Jain shot down a proposal from an editor to send a journalist on a foreign junket, because there was a request that the company finance the purchase of a bandhgala jacket that the journalist had to mandatorily wear on formal occasions during the tour. On such occasions you would also be forgiven for thinking that some editors, with such odd and unjustifiable demands and requests, deserved the kind of treatment they got from Jain.

However, that is not the big message the book seeks to deliver. It is the idea of the vastness of the Times of India group that the author tries to present through such anecdotes. In one place, while narrating the appointment of Gautam Adhikari as the executive editor in place of Dileep Padgaonkar, she has been quite candidly presumptuous about it. Let her speak for herself: “They [Bennett, Coleman Chairman Ashok Jain, and Gautam Adhikari, who returned from the World Bank to join the group] drove together to the office. Ashok Jain called a meeting of the department heads, and announced: “Gautam Adhikari is to be the next executive editor of the Times of India.” Gautam would leave, return as edit page editor, leave. Dileep would return as executive managing editor, leave, return as consulting editor. The departure is always the aberration. The arrival is always the homecoming. Yes, the Times of India offers platforms of different kinds.”

Look at it differently. The Times of India group has seen the rise of many great editors like Sham Lal, Girilal Jain, Khushwant Singh and T N Ninan. Yet, it is a pity that Karkaria has failed to bring out the many stellar qualities these editors possessed in plenty, which no doubt helped the group’s publications grow in strength and acquire the kind of status some of them enjoy even today. Or perhaps that was not the purpose of the book. Which is why Sham Lal is presented as a man who only lived in the world of books, little caring for his editorial colleagues on the news desk. And the book’s focus is more on Samir Jain and his managers who brought about a change of equations between the editorial department and the revenue-earning divisions of Bennett, Coleman.

One of the shortest chapters even seeks to suggest why Ninan, the formidable editor of the Economic Times, may have left the Times of India group less than four years after joining it in 1988. Karkaria says it was a debate between Ninan and Samir Jain over whether the Economic Times should carry ear-panel advertisements on both sides of the masthead. Ninan was opposed to the idea of such advertisements. When his editorial colleague in Bangalore informed him that the “VC” had wanted the ear-panel advertisements to be carried, Ninan reminded the colleague that he was the editor. Karkaria says at the end, “Yes, he was [the editor]. But not for long.”

That is another failing of the book. On many occasions, the book may have relied on information that seems to be one-sided. It does not give the impression that the author has checked whether there was another version of what really happened. For that, perhaps, we have to wait for these editors to bring out their autobiographies!

Author: Bachi Karkaria
Publisher: Times Group Books
Pages: ix + 325
Price: Rs 395

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