24 June 2015

Memories of Praful Bidwai: A spirit of the 60s



In the early 1980s, when I started out in the profession at The Times of India's newsroom in its headquarters in Mumbai (then Bombay), there was an unwritten caste system. Apart from the news desk that edited and made pages, there were reporters who did stories (usually on city, culture, traffic, crime etc) and there slightly exalted correspondents (who covered government affairs). Beyond these in the white-painted steel-and-glass cabins sat the senior editors, then humbly described as "assistant editors"-- the tribe that usually wrote opinion pieces and "leader comments" as the official editorial comments of the newspaper were called.
The reporters were usually the locally educated foot-and-mouth journalists who hung out on their beats.
The "assistant editors" more often than not, were educated overseas, usually in the UK, and not too well informed on how things really worked on the ground in India. They sat with the editor-in-chief in long meetings and wrote brief pieces.
Praful Bidwai was an exception in more ways than one, though his credentials were substantial 

Officially, as an IIT dropout (from what I understand), he did not hold an official degree, but in the Indian mind, the dropout status from IIT was high enough. He had been involved in leftist student politics and like many of that era, journalism was a close proxy to further his ideals. But he did not fit into any party or even group as such, as I found out later.
He broke one rule of the newsroom by being an active reporter, his most famous one being on the harmful nuclear radiation in Tarapur.  The story caused a furore across India, and can be seen as the forerunner for the protests that ultimately happened over the Koodankulam project in Tamil Nadu.
What I remember at a personal level was that he was a senior one could talk to and look up to. Friendly and compassionate, he had an informal style and was very approachable. He encouraged story ideas on all themes and rarely came across as a firebrand except in his stories and writings.
Leftism was in fashion then everywhere, and he was a product of the 1960s/70s middle class politics -- the kind in which its members felt themselves not to be "aam aadmi" but of a privileged background in a poor country that had lots more poor people that needed help. This elitist leftism had many shades: from people who joined CPM or Naxalite groups to softer variations that simply joined NGOs that helped the underprivileged. 
Praful later moved to Delhi where I already was and had responsibilities beyond the armchair journalism that was in fashion earlier. I was now in The Economic Times, across the newsroom floor, and nearly joined the TOI because Praful encouraged me -- but the Bennett, Coleman and Co's bureaucracy ensured that I did not!
In 1988, he suffered multiple injuries in a horrible car crash and was bed-ridden for months. I remember visiting him at AIIMS and lending him cassettes of classical music (Bhimsen Joshi duly returned) and discovering his other side.  This happened even as The Times of India sponsored Bruce Springsteen in a "Concert for Human Rights" tour, which I skipped to visit Praful  in the hospital. (Inside story: employees got the passes too late, and we felt bad!).
We lost touch as I moved to economic and corporate reporting far away from Praful's pet themes (or maybe on the wrong side, from his point of view). But I kept bumping into him now and then. I last saw him a few months ago and we decided that we should discuss the world in the light of the Internet and social media. Alas, that never happened.
Looking back, given his talent I feel Praful, if he had traded his trademark Gandhi glasses and rugged beard and kurta for blue suits and ties, could have easily been in a General Electric or IBM, doing great stuff for a great lifestyle. But he was of a different idealistic generation that represented the spirit of the 1960s.  In post-modern "non-judgemental" terms, his politics was just a choice. But in another view, it represented a selfless spirit. As a journalist, his Frontline column's title kind of said a lot about what he stood for, with its title, "Beyond the obvious"


16 March 2015

Vinod Mehta and CP Kuruvilla : Like George Harrison and Guitar George


When the demise of celebrated editor Vinod Mehta made it to the front pages of leading newspapers, I could not but help think of how just a few weeks earlier, CP Kuruvilla had passed away quietly in Ernakulam. On Valentine's Day.
The two editors are a study in contrast for journalists of the 1980s vintage. Mehta was all over the place: writing books, attending cocktail dinners, loudly discussing gossip, fighting newspaper owners, hiring glamorous reporters and being glam himself.
Maybe it was natural the Lucknow Boy, being from the city of Nawabs,
The Ernakulam Boy, whose voice barely rose above whispers, is a study in contrast.
Not that "Kuru" as he was known, was not sung after his passing though it was among those who knew him up close. His love of anonymity was his claim to fame as these obituary tributes in The Telegraph , Business Standard and Firstpost would testify.
Both Mehta and Kuru loved their liquor, as the legend goes. But at least one of them was not drunk on fame.
I call it the contrast between George Harrison and Guitar George.
George Harrison was the lead guitarist of The Beatles, and attained world fame, for his music, for his love affairs and his long association with the Hare Krishna cult.
Guitar George is a figure familiar only to those who listened carefully to Dire Straits' rock classic, Sultans of Swing.  and its lyrics 


Check out Guitar George, he knows-all the chords
Mind he's strictly rhythm he doesn't want to make them cry or sing
They said an old guitar is all he can afford
When he gets up under the lights to play his thing


Kuru, for me, was the Guitar George of Indian journalism. He knew all the chords -- as in knowing every story there was to be known. He kept track of gossip and published the ones that made people sit up. While discussing his brainchild, the famous backchat column "None Of Our Business"  he once told me: "If somebody doesn't lose sleep over your story, it is not journalism." Or something to that effect.
The wicked grin in place, a strange mix of adventure and affection, he would tell us reporters what to do, raise his eyebrows in occasional appreciation, and watch us like a mother would watch a toddler -- in silent appreciation or admonition, as the case maybe.
When Arif Mohammed Khan sued me for an election campaign story -- alleging defamation because I quoted his rival saying that Khan had used money power, I received a teleprinter message, terse and funny.
"Congratulations. You have arrived. ....has sued you. For only ...."
I was ready to apologise (in my eagerness to keep the publishers out of unwanted controversy), but I was backed to the hilt.
Kuru would back his reporters like hell. But would not take any nonsense. Journalists who love their bylines got a strange mixed bag from him. If he found the story original, even if you had filed it with a "Staff Correspondent" tag, you would see it displayed well with a byline the next day.
The opposite was also true: a hyped story will get buried, or worse, spiked (killed)  -- as we say in the profession.
S.C. Anantharaman, my bureau chief in Business Standard, where Kuru was my deputy editor, called me after his passing. Ailing, weak but still keen to discuss Kuru, he showed me clippings from the good old days. These were about Reliance Industries under the influential Dhirubhai Ambani facing trouble over unauthorised sale of shares overseas. "You sure of the facts?" is all Kuru asked him. The story went on to rock parliament at the height of the much talked about Ambani-Govt nexus of those days.


Ananth also told me how Kuru once published a story on a high court verdict against Kolkata's celebrated industrialist Rama Prasad Goenka. Kuru put it on the front page of Business Standard. All the publisher could suggest was. "You could have put it on the inside page." He was zealously guarding his editorial independence.
And then there is the famous story about how the censor during Indira Gandhi's Emergency rule ordered a story taken off from the front page, and Kuru replaced it with the following lines from Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

But, strangely, Ananth told me about how, when being interviewed for the Business Standard job, Kuru developed cold feet to ask for a salary of Rs 600 per month!
"How can I possibly do that?" Ananth recalls him asking in Malayalam. This was in stark contrast to his pleading for higher salaries for those who worked under him.
His phenomenal memory for stories ("That story is old, it appeared on page 7, column 3 of  xxx  last week") would keep reporters from fooling him.
But, as I recall, when I filed a story about ANZ Grindlays bank desperately borrowing money to cover a big  amount in the now infamous Harshad Mehta scandal  I found my story as the lead the next morning.
 "Is it on Page 1?" I asked Kuru (the then Calcutta paper did not arrive in Delhi until afternoon, those days). "What do you mean?," he said. "It is the lead"
I as a reporter did not know how big the story was. He could smell it.
A lot more can be said about him. But for me, he was Guitar George.
I wonder if he would have given me a byline on this obituary. I  would not mind getting a call from him. "What is this story?" he might say. "I am not dead yet."


10 March 2015

Positive way to do media PR -- an example


I keep talking about how PR agencies and executives have become intrusive, often irrelevant and sometimes clueless.

I need to set the record right when I come across something that shows the opposite -- and therefore, I share below an email from a PR agency, blanking out the details of the person and company but setting up a template on the kind of engagement a busy journalist might just love. I doff my hat

Dear xxx Sir,

        Greetings from PR office of xxx - India's no.1 xxxxx

Purpose of this mail is to ask your permission to send news updates regarding our company, products and other activities. We would be delighted to associated with your media house. We will send only relevant news to you and maximum 1 update per week, we promise not to spam your inbox.  

xxx is a xx years young brand, Head quartered in xx;   zzzz employees;  xxx branch offices and bbb+ service centers across India.
You can see more details about the company here - (Link 1)

We deal in   xxxx
You can see more details about our product line here - xxxx

We would be happy to get in touch with you, contact details below.


----


8 March 2015

Vinod Mehta was a Lucknowi Nawab with a Punjabi heart and English humour

I have never spoken to Vinod Mehta, though sat next to him once at a lunch at the Italian ambassador's residence. At this point, I found his proximate presence a bit curt. But I have very fond memories of my trainee days at the Times of India. I would wait eagerly every weekend for the Sunday Observer , rush to the news stand to buy and devour what he was doing with a weekly newspaper, and hang out with its then staffers like the late Rajiv Tiwari and Kajal Basu-- and it is from there, and not the Old Lady of Bori Bunder, that I learnt what ELSE could be done in journalism. And then I saw him do some more at India Post. And then some more at The Independent, and then at Outlook. All from a safe distance, but with close scrutiny. One of those rare characters  who could write with depth and seem casual at the same time -- and could balance a biography of Meena Kumari that he managed early in his career before joining M.J. Akbar and Arun Shourie in blazing a new trail in journalism in the 1980s -- which was to the media what the 1960s was to Bollywood music. Some of the Nawabi attitude of Lucknow and English humour had definitely rubbed off on the Punjabi. A nice combination, I should think. RIP

27 September 2012

The Decline and Slide of Indian Journalism


This piece must be the best thing to have happened to Indian journalism in a long time. Incisive, well-researched and hilarious in parts, there is a movie in this! http://thehoot.org/web/home/commentview.php?sid=6330§ionId=5&mod=1&pg=1&valid=true

28 August 2012

Cracking the uneasy relationship between PR and journalism

Public Relations and journalism are a feted pair -- condemned and glorified in a love-hate relationship of many dimensions. Here is an interview that Image Management, a website did with me in which I have tried to explain the many dimensions of the relationship.

25 April 2012

Six rules to harness content


Here is a presentation video of my talk at the India Social Summit in April 2012

7 October 2011

Speaking on Steve Jobs

Not often that I speak on TV and that in Hindi. But the death of Steve Jobs did it. Here is the link.

15 November 2010

Emerging picture on content shows pick-and-choose globalisation

So what is happening to content -- the broad word we use to describe everything from data and articles to video and audio --be it songs or news or movies?
With the coming of broadband, social media and blogs in a big way, the future could be "atomised" for piecemeal consumption of what used to be sold in big packages -- such as newspapers, TV channels and magazines. Here is my take on this after meeting Google's Nikesh Arora last week.

12 October 2010

Plagiarism: Last Refuge of the Hack In A Hurry?

We have been talking of "cut-and-paste" journalism ever since word processing happened big time. But then, as they say in Hindi, "नक़ल में भी अकल चाहिए" --Nakal mein bhi akal chahiye (You need brains even to copy).
Apparently, the most respected India Today has witnessed a shameful case of two paragraphs being lifted straight out of another article. And the subject matter is Rajnikanth, India's own movie superstar, while the story from which it was lifted is a US-based online magazine, Slate.
Honestly, why could not the writer simply at least paraphrase the wretched insight he/she may have got from Slate? Beats me.
Also a gentle reminder for those who try to steal: You may not violate copyright in all cases, but on the Web, you can be caught out. In fact, I find that my tweets on Twitter are routinely stolen, but what is touching is that my followers come and tell me about what is going on while I am too busy/lazy to care.
I think there are solutions emerging on the Internet to catch violators, but it is sad that plagiarism is the last refuge of the hack with a deadline, with apologies to Samuel Johnson, who said, "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel."

4 October 2010

Exposing the expose - How media spin should be watched

So you think investigative journalism is cool? Or that a sting operation rocks?

The thing can be nasty and explode on your face - especially if you are not thorough. After Channel 7 -- the Australian TV channel -- "exposed" security flaws at the Commonwealth Games arrangements through a reporter's sting, its rival ABC exposed the expose by investigating the whole thing, and found it --in fact, proved it -- to be grossly dubious. Here is a brilliant video on the expose that exposed the expose.

2 August 2010

Does social media screw up breaking news?

Here is an interesting perspective. "Distributed verification" of breaking news is great, but nothing like well-verified, well-packaged news, right?