“Today, editors do not have to be journalists”

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DARRYL D’MONTE, former resident editor of The Times of India and The Indian Express in Mumbai was one of the most respected journalists of his time. He later became an environmental activist and is presently Chairman, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India. He speaks to RAMESH MENON about the good old days of journalism, why no one knows the editor of TOI today, the dumbing down of journalism and where hope for the future lies.

What was journalism like when you started?
I got an economics degree from Cambridge. In those days, there were no journalism degrees in England. If we wanted to be journalists, the only way was to work ourselves up to Fleet Street as trainee reporters. I worked in Folkestone for Kent Messenger, a weekly newspaper. Strangely, in the 60s, I was a bigger curiosity to my British colleagues than they were to me. It was quite rare to see a brown man in journalism there. To begin with, one had to cover flower shows and dog shows.
After a year, I came back to India, joined TOI as a junior assistant editor at a monthly salary of Rs 700. The atmosphere there was like a cathedral. Editors were not accessible. We were not even allowed into editorial meetings and so, senior editors would tell me what was discussed. Junior assistant editors like AS Abraham, Rahul Singh and Ashok Thapar were asked by seniors to read the papers and come up with ideas every day. Senior editor Nandan Kagal would accept or reject th­em. As an assistant editor, I wrote on current topics with a wordage of 300 words only. The editor-in-chief, Sham Lal, was an inveterate rewriter and he would take our copies and sometimes, rewrite every line. There was hardly any interaction with him; it was disheartening.

You became editor of the Sunday magazine section of TOI at a pretty young age? 
MV Kamath, who was editing the Sunday magazine, was posted to Washington as a correspondent. Then, Prem Shankar Jha became the Sunday editor but as he wanted to be in the main paper, he made me editor. Being young, I was more open to ideas. We ran stories that were not being done, like how safe were women in our cities, or how young women were trafficked from Nepal to Mumbai to become sex workers. We did an entire issue on revolutionary, raw Dalit literature. We did another controversial piece on the Indian Left. I was in my impetus youth and we took a line criticizing the CPI for its Russian leanings and the CPM for its rigidity and took a pro-Naxal line. As the story raised a hue and cry, editor Sham Lal insisted on vetting stories after that.

What about your stint at The Indian Express?
Ajit Bhattacharjee had moved to The Express and in 1979, recommended me to take over as resident editor in Mumbai. It was completely chaotic. It had good reporters but no management worth the name. I told its owner, Ramnath Goenka, that the best combination would be to merge the news savvy attitude of Express reporters with the professional managerial structure of TOI. He said he wanted a report done by a consultant on this. After it was done, the management got after me and made life difficult. I could not hire the talent I wanted. And they would put hurdles in every move of mine to make things better and professionally managed. I finally decided to quit.

Was it difficult to quit?

I got a Homi Bhabha Fellowship to study the environmental dangers in the Silent Valley, the threat to the Taj from the Mathura Refinery and the Thal-Vaishet fertilizer plant near Mumbai. I had enough work to do. The research helped me publish a book, “Temples or Tombs: Industry versus Environment” in 1985. This was my initiation into the world of environmental journalism. In 1988, Dileep Padgaonkar asked me to take over as resident editor of TOI, Mumbai. The newspaper had completed 150 years and naturally, there was great euphoria. We did a special issue on Mumbai with writers like Salman Rushdie, Dom Moraes and others.

I was travelling extensively and writing. Suddenly, all TOI papers were declared brands. So we had brand managers who were totally clueless about journalism. It was demeaning to ask them permission for any expenditure, including ones where reporters had to travel for stories. The intrusion into editorial space had started.

You also had trouble with the union.

Conflicts with the management were compounded by tension between the labour union run by RJ Mehta and the journalists. I wanted to hire good journalists who would power the content but was powerless. The union would object to it. I remember how they ensured that I would not be able to hire experts like Ayaz Memon, one of the best sports journalists. Union delegations would come to my room and threaten me. One day, a union leader barged into my cabin and said: “We will give you a heart attack.” I calmly said: “Just let me finish my editorial and then you can come.”

There was also a lot of friction between journalists and management in those days, wasn’t it? 

In 1993, things reached a head when I was invited to Dresden in Germany for a conference of international environmental journalists. I was elected as the first president of the newly formed International Federation of Environmental Journalists. When I returned, I was surprised to find that there was resentment and not appreciation. I was asked to resign as editor or resign from the federation. I had to resign from the Federation. A top manager was made editor when Dileep Padgaonkar went on leave. The writing on the wall was that editors do not have to be journalists. Dileep Padgaonkar, Anikendranath Sen, Arvind Das and myself resigned in protest. Many others resigned too, unable to tolerate the humiliation. Sham Lal, who had retired and was a Director, resigned in solidarity.

How have values and attitudes in journalism changed? 

Earlier, journalism was seen as a sacred space and journalists were tremendously respected. Plain living and high thinking was the way of life. We had giants like Frank Moraes who used to dictate his edits without any errors, and S Natarajan, editor of Free Press Journal. SN Nanporia would stun us with his accurate forecast of political developments. Sham Lal’s knowledge was amazing. His house in Delhi’s Gulmohur Park had books stacked from the floor to the roof. People of such eminence were in journalism. How many journalists read today?
Now no one knows the editor of TOI today. Many editors do not even write. There is a dumbing down of journalism. Everything is personality and celebrity based. It is Bollywood and cricket that reigns. Papers concentrate on city pages as that is where the consumers are.
That leaves out coverage of rural India though it forms most of the country. It is a very serious issue. It is not accidental that this has happened after liberalization, privatization and globalization. I call it LPG, the toxic trio. You can see it in the Times Op-Ed page. It will showcase soft stories. The Op-Ed page should ideally have opinions which are independent and may be different from the editorial view. But you can see that today only in The Indian Express and The Hindu. Even foreign correspondents do light stuff. Just examine the stories they are filing from abroad. There is no space for serious issues. We need to understand that we can be serious without being boring. P Sainath is the best example of this idea. He went to ten of the poorest districts of India to write on the plight of people there, and it later became a bestseller. I was his editor in the TOI for this series.
The Naxal rebellion is spread out in one-thirds of India. If the media does not take note of the deplorable condition of Adivasis, imagine what is going to be the outcome? The poorest people are living in the richest resource areas. The media cannot ignore it.
Look at what TOI, the biggest newspaper in the world has done: It has banished book reviews. It does not like to cover music, theatre and culture. This poverty of the imagination will land us in a mindless world. Major Indian publications are only concerned about wealth and lifestyle. Readers are fed with a diet of junk. There is nothing to nurture you. Sadly, many are following TOI’s example.

But there are few exceptions..

Yes, that is true. Like Business Standard. Though it is a business paper, it carries some of the best book reviews. Mint also stands out by carrying a series of articles on serious topics. They do some real good development stories which others do not.

What about language writers?

They do not exist for the media. Some of them are doing wonderful work, but it is not being discussed. The young are being brought up on this puerile fare. We must realize that culture is the life blood of a society and readers cannot be deprived of it.

What is the future of development journalism?

It is going to be difficult to thrive as the space is shrinking for such stories. One newspaper editor is reported to have said that his paper does not publish stories on child malnutrition as his readers do not have children who suffer from it! Greenpeace is being attacked and so are other environmental organizations. The elite press is only concerned about India being the fastest-growing economy. Only small papers report real issues. As TOI is seen as a success, everyone wants to imitate it. TOI and The Hindu in Chennai battle for control. The Hindu lost a professional editor; that does not bode well for the paper.

Is online journalism beating a new path?
Websites will have more subscribers than print in future. The big danger about internet journalism is that there is no scrutiny as there are no gatekeepers. It can run unsubstantiated reports, plug stories and print slanted reports. It may be breaking the shackles of conventional journalism but it cannot be an alternative to mainstream media. It can only complement it. There is nothing to replace the newspaper in hand.

What about corporates who are trying to get control of the media? 

The Ambanis have taken over Network 18 that now incorporates ETV channels. Aditya Birla owns 27.5 percent of India Today. The late Vinod Mehta wrote that the Tatas withdrew advertising worth Rs 5 crore from Outlook after the Radia tapes were published. Many investors are entering the media today as they see that it can give them influence and clout. Small-time builders in smaller towns are running papers. Where is independent media?

Is there any hope for journalism?
I meet young students and I am happy to see that they are full of commitment and want to change things. Perhaps, their commitment could change journalism for the better. We see it in many popular movements where the young are in the forefront and we need to convert their passion to bring in the change. The gatekeepers will have to change. We have to realize that an independent media is the life blood of our society. If news and views do not flow freely, the body politic will suffer from sclerosis. We cannot allow that to happen…