'There’s a fog around consciousness' | india | Hindustan Times
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'There’s a fog around consciousness'

In the quiet environs of his house in the Capital’s upmarket Golf Links area, Hindustan Times former editor Prem Shankar Jha takes KumKum Dasgupta through the ups and downs of the nation’s political and media history between 1960-90.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2009 20:10 IST

In the 1960-70s, newspapers were dowdy with poor layouts, three different typefaces and italicised headlines.
Investigative journalism had not appeared in India yet and the relationship between the government of the day and journalists was based on mutual trust. The first cracks in this relationship appeared with the Sino-Indian tensions of 1960-62. Journalists felt betrayed by the government and certain decisions of the then defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon, like sending troops to 17,000 ft in tennis shoes and cotton uniforms, were criticised roundly by the media. In this, the Hindustan Times took the lead and questioned decisions taken by him.

When Indira Gandhi took over in 1966, the relationship between the media and the government became antagonistic, though I must admit that an antagonistic relationship between the government and the media is a healthy situation because questioning the government in the interest of the country is the primary role of the media.

The reasons for this antagonism were the 1965 war with Pakistan, the future of economic policy and the bitter struggle between the Left and the Right on economic policy. Most of us felt strongly on issues like growing corruption and the government’s involvement in it. Mrs Gandhi took tough decisions but also raised hackles and a strident debate ensued between the government and the Press on the abolition of privy purses in 1969.

<b1>The editorial pages were heavy and still read by people, though not by all. In those days, however, analyses were key and the media anticipated crises, and did not swoop down like vultures after the incident as we do today. Most editors were well read and writing a column was a prestige issue, with many of the best journalists not even getting a chance.

A good example of how the media worked and anticipated crisis is best illustrated by the monsoon crisis of 1966. When the rains failed that year in the Gangetic Plains, India’s food bowl, the first signs of a drought became visible. By October, it became clear that a famine was on its way in the most heavily populated parts of the country. Bihar was the worst affected and Jayaprakash Narayan sounded an alarm. We at the Hindustan Times realised what was coming and I was sent to Bihar along with photographer Kishore Parekh to document what was happening.

The stories and excellent photographs made a huge impact and forced the government to react. They also pushed civil society to send money to JP after he opened various relief camps in Bihar. Other papers did follow-ups and sent their correspondents too. This ensured that the government reacted immediately to the developing crisis and crucial funds reached the intended beneficiaries. This business of covering well in advance and following it up helped the country avert a major crisis.

Sadly, nowadays, no early reporting happens and the media only arrive after the event or catastrophe like vultures. There are several reasons behind this disconnect between today’s media/journalists and rural India: first, most of today’s editors/journalists have no family connections with rural India, thanks to urbanisation; second, we were always sensitive to the fact that we lived off PL 480 (Public Law 480, also known as “Food for Peace” is a funding avenue by which US food can be used for Overseas Aid.); third, today’s papers are more dependent on private ads and not government ads.

The next big news story of this era was the Emergency. The Hindustan Times, like other papers (except the Indian Express), remained complacent, though one must add that there was a collective turning away from the government. HT published a seven-page interview with Indira Gandhi while the Times of India reported as if the government did not exist. In 1977, elections took place and we all knew that Indira Gandhi would lose.

The 1980s were the most difficult times for HT. The Congress was losing control and the more laws it broke to stay in power, the more difficult it became for the paper to support it. The turmoil in the country, as Congress dominance unravelled, was reflected in the editor-owner relationship.

The day I joined as the editor, a bus was stopped in Punjab and Hindus were gunned down. I wrote my first editorial and it became my first head-on collision with the Congress. Senior Congress leader Buta Singh saw Akalis, not Khalistanis, as foes. I felt that the government must ensure the loyalty of the Sikhs to India and since we needed a democratic alternative in Punjab, Akalis would be our best bet.

But that did not go down well with Buta Singh. I wrote in support of Sikhs even when many saw them as traitors. As Editor, I gave space to Sikh writer Patwant Singh to write in HT and there were screams from the Congress camp. The Bofors scandal was also a trying time.

In India, the 1980s saw the rise of the middle class and urbanisation of large parts of India. This was reflected in the media as well. New magazines hit the stands and harped on the positive image of the country. The end of Emergency also saw an explosion in journalism. At the same time private programming in TV was started and HT, too, started producing TV programmes. Along with this began lateral recruitment in the media and newspapers diversified into leisure, real estate, and the Sunday magazine supplements, which focused on serious issues. In the media world, predatory pricing became the name of the game and marketing began to take over editorial. By the end of 1980s and 90s, manager-journalists were much in demand.

In these times, the best way forward is not in trivialising things but strengthening analysis. Journalists should not see the Internet as a threat but as a resource. In this information-oriented world, people have a tendency to move away from issues because they simply don’t have enough information/analysis. There’s a fog around consciousness. Everyone wants to interpret the world so that he/she can have a grasp over his/her future and this is where the print media needs to play an important role. But unfortunately the Indian media is moving towards more noise and less understanding.

After studying philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford and a stint in the UN, Prem Shankar Jha returned
to India in 1966 and entered journalism as an assistant editor in the Hindustan Times where he worked till 1969,
and returned as its editor in 1986.