In November 1992, as the Indian economy was waking up to the world, I joined its workforce. In spite of having received an MBA, for some reason I landed in business journalism – perhaps the ability to read balance sheets was considered an advantage. But within a month of starting work, I made a decision to attend as few press conferences as possible. Even within my short experience, the general atmosphere of press conferences – the gift-giving, the ‘where is my voucher?’ mentality – had begun to wear on me, making for a soiled feeling that seemed to be at odds with the actual content of my work. Researching for, analysing and writing business stories was, and still is, a lot of fun.
As the Indian economy liberalised, there were loads of exciting stories to work on – myriad things to discover and people to meet. Indians ushered into their country the Coca-Colas, Kelloggs and other brands that had thus far only been seen in American sitcoms. They also watched the birth of the IT revolution, the growth of the Internet, the rise of manufacturing, financial services, marketing communications, and the corporatisation of Indian advertising. As the buzz around India grew, so too did the opportunities. From the choices of becoming doctors and engineers, young Indians now had career options in retail, hospitality, media and dozens of other booming sectors.
I made a decision to attend as few press conferences as possible. Even within my short experience, the general atmosphere of press conferences – the gift-giving, the ‘where is my voucher?’ mentality – had begun to wear on me, making for a soiled feeling that seemed to be at odds with the actual content of my work.
Most seemed to agree that all of this opening-up was good for India, that it would do much to lift the populace out of the morass of poverty and underdevelopment. In fact, the ‘pink papers’, as the financial dailies are called, continuously cheered every liberal gesture the ministry of finance in New Delhi made, and demanded more. So, one might ask, why had the Indian business media not been pushing for such liberalisation earlier? Why had it not been speaking against the ‘ills’ of licensing and control, and of the corruption that this had created, the havoc that India’s mixed economy had played with its citizens’ lives and potential for more than 40 years? Why had business been demonised by the media for decades? Remember, the standard villain in most Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s was the businessman. “Till 1991, all business was bad and in cahoots with the government,” says R Sukumar, the editor of the business paper Mint. “And post 1992, all CEOs became rock stars.”
It took the financial crisis of 1991, when the Indian exchequer was down to its last few dollars while repaying debts to international financial agencies, for the media to support the government in opening up the economy. But why had the need to do so not been identified and proposed earlier? This is a question that has since come back to haunt the Indian business media. Why, for example, did Indian business journalists not see, early on, the Bombay Stock Exchange scandal of 1992 engineered by Harshad Mehta, or the stock scams of 2000-01 masterminded by Ketan Parekh?
One could argue that these are unfair questions; and, at one level, they are. The fact is that the US media, too, did not raise the flag about the scandals that were taking place at Enron and Lehman Brothers, despite the significant resources at the command of regulators and the media, and the stringent laws and apparent transparency of the US system. If a mature market with a very experienced business media could not see what was coming, could one expect much of their counterparts in India? These questions could also be considered unfair because, by and large, Indian business media is quite good, especially in print. A multitude of magazines and newspapers provide proficient national and local-level analysis and insight that one would be hard-pressed to find in publications in the West. But although India has dozens of world-class business journalists who are regularly quoted internationally in their own right, like everyone else, they do catch a few stories and miss a few. The question now is how to improve those odds.
Of ethics and competency
Since 7 January 2009, when Satyam Chairman Ramalinga Raju publicly resigned, it seems that everyone has been talking about ethics, and how the Indian business media’s lack thereof has caused the Indian business media to falter. But is this really about ethics? At its base, there are two aspects to this issue, says M Anand, the editor of Outlook Business: “There is the question of ethics and that of competency.” Regarding the former, much of any Indian media organisation’s collective attitude continues to stem from that of its owners. In companies where owners are strict about keeping the editorial and marketing arms separate, or about having a verbal if not written policy against gifts and other practices, integrity largely prevails.
Examples of such set-ups include some of the top media companies in India. For example, at Ananda Bazar Patrika Private Limited (ABP, the publishers of Businessworld and the Telegraph, among others, and a former employer of this writer) or Mint, where an ethics policy has been defined, journalists are clear from the day they join about exactly where the company stands. Indeed, Mint staffers are required to re-sign the paper’s ethics commitment policy every year. However, almost everyone agrees when Mint Editor Sukumar says, “Just because there is no written code does not mean that the paper is not honest. All a written code does is make it obvious to people outside that this newspaper is serious about ethics.” At Outlook Business, for instance, there is no such written policy. But, says Anand, the Outlook “group philosophy is very clear. We never had to deal with any issue about the line between editing and marketing being blurred. It is well understood that integrity is as important as competence.”
This brings us to the other point raised by M Anand – competence. This is where the inability to spot, say, what was taking place at Satyam, becomes particularly crucial. “There is no way anyone could have broken Satyam,” says Sukumar. “There was no stool pigeon, no paper trail.” Perhaps so, but from here the argument turns to significantly more sensitive issues. Are business journalists – in India as elsewhere – actually less than fully capable of analysing businesses, of understanding profit-and-loss accounts or balance sheets? Do business journalists have the rigour that is required to investigate difficult business stories – command over facts, figures and analyses that are required of experts on any subject? Or, on a slightly different tack, have business journalists simply (and subliminally) become too close to the companies on which they are supposed to be reporting? Is the support for liberalisation so great that some refuse to look at them critically, even in the face of a charge of unethical behaviour?
The answers to these questions boil down to operational matters such as training, the available talent pool, and so on – issues that have assumed increased importance during the massive expansion of the Indian media over the past decade. For instance, journalists’ reliance on sources and the latter’s penchant for giving ‘exclusives’ to credulous scribes is a much-talked about weakness of Indian media. The ability to question sources “is a function of training”, says Prosenjit Datta, the editor of Businessworld. “Most people believe their sources because they don’t double- and triple-check everything.” The problem of sources was notably highlighted in 2005, when Reliance Industries was split between its founder’s feuding sons, Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Suddenly, a multitude of stories were leaked to the media by the rival camps. Many magazines and newspapers carried only one or the other version, and there were very few publications that took both sides of the story to publish a complete picture.
Why had business been demonised by the media for decades? Remember, the standard villain in most Hindi films of the 1970s and 1980s was the businessman.
Alternately, take the classic problem of balance sheets and financial statements, which could be veritable mother lodes of information for business journalists. “How many of us go back to the management discussion and analysis in a company’s balance sheets from previous years, and ask questions?” asks D Murali, deputy editor of the Hindu Business Line. “Annual reports are actually a bunch of leads, but very rarely does a reporter see it that way.” While the question of competency can be handled through training, Murali continues, “the real question is whether newspapers want to take on corporate interests”.
Given a well-trained, competent army of journalists, most fair-minded publishers are happy to allow their editors to challenge corporate interests. In general, as long as a reporter is sure of his or her facts, a publisher will offer full backup to the editorial. Yet even when publishers leave reporters free to do their jobs, journalists tend to engage in a significant amount of self-censorship. Sometimes this is in anticipation of trouble, due to concerns that a CEO or businessman is the publisher’s friend and could complain. Even though much is made of publishers’ interference, the fact is that most publishers will simply ignore most complaints if an article is fair and well-reported. “As long as the coverage is not agenda-based or motivated, the guy cannot say we have been unfair,” says Mint’s Sukumar.
The fissures between having a competent workforce, being able to withstand the pressure of corporate interests and yet making money are what public-relations firms and other interests use to make inroads into business coverage.
In addition to training, Sukumar reckons, “The big problem is that newspapers are not edited enough. What you need is a hands-on editor.” But with many high-level editors busy building their personal portfolios – on television, attending conferences, etc – the work of bringing out a daily financial newspaper inevitably suffers.
Even when things are going well, publishers still stand to face a formidable list of opponents outside the walls of their media house. These range from public-relations firms that are constantly trying to chip away at independence – by offering meals, gifts and assorted freebies – to companies that are simply withdrawing advertising because a story dared to question its strategy or expose its malfeasance. The fissures between having a competent workforce, being able to withstand the pressure of corporate interests and yet making money are what public-relations firms and other interests use to make inroads into business coverage. For example, it has now become routine for advertisers to threaten withdrawal of advertising, or alternatively, to ask for editorial support. Without the confidence of a great brand or a competent workforce, this creates a conflict that eventually forces many editors, together with their publishers, to acquiesce. Needless to say, examples of such acquiescence are too sensitive to share.
Going by the example of markets such as those in the US or the UK, there should be no conflict between having a good product and running a profitable business. In fact, the dynamic tends to work the other way around: good editorial content helps create a credible brand, which in turn pulls in advertisers who want to be associated with a strong brand. The counter-argument to that, of course, is that publications in mature markets are not as dependent on advertising as are publications in India. This is because they have high cover prices that cover the cost of production and more, unlike Indian newspapers and magazines, which are heavily subsidised by ads. The typical ad-to-circulation revenue ratio in India is 90:10, compared to, say, 70:30 for mature markets.
That is the last argument often utilised when talking about ethical standards. Does the Indian industry’s extreme dependence on advertising and its owner-driven structure make it weaker when a conflict situation arises? Senior editors tend to disagree with this proposition, suggesting that the marketing department in general is aware that a brand’s quality depends on the editorial side.
Even in the current situation, it would seem that a fairly simple set of solutions should help to tackle most of the issues facing business journalism in India: good hiring, good training and a robust ethics policy. Yet many business brands have found it difficult to institute such processes. One reason for this, of course, has been the hyper growth that the Indian market has seen over the last half-decade. There has simply been too much action in recent years to sit down and fix structural weaknesses in Indian business journalism. As the whole world enters a slowdown, however, perhaps the looming breather would be a good time for Indian business media to put its house in order.
~Vanita Kohli-Khandekar is a media specialist and writer, and regular contributor to Business Standard and Mid-Day. The new edition of her book, The Indian Media Business, was launched in September 2013.
This article was first published in Himal Southasian in March 2009.