By: NS Ramnath, Mitu Jayashankar/ Forbes India
If urgent reforms are not implemented, the paper will disintegrate, N Murali tells Forbes India
Designation: Managing Director, Kasturi & Sons, publisher of The Hindu, Business Line, Frontline
Education: B.Com, ACA
Career: Spent over 40 years in Kasturi & Sons; retired on 12 August 2011
Interests: Cricket, Tennis, Music
How were your last few months in The Hindu after CLB (Company Law Board) reinstated you as managing director?
I felt vindicated. CLB indicted that it was in bad faith, there was lack of probity and so on. But really, after all that happened, I didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of it all. I was the one who proposed that all directors should retire from active role at 65, and there were only eight months to go. Though I felt vindicated, I didn’t get into my role as before.
Do problems in The Hindu run deeper than N. Ram reneging on his promise to retire at 65?
That triggered the whole thing. That triggered it basically because of family members wanting to come in as a matter of entitlement whether they are qualified or not. What has unfortunately happened is that these very family members who came in on the basis of it being a family business, and a quasi-partnership came in and then later attacked the principles on which they came in. That is the sad part. In normal circumstances, some of them wouldn’t have found any place in an organisation. But, having come, they started dabbling in politics, particularly in the last 18 months. Whatever I described in the letter reflects my true feelings. I didn’t hide anything.
Still, don’t N Ram’s recent initiatives only show that he wants to professionalise the organisation?
That McKinsey was brought in to professionalise is not true at all. McKinsey was paid a fat fee of Rs. 8 crore and, they came in at the height of the fight. No consultant would come in when things are volatile and things are fragmented like that. I would say McKinsey coming in was an opportunistic thing for them.
McKinsey came to suggest strategy. And I learned that what they suggested to The Hindu they suggested to other media companies also — getting involved in education and so on. They never addressed the issue of governance.
I stayed away from all McKinsey discussions because the case was going on, and because I was opposed to it in principle. They were brought in by a faction of the board and briefed by a faction of the board. So McKinsey did not behave like a professional organisation in our case. They didn’t address the real issue. In fact, I told the lead consultant who was handling our account that you should not have come in at a time when a fight was going on. What strategy can be implemented in such a scenario? You should have first addressed issue of governance, family norms before venturing into strategy. This board, which broadly consists of amateur members, is not in a position to implement any strategy.
I am also for professionalisation. However, it doesn’t mean shutting out professionally qualified family members. I also feel unqualified members should not be taken just because they are family members, they should be considered only on merit, be it journalists or management.
The other thing is, if what Ram is saying is true, we don’t know when he is going. Besides, Siddharth Varadarajan is not as qualified as some others in the Hindu are. He has been handpicked by Ram.
Do you think that you should have intervened earlier? At what stage?
Initially, there were only few people who were running the newspaper. They were professionally qualified. Increasingly, each family wanted certain number of directors. No other company of the size of The Hindu, even including Reliance with its huge Rs. 3 lakh turnover, has more than three or four whole-time directors. The family members came in for family representation and for perks and entitlements.
Hindu newspaper has a rich tradition and legacy. Its core values — trust, credibility, objectivity and balance — were built over time. In the last few years, a lot of these core values have been trivially compromised.
Over time, Hindu’s credibility has suffered badly, especially in the coverage of the 2G scam. While The Hindu asked for the resignation of B.S. Yeddyurappa, Suresh Kalmadi and Ashok Chavan for scams that are of lower magnitude than the mother of all scams, in the 2G scam, Hindu has carried obliging interviews of the prime accused. The interviews were done not by the telecom correspondent in Delhi, but by a correspondent in Chennai who covered DMK. He went all the way to Delhi to interview Raja. It was carried to time with his resignation. Hindu was seen as a mouthpiece and apologist for Raja; so much so that when a TV journalist asked him, it was sad to see him say, “For my views please read the day before yesterday’s Hindu”.
Again, [Sri Lankan President] Mahinda Rajapaksa was given such friendly, non-critical coverage. Hindu is pro-CPM, it is pro-China. Tibet and Dalai Lama are not covered. This type of selective blackout, Hindu is not known so far.
But these are different issues…
Before 2003, when Ram took over, there was too much autonomy. On the rebound, when Ram took over we swung from one extreme to another extreme of over centralisation and arbitrariness, so much so that diverse views and pluralism were shut down.
Even the institution of Readers’ Editor [which Ram introduced, has changed]. Previously Readers Editor was a seasoned news editor of The Hindu. He acted [on behalf] of the readers, commenting on their views on Hindu’s coverage, sometimes giving independent comments, sometimes giving a clarification from the editor. Now it has become a cruel joke on readers. The present Readers Editor never comments on readers’ views on Hindu’s coverage of different issues. He is acting as a columnist. The so called ombudsman in the Hindu has become farcical.
One by one, various values, and institutions in the Hindu have been diluted and also destroyed.
But, why so much noise now and not earlier…
I would plead helplessness in this case. I had taken a conscious policy throughout my career that my expertise is in business area, and I will not dabble in editorial, just as editorial people wouldn’t dabble here. We had a very fine line that divided. Even at the board, there was an arrangement that non-editorial directors didn’t interfere in editorial matters. We had a working arrangement where editorial primacy was respected. All that seems to have been given a go-by in the last 18 months. Even the appointment of Siddharth Varadarajan; it was non-editorial directors who voted for that. Otherwise, majority of the editorial directors opposed the appointment.
Fundamentally, there is no independent member on the board of The Hindu. Alliances keep changing, depending on the situation. There is no outside, independent objective voice or view on the board. Structural reform is what is required. Otherwise, [there is] very little hope of what this company can do.
In your letter, you talk about Murdochism. What did you mean by that?
I can tell you straightway that the primacy of editorial which Hindu held sacred all along is being sacrificed for the sake of business interest. You see stories planted by real estate lobbies. Those things never happened in Hindu earlier.
By Murdochism, I also mean shutting off some news. For instance, we have been totally favourable to the local government (DMK administration). Any views that were critical or criticising the state of affairs were not carried. In the last 18 months, readers have started saying — why are you so pro-DMK.
There has been selective coverage of people. For example, Lord Swraj Paul. He was also involved in the MP scam that affected many MPs in the UK. We didn’t have any coverage of what really happened. But, on the other hand, two or three articles with Lord Paul calling it a Kangaroo court and so on were carried. The Hindu never used to be partisan like this before.
By Murdochism, I mean taking sides politically, not being objective.