The murder of journalism

July 2nd, 2010

The little boy is crying bitterly after losing his father who was murdered brutally by a mob. The TV reporter obviously didn’t want to miss the“breaking news”.

The anchor sitting in Kolkata tries her best to show off her fake excitement – “It’s an exclusive, our representative in Nanur (in West Bengal’s Birbhum district) is now talking to the murdered politician’s son”. The camera zooms in on the hapless 10-year old boy and the grilling starts as follows:

Reporter: Where were you when your father was killed?

Boy: I was playing

Reporter: So you didn’t see your father being killed?

Boy starts crying

Reporter (looking at the camera): This is live and exclusive. We are talking to the boy. You can see how sad he is.

The TV channel starts beaming “Breaking News” in the background.

The reporter resumes his grilling: What will you do now? Your father is no more.

Boy looks helpless and says “ami jaani na (I don’t know)”. The anchor, who obviously have inflated eatimation of her looks and voice ,  takes over again: “We were the first to talk to the murdered politician’s son”.

This atrocity was being committed on last Tuesday evening on a premier Bengali news channel, just a few hours after a former MLA of the Communist Party of India was killed by a mob in front of his party office.

The anchor was giving a graphic description of the event, but suddenly stopped to say she is taking the viewers back to Nanur for yet another exclusive. The little boy had disappeared by then, but the reporter was ready with yet another “prized catch”. “We will now talk to the dead politician’s wife – again for the first time on national television”.

This time, the camera zooms in on the wife who looks dazed and is crying inconsolably. But the questions can’t wait: “How are you feeling, didi?” The “didi” just mumbles something, which is interpreted by the reporter as “she is blaming the Trinamool Congress for her husband’s murder”.

By the time, someone in the crowd removes the mike and waves the camera away, the reporter has asked four-five questions, only to get the same response.

‘Over to the studio”, says the triumphant reporter. The anchor thanks him profusely for bringing these “live and exclusive” pictures and says “we are going to show you the conversation with the dead man’s wife and son again”.

I couldn’t take this journalism circus any longer and switched off the TV. As a member of the profession, I find it indeed ironic that journalists who place so much emphasis on the ethical lapses of those they cover, are themselves so prone to sadism, insensitivity and feelings of grandiosity. How many of us end up exploiting those we cover and treat others’ sufferings as the raw material for our professional growth?

Going by what I saw on that Tuesday evening, the answer is quite obvious. To be sure, it’s not only the regional channels that suffer from this do-what-you-can-to-get-instant- TRPs. The so-called more sophisticated national channels also do the same.

Who can forget the classic question that a TV journalist asked the victim of a serial bomb blast in Delhi in which more than 60 people were killed: “Tomorrow is Diwali and you have lost all your family members in the blast. How do you feel?”

I didn’t wait for the response he got. Did you?

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Manmohanomics to Manmohanpolitics

May 28th, 2009

In August 1999, Anjolie Ela Menon was telling everybody that she wished Sonia Gandhi remained the Congress President and Manmohan Singh was projected as the Prime Minister. At that time, it sounded like the celebrated painter’s ultimate flight of fancy
Ms Menon was then one of the inspirations behind a unique platform called `Volunteers for Manmohan Singh’ (VMS), which was basically a Dr Singh fan club. It was election time and VMS was trying hard to drive home the point that the Lok Sabha needs people like Dr Singh.
VMS’ efforts failed miserably as Dr Singh lost the only election he has contested so far (he was defeated by the BJP’s V K Malhotra in the South Delhi constituency by over 30,000 votes). But Ms Menon’s words proved to be almost prophetic as Mrs Gandhi listened to her not once – but twice.
It’s easy to understand why in 1999, everyone thought Ms Menon was stretching her imagination a bit too far by wanting to see Dr Singh as the PM. I am sure even Dr Singh could never imagine this. For, more than anybody else, the gentlemanly Oxford-educated economist himself was acutely aware of his lack of political mass base.
For proof, listen to the man himself.  In his interviews much before he became the PM, Dr Singh has been quoted as saying that “it is nice to be a statesman, but in order to be a statesman in a democracy, you first have to win elections”. That’s something he has never achieved.
Earlier, I agreed with Dr Singh’s self-assessment fully – something which was reinforced during my two interactions with him (both were five years before he became the PM). The first meeting was an interview I did during his election campaign in 1999. Since his answers were becoming almost a repeat of the Congress’ election manifesto and I was more interested in knowing more about Manmohanpolitics than Manmohanomics, I tried hard to provoke him into rebutting the charges his political opponents were making about advertisements issued by his campaign managers in prominent local dailies.
The campaign, designed by Anjolie Ela Menon and issued by a company called India Business Network, asked for votes for Dr Singh. Malhotra, however, complained to the Election Commission that Dr Singh must have spent an estimated Rs 8 lakh on the advertisement and must have exceeded the per candidate personal expenses limit fixed by the EC – serious enough charges against a politician who considers honesty to be his biggest asset.
The charges later proved to be baseless as the advertisement was issued by a couple of industrialists who openly supported him, and I expected Dr Singh to take the opportunity to rip the opposition apart.  But the “politician” before me just requested that he be excused from answering that question and that it would be nice if I could stick to his record in the finance ministry! After that experience, I marvel at the transformation every time I hear Dr Singh using strong words against the Opposition.
My second interaction with Dr Singh was during a trip to Amritsar four months later. I had gone there to attend a function to honour B S Minhas as the Financial Express Economist of the Year (I was working for the paper at that time) and Dr Singh was the chief guest of the evening. After the initial pleasantries, Dr Singh did only one thing during the seven-hour train journey to Amritsar by Shatabdi Express: Read.
But what made me agree with Dr Singh’s the then self-assessment about his lack of political instincts was his response at a press conference after the function. The local journalists were all excited about talking to a man who was not only the country’s former finance minister, but also a son of the soil (his brothers still run auto parts shop in Amritsar) So most of the initial questions were in Punjabi and strictly about local issues.
Dr Singh looked visibly uncomfortable and requested through his assistants that the questions be restricted to national economic issues and that he would prefer to respond in English only. Here was an opportunity to address your own people in their own language and about the issues that impact them directly and the “political leader” was just letting it go! It wasn’t a surprise that most of the local journalists kept quiet throughout the press conference.
Finally, let me share one personal reason why I am a huge fan of Dr Singh and am glad that my initial belief that his lack of political instincts would doom him to fail in a job that is a largely political office has been proved wrong.
Way back in 1995 when he was the Finance Minister, Dr Singh came to the Bombay Stock Exchange to address a distinguished gathering. He was in a hurry to leave as soon as the meeting was over and the huge gathering around him ensured that I failed to ask him any questions despite my best efforts. Dr Singh, who was walking towards his car, suddenly turned back and came near me to say “Sorry, young man, I will talk to you on my next visit to Mumbai”.
I have come back to Mumbai after a stint in Delhi in between and the increasing crowd around him has ensured that I haven’t been able to ask him any questions still. But the humility of the man continues to stump me — still.

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Great CEOs make themselves redundant

May 1st, 2009

There are enough management books on the qualities that great leaders should have. But the one that I agree with the most is that they also know how to make themselves redundant at the right time.  K V Kamath, who stepped down as the MD & CEO of ICICI Bank to take over as non-executive chairman, set that ball in motion almost a year back. He started withdrawing  himself  from the day-to-day management of the bank — just to give that much breathing space to his successor.
Redundant may be a strong word to use — for,  great leaders can’t make themselves totally redundant even if they want to.  But one of the biggest compliments Mr Kamath has received is from his successor Ms Chanda Kochhar, whom he had recruited as a management trainee. Ms Kochhar said that while Mr Kamath was an institution by himself, she had no intention of stepping into his large shoes. “I am going to get into my own shoes. What is important is that I walk in a stable manner in my own shoes,” she said. Her boss would be proud of that self-confidence. 
One of Mr Kamath’s biggest achievements has been to ensure a smooth succession plan for the country’s second largest bank. Result: even though two  high-profile executives left, the bank was able to name their successors from within its ranks almost immediately. The task was complicated as the ICICI group has too many companies under its fold. 
 Kamath knows his larger-than-life image has the potential to overshadow his successor, so he says he would follow the example set by N Vaghul who had brought him to ICICI Bank. After taking over as the non-executive chairman of ICICI Bank – a post he held for 15 years – Vaghul have never met clients for any business meetings and would always direct them to meet Mr Kamath instead.  That’s the practice Mr Kamath would follow too.
This is important as many great leaders have fallen by the wayside just because they didn’t know when to let go. Take HP’s Carly Fiorina, for example. When she took the helm of HP in 1999, the company held the 10th spot on Fortune’s annual survey of top corporate cultures. After that, HP started slipping down the list every year with the worst setback coming in 2004 when it failed to make the cut at all. A consultant appointed by the company to find out what went wrong came up with a one-line answer: “Fear loves this place.”
Something must have gone horribly wrong for  a company that was once celebrated for the “HP way” – creating an open workspace broken up by small cubicles to encourage communication between workers, and pioneering the concept of profit sharing.
The reason,  say experts, was that Ms Fiorina tried to make it too much of a one-woman show.
The self-confidence that helped take her to the top of the corporate world also got in the way of her taking advice and suggestions. As a result, when she was asked to go, Ms Fiorina left behind a weak senior management and no obvious internal successor.
 

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Exam time for parents

March 26th, 2009

I  was at my daughter’s school this morning to collect her results. While children were busy discussing their holiday plans, parents were huddled together and discussing grades. “It’s A, yaar,” I heard one of them wearing a particularly long face telling his friend. The response was “you are lucky, it’s B+ for us”.  “Poor fellows. Children shouldn’t let their parents down like this,” my neighbour, whose son studies in the same school, whispered .
It’s usual, I thought, as I am used to seeing over-anxious parents discussing their children’s grades in a manner as if the sky has fallen. But something about the parents’ conversation this time was curious. Everyone and her aunt were talking in terms of a decline in grades. If it was A earlier, it is A- this time; and if it was B- earlier, it’s C this year.
It’s surely impossible that everybody’s children have done worse than last year? Most children may give a damn about grades, but everybody? After all, some students were indeed coming out of their respective classes with a big smile — the kind of smile that is usually reserved for those with topmost grades.   
But I have read a lot about crisis management. So in my desire to be an ideal parent and prepare my daughter for the worst, I told her that the teachers have become stricter this time and she should be prepared for a lower grade. My daughter was, however, quick to dismiss the concern and reminded me of the gift I have promised to buy this Sunday in case she does better than last year.  
My neighbour, however, soon resolved the mystery about the parents’ apparent concern about grades. After all, they were talking about their own grades at their workplaces. Unlike their children’s exams where the grades are higher or lower depending on the hard work that a student has put in, the results of the exams at India Inc are throwing up only losers this time.
Most companies have just announced the results of their performance appraisals recently and grades ( and consequently increments) are lower across-the-board even if you have put in the same amount of work as last year. The only question is by how much. So, those of you who haven’t got your results (performance appraisals) yet, don’t be surprised if your supervisor is giving you ‘B” this time against ‘A’ for the same level of performance last year.
There are many companies which have taken the grading system to a new level. One of the largest Indian software companies, for example, has gone much beyond the conventional four grades of A, B, C & D. The company has extended it to H, which means every line manager will have eight grades to choose from. So last year’s C grader could well be this year’s G grader, giving the company flexibility to pay that much less. The same company was thinking about reducing the grades to just three a couple of years back to make its performance appraisal system less complicated!
In case this is making you feel depressed, here’s something to cheer you up: how many of you are buying gifts for your children this Sunday?

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Stealing, openly

February 26th, 2009

I haven’t watched Slumdog Millionaire as yet, but it’s got little to do with the growing feeling that the movie represents nothing but poverty porn. I must be in a hopeless minority as every other person you meet these days seems to have seen the film many times and is eager to give you a scene-by-scene description of the fairy tale that shows how the film’s young protagonist, Jamal, overcomes long odds to live happily ever after.
Courtesy the Slumdog watchers, I also know how in one of the early scenes, Jamal dives into a raw sewage under the outhouse where he is trapped, to get a movie star’s autograph.

It’s almost like those gold old Sholay days – everyone seemed to know the number of glass pieces that pierced Hema Malini’s feet when she was swaying to the song `main nachungi’.

The difference is Sholay had a dream run in movie halls for over five years, while Slumdog ran out of steam barely a week after its release. If so many Indians have watched the movie, why were multiplex owners complaining about unsold tickets even in the first weekend after the film’s commercial release in India? The truth is for all the attention in Hollywood, Slumdog has failed to set the box office alight in India.
The reason is quite obvious: Slumdog must be one of the most counterfeited movies of all times. You can see them everywhere: hooky CDs and DVDs of the movie are openly on sale for Rs 40-50 with a little bartering, prompting US-India Business Council President Ron Somers to say, “Imagine how many Slumdogs could be conceived, produced and premiered if only there were greater efforts to crack down on film piracy.
In fact, a study commissioned by USIBC as part of its Bollywood-Hollywood Initiative, found that India’s entertainment and media industry loses some 820,000 jobs and about Rs 20,000 crore to piracy each year.
It’s true that the grey market that had once decimated the music industry has always been there. But they were sold on the sly earlier; the veil seems to have been taken off now. I suspect no law can prevent this as no law can change people’s minds. If rich and educated people lecturing the world against piracy etc don’t mind enjoying the knock-off versions of the film, the law cannot be anything but a mute spectator. Somers, meanwhile, can keep on pleading.
Just the other day, a friend was recounting – quite gleefully – how he saved Rs 1,120 (the price of four multiplex tickets on a Sunday) by downloading the film from his relative’s pen drive. Isn’t this encouraging piracy?  India’s high & mighty and beautiful people couldn’t care less, it seems.    

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Caesar’s wife…

February 6th, 2009

I don’t know A S Murty; in fact, I must admit that I heard his name for the first time yesterday. I am sure there are many like me who know only one IT man blessed with that name, though spelt differently.
All of us know Mr Murty now. For, he is the man in the hottest seat that India Inc can offer at this point.  He has been described by his friends and well-wishers (their tribe seems to be increasing every second) as Always Smiling Murty; a people’s man; man for the moment; meticulous; hardworking; consensus man; focused on work etc.  Those who came in late and ran out of words are saying he is the right person for the job simply because he is a `gentleman’.
Some others say he knows the DNA of the company, though I am not too sure whether anyone is terribly impressed with Satyam’s DNA. For, I remember Ramalinga Raju once telling me during an interview that `corporate governance is in his genes’.   
At the moment, Mr Murty’s main qualification seems to be that he knows Satyam well as he has worked in the company for almost 15 years. It’s true in these times, Satyam needs an insider who can marshall his forces well. And that can only happen if the new CEO knows Satyamites for a considerable period of time.
Mr Murty, a workaholic (a media report stresses this point by saying he has no hobbies), will of course try hard to make a success of his job — that is guiding Satyam through the toughest time in its history.
So I wish him well. But I see three problems in my wish being fulfilled. The first is the nature of the job itself. He would possibly be the CEO with the shortest tenure as he would be the leader in transition. The company will be sold shortly and no one knows whether the new owners would like to keep him as the CEO. It’s doubtful whether it will be possible for him to establish any sort of confidence with either his employees or his clients. Already some entities with substantial stake in Satyam are resenting the fact that they were not consulted for the selection of the CEO. Also, it’s well known that no outsider, with any sort of track record, was willing to take up such a short-term job.
The second problem is the fact that he is perceived to be among Raju’s favourites. He was given a clean chit by the former Satyam chairman in his famous confessional letter to the board.  Mr Raju had said Mr Murty was among those who had no knowledge of the situation in which the company is placed. I admire the guts shown by the government-appointed Satyam board to appoint as CEO somebody who was given a character-certificate by Raju!
The third problem – and this is the most complicated one — is the disclosure that Mr Murty sold 40,000 shares in two transactions in December, 2008 – the last one being on December 16 just hours before Satyam announced its aborted bid to buy two Maytas firms.
It could be sheer coincidence, or a fantastic sense of timing on Mr Murty’s part to have sold a majority of the shares in his company just a day before the scrip slid over 30 per cent following investor outrage over the Maytas deal. Mr Murty gained Rs 90 lakh through the deals and the sale was done to meet some of his personal financial commitments.
To be fair, he was not part of the board and may not have been privy to any of the wrong-doings. But there is also another section of people who are saying that Mr Murty had sniffed the negative implications of the buyout scandal much before others did.
This may well be loose talk. But the point is it all boils down to perception at the end of the day. And as they say, Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.
 

 

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