Feb 16, 2012

A Tale of Two Papers...

Recently, we've witnessed an interesting battle between the two 'big' newspapers of India - on TV and in social media like Facebook. In fact, as I write this - the battle is still ongoing and seems likely to heat up further. I will not recap the events here - you can look it up on Google or FB (although if you don't know what I'm talking about, you're most likely not someone who reads Indian newspapers and probably better off closing this tab right now). I will talk about my own experiences over the years, and opinions on the two newspapers here.

I grew up reading TOI. In Lucknow, where I spent the better part of my high school years - and later returned for my MBA - it was really the only English newspaper worth reading, miles ahead of the competition in terms of both content and style. My first tryst with the Hindu was when I went to Chennai for my B.Tech. I just hated it.

TOI used to be in color, with nice graphics and all, and had a reasonable balance of information and entertainment at the time. The Hindu, by contrast, was all black-and-white - literally and figuratively. It had no supplements like 'Lucknow Times'. I think I had more fun reading Simon Haykin's 'Signals and Systems, 3e' - a textbook for a course I struggled to pass.

But it all started to change in the early 2000s. The Hindu went color, and started caring about their readers' usage experience. TOI, on the other hand, divorced itself from all serious journalism and quality reporting. In one year, the day after the Union Budget, they chose to use a cricket theme for the entire front page. The Budget session, the FM's speech, policy decisions and implications - were all described using cricket metaphors which varied from mildly inappropriate in some places, to offensively ridiculous in others. The fact that they'd managed to so trivialize the Union Budget was a rude shock to me.

After I moved to Bangalore in 2006, I started sharing a flat with other guys, and this continued till 2009. During this whole period, we subscribed to 2-3 newspapers - TOI, The Hindu (which had gradually grown on me), and occasionally the Economic Times. In 2009, I moved into a flat solo and decided that I didn't have the time to read two newspapers, and didn't want to waste money. I had to choose between the two...

The Hindu was definitely my preferred newspaper in terms of reporting quality. The language was appropriate, the analysis intelligent and insightful, and the focus squarely on news rather than ads or entertainment. Anyone who says The Hindu is 'too serious' or 'boring' or 'academic' probably hasn't read the newspaper in the last couple of years. I would describe it as 'engaging' and even 'rewarding' to read, at times. For example, their coverage of cricket was in an altogether different class, compared to all the other papers. Even if you'd watched a match from the first ball to the last, you'd still enjoy reading their report the next day, the way you enjoy a nuanced, intelligent & passionate discussion of a mutual interest with a fellow aficionado. My memory's a bit hazy, but I think they had a reporter named Ram Mahesh whom I especially looked forward to reading from.

Yet, The Hindu is successful only if you evaluate it as a conventional newspaper. I think this is where the origin of The Hindu's frustration and the recent ad campaign lies. They've done their job well, as they understand it, but they've not been nearly as successful as TOI and some others who have crossed many lines The Hindu wouldn't.

While TOI retains the newspaper format, a lot of its subject matter resembles tabloids or even film/lifestyle magazines. Their argument is that they are simply satisfying the readers' demand - but this is no longer acceptable in this day and age. The notion of corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly popular the world over. Cigarette companies are being sued, fast food companies are being sued, beverage companies are being criticized - all by former customers who voluntarily consumed their products. They are also being restricted in terms of what they advertise, who they target etc. No one can wash their hands off the responsibility for what they make.

Similarly, media houses can't just provide simple/entertaining reading material to the masses, they are also supposed to adequately inform the public about everything important. Their editorial choices end up influencing people's levels of awareness, and their priorities and opinions, and some of TOI's choices are doing this nation a disservice. This argument is the basis of the Hindu's campaign against TOI, and I certainly support it.

More significantly, to me anyway - the quality of TOI's reporting is low - the reporters seem to be working mechanically towards inch-column targets, with little analysis of the subject matter or insight. There are often spelling and/or grammatical errors in the final published version, and general lack of mastery over the English language - such as the misuse of the word 'itself' to convey emphasis. I don't mind their use of slang or colloquialisms, but I cannot forgive plain bad English from someone who's supposed to be qualified as an English-language journalist, and writing to earn a living.

The third - and probably most worrying - problem with TOI is the excessive commercialization. I don't mind ads - I understand they help keep my monthly bills low. However, TOI's half-width, full-length pages - a recent 'innovation' used exclusively for advertising - are annoying beyond belief. They make the newspaper unwieldy and physically difficult to hold and read. I'm sure they realize this, but they obviously don't care. Secondly, I feel the front page of a newspaper has a certain sanctity and I don't appreciate when it is partially or fully covered by ads. When I'm in a real hurry and don't have the time to unfold the newspaper, I'd like to steal a glance at the big headlines for the day, NOT an ad for a car. Third, the phenomenon of paid content or what they call advertorials. This is plain cheating. The reader believes that everything published in a newspaper as 'news' is 'fact' and the publishers are responsible for validating it, and reporting without any biases. Advertising is fine, but needs to be clearly identifiable as such and not masked as content - that is betraying the readers' trust and misleading them. TOI does it a lot, and isn't at all apologetic about it.

But in spite of all this, I ended up subscribing to TOI over The Hindu, a choice that continues to haunt me as TOI makes me cringe every other day - like today, when an article spoke about 'undeserved' sections of society (I think they meant 'under-served'). Let me explain why I made this choice, though.

Fact is, I can get my dose of news from many other sources. However, the 'Bangalore Times' supplement for is uniquely convenient for looking up movie listings, keeping in touch with hotel/restaurant/pub events, local discount sales, and generally keeping in touch with trivial subjects of popular social interest. However, if I was managing TOI, I'd be worried that this was one of my few USPs.

Secondly, the Sunday editorials in TOI are unmatched and something I never miss. This includes Swaminomics, and regularly features articles by the likes of Gurcharan Das, Shashi Tharoor, Swapan Dasgupta, MJ Akbar and others (the dark spot is Shobhaa De, whom I actively hate).

Finally, despite the poor quality or most reporting and excessive commercial/frivolous stuff, TOI does manage fairly complete national and international coverage. The Hindu, unfortunately, focuses too much on South India, particularly the regional politics - which I have little interest in. When we had both papers, I always read the Hindu first - and there were several times I had to then also read TOI because The Hindu hadn't adequately covered a North Indian or international story I was interested in. This was the single most important factor that tipped the scales against The Hindu for me.

To use one TOI's favored cricket analogies, The Hindu is like a good, classical English Test batsman. He's talented, has followed the textbook and worked hard to develop his skills to a great degree, has had a good deal of success but remains grounded, and has received a decent education as well. But he's all at sea against sub-continental spin.

TOI is like Suresh Raina. Technically limited and flawed, yet immensely successful in India and popular with our T20 generation (ironically, in Chennai!)

The purists will always prefer the English chap, and the pragmatists Suresh Raina. Unless, of course, The Hindu does a Rahul Dravid and adapts to succeed in every arena, while maintaining classical purity. All the recent signs... choice of a new professional editor... the intelligent and very aggressive (the latter being completely out of character) ad campaign... surely look promising...

Jan 20, 2012

In Defence of the Army Chief

As someone who comes from an Army family and grew up with the Army all around, it is surely natural that I am following the Gen VK Singh age row with keen interest, and have decided to write about it today.

At the outset, let me say that I did not start with a bias in favor of Gen Singh. On the contrary, I was dismayed when I first heard about this controversy and its escalation. The Indian Army has a great record on the battlefield, and has never meddled in politics or government. Unlike many developing countries including our neighbors, we've never had rogue Generals acting on their own authority. We've never had any coups. Members of our armed forces have consistently been the most respected of all civil servants - smart & eloquent, dedicated & disciplined, deeply committed to national interest and performing their duty honestly, relatively free from corruption.

Given this extremely dignified history, the current situation is certainly not one we wished to see. If I had seen any evidence that indicated that Gen Singh was being dishonest, or trying to benefit personally using any unfair means - doing anything dishonorable - I would've been the first to condemn him. But that is not the case.

Let me lay down the facts, to the best of my knowledge.

Gen VK Singh was born in 1951. His birth certificate (authentic, issued by an Army Hospital) says so. His matriculation certificate - the de-facto 'final word' when it comes to settling issues of age - also says so. His passport, driving license... all documents including his Army ID card say so. So this issue is beyond doubt.

In one place, he made a mistake - his UPSC form. (In fact - it's not entirely clear if he made the mistake himself, or it was someone else.) Now, if there was any indication that this was deliberate, or done with the intention of gaining any unfair advantage, you could hold it against him - but that's not the case. He was eligible for admission to the NDA even with his actual DOB (candidates aged 15 were admitted to the NDA at the time). Claiming to be older put him at a disadvantage, if anything - because it would have advanced his retirement age (the current scenario). Some people who are saying he gained 'seniority' and his promotions were based on a 1950 birth - are simply talking thru their backsides. Seniority in the Army is measured as 'number of years in service' and NOT age.

Others are saying he should have got it corrected earlier. Well, he did all he could - he submitted the documents necessary in his first few months in service, got the record corrected in the AG's office - which is the primary record-keeper of the Army, and his ID card and all Army docs said 1951. Now, 36 years later - if the MS branch suddenly informed him that they never made the correction, how is that Gen Singh's fault? Anyway, this happened about 4 years back, and Gen Singh has been seeking a correction ever since.

A very important question is - how did the MS branch accept ever accept the 1950 DOB? Even if there was an error on the UPSC form, the supporting docs (birth, matric cert etc.) said 1951 and they're supposed to verify these things, aren't they? Clearly, whoever did (or did not do) this was careless. It was a tiny little 'typo' error someone made 40 years back. Correcting it now shouldn't be a big deal, right? I don't understand why the MoD refuses to do so. It shouldn't even be embarrassing - because the mistake was made by some underling 40 years back, and does not reflect on the current staff in charge of serious issues.

Another set is claiming that he'd submitted a 'written undertaking'. In this document, he had NOT explicitly accepted 1950 as some people seem to think - he'd just said he would abide by whatever decision was taken by the relevant authority, and he had done so under unfair pressure, and with a verbal assurance that the decision would go in his favor - which is the only right decision that could have been taken here. If he later found that the decision had been mala fide, and people had reneged on their verbal commitments, he surely has a right to protest.

On TV, I heard a bureaucrat - I think his name was KC Singh - say that Gen Singh was facing a 'heads I win, tails you lose' scenario. If the SC decides against him, he ends up looking like a complete idiot. If they find in his favor, "the Defence Ministry will sulk and not cooperate with him."

This last statement is alarming. The Defence Ministry are neither gods nor kings. They're civil servants in a democratic system. They are supposed to act professionally, not arbitrarily or based on their feelings. The law is supreme, and the SC's word is final. If MoD people are found to have made a mistake - they have to accept it, do the right thing and move on. If they stubbornly refuse to do so, simply because it is embarrassing - it goes against all principles of fairness, equality and accountability. I am not at all comfortable with the idea of entrusting such people with matters of national security.

Sure, Gen VK Singh does not emerge as a saint from all this. But I prefer an Army Chief who fights for what's right, rather than one who meekly surrenders to arrogant, incompetent, stubborn and/or malicious bureaucrats or politicians. According to the Bhagvad Gita - a soldier is bound by duty to fight for what's right, and one who shirks this responsibility is unworthy of his life.

If the grapevine is to be believed, a lot of people in the establishment want to get rid of Gen Singh because he is an honest man who likes to confront the corrupt. He has been responsible for unearthing some scams in the military, and the subsequent court martial of some very senior officers. The establishment want him out of the way, and they want someone more malleable to replace him. That's why they've gone out of their way to find a flimsy pretext, and stuck stubbornly to their stand. It will be a sad day for this country if they get away with it.

Jan 4, 2012

Free country?

While the issue is not new, this particular post was motivated by this article and the following discussion in TOI, and an earlier argument I had on a web forum about restrictions on nightlife in Bangalore.

The TOI article reported the views of the woman who was the HoD for women studies (whatever that encompasses), and who currently is the head of the committee against sexual harassment in the Bangalore University. Now, sexual harassment is touchy subject and anybody who is responsible for supporting the victims must be extraordinarily empathetic and trustworthy to be at all effective in their roles. This woman is pretty much the opposite. She feels that even a saree worn with a sleeveless blouse is an invitation to rape! She favors early curfews in women's hostels and a dress code for women students and even lecturers. Similar views were aired recently by the state minister for women and child welfare.  

I will not comment about how women should dress because it is a free country and it is none of my business. Here I am more interested in exploring why the majority of people in this country oppose women dressing in western clothes. Why do they oppose Valentine's day celebration, and any romantic or sexual relationships outside of marriage. Why, in Bangalore, they oppose the very existence of a nightlife.

Initially, I thought it was a class divide issue. The educated, urban elite have a different value system and make different lifestyle choices compared to the less well-off, and that causes social tensions. But when you hear senior university professors and ministers support this moral policing and blame victims, the class divide hypothesis fails. My own experience in discussions on praja.in - a forum of well-meaning, educated, affluent citizens who want to help solve problems such as traffic congestion - affirmed that the majority of people, even in the upper class, support moral policing.

This points to a much deeper root cause, independent of class or education. I suspect that in our country, we do not care much for individual liberty and freedom, nor do we believe that every individual deserves some respect.

Think about it. We've historically had a rigid caste system, which people have failed to get out of even after converting to other religions. Even in our modern, urban society, individuals are not free. Parents take all major decisions till children reach college, and continue to dominate the decision-making process through their children's education, early career and even marriage - till the children become parents themselves. They discourage any unconventional ideas, and 'protect' the child. Then we wonder why we - as a nation - don't produce our fair share of innovations and original thinking.

At work, even in private companies, senior positions are not seen as the ones with more 'responsibility', but the ones with more 'power'. Asking questions or arguing with anything is considered 'disrespectful'. In politics, we worship dynasties and film stars. We don't vote for the local candidate, we vote for a party and a 'leader' (a CM or PM candidate). This is also why most of us support a draconian Lokpal. We treat sacrifice and selflessness as greater virtues than personal ambition or material success. As a result, we are a hierarchical society with a herd mentality and little tolerance for individuals who question societal norms or dare to act unconventionally. In all of this, we seriously undermine the individual.

This is something very fundamental, and it will have to change if we want socio-economic development, equality, prosperity and a global superpower status in the future. Let each individual have genuine freedom to make life choices - within the constraints of the law, but no other. Let them live with the consequences - good or bad. Let us treat each individual with due respect for what he/she thinks and what he/she is. If one billion minds actually start working individually and freely, only then can we achieve our potential as a nation and maybe regain our pre-eminent position in the world.

Anna Hazare was right when he said that we need a second freedom struggle. But it has nothing to do with the Lokpal. It has to be fought in our minds.