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Monday 18 November 2019

New PTI Chairman & Modi’s Disinterest In Building Ecosystem

Vijay Kumar Chopra of Punjab Kesari may not be the BJP's answer to Maharaj Krishan Razdan who once held the position in PTI but then, what is?

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Surajit Dasgupta
Surajit Dasgupta
The founder of सिर्फ़ News has been a science correspondent in The Statesman, senior editor in The Pioneer, special correspondent in Money Life and columnist in various newspapers and magazines, writing in English as well as Hindi. He was the national affairs editor of Swarajya, 2014-16. He worked with Hindusthan Samachar in 2017. He was the first chief editor of Sirf News and is now back at the helm after a stint as the desk head of MyNation of the Asianet group. He is a mathematician by training with interests in academic pursuits of science, linguistics and history. He advocates individual liberty and a free market in a manner that is politically feasible. His hobbies include Hindi film music and classical poetry in Bengali, English, French, Hindi and Urdu.

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News has just arrived that Vijay Kumar Chopra, chief editor of the Punjab Kesari Group of newspapers, has been unanimously elected the chairman of Press Trust of India (PTI), arguably the most established news agency of the country. Chopra’s predecessor was N Ravi, publisher and former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, a leftist albeit reputed newspaper.

Vineet Jain, managing director of Bennett, Coleman and Company Limited (BCCL), the publisher of Times of India, now PTI’s vice-chairman, does not apparently have an ideological leaning, left or right, as seen in the nationalism promoted by Times Now contrasted with a shallow version of feminism in the most-circulated newspaper of the country.

It’s noteworthy that Chopra had occupied this position in PTI in 2001-02 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister, and in 2009-10, when the UPA regime was too bogged down by a spate of corruption charges to be able to tackle the media.

No minister ever shared a link of MyNation on Twitter or Facebook, thereby driving internet traffic to the site, while many of them salivate at the prospect of media houses highly critical of them sparing a word or two of praise for them

Chopra, also a former president of the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), was elected at a meeting of the Board of Directors of PTI following the company’s 71st annual general meeting in New Delhi. It is doubtful Chopra can orient the agency, given the presence of Jain, Ravi, Mahendra Mohan Gupta (Dainik Jagran), KN Shanth Kumar (Deccan Herald), Riyad Mathew (Malayala Manorama), Aveek Kumar Sarkar (Anandabazar Patrika), MP Veerendra Kumar (Mathrubhumi), R Lakshmipathy (Dinamalar), Hormusji N Cama (Bombay Samachar), Praveen Someshwar (Hindustan Times), Justice RC Lahoti, Deepak Nayyar, Shyam Saran and JF Pochkhanawalla as board members besides Ravi and Jain. However, this is a significant development in light of the grievance of supporters of this government that it does not care about developing a media ecosystem.

PTI is still the most subscribed agency for news in the text format (used by print and web mediums) while Punjab Kesari is pro-establishment. If Maharaj Krishan Razdan (to the uninitiated, he is Nidhi Razdan’s father) could turn PTI pro-Congress, can Chopra not turn it pro-BJP? That remains to be seen, as some of the so-called friends of the ruling party did precious little in changing the national discourse once they were placed in institutions like the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR) and Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Prasar Bharati/Doordarshan/AIR may look like an exception, but they have done nothing of far-reaching consequence that Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi had done by offering the country’s education system on a platter to communists.

Sources in Akashvani Kolkata had told me, the executive editor of Hindusthan Samachar in 2017, that during Razdan’s tenure, PTI sold even its photo service to the national broadcaster for crores of rupees per annum! What? How does one show images via radio? Well, if the allegation is true, it indicates one of the numerous ways in which the Congress kept the section of media friendly to it in good humour.

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Not just that, the Congress also helped kill the competition. During Emergency, reminiscent of the adage that some journalists “crawled when asked to bend”, PTI complied with Indira Gandhi’s order of delaying the publishing of the Allahabad High Court verdict. The then editor of Hindusthan Samachar, established in 1948 before PTI came into being, Baleshwar Agarwal refused to crawl or bend. The multilingual agency’s office was located where DD-News stands today: Mandi House. The office building was razed. Thereafter, Hindusthan Samachar, United News of India, Samachar Bharati and PTI were merged to form the monopoly Samachar. Whereas the four companies split again following the recommendations of the Kuldip Nayar Committee when the Janata Party government stepped in, Hindusthan Samachar could never reclaim its lost glory.

Four years ago, the section of the media hostile to the government might have taken notice of BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP and security business baron Ravindra Kishore Sinha taking over the reins of the agency, but few outside that office believe the RSS has made a worthwhile human resource investment.

With its sixth year in the office running, all that the Narendra Modi dispensation has done to change the national discourse is place whoever on the right side canvassed for it in the institution he or she coveted. At times, the administration reached out to someone they believed was worthy and offered him a position, as in the case of the initial office bearers of NITI. There is no evidence the current dispensation expected or allowed any of its recruits to indulge in bizarre acts of corruption like selling photos to a radio service. While that is how a government must conduct itself, what is Modi’s plan of communicating with the masses beyond encouraging a band of social media activists who can at best call the media’s bluff on Facebook and Twitter but never set the agenda by producing its own news content? What is the reach of these media busters worldwide or even within the country, anyway? While interviewing fresh graduates from mass communication schools, when I ask for the names of sites they follow (they are alien to newspapers), they would list portals, none of which would be to the liking of the current government. Not one of them has said in the past four years they knew about the challenge thrown at any piece of fake news peddled by the likes of The Wire and Scroll.

Few outside the office of Hindusthan Samachar believe the RSS has made a worthwhile human resource investment

An effort was made in the form of Republic TV and MyNation, both supported initially by BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar and the Asianet group. Recently, Asianet withdrew its investment in the television channel that has Arnab Goswami as its chief editor and mascot, now arguably too big to need anybody’s support. Further, it asked MyNation‘s Delhi office to shut shop. Sources in the BJP say the party leadership was not impressed by the way MyNation was going about the business it was expected to. While I will stay tight-lipped about things I am privy to about the office of the website for reasons of professional ethics, I will seize the opportunity to point out to the ruling party that they did nothing by way of support to the start-up. No minister ever shared a link of MyNation on Twitter or Facebook, thereby driving internet traffic to the site, while many of them salivate at the prospect of media houses highly critical of them sparing a word or two of praise for them. Many of the leaders feel obliged on being invited to hostile media offices like NDTV and even Al Jazeera while they happily share links of the critical ones when it suits them.

A more sophisticated game might, of course, be on in the market for news agencies. ANI is increasingly turning more popular than PTI. Sources say there is a government hand in it. Sceptics say, however, that ANI is rising on its own merit, with a reach to newsmakers that is much deeper than PTI’s and with its thrust on videos, not a strong point of PTI, but the Narendra Modi government may well be happy with the progress of this competition.

In the meantime, what is nowhere in sight is a right-wing equivalent of Nurul Hasan of Indira Gandhi’s epoch, a nationalist response to the Jawaharlal Nehru University or a scholar like RC Majumdar.

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