If the ability to handle legitimate criticism by the media is a sign of maturity, then most Indian companies, including some of the really big ones, are still in their early adolescence (then, there are some that still sport diapers).
Companies do have the right to choose where they advertise and whom they give exclusive access to, although few companies in the US and the UK rarely try, on the strength of these, to arm-twist a publication or a channel to show them in positive light. In these two countries, it is also rare to come across instances of companies blacklisting a publication or a television channel. (I pick the US and the UK because it is easiest to compare English language media here with theirs).
India is different.
Companies here, it would appear, rarely think twice about blacklisting a publication or a channel. Sometimes, this is based on a perception in the company that the reporting in the publication or channel is biased. In January, for instance, Mint reported, quoting a Tata Sons executive, that the Tata group was re-evaluating its “engagement” with some publications and channels because of their “biased reporting”.
In general, Indian media and Indian journalists can do things a lot better than they currently do (and yes, this includes journalists in the Mint newsroom too), but, to present the other side of the story, most Indian companies cannot distinguish between biased reporting and legitimate criticism and believe that cutting off (or threatening to cut off) the two As (access and advertising) will get reporters to behave.
Let’s talk specifics.
Jet Airways doesn’t carry Mint on its flights and cancelled an order for 400 copies after the paper’s Tarun Shukla wrote a piece on the airline’s instructor pilots failing some tests. It also seems to have blacklisted Tarun, the winner of Asia’s highest journalistic award for a series he wrote on airline safety, from its press events in Delhi.
The marketing head of a fund house based in south India (a joint venture between a south Indian business house and a multinational company) shot his mouth off to a Mint reporter, and then wanted the paper to issue a retraction and an apology to save his face (and maybe job). In a phone call with me, he suggested that Mint’s refusal to toe the line could spoil “our commercial relationship” (the fund was an early advertiser in Mint). I am not naming either the fund or the individual because I didn’t record the phone conversation. And I have named Jet because I have an email from a Jet executive to one of Mint’s executives, cancelling the order for 400 copies of Mint because of “negative reporting on Jet Airways.”
And what applies to companies also applies to individuals, including ministers and other politicians.
While I won’t condone a publication or channel for giving in to such pressure, I can understand why this happens.
Several media companies, including Mint’s publisher HT Media Ltd, host events to build their brand or bring in additional revenue. The most popular events are ones that feature top politicians, CEOs, entertainers or sportspeople. That presents another dimension of the problem.
Mint becomes a paper with a significant readership of around 500,000 (shouldn’t be difficult to imagine because it already has a readership of 240,000 according to the latest edition of the Indian Readership Survey released Friday, and continues to grow rapidly). It criticizes the finance minister of the day in a hard-hitting editorial that clinically and logically lists valid arguments for this. The editorial creates a big furor. People tweet and blog about it. The international media picks it up.
The question is: would the finance minister accept an invitation from Mint to attend an event being organized by the paper?
I think not.
Often, when I am describing Mint’s style of journalism to the uninitiated, I describe the paper as an equal-opportunity offender. But it’s a lot more nuanced than that. Sure, we don’t have any friends in business or government, but that doesn’t mean we are in the business of giving offence. It is just that our subjects take offence at most of our stories. In an ideal world, this would be taken for what it is—doing our jobs.
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