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As I write this, the drama at The Hindu continues to unfold. The newspaper’s editor Siddharth Varadarajan and executive editor M.K. Venu have left, Arun Anant is no longer chief executive officer, and N. Ravi and Malini Parthasarathy, who had quit two years ago in protest when N. Ram brought Varadarajan in, are back in senior positions. Ram, curiously, remains at the helm. The board is divided, but The Hindu family, it seems, is united again.

There are two clear principles: proprietors have the right to appoint and sack editors. And editors have the right to quit if conditions become untenable. (I experienced this in 1987, when my editor S. Nihal Singh resigned from The Indian Post because of interference from the paper’s owner, Vijaypat Singhania. He later lost another editor, Vinod Mehta, in more dramatic circumstances).

When The Hindu announced Varadarajan’s appointment, the intent was to make the newspaper run professionally. The family that launches a business often feels proprietorial and may not like changes that the new managers introduce, disturbing the old order. In The Hindu’s case, the big challenge was the launch of The Times of India’s Chennai edition—the Old Lady of Boribunder crossing the Vindhyas to take on the Mahavishnu of Mount Road.

Ram clearly wasn’t happy with the new order he had unleashed. Removing senior editors and the chief executive officer (CEO) is one thing; bringing back family members with whom he had fought not long ago is peculiar. There may be more disclosures in the coming weeks.

By reintroducing family control, The Hindu has become more Indian. Like its political parties, businesses, law firms, medical practices and film studios, The Hindu has reverted to the norm where kinship can trump professionalism. The politician moving to Lok Sabha hands over his constituency to his wife or children; a multi-billion-dollar business empire runs a global search to identify a successor to its CEO, and finds him in the family of a major investor; children of Bollywood stars get a privileged entry into the film industry, regardless of talent.

This is not to suggest that Ravi or Parthasarathy are not competent, nor should they be disqualified because they are from the owner family. But it makes it harder for any journalist in future, not related to the family, to aspire to editorship, given that the next generation of the Kasturi family also includes journalists. When Vidya Ram topped her class at Columbia University’s journalism school in 2007, her father N. Ram, then editor-in-chief of The Hindu, had the story published prominently, as though it was a matter of national significance.

The current dispute has at least two sides, and this isn’t about who is right; rather, about the need for some rules to govern the relationship between owners and editors. In the past, C.R. Irani whimsically mistreated or removed editors during the years he ran The Statesman. Ramnath Goenka not only fought Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, he also fought his editors, sacking them, re-hiring them, and moving them from one position to another, as though they were pieces on a chess board; Hindustan Times fired B.G. Verghese during the Emergency because of his criticism of Indira Gandhi; and The Asian Age dumped its founder M.J. Akbar in 2008.

In each case, the proprietors had the right to take those decisions, but that didn’t make the decisions right. While newspapers are private businesses, they serve a public purpose. There has to be some method, consistency, logic and accountability. If owners take readers completely for granted, then they will go down the path that The Times of India has taken, where it is questionable if it is a newspaper any more, or is news the stuff between ads.

Indian editors need and deserve the kind of autonomy that American editors take for granted. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr appoints the editor of The New York Times. But after that, unless there is a major ethical lapse, he remains on the sidelines. The shift in ownership of The Washington Post from the Graham family to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may lead to changes in the way the business is run, but that would not be for ideological reasons. After Rupert Murdoch took over The Wall Street Journal, there have been some changes such as shorter stories but other changes have been gradual. Newspapers are institutions; owners are custodians; the best editors curate and decide to publish stories that explain a society to itself.

Indian newspapers are over-reliant on government advertising, are sold at newsstands at a price that bears no relation to reality, face footloose advertisers who have alternative media to choose from, and their relevance is threatened with the rise of the Internet. The pressure will increase with imminent elections and with corporate money exploring which party to back. The ones who will remain firm to their principles, and not budge to prevailing winds, will not only survive, they will enhance their credibility.

Note: The Hindu and its sister publication The Hindu Business Line compete with Hindustan Times and Mint, both published by HT Media Ltd, in some markets.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at
salil@livemint.com.

To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-

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