While I appreciate the painstaking effort that has gone into this analysis of the current stand-off at Kasturi & Sons, the company that publishes The Hindu and some of the issues explored, I do think that there is a background and context to this debate that readers of this blog should be aware of.
Of course acknowledging my personal stakes in this issue being one of those “family journalists” involved in the current controversy, I think there are weightier concerns that need to be factored in while judging the merits of this proposed transition. To boil down the entire dispute to a simple one of a struggle between family journalists and “professionals” is to actually suggest that it is a contest between “feudal relics on the wrong side of history” and “modern dynamic journalists” who are better situated to strengthen the Hindu’s best journalistic traditions of credibility and integrity while “contemporising it.” Adding to this perception is the suggestion that the Code of Editorial Values adopted by the majority on the Board of Directors on April 18 would offer adequate protection for the Editor, from among other things “shareholder interference.”
All this sounds eminently reasonable and progressive in spirit. The trouble is with the context in which these proposals have emerged. First, the Board of Directors of Kasturi & Sons remains today comprised entirely of members of the four major shareholding families, to be precise, three representatives of the original four families descending from Kasturi Srinivasan and Kasturi Gopalan. The Board does not have any independent director and has not been “professionalised” as yet. Therefore the first point to factor in when considering the prospect of independent editorial functioning is that the structure would draw authority from a Board of Directors that remains family-driven and ultimately “majority family members-driven”.
In the context of a Board of Directors solely made up of family members, the suggestion that having “owner editors” especially in this context when every director on the editorial side has strong professional qualifications and experience would stand in the way of “professionalism in editorial functioning” appears without basis. If anything, as long as the Board of Directors does not induct non-family, non-shareholders as independent Directors, owner-editors are often better placed to resist pressures from corporate or personal interests.
The second more important point which has to be urgently recognised in assessing the value of this current proposal for a “professional” editor is the context in which this proposal has emerged. The background from which this proposal arises is not yet in the public domain. There is an ongoing debate in the company with some directors advocating a total separation of ownership and day to day management. An interesting proposal that manifests this new doctrine and which was placed formally on the table at a meeting of the Board of Directors is an envisaged separation of two Boards, one a Corporate Board comprising all family Directors and the other, “ a non-family, non-shareholder” Executive Board. According to the note delineating this proposal, the Corporate Board is to decide “major policies, business and editorial”. The non-family, non-shareholding Editor is to sit along with the heads of the company’s various business operations in this Executive Board.
What are the implications of this proposed change? More significant than whether the Editor is a family member or a “non-family non-shareholding” professional is the prospect of the editorial structure being formally linked to the corporate structure by the presence of the Editor on the proposed Executive Board. In other words, by institutionalising the presence of the Editor on such a Board dominated by business functionaries, the Editor is implicitly committed to ensuring that the editorial operations are in tune with the corporate and business priorities so delineated. Second, the Editor is to be responsible to the entire Corporate Board and not to any single director. In other words, the editorial agenda comes under the direct purview of such a Corporate Board, never mind the express provision in the Code of Values to insulate the Editor from “shareholder interference”!
As is the case with other newspapers, The Hindu is not immune to the sharpening of pressure from various lobbies and interests in the corporate sector for dissemination of their viewpoints as “news items” and articles. As can be easily verified, several items have indeed appeared in its news columns that masquerade as “marketing initiatives” but are often the reflection of personal social agendas of directors on the Board. If this kind of institutionalised cooperation between the editorial and the corporate operations as envisaged by the Corporate Board/Executive Board concepts becomes a reality, it will be very difficult for any editor, “family” or “non-family” to protect the integrity and credibility of the news process.
It is one thing to argue that there should be constructive and continuing cooperation between the editorial and marketing sides of the newspaper for the obvious reason that both need each other for the newspaper to gain as a whole. But it is another to suggest that the editorial department be treated as another branch of the corporate banyan tree.
These are the points I want to share with your readers so that they can make a proper judgment of the issues rather than to assume that it is only a debate about allowing non-family members to become editors at The Hindu.