October 19, 2012 7:11 pm

A week inside India’s media boom

From luxury magazines to hard-hitting TV news channels, the country’s media have never had it so good. But are they missing the real story?
The offices of Condé Nast India in Mumbai, home to Vogue India©Dhiraj Singh

The offices of Condé Nast India in Mumbai, home to Vogue India

Condé Nast India is a modest operation for a major publishing house in what will soon be the world’s most populous country (by 2026, according to the Indian National Population Stabilisation Fund). The journalists who produce its four magazines – Vogue India, GQ India, Condé Nast Traveller and Architectural Digest – tap away at their keyboards elbow-to-elbow in cramped, workaday offices in a colonial-era building in Mumbai. Managing director Alex Kuruvilla has a small, spare office that Anna Wintour, fabled editor of US Vogue, wouldn’t give to her second assistant.

Kuruvilla, 52, is slight, pleasant and self-deprecating – though not about his titles. He came up with the slogan that Condé Nast – which claims 80 per cent of the luxury consumer magazines market – is “India’s most advanced publishing company”. He thinks other Indian companies that started (and in some cases closed) high-end lifestyle magazines didn’t properly understand the concept or how to deliver it. He has, he says, the example of Condé Nast International’s leadership: Nicholas Coleridge, the group’s president, lists India and Indian art among his main interests.

Nor is there any doubt about the scale of Condé Nast’s ambitions in India: to develop and support a cosmopolitan elite. Out of a population of 1.24bn, Kuruvilla reckons this elite – that is, people who make more than $100,000 a year – numbers about 3m. He says that 300,000 of these people currently read one or more of his magazines. “We put a lot of investment in to get it right. We might go to New York for a shoot, or fly cosmetics in from New York. Our [advertising] rate card is firm. We don’t discount.”

He tells me about a party he recently put on for Vogue India’s fifth anniversary, at the luxurious Oberoi Trident Hotel on Marine Drive – one of the Mumbai locations where Islamist terrorists struck in 2008, killing 32 people. He goes on to talk about Vogue India’s October issue, which introduced the concept of “the little black sari” and challenged 50 fashion houses to create versions of one. “We want to have cross-fertilisation,” he says.

. . .

Last month I travelled to New Delhi and Mumbai for both the FT and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. The two cities are India’s main media centres, even if they can hardly reflect the vastness of the country’s journalistic culture – or cultures. India, according to the Indian Readership Survey, has more than 82,000 newspapers in many languages, with a total daily circulation of 107m. Taken together, the diverse minority languages account for the most vigorous growth in circulation and revenues (the latter increasing by more than 8 per cent in 2011-12, with readership up by more than 1 per cent).

Yet I found, at this apparently optimistic moment in Indian journalism, that there is deep, underlying anxiety about its role – as deep as that in the UK in the era of phone-hacking, but with a much greater social content.

At the Hindustan Times in New Delhi, Vir Sanghvi, the paper’s former editor and now editorial adviser, tells me that advertising dominates everything – and that journalism rarely offers a corrective. “The presenters on the TV channels appear to give a hard time to politicians, but look: at the same time as their status has grown, so has corruption. It’s entertainment for the intellectual middle class, who like to look down on politicians but who, if they themselves try to enter politics, usually lose their deposit.”

Perhaps the most succinct summary is offered by TN Ninan, chairman and editorial director of BSL group, publisher of the well-regarded Business Standard newspaper. In a talk last year entitled “Indian Media’s Dickensian Age”, he argued: “We have never had such a vast audience or readership, but our credibility has never been so tested ... the quality of what we offer to our public has never been better but that same public can see that the ethical foundations of our actions have plumbed new depths. It is unquestionably the best of times and it is also, unfortunately, the worst of times.”

. . .

The pervasive critique is that the elite is soaring while the masses stagnate: and that the media cater for the former while serving pap to the latter. The cosmopolitan elite, so prized by Kuruvilla, are mostly fluent in English – spoken far less widely than Hindi but still the second language of more than 100m Indians and usually an indicator of relative wealth. This makes English speakers more valuable to advertisers and publishers alike. In addition, the most politically engaged sections of society tend to read the influential English-language press. The Times of India, with an audited circulation of 3.14m and a readership of some 7.6m, is the world’s biggest-selling English-language paper (though only the sixth largest-selling paper in India, after mainly Hindi dailies).

English-language TV news channels also cater to this class. The largest, Times Now, is a division of Bennett, Coleman and Company, owner of the Times of India. Times Now is my next stop, after a jarring, klaxon-blaring journey across Mumbai, where jerry-built reeking poverty abuts on sheer walls of glass-fronted office blocks.

Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami (right) is presented with an award©Fotocorp

Times Now anchor Arnab Goswami (right) is presented with an award

The office of Arnab Goswami, the channel’s editor-in-chief and main anchor, is another modest space: India’s media lords do not, for the most part, go in for conspicuous displays of power in their workplace space or furnishings. In person, Goswami, 39, exerts a great charm that apparently co-exists with his often brutal interviewer’s persona: “The people of India want to know” is a familiar Goswami refrain. He agrees to give me background on the media scene but won’t be quoted: he does not, he says, do interviews, preferring to focus on his own formidable reputation for interrogation.

Times Now, launched in 2006, was built round Goswami and his vision of hard news and hard interviews. He was lured from rival channel NDTV, founded in 1988 by Prannoy and Radhika Roy and a template for much of India’s news journalism.

Tough interviewers proliferate across India’s news channels. On the CNN-IBN network there is Karan Thapar’s award-winning The Devil’s Advocate; on NDTV, Barkha Dutt, one of the few female TV stars, has won plaudits for her reporting from Kashmir. Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief and main presenter on CNN-IBN, is described by his fans as the conscience of India.

With the rise of TV news channels, these presenters have become part of a new media establishment, fiercely competitive but united in their intellectual prominence and their wealth. All have helped bring “hard talk” techniques to Indian TV news.

Yet over the decade in which such channels have grown in power, corruption is also judged to have increased to unprecedented levels. In Transparency International’s Global Corruption index last December, India fell to 95th. China comes 75th and Pakistan 134th (out of 183). Given its size, India presents the greatest challenge to the view that diverse and often critical media will hold power to account.

Money has poured into media: though many of the news channels are not profitable, they are thought by their owners to be valuable in exerting influence over politicians – who, in turn, are often essential to obtain permits or to nod through development.

With this have come allegations of corruption. These touched several prominent journalists when, in 2010, transcripts of phone conversations between political lobbyist Nira Radia and, among others, Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi, were leaked. The transcripts appeared to show the journalists willing to use their influence to broker deals between politicians and business leaders on the awarding of parts of the second-generation (2G) mobile phone spectrum. Both journalists strongly deny impropriety. Sardesai, then president of the Editors’ Guild, defended his colleagues, blaming reports on the affair for publishing “raw data” and not seeking a response from the journalists named: they were guilty, he said, only of misjudgment, not of misconduct.

. . .

During my time in New Delhi, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an investigative journalist who has made documentaries on the exploitation of India’s miners, ran a seminar on “Crony Journalism”. Here, an audience of journalists and students heard the panel discuss how – in the words of panellist TK Arun, opinion page editor of the Economic Times – “corruption pays for Indian politics”.

In 2010, Thakurta, an intense and dedicated 57-year-old who works from a spartan office in the city, co-authored a report entitled “Paid news: how corruption in India’s media is undermining democracy”, for the Press Council of India. The report argued that corruption had gone “way beyond” the corruption of individual journalists and media organisations: “from ‘planting’ information and views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind, to more institutionalised and organised forms of corruption, wherein newspapers and television channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information in favour of particular individuals, corporate entities, representatives of political parties and candidates contesting elections, that is sought to be disguised as ‘news’.”

The PCI, which has a powerful publishers’ lobby within it, agreed the report only when it was watered down. But the government’s Central Information Commission demanded that it publish the unexpurgated report, now available for the past year.

. . .

The central Indian state of Chhattisgarh has become something of a test case for the values of journalism. In a talk that he gave in 2009, Shubhranshu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist in India, said he had grown uneasy with a journalism that skimmed the surface of events. He gave up his job in order to acquaint himself with the forest-dwelling Adivasi, who make up a third of the state’s citizens – or the majority in many districts. In Chhattisgarh, where a long-running Maoist insurgency, rooted among some Adivasi communities, produced periodic outrages, journalists would fly in, speak to interviewees then leave.

A newstand in Mumbai©Dhiraj Singh

A newstand in Mumbai

This may be common media behaviour everywhere but it pricked Choudhary’s conscience: “I sat down with the people in the forests and listened to them, learning that they had a form of democracy in which all could speak and all listened.” Building on this, he developed CGNetSwara (swara means “voice” in several Indian languages), a network that used the internet and mobile phones – which even poor people here often own. The Adivasis have historically no written language and no journalists. Choudhary believes his citizens’ network to be a bottom-up force, avoiding the traps of celebrity and corruption.

In Chhattisgarh’s capital Raipur, media business proceeds as normal. In a report this year for the Reuters Institute, Supriya Sharma, a Times of India correspondent, wrote that local and national newspapers alike now have large mining and power interests – in a state where mining is a major business – and rarely report disputes.

The family that owns India’s biggest English-language newspaper is frank about its desire to run the paper for profit: in a piece earlier this month in the New Yorker, Vineet Jain, who, with his brother Samir runs the Times of India, said: “We are not in the newspaper business ... if 90 per cent of your revenues comes from advertising, you’re in the advertising business”. Jain said he realised that carrying news items about Bollywood film and other promotions was giving away valuable space: henceforth, he decreed, such material would be “advertorial” – paid-for news. The fact that it is advertorial (and written by staff reporters) is announced – but only in tiny print.

. . .

In Delhi, I went to a party in the garden of a luxury hotel organised by one of the most influential of the capital’s newspapers, the Indian Express. The guest of honour was Amitabh Bachchan, a Bollywood actor and presenter of India’sWho Wants To Be a Millionaire?, model for the quiz show in the 2009 film Slumdog Millionaire. Bachchan wasn’t “starry” in the western sense – all celebrity gossip and trailers for his next film – but he is the kind of icon an ambitious newspaper would want to link itself to.

The media’s concentration on politics, cricket and celebrity, along with its perceived corruption, attracts fury and cynicism. Justice Markandey Katju, the stern 66-year-old appointed chairman of the Press Council of India last year, has thundered against a press that he sees as indifferent to poverty, feeding its audience a diet of entertainment and superstition.

In the study of his Lutyens-designed official bungalow near the prime minister’s residence, he spoke of a culture of writing about “non-issues” and of dividing the population on religious or caste grounds. He cited a recent Mumbai fashion show, saying that the cotton on the dresses on display was grown by farmers so desperate that thousands had committed suicide; yet, while an army of journalists attended the show, it was a rare writer who publicised the farmers’ desperation.

Sociologist Dipankar Gupta, a neighbour of presenter Karan Thapar in New Delhi, proposes “a division ... between those who do fashion and gossip and those who try to inform. But the standards are going down, and they are taking the market down.”

John Lloyd is an FT contributing editor and director of journalism at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute

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