Corona Corner

Corona crisis: Why is the fourth pillar of Democracy shaken?

The pandemic has worsened this situation, with corporate media houses, especially the print, citing loss of business and advertisements and finding it convenient to lay off staff and resort to pay cuts

Every high point in a business is followed by a low. Journalism, which transmuted into another form of business years ago, is no exception.

The business of news-making has been experiencing a steady downfall even before the beginning of the pandemic, which only acted as a positive catalyst. The economic downturn of 2008-09 prompted many media houses to resort to deduction in payments or hold back increments on the pretext that profit margins were thinning. Most of the journalists neither anticipated a bleaker future for the industry or en masse layoffs.

Those media houses which started downsizing months before the corona episode have continued the exercise during this pandemic and this time with “economic distress” as a perfect alibi. Be it big media houses like The Times of India, The Telegraph and Hindustan Times or local newspapers with state-specific circulation, none let go of the opportunity to play the victim card.

Layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts have become the norm worldwide. In India, the leading media houses suddenly found themselves in the red within a month of the outbreak of corona virus. As they scurried to save their business, the axe fell on journalists, big and small, and other departmental employees.

For instance, The ABP group, which runs The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika, sacked close to 300 employees over a period of time and closed down several editions, including Jharkhand and the North East; Bennett and Coleman closed down numerous editions of The Times of India and sacked employees of both ToI and Economic Times; and Hindustan Times sacked over 100 staffers. The list goes on.

The story is worse at small media houses. An Assamese TV channel, Prag News, reportedly asked a pregnant employee to leave because she shifted from reporting to desk owing to health condition. Bengali daily Pratidin sacked several employees a few years ago and there are rumours that the media house will close down.

The stories of horror and distress are uncountable and journalists are being forced to leave with some houses putting pressure on them to give in writing that they are quitting on their own. At this juncture, the absence of unions and wage board system (some small media houses still follow Majithia Wage Board) has made it impossible for the affected journalists to unite and flag their problems.

While a trough in a business cycle is not surprising the current upheavals in media profession are shocking. A section of journalists believe this was inevitable, mainly because of “corporate greed”. A Kolkata-based journalist, who is also a victim of the rapacity of a national media house, explains the inevitability.

“Economics and mathematics books tell you profit is when you sell a product at a higher price than its making cost and loss is when you sell it for less than what it costs you. But the big media houses always set their revenue targets higher than last financial year’s revenue, and if they don’t achieve that target, they say it’s a loss. This is nothing but fake economics justifying greed. To make up for this imagined loss, they say cost-cutting is needed and cut employees’ salaries, sack people. Beginning 2008-09 global recession, this has been happening regularly,” the scribe says, adding that there is lack of transparency about how much loss these companies incur.

Though journalists fight for transparency in governance and report breaking news about corruption, barely anyone in the profession demand the same from respective media house owners. Management bodies have shown little regard to transparency and over the years, the media business has turned murky.

Some in the profession like Philip Marwein, a veteran journalist based in Shillong, and Ashlin Mathew, news editor at Delhi-based National Herald, do not agree to the inevitability. “This is just bad business and (media houses are) cutting it dry when there is an opportunity,” says Mathew.

As big houses go on a rampage, small and local media houses follow suit. Their alibi – “Ours is too small a business to cope with the crisis”. Never do they consider the fact that salaries in these organisations are way lower than the usual pay scale in the country and that any form of deduction will affect employees. Inflation, however, remains same for all states.

According to Marwein, some of the old newspaper houses in Meghalaya have the wherewithal to resist the crisis and yet they are resorting to pay cuts.

The worst part is while the deeds of big media houses are still finding news space, the plight of journalists in local media houses is hardly being discussed.

Some of the small media houses are not only deducting payments by as much as 50 per cent or announcing furloughs but also reducing other components like increments and PF contribution.

In regard to big houses, Mathew says “a lot of people could have saved their jobs” had the top management reduced their salaries. “It is never the top management that goes. When such economic crisis comes, all newspapers do it (retrenchment) and in a few months they rehire others. Sometimes they cite reasons like people are not performing. In this case, they should downsize decently, either before the pandemic or after. Three months’ salary would not cost a media house its life as all of them have other businesses,” she says.

Management rules

In any newspaper house today, the editorial team is the sidekick of the management that has the ultimate power in decision-making. The constant and excessive interference of management bodies in editorial matters has gradually weakened the fourth pillar of the constitution. As TK Rajalakshmi, a senior journalist with Frontline, says, “In many media houses, it was the media less but more of management that was calling the shots in terms of content, readership and of course wage structures. Which media organisation seeks out feedback from its workers on how to expand readership? Nowhere. It’s the management that decides priorities of news, views and wages too.”

Rajalakshmi also points out that the problem of “iniquitous media wage structures” from the mid-nineties onwards “could not find an internal solution to cushion the decline in revenues” in trying times.

“Earlier a wage board for journalists used to be there which decided the broad emoluments in each category of employment. So everyone knew. But now the mistrust within employees is so high that it is easy for employers to exploit this and sack at will. Journalists have to realise that an employer will always be an employer and that as workers they need to protect their interests as a collective. Sadly that unity is no longer there,” Rajalakshmi says.

“By implementing the individual “contract” system of employment, where only the employer and employee know how much the latter is paid, the first rule of transparency in the media set up is breached and the big names in the media have been responsible for introducing this work culture,” she adds.

There are other factors too which worked in tandem to render journalism insipid as a profession. The overt closeness of the corporate-controlled media establishments since 2014 ensured subjugation of dissent, one of the cornerstones of journalism.

The pandemic has worsened this situation, with corporate media houses, especially the print, citing loss of business and advertisements and finding it convenient to lay off staff and resort to pay cuts, observed a senior journalist without giving name.

The decadence and the lure of lucre have pushed real journalism to the corner. Those who still manage to follow ethics and dare to speak up against the management-political power connivance are often silenced or considered mere fools. But even those ‘fools’ do not speak out against the ongoing problems in the profession as options in the job market are less and they have families to run.

No prominent editor of any media house, big or small, bothers to raise the issues of his or her editorial team. There are no protests or pen-down strikes and no marches or slogans. These are the journalists who would once raise voices against ‘silence’.

In April, the National Alliance of Journalists, the Delhi Union of Journalists and the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists filed a PIL in the apex court against the layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts.

What’s in store?

In terms of business, the immediate future of the industry looks uncertain. There are hundreds of jobless journalists who need to be reabsorbed in the industry but this is difficult for those who were at the mid or senior level at the time of retrenchment. In the long run, the Kolkata-based journalist believes, “the future of Indian journalism lies in crowd-funding”.

“The corporate media has made a mockery of journalism and will continue to do so because the owners have no interest in anything but riches earned from government subsidies, advertisements as well as private ads. Journalism cannot survive in this environment. Corruption has long been institutionalised,” he says.

In terms of journalism as a profession, the current churnings in the industry will have a deep and demoralising impact and can make people cynical towards the profession, feels Rajalakshmi.

“There’s no pension scheme for journalists. The media might soon become like the IPL — journalists offering themselves to the highest bidder. It won’t be journalism anymore. There is a feeling that online/digital journalism will be the new reality but I am not so sure about India,” she says.

The road ahead is still not clear but one thing is for sure, journalism cannot be another business venture and it cannot be weighed in terms of profit and loss. There has to be more transparency in running media houses and journalists’ bodies have to be more vocal against any wrong-doing in their profession.

To quote a senior colleague who often defined the role of journalists in the democratic system as, “We hold the mirror to one and all so that they see the real picture.”

It is time they turn the mirror towards themselves.

Nabamita Mitra

is a freelance journalist and is associated with The Shillong Times

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