By N.S. Ramnath, Mitu Jayashankar| Aug 26, 2011
If urgent reforms are not implemented, the paper will disintegrate, N. Murali tells Forbes India
Designation: Managing Director, Kasturi & Sons, publisher of The Hindu, Business Line, Frontline
Education: B.Com, ACA
Career: Spent over 40 years in Kasturi & Sons; retired on 12 August 2011
Interests: Cricket, Tennis, Music
How were your last few months in The Hindu after CLB (Company Law Board) reinstated you as managing director?
I felt vindicated. CLB indicted that it was in bad faith, there was lack of probity and so on. But really, after all that happened, I didn’t get into the nitty-gritty of it all. I was the one who proposed that all directors should retire from active role at 65, and there were only eight months to go. Though I felt vindicated, I didn’t get into my role as before.
Do problems in The Hindu run deeper than N. Ram reneging on his promise to retire at 65?
That triggered the whole thing. That triggered it basically because of family members wanting to come in as a matter of entitlement whether they are qualified or not. What has unfortunately happened is that these very family members who came in on the basis of it being a family business, and a quasi-partnership came in and then later attacked the principles on which they came in. That is the sad part. In normal circumstances, some of them wouldn’t have found any place in an organisation. But, having come, they started dabbling in politics, particularly in the last 18 months. Whatever I described in the letter reflects my true feelings. I didn’t hide anything.
Still, don’t N. Ram’s recent initiatives only show that he wants to professionalise the organisation?
That McKinsey was brought in to professionalise is not true at all. McKinsey was paid a fat fee of Rs. 8 crore and, they came in at the height of the fight. No consultant would come in when things are volatile and things are fragmented like that. I would say McKinsey coming in was an opportunistic thing for them.
McKinsey came to suggest strategy. And I learned that what they suggested to The Hindu they suggested to other media companies also — getting involved in education and so on. They never addressed the issue of governance.
I stayed away from all McKinsey discussions because the case was going on, and because I was opposed to it in principle. They were brought in by a faction of the board and briefed by a faction of the board. So McKinsey did not behave like a professional organisation in our case. They didn’t address the real issue. In fact, I told the lead consultant who was handling our account that you should not have come in at a time when a fight was going on. What strategy can be implemented in such a scenario? You should have first addressed issue of governance, family norms before venturing into strategy. This board, which broadly consists of amateur members, is not in a position to implement any strategy.
I am also for professionalisation. However, it doesn’t mean shutting out professionally qualified family members. I also feel unqualified members should not be taken just because they are family members, they should be considered only on merit, be it journalists or management.
The other thing is, if what Ram is saying is true, we don’t know when he is going. Besides, Siddharth Varadarajan is not as qualified as some others in the Hindu are. He has been handpicked by Ram.
Do you think that you should have intervened earlier? At what stage?
Initially, there were only few people who were running the newspaper. They were professionally qualified. Increasingly, each family wanted certain number of directors. No other company of the size of The Hindu, even including Reliance with its huge Rs. 3 lakh crore turnover, has more than three or four whole-time directors. The family members came in for family representation and for perks and entitlements.
Hindu newspaper has a rich tradition and legacy. Its core values — trust, credibility, objectivity and balance — were built over time. In the last few years, a lot of these core values have been trivially compromised.
Over time, Hindu’s credibility has suffered badly, especially in the coverage of the 2G scam. While The Hindu asked for the resignation of B.S. Yeddyurappa, Suresh Kalmadi and Ashok Chavan for scams that are of lower magnitude than the mother of all scams, in the 2G scam, Hindu has carried obliging interviews of the prime accused. The interviews were done not by the telecom correspondent in Delhi, but by a correspondent in Chennai who covered DMK. He went all the way to Delhi to interview Raja. It was carried to time with his resignation. Hindu was seen as a mouthpiece and apologist for Raja; so much so that when a TV journalist asked him, it was sad to see him say, “For my views please read the day before yesterday’s Hindu”.
Again, [Sri Lankan President] Mahinda Rajapaksa was given such friendly, non-critical coverage. Hindu is pro-CPM, it is pro-China. Tibet and Dalai Lama are not covered. This type of selective blackout, Hindu is not known so far.
But these are different issues…
Before 2003, when Ram took over, there was too much autonomy. On the rebound, when Ram took over we swung from one extreme to another extreme of over centralisation and arbitrariness, so much so that diverse views and pluralism were shut down.
Even the institution of Readers’ Editor [which Ram introduced, has changed]. Previously Readers Editor was a seasoned news editor of The Hindu. He acted [on behalf] of the readers, commenting on their views on Hindu’s coverage, sometimes giving independent comments, sometimes giving a clarification from the editor. Now it has become a cruel joke on readers. The present Readers Editor never comments on readers’ views on Hindu’s coverage of different issues. He is acting as a columnist. The so called ombudsman in the Hindu has become farcical.
One by one, various values, and institutions in the Hindu have been diluted and also destroyed.
But, why so much noise now and not earlier…
I would plead helplessness in this case. I had taken a conscious policy throughout my career that my expertise is in business area, and I will not dabble in editorial, just as editorial people wouldn’t dabble here. We had a very fine line that divided. Even at the board, there was an arrangement that non-editorial directors didn’t interfere in editorial matters. We had a working arrangement where editorial primacy was respected. All that seems to have been given a go-by in the last 18 months. Even the appointment of Siddharth Varadarajan; it was non-editorial directors who voted for that. Otherwise, majority of the editorial directors opposed the appointment.
Fundamentally, there is no independent member on the board of The Hindu. Alliances keep changing, depending on the situation. There is no outside, independent objective voice or view on the board. Structural reform is what is required. Otherwise, [there is] very little hope of what this company can do.
In your letter, you talk about Murdochism. What did you mean by that?
I can tell you straightway that the primacy of editorial which Hindu held sacred all along is being sacrificed for the sake of business interest. You see stories planted by real estate lobbies. Those things never happened in Hindu earlier.
By Murdochism, I also mean shutting off some news. For instance, we have been totally favourable to the local government (DMK administration). Any views that were critical or criticising the state of affairs were not carried. In the last 18 months, readers have started saying — why are you so pro-DMK.
There has been selective coverage of people. For example, Lord Swraj Paul. He was also involved in the MP scam that affected many MPs in the UK. We didn’t have any coverage of what really happened. But, on the other hand, two or three articles with Lord Paul calling it a Kangaroo court and so on were carried. The Hindu never used to be partisan like this before.
By Murdochism, I mean taking sides politically, not being objective.
How will you continue the fight now?
What’s called for is fundamental reforms in the newspaper. We should have governance norms, we should have professional outsiders who are qualified, family members who are not qualified, should have no role in running papers. Merit alone should be the criterion. We need independent directors.
History and evidence shows the family businesses don’t last beyond the third generation. Here, because of inherent strength, it lasted through the fourth generation. If urgent reforms are not implemented, it will disintegrate.
What has been the impact on business?
Naturally, it has been negative. Now, Times of India is on the prowl, apart from Chennai, they have launched an edition in Coimbatore, they have launched in Madurai and reached Trichy from Madurai. They will be launching in Kerala. This has affected business, not only readership, but also advertising. This fight was the last thing that was necessary when competition was right at our doorstep. The family members should have had the institution in heart instead of engaging in the slugfest over the last 18 months.
At the end of the day, you are still brothers…
Beyond a point, sentiment, to me, has no value. We are wearing different hats. We are brothers, shareholders, professionals. So many roles get mixed up. When egos and greed take over, I think, finally, whether someone is a brother or not doesn’t make a difference.
I am not fighting with Ram alone. He has ganged up with many others. Similarly, I have joined Ravi and others. These numbers fluctuate. When it started, last year, it was nine-is-to-three, now it has become seven-is-to-five. Like political alliances based on numbers. This is what should be avoided. It should not be political alliances based on numbers.
What is your best-case scenario and the worst case scenario for The Hindu ten years from now?
Ten years ahead, I would say the scenario for the print media itself is uncertain because of online media. In our country, print media has seen good growth because of growing literacy, even though, in the rest of the world, it’s facing a terminal decline. However, what the developed markets are seeing now, you can see here in 10 years’ time. So, the current model will have to undergo a change, as we go through problems that the Western media now has.
If The Hindu doesn’t go through any fundamental reform, saddled with its baggage of family members, most of whom are amateurs and not experienced, then it will face decline and lose its primacy. On the other hand, if sensible decisions are taken, if there are good governance norms, if other core editorial values are reinstated, code of governance is incorporated, there is a future. Such an institution with a history of 130 years cannot just go down. The biggest strength of The Hindu is the trust and credibility that readers still have in the paper. But, it’s now going downhill. If corrective steps are not taken it will meet the fate of various newspapers which had a glorious past, but which could not cope with the current time and come to terms with the new reality.
What are your immediate plans?
I strongly felt there should be entry norms and retirement norms. I set an example by stepping down. Because of the structure of company, I will continue to be a director representing the family. My role will only be in board meetings.
I have other things to do, for example, in the Music Academy, of which I am president for last six years. I will try to rebuild it along with my good team. I will travel. I am interested in cricket and tennis. Hindu has been a passion for so me far. I have not known life except in Hindu.
Is it not ironic that all this has happened in a media company?
True. As media company, as a newspaper Hindu comments on so many things that happen outside, even lectures or pontificates to them. When it comes to our own affairs, we are afraid to open ourselves for scrutiny. Therefore, all these things have been in public domain, is all for the good. There is need for transparency everywhere.
I must also tell you that even in the company law hearing last year, we suggested that good offices of well-meaning individuals be brought in for mediation. The other side wanted one of their own players, the former editor of Hindu, G. Kasturi. Normally, in families there is a patriarch who would mediate, but in this case, we said no, because he is a player himself because of his son’s interest. I don’t see any resolution unless you have a third person for mediation. Between family members, we have proved ourselves incapable of sorting out our problems or finding a long-term solution.
In the last 20 years, there have been three upheavals. The one starting in 1989-90 during the Bofors investigation which Ram headed. He was in the forefront. For doing that, former editor Kasturi, our uncle, penalised him and also suspended him. I had to go to court along with my mother in support of Ram. Ironically, Ram has joined hands with same Kasturi, and what happened in last 18 months is for all to see.
What are your feelings as you step down?
My feelings are of anger, of sadness, of deep hurt and also of anguish for the institution. When everyone says that the institution is so great, why can’t people sort it out? I feel we are helpless to do that. The family has no will to do it because of ego, because of positions taken by them. I feel very sad and poignant that the institution which has been looked upon by all readers as voice of reason and objectivity, even as mentor and a guide and a sage advisor, is itself is in a helpless position to solve its own problem. Happenings here are similar to happenings in any political party; politics of the worst kind has taken place inside.
In my case, I have a sense of fulfilment that over these 40 years, I have been a part of this great institution. I have contributed to the best of my ability. At least I have taken a principled stand. I am proud to have stuck to my word that I will retire at 65.