The Hindu relapses: or, why N Ram should keep his mouth shut

The Hindu’s brief experiment with professional editing and management has collapsed acrimoniously: editor Siddharth Varadarajan announced his resignation on twitter, the Hindu swiftly came up with its own version, and the Hindu’s supremo N Ram has been freely criticising both Varadarajan and fired CEO Arun Anant in the pages of other newspapers.

Disclosure: as readers of this blog know, I wrote a few opinion articles for The Hindu during Siddharth Varadarajan’s tenure as editor. I don’t know him, or any other senior figure in the Hindu. It happened this way: I had something that I felt was worth saying in a wider medium than this blog; I found Varadarajan’s email address on his own blog; I emailed him directly; and he replied, and after a minimum of correspondence, ran the piece. But I have never met him or corresponded with him on any other matter, and know nothing about the internals of this affair.

I was already an admirer of Varadarajan’s writing in The Hindu and, earlier, the Times of India. And, in my personal opinion, the Hindu’s readability improved immensely under his editorship. There was great diversity of articles (both news and opinion), a significant amount of “breaking news”, and a very sensible editorial line in all cases. And, in particular, he allowed plenty of space for dissent, both in the letters section and in “debate”-style rejoinder sections to previously published opinion pieces.

A bit of history: The Hindu has been the “newspaper of record” of south India for decades, arguably for most of its existence (well over 100 years), and is influential in other parts of India too. Like that other “newspaper of record”, the New York Times, the Hindu is family-owned; but unlike the NYT, it has mostly been family-run and family-edited too. The retirement of G. Kasturi, its longest serving editor, in 1991 prompted some ugly squabbling. Kasturi’s nephew N Ravi took over as editor in 1991, he was displaced by his brother N Ram amidst some acrimony in 2003, and when Ram brought in Siddharth Varadarajan in 2011, Ravi and their cousin Malini Parthasarathy resigned from editorial positions loudly protesting their being sidelined in favour of the “junior” Varadarajan. Now both are back.

The two allegations are mismanagement of the business resulting in falling circulation, employee dissatisfaction etc (which may be more an allegation against Anant), and, in Ram’s words, “editorialisation in the guise of news and manipulation of news coverage” under Varadarajan (while declining to give specific instances). Coming from Ram, this claim is comical.

Ram’s almost decade-long tenure saw the Hindu become almost an official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. Check out this piece, published on October 2, 2009 (Gandhi Jayanti) on the front page above the fold: written as a news report by Ram himself from Beijing, it waxes poetic about China’s rise, “showcased” by Tiananmen Square (which the world remembers, even today, for other reasons). After breathless and entirely unquestioning coverage of Premier Hu Jintao’s speech, the military review, parade and floats, Ram ends on a romantic note: “As I write, the evening is quite young at Tian’anmen Square.” So, Mr Ram, was this editorialisation in the guise of news, or news in the guise of editorialisation, or both? Who paid for your trip to Beijing to cover this parade? Where were you seated, and at whose invitation?

This is hardly the only example under Ram’s tenure. He consistently praised China to the detriment of, for example, the Tibet cause (take a look at this news item, published in The Hindu, which quotes N Ram, editor of The Hindu, rejecting Tibetan “propaganda”!). He unfailingly toed the line of Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa on the Tamil issue (see this fawning interview). And he almost never published dissenting letters to any of this (see this letters page in response to the Rajapaksa interview). None of which is surprising given his history as a card-carrying Communist and admirer of authoritarian figures. Nor is it surprising that, during Ram’s tenure as editor, the Hindu carried his photograph on more occasions than it had carried photographs of all previous editors during its entire history.

[EDIT Oct 23, 2013: I forgot to mention this supreme example of N Ram’s editorial impartiality.]

So whether or not Siddharth Varadarajan can be accused of editorialising in news selection, Ram is the very last person in the world who can make that accusation with a straight face. And by doing so, rather than merely parting ways with Varadarajan in mutual silence, Ram has merely demeaned himself and his newspaper.

So ends The Hindu’s brief experiment with professional editing and management. Pity. For two years it was actually quite a good newspaper. One bright spot is that Ram is not returning as chief editor — instead, brother Ravi, a relatively colourless figure, returns to the job. I expect that The Hindu will become, if not the red rag that it was in Ram’s time, the bland inoffensive paper that it used to be earlier.

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