The media menu of a last supper
“Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition — hard, tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners. If it does, down comes the lid.”
This is not from any book of quotations. But it does suggest that truth finds a better home in fiction than anthology. The author is Raymond Chandler, an authentic master of modern fiction who created the shabby and sharp private detective Philip Marlowe. Marlowe — and Chandler — lived amid the shadows that enveloped wealth and crime in mid-20th century Los Angeles; they knew that the difference was marginal and the price was high if you talked too much. Marlowe talked too much. He did something even more risky. He spoke the truth.
Newspapers in his time made the rich richer with their explosive mix of political influence and advertising monopoly. A British Prime Minister of the 1930s famously charged newspapers with enjoying the privilege of a harlot, exercising power without responsibility. But this was a self-serving taunt. Media barons can give Prime Ministers advice from a pillow, but it is Prime Ministers who let them into the bedroom. Be that as it may, money has always chased power through media, and every democracy has provided this incestuous opportunity.
Transition destabilises any industry, and this is happening with newspapers. At least some of the rich are becoming poorer, thanks to newspapers they own. The most dramatic illustration has been the sale of the Washington Post by the Graham family to Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon. This transfer does not suggest, as many have moaned, that news is going out of business; at worst, it could suggest that paper is going out of business. Bezos bought the Post with spare change in a forgotten trouser pocket, but he rose from denim to riches through the information trade. Newspapers will be reshaped, as they should be from time to time, but this does not change the fundamental need for an information carrier.
It is a car with two drivers. Owners step into journalist space through a conundrum called “publisher”. Editors comfort themselves with the romance of independence, and perhaps there is the occasional powerful personality who dominates a newsroom at the expense of the shareholder. But that is the exception. Editorial decisions are a shared enterprise. The Washington Post became an indelible chapter in media history when its series of reports, familiar to us as the Watergate exposé, brought down Richard Nixon just after he had won a landslide endorsement from the people. But the decision to run the investigation was made as much by Katherine Graham, the owner, as by Ben Bradlee, the editor.
Bezos is a wise chap. He has appointed Bob Woodward, one of the stars of Watergate, as managing editor. The key to media does not lie in ownership, but in credibility. Without credibility, a newspaper is just wrapping for fish and chips if not a rag for rubbish. Credibility makes journalists indispensable to publishers.
Are publishers indispensable to journalists? Yes. Journalists may be know-alls, but the one thing they do not know is how to run a business. The newspaper industry is also an industry. It is not an accident that owners of an old Indian media conglomerate like Times of India and a new one like Zee have a very healthy respect for profits. They understand what journalists should acknowledge, that a newspaper or television channel cannot stand up against any government without a healthy bottom line. They do not have to look over their shoulder if they want to break stories at the cost of a ruling family’s displeasure.
A media house fails when it forgets that both credibility and cash flow are important. The list of Indian media companies who have forgotten this basic rule is long and growing. Behind very thin curtains, big names are crumbling. The cost of plaster being applied to disguise this collapse is the transfer of shares and control. We will not find out the full truth till the end arrives, suddenly, and not without a residual whiff of bitterness, as in the case of the Washington Post.
But media will survive, whether in America or India, even if owners do not. Information is not an aggregate of everything on the highway. It is a cull of that which is relevant. Of course, there are interests, as the cynic Raymond Chandler noted, with his usual caustic flourish. But even the super rich cannot hold on to these laser scalpels called newspapers if they do not understand that while their personal interests may occasionally dent the integrity of a product, they should never damage it.
A good newspaper proprietor feeds the goose that lays golden eggs. He does not put it on the menu of a last supper.