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Manu Joseph's resignation: The perils of editorial surrender

Manu Joseph, my former boss at Open Magazine, announced yesterday that he had quit the magazine. While he did not state his reasons, they are evident to all those who have been associated with the magazine.

I was sacked from the magazine in November, and while Manu had opposed the decision he had let matters rest at that. But in the three years we had worked together we had managed to put together a reasonable body of stories, including most importantly, the Radia Tapes. This became possible, in great measure, because Manu allowed a considerable degree of independence to those working for the magazine.

Manu Joseph. Image courtesy IBNLive

Manu Joseph. Image courtesy IBNLive

Shortly after I left, he had sent out a mail, in fact, it was the last mail to be forwarded to my account before it was terminated, stating:

Just to keep you informed -- we have shortlisted candidates to head politics and news, and are in talks. Naturally, the next political editor of Open will be someone who fits in the magazine, someone who reflects its vibrant, credible, unbiased and what is widely known as 'secular' character. I had long conversations with Sanjiv Goenka from here and we updated each other on matters concerning the magazine. People expect high standards from us, so let's keep going.

On January 6, after months of speculation, PR Ramesh, a journalist considered close to general secretary of the BJP Arun Jaitley, joined the magazine as managing editor. Manu had opposed this decision and he chose to resign once it was forced upon him.

I personally feel Manu has himself largely to blame for the tame end of his term at Open. Evidently if the management can sack a political editor without the editor’s consent they can appoint a managing editor without the editor’s consent. Manu had already conceded the journalistic principle, now he had only been negotiating for personal pride. He was not even granted that.

Given that I am legally contesting my own termination with the Open management I do not want to belabour the point. All that really matters in this episode is that the reason an owner can bypass an editor in this fashion is that over several decades editors in the Indian media have been willing to let their position be undermined, and the few editors such as Manu, who recently made their mark, have been unwilling to stand up to pressure when it really matters.

Surprisingly, as I have found out in the course of mounting my legal case, the law does provide a reasonable degree of safeguards for an editor, and, in fact, every journalist. Unless a journalist has undermined his or her own case by gross misbehavior or obvious professional mistakes the management cannot fire a journalist without stating a clear and defensible reason. Neither can any management enforce the provisions of any contract on a permanent employee that do not subscribe at the minimum to the standards set out in the Working Journalist Act. An editor thus is protected against the whim of a management and in the worst case is assured of six months of full wages.

Despite these safeguards, the reason that editors so rarely take on the management or ownership is simple, they need another owner or management to give them their next job. I realized how successful some editors have been in this pursuit only in the course of a television program I was part of a couple of years ago.

After the Radia Tapes, published as they had been without the knowledge of the owner or the publisher, some of us at Open were required to appear on television to defend our story. I found myself on Headlines Today, part of a show where Vir Sanghvi made an appearance, characteristically from a balcony in a hotel somewhere in southeast Asia, and refused to take any questions. After Sanghvi, who first became editor of Sunday in 1986, spoke, a discussion followed involving Prabhu Chawla, who also figured prominently on the tapes and had been editorial director of India Today since 1986; MJ Akbar, who became editor of Sunday in 1976, and N Ram, who first became editor of Frontline in 1991.

Some of the discussion centred on the state of journalism in the country and how things had been allowed to reach their current state. I did then think that the answer to this most crucial of questions lay around me. Every person in the room had already been an editor by the time I began my career in journalism in the early 1990s. Not all of them were equally culpable, but between them they had a century worth of cumulative experience of editorship.

I have found over much of my time in journalism that owners preferred to have editors who had already shown a degree of pliability in their previous jobs. This keeps the editors' jobs circulating among a pool of largely pliant journalists. While all of the usual reasons hold – the ownership patterns in media, the lack of transparency in funding, the linkages between owners and politicians – for the current crisis in journalism, it also remains true that journalists entering the profession today have to make their compromises with ownership and management at a much earlier stage of their career because they have been largely deprived of the protective shield of a good editor.

For a brief period of time a Tarun Tejpal had created the illusion that this could change, we all know how that has turned out. In any case the journalistic story at Tehelka had already run its course long before the current episode. Now as things unravel at Open, we can add one more cautionary tales, or perhaps a footnote, to the long list of journalistic disasters that unfold when editors forego their responsibilities. That still leaves unanswered the question of how a young journalist today goes about being true to the profession.

(Hartosh Singh Bal is a consulting editor at Firstpost.)