Girilal Jain, who died last week, was one of India’s foremost journalists. He discussed the changing face of Indian journalism in an interview with Chandan Mitra, then editor of The Sunday Observer, in October 1990. Excerpts:
What in your opinion is the most fundamental change Indian journalism has undergone during your long professional career?
Many of the changes that have taken place have done so only over the recent past. Magazine journalism is a phenomenon of the last decade; colour printing is a phenomenon only of the last five-six years; the emphasis on marketing and packaging is a phenomenon of even more recent origin. Advertisement revenues have gone up, leading both to wider coverage and increased number of pages in publications.
Have these changes been good for journalism?
These changes have been extremely negative – and I use the world extreme quite aggressively – with regard to the status of the editor. As the commercial aspect of the newspaper industry has come to be emphasised, the status of the editor and the editorial staff has suffered. I do not know if there is a definite link between these two, but the fact is that they have taken place more or less simultaneously. Interestingly, the position of the editor has suffered even in those publications which have not undergone these commercialising changes.
Along with this negative development, don’t you think there have been some positive developments? For example, the earlier ‘handout’ journalism based on press-notes has to some extent been replaced by investigative stories. Younger reporters today seem to have far greater integrity and pursue stories more doggedly…
Yes, it is true that journalists are much more assertive nowadays. But along with that has come the decline of the importance of editorials and edit page articles; that is, reportage has taken the place of more serious writing. This again is a negative development. I grew up in the profession at a time when the editorial page was exceedingly important. And I struggled very hard to retain its importance. But in this sphere we have regressed.
There is a great deal of merit in what you say about investigative journalism. But along with that there has also developed what I would call ‘plant journalism’: Earlier, a great deal of care was exercised about stories. I don’t see that kind of care being exercised now.
Newspapers here are increasingly copying the American pattern, not only in terms of editorial content but also in the matter of printing, size and so on. But what may be right for an extremely rich society like theirs, cannot be right for us. I feel that newspapers that consume so much newsprint are not being fair to the country. For instance, so much space is wasted by some newspapers over their masthead. You may say that looks attractive. But that cannot be our concern at this stage of our development. In fact, there are gentlemen at the helm of affairs these days who say that they don’t want people to read the paper, but only look at it. For, according to them, if the paper looks good, then they will get advertisements, especially colour advertisements and that is the only thing they are concerned with.
There seems to be a contradiction in your comment about the declining role of the editor. After all, is it not true that recent years have also seen the rise of the activist editor?
Let’s name names…
Arun Shourie of the Indian Express, MJ Akbar of The Telegraph till he was editor…
I am not as familiar with M.J. Akbar’s style of functioning as I am with Arun Shourie’s. But you would have noticed that Arun Shourie tends to do most of his writing on the news pages rather than on the editorial page. If I am not mistaken, MJ did the same. Arun Shourie writes mainly for the front page. Of course, that gives him the freedom to write at a time of his choosing and at a length of his choosing, but that is not really his job as editor. Political correspondents should be doing that kind of thing.
But then, there is one more thing. One also has to know the internal set-up of different institutions. Now, my feeling is that MJ Akbar was very much the boss of his establishment. So is Arun Shourie. To that extent, their positions as editor did not get eroded. But there are many, many other instances of this erosion taking place.
There is criticism of ‘grand’ editors – and you were probably the last of them – that they rarely interacted with their colleagues to the extent of not knowing the names of even senior persons on the desk or reporters. Don’t you think your succeeding generation is better in this respect?
This is a complex question. While I am not trying to defend myself, I don’t think my former colleagues would say I did not interact with them. As far as assistant editors are concerned I used to daily hold the longest and most interactive editorial meeting anywhere in the world. As far as news editors, correspondents and reporters are concerned, they were in and out of my room all the time. No, lack of interaction is not a problem.
What then is the problem with journalism today?
Much of it relates to the question of attention span. I am told that the attention span of an average person is about five minutes. Television has also been responsible for reducing the attention span of people. As a result, people do not read serious articles. This leads to everything getting sloganised. That is a problem that affects our politics also. For the last 20 years in India we have only seen one-issue, even one person politics. All these things are a result of our sloganised minds.
After such a long and active career in journalism, how have you kept yourself occupied since your retirement nearly two years ago? Do you miss a forum like The Times of India?
My answer may surprise you, but I am a believer and believe that whatever is ordained will happen. While Times was fun while it lasted, I don’t regret it. I never miss anything.
As to keeping myself occupied, I read a lot, write little. I have, however, written something which has already run into 250 pages which I don’t propose to publish now but will publish at some stage. And every time I read a new book, I am impressed by my own ignorance. That feeling is enough to keep one occupied.
The Sunday Observer, 25 July 1993