‘Never let your head stoop as a journalist’

PRITAM SENGUPTA writes from New Delhi: Mubhashar Jawed Akbar, the wordsmith who once cheekily suggested that Bombay should establish diplomatic relations with the rest of India, has been eased out of his position as editor-in-chief of a pioneering experiment in Indian journalism, The Asian Age.

M.J. Akbar, as the world better knows him, was driving to work last Saturday, reports Shantanu Guha Ray in Tehelka, “when he was overtaken by a flurry of messages on his Blackberry asking him to check his paper’s masthead: his name had gone missing overnight, replaced with that of T. Venkatt Ram Reddy, the publisher.”

Akbar maintains that the differences with the Deccan Chronicle management were editorial. “I haven’t quit; I have been forced out. I wanted an independent line, whereas the DC management was insistent that I be supportive of the pro-establishment, government policies,” Akbar told Khaleej Times, where he writes a column.

However, there are three versions to pick from the grapevine.

The first is that there were differences over “stake sale” ever since Deccan Chronicle increased its holdings in Asian Age from 23 per cent to 90 per cent. The second is that the Congress had told DC publisher’s Reddy that he would get a third term as Rajya Sabha member only if he got rid of Akbar. The third version is that Akbar himself wanted out, as he is angling for a BJP seat in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha.

Either way, it is the end of a pathbreaking road. The Asian Age was launched in 1994, in the aftermath of The Indian Post (owned by the Singhanias), The Pioneer (owned by the Thapars) and The Independent (owned by the Jains of Bennett Coleman & Co), when it was generally agreed that Indian publishers were running journalism aground by allowing their political and business interests to circumsect their journalistic ambitions.

As per the original plan, Asian Age was supposed to be a kind of newspaper cooperative; an Indian version of the International Herald Tribune: Akbar and his journalists would bring out an independent newspaper, which would then be brought out in various cities by various franchisees under the Asian Age title. (United Breweries for instance brought the Bangalore edition, while Zee had a stake in the Bombay edition.)

Those dreams only remained as the paper never took off in any of its publication centres—Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Bangalore or London—partly because of its high cover price, and partly also because it had no distinguishing feature. And Akbar, who was straddling between his various preoccupations as advisor, author, blogger, and policy wonk could scarcely find the time to reproduce the magic of the “unputdownable” Telegraph, which he had launched to great success.

In the late 1990s, Akbar veered close to Venkatt Ram Reddy of Deccan Chronicle, who used Akbar’s journalistic and political skills to affect a newsroom shakeout at the then family owned Hyderabad-based paper and installing Akbar’s appointees. In the end, Chronicle became a “regional” version of the “national” Asian Age.

The two then came together to sneak in an Indian edition of the International Herald Tribune by finding enough loopholes in the FDI rules in print media. Deccan Chronicle then went public, raised money and launched a Madras edition. But even as a Bangalore edition gets ready for launch this year, clearly Reddy had run out of use for Akbar.

“For reasons that need not detain us, I must say farewell. I was under the impression that I might have been able to do so with more grace. But judging from this morning edition of our paper, it seems I might have overstayed my welcome… We may not have been the biggest, but we held our head high because there was one nonnegotiable asset in our family: we could not be bought. We were independent. We were free. We held our head high. Never let your head stoop, not as long as you are a journalist,” wrote Akbar in his farewell email to staff.

Akbar joins a long list of fine editors who have been unceremoniously shown the door by publishers Arun Shourie, B.G. Verghese, Dileep Padgaonkar, V.K. Narasimhan, Vinod Mehta… But as the only elected Member of Parliament among the lot (he served as a Congress MP from Kishanganj at the instance of Rajiv Gandhi), Akbar has seen Indian politics like not too many Indian editors have. In the end, Indian journalism’s loss may be Indian politics’ gain.

If the rumours of a fallout with Sonia Gandhi are true, then like Amitabh Bachchan, there is a similarity here. Amitabh, who was an integral part of the Gandhi household, parted ways under Sonia after the death of her husband. Akbar, who was close to Rajiv Gandhi and has been a biographer of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, too has had to depart in similar circumstances.

Photograph: courtesy The Guardian/ London

Also read: M.J. Akbar denies paternity

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