The Great Media Hijack

Over a month ago, we received two copies of the Times of India at our flat in Goa. Naturally we thought the vendor had mistakenly dropped off two copies of the same newspaper. To my amusement and horror – of which I couldn’t tell which was greater – I discovered that they were different editions of the same Goa edition, if that makes any sense to you. Meaning that they had different editorial content, but were not separate sections of the same newspaper, either. My father noticed the same problem, and I told him it’s not worth fretting over. Perhaps, Times of India can explain what it is up to and which newspaper is the real one that we should go by.

Over the years, I have noticed the Times of India particularly, take too many liberties with its news content and with its readers. For one thing, it was the first to start something called “Consumer Connect Initiative”, which is gobbledygook for paid PR. The content in such cases is usually an advertorial (a form of communication that I detest, since it neither does justice to advertising nor to PR). The newspaper is also renowned for several full front pages of advertising (known as jackets in industry speak), before the news even begins.

As an advertising and brand communications professional, I am probably one of the few in the “newspaper is for news” camp, but this brazen attempt by a newspaper to fill its pages with advertising and paid-for media content cannot have my approval. Many publications have since followed, including the likes of India Today and Outlook newsmagazines. I believe newspapers (and magazines) ought to have a fixed ratio of advertising to editorial content and should never exceed it.

This article is not about the Times of India, however. Nor is it only about advertising content in media. In fact, it is about editorial content across media and how it has been hijacked by a set of unprofessional businesses in the advertising and PR industry in India for the past 15 years or more. We blame the media in India for having become too compromised in recent years, too acquiescent to government pressures (especially the current dispensation) and too spineless to call a spade a spade. Some of that might be true, and we do know of how this government has hounded NDTV, in particular, for standing up to such pressures.

News that keeps us in the dark and tells us only what PR agencies want us to read

However, we might be overlooking another important and influential force, which I hate to say, is led by unprofessional elements in my own industry. In fact, the English media in India has all but handed over its editorial responsibilities to a PR agency, Perfect Relations, which has been trying to cover up its own unprofessionalism as well as that of its accomplice, an advertising agency in Chennai, RK Swamy/BBDO by indulging in the most extensive and egregious excesses of media power and influence for the past 15-16 years. I had the misfortune of having worked for both these organisations (or circuses, as I prefer to call them), and worked in two separate stints for the latter (in Delhi and Chennai).

These excesses take many forms. From manipulating images to change identities of people which make for obscene and vulgar viewing, to getting content written with clear and deliberate mischief in mind. Sometimes even by highly respected and well-known figures. For example, I was asked to help out with an assignment on Apple at Perfect Relations, Delhi, which was not an assigned account to me. I am not an Apple consumer myself, but having read enough about the company over the years, I put down my thoughts for whatever they were worth. Years later, after I had left them and returned home to my parents in Goa, I happened to read in the Indian Express (which my parents were then subscribing to), an article by Mihir Sharma on the edit page about Steve Jobs and Apple. Among other things, it referred to him as an ape in a black turtleneck and jeans. I was aghast at the language and the comparison, but I knew exactly what it was alluding to: an image of me receiving an award from The Pioneer newspaper in Delhi in which I was wearing a black turtleneck jumper under a jacket, of course, and in which my cheeks were puffed since I was struggling to hold the trophy as it was too heavy for me. It might also have been a reference to my dark skin and my resembling my father. I don’t mind being dark-skinned or looking like him either.

Why did Mihir Sharma write that in The Indian Express, you might wonder? Because the PR bosses had guessed that an old friend, Sarada, had asked me to read the Indian Express when I was in Delhi. Why she should tell me what newspaper to read, is not my concern. I have no wish to be her or anyone else. My suspicions were confirmed, when my younger sister visited with a copy of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs that was just out. Both these organisations have only been in the business of making me someone else. If not my younger sister, then my father, or an aunt, or a colleague, friend, or someone else. Even a maid. I am not joking, when I say that many cigarette break conversations at the Perfect Relations office in Delhi would be about how maids travel overseas.

Having wrecked my career, the better part of the past 15 years have been spent in trying to make me my sister, my father, or an old colleague, Sarada, who I hired at Ogilvy Delhi and who worked under my supervision. Over the years, I have come to realise just how obsessed these agency bosses are with physical appearances, colours and clothes. Colour-coding has become manic and obsessive even with corporates. I notice that colours have replaced strategy and ideas in brand communications.

Years ago, after I had returned home to my parents in Goa from Chennai, I wrote an article critiquing certain vulgar and sexist TV adverts that I had seen for Tata Tea and sent it to The Hindu, since they had published my articles before and since it is a serious and good newspaper, especially for this subject. It was for their Open Page, where they invited contributions from readers on any subject. They refused to carry it, and their reply offered no explanation either. Obviously the RK Swamy/BBDO and Perfect Relations bosses were already working overtime, even though I hadn’t even joined Perfect Relations then. I had only met Dilip Cherian at IIC in Delhi before relocating to Chennai, for a rather pointless meeting.

On the other hand, a recent article in Times of India, republished from The Independent was entirely about the clothes that the Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin wore. If the editorial content in newspapers is deliberately sexist and mischeviously motivated, so is it on TV. In fact, on TV it is much worse, given that it is a visual medium. So the emphasis on looks, parts of women’s bodies, skin colour, colour and style of the news anchors’ clothes and those of guests, etc are given the greatest importance. Never mind that they might actually be reading and speaking dumbing-down nonsense. Usually, it is nonsense. And I am not talking of only the English news channels in India, but the likes of CNN, BBC and CNBC New York. The content is deliberately slanted to be pro certain countries and anti-others. It is also meant to pander to the same dumbing-down unprofessional elements.

TV news focus only on women anchors’ looks and colours; Image of Natalie Brunell by Bakerstmd CC by SA 4.0 on Wikimedia Commons

The nonsense continues on social media. Both on LinkedIn and on Twitter, the unprofessional bosses (who, I hope realise, that they are no longer my bosses and have no business meddling in my life or my work) control my home page and what posts and whose posts I get to see, and whose I don’t. I have even come across a fake account and profile created for an Ogilvy Creative Director (who, unsurprisingly went by the name Ritu Sarada) and later I found that no such person exists on LinkedIn.

On LinkedIn, I also came across a post by Mr. N Chandrasekharan of Tata Sons written for LinkedIn on stakeholder capitalism and how the Tata Group has always practised it. I commented on the post, agreeing with him and also adding that it is another important reason why the Tata group can position itself as the company that empowers people and builds human capital. Later, when writing and recording my Owl Wisdom Podcast on stakeholder capitalism, I wanted to refer to his article and perhaps add it as one of the links in suggested readings, which I always do at the end of my podcast blogposts. I was horrified to find that the article was not there, and his LinkedIn profile too, I suspect is fake. It mentioned that he was based in Chennai, and had nine followers! Strangely though, on Google, I did find links to articles in The Hindu and The Business Standard, if I am not mistaken, on the article that Mr. Chandrasekharan had written for LinkedIn on the subject of stakeholder capitalism. Now, I find a link to a Hindu BusinessLine article about his piece. I think we all know by now, which unprofessional company bosses are behind this.

On LinkedIn, I also happened to read in a post (real or fake, I have no idea) about six gin distilleries having opened in Goa and doing brisk business. While on the subject of gin, I must mention that I came across a strange website once for a Monkey 47 Gin. I was taken aback by the branding and although I didn’t read the website, these PR bosses had obviously guessed my reaction. Next thing I know, they get a loooong article written in The New Yorker on how gin is making a comeback and they ensure that Monkey 47 Gin gets a mention there! If I am not mistaken, I also read a news report that Pernod Ricard has acquired Monkey 47 Gin. There are enough strange websites floating around on the internet and these unprofessional circus bosses also meddle in publishing, getting nonsense written and published, as I discovered years ago in Delhi.

The Economist too hasn’t been spared this dumbing-down circus. For close to a year, The Economist has been writing strange, and very obviously mischievously motivated nonsense. They have been indulging in mischief with images for even longer than that. Worst of all, was a UNDP report that the PR circus bosses got written on gender bias and then got The Guardian to write an article about it. The Report, all of four chapters (UNDP and the number are carefully chosen, by the way, based on guessing old conversations between Sarada and me) claims to be based on the World Values Survey, but it is such nonsense that you wonder if UNDP people didn’t have more sense.

If you think the hijack is only in media, you’ve got another thing coming! Government policy, my dear, is where these bosses are now playing for even higher stakes. They have taken covering up their unprofessional nonsense to the highest level, hoping the government will save them. If you have been wondering why the Indian government launched demonetization, you must know that the unprofessional bosses have talked nonsense to me about “notes” at Perfect Relations. RK Swamy/BBDO even put me on to a chartered accountant in Chennai who acted as though I had never filed income tax returns in my life, when he should have advised me about how to get my tax accounts shifted since it was the first time I was relocating in my long career. And this, when I have worked on an income tax amnesty campaign for the Indian government at Ogilvy years ago and believe in paying my fair share of taxes.

If you are wondering why the Janata curfew was announced for Covid in the manner that it was, you must know that it was nothing but a PR gimmick. In fact, ever since this government was reelected in 2019, it has only been a series of PR agency nonsense as policy missteps. Policies are being made to pander to the same unprofessional companies and individuals. Including the latest so-called stimulus to boost consumer demand, of allowing government employees to use their leave travel allowance and also take on a special festival loan to make purchases. Not only were they badly reported by the media, the schemes themselves will not do much to boost consumer demand. The money would have been better spent on infrastructure.

You must also know that a lot of this also comes from wild and senseless extrapolation. These circus bosses have made an art of extrapolating anything from colours to numbers and sizes. Again, based on reading/guessing old email exchanges between Sarada and me on small vs large organisations, they have gone berserk extending small and large to even the groceries that we buy. Yes, they meddle even at the level of our local grocery store.

Therefore, it is not surprising that they extrapolate the corporate world of brand communications to running a government, where branch offices stand for state governments and head office is the central government. And the PR circus bosses’ meddling, of course, goes on everywhere.

For years, I have despaired at the state of the advertising and brand communications industry, disrupted by change and technology as it is. But now, I also despair at the state of governance and news. I also get a sense of how many are desparately trying to make me a journalist or editor. I am neither, nor do I wish to be a writer of books. Let me make it clear. Like my father, I buy and read a lot of books.

That said, how can a set of unprofessional company bosses be allowed to get away with hijacking the news and the discourse in this country and worldwide? And what of the bosses at these media organisations and their editorial integrity? Media freedoms are all very well, but with them should come responsibility. The recent TRP scam that has come to light in India where three television news channels were found to have rigged their TRPs by bribing viewers with people meters, is only symptomatic of all that is wrong in the communications and media business. Things have gotten so bad that I wouldn’t be surprised if the scam itself was manufactured by bad actors in the communications and PR business in India.

The latest in the string of shocks, is that they have even got the New York Review of Books to change their website appearance, based on guessing certain colours which I had in mind when I started putting down my thoughts on brands in Delhi, around 13 years ago. Ogilvy Consulting in the UK too had guessed and used these colours. But, of course, both have deliberately guessed them wrong: NYRB to try and make me Valerie Pinto, who was COO at Perfect Relations and has to be the dumbest woman I have ever met, and Ogilvy Consulting to try and make me Sarada once again. I suspect Perfect Relations bosses are behind both these mischievous attempts, because they understand nothing about the communications business, yet continue to meddle in my work based on second-guessing and guessing. I even received an email from NYRB informing me of the new look about which, the less said, the better.

It’s time the guessing game stopped. If they wish to hire Sarada, they should go ahead and do it by all means. I have openly said on LinkedIn that anyone wishing to hire her may ask me for her contact details.

It’s also time that intelligent and grown-up conversations and discussions began, with the right people, of course. I have already said in a previous blogpost that I do not wish to have anything to do with the two unprofessional companies that I last worked with. I also see no reason to be or become anyone else. I am quite comfortable in my own skin, irrespective of its colour or its patchiness, and with who I am.

Finally, it is time the media showed some principles and spine.

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