In Setback to Jaitley, PTI Board Rebuffs Political Nominees for Editor's Job

"PTI will always be independent of political parties. I'll be damned if I am going to compromise on this," says Hormusji N. Cama, chairman of the news agency's board.

New Delhi: Asserting its independence in the face of a “particular” politician’s attempt to nominate the next editor of the Press Trust of India, the news agency’s board of directors on Friday decided to constitute a search committee of its own to select the successor to its veteran editor-in-chief and chief executive officer, M.K. Razdan.

Speaking to The Wire by telephone, Hormusji N. Cama, chairman of PTI’s board of directors said he and his fellow directors valued the independence of the news agency and were determined to protect it. “Some MPs spoke to a couple of board members. Some of them were approached and they mentioned this. I must emphasise that no MP has approached me. But there is no question of looking at candidates that have been recommended by politicians,” he said.

The candidates in question – Ashok Malik, a columnist and TV commentator who was awarded the Padma Shri in January this year, K.A. Badrinath, formerly of the Financial Chronicle, and Shishir Gupta, executive editor of the Hindustan Times – are all well-disposed towards the Narendra Modi government and the ruling BJP.

“Malik and Badrinath came and met me,” Cama, who is based in Mumbai, confirmed, while Gupta was “a late entrant into the fray.”

The decision to rebuff these suggestions is an indication of the weakening hold of the Modi government over media owners – who make up the bulk of the PTI board.

Explaining the background to Friday’s board meeting where the issue was discussed, Cama said the fact that Razdan is due to retire has been known for some time.

“As you can imagine, there are lots of people interested in the job. We had decided to separate the two functions of editor and CEO. Our view on the board was that there is likely to be talent in house on the editorial side so we should look for someone from outside who can look after the administrative and HR sides of PTI,” he said.

“Somewhere down the line, a couple of claimants came and presented themselves. But they were looking for the editor’s job. When we said how come you are applying when we are looking only for someone on the administrative side, they said they had been told there was a vacancy and that they should apply.”

“Reading between the lines”, said Cama, “it was clear that certain politicians had put them up to this.” And that for the board was a non-starter. “In PTI, we value our independence”, Cama told The Wire, “and this means we have to be independent of all political parties – be it Congress or BJP.”

He added that Razdan “has been a strong and unbiased editor and has set the bar very high for his successor. We will always be independent of political parties. I’ll be damned if I am going to compromise on this.”

On his part, Ashok Malik disputes the suggestion that he had applied for the editor’s job. “I did not apply and was not asked to apply,” he told The Wire. “A PTI board member contacted me and asked me if I would be interested. He clarified he was not offering me the job but making a tentative inquiry for a shortlist. He then asked for my CV. That’s it.”

PTI started operating in 1949 and is India’s largest and most influential news agency. Its stories help drive the news agenda of websites, TV channels and newspapers across the country in all languages, and governments and politicians are extremely sensitive to the tone and tenor of its reporting as well as the nature of its coverage.

It is governed by a 16-member board, 12 of whom are nominated by leading private newspaper groups and four of whom are “independent members”.

‘Jaitley spoke to board members’

Though Cama refused to name the “particular politicians” who had sought to drive the selection of the editor, other PTI board members speaking to The Wire on condition of anonymity said one of those who had pushed the case of the three candidates in question was Arun Jaitley, minister for finance and information and broadcasting. One board member revealed that both Malik and Badrinath told Cama that Jaitley had asked them to apply and that in the meeting their names, along with Shishir Gupta, was pushed by Mahendra Mohan Gupta of the Jagran group. “In addition, two members told the board – one without naming him – that Jaitley had spoken to them about Ashok Malik,” he said, adding: “The three names were a non-starter in the board.”

The Wire has learned that when the board on Friday objected to both Malik and Badrinath, Shishir Gupta’s name was suddenly proposed. All the board members, barring two, strongly hit back, saying the government cannot have a say in the selection of the editor.

A message to Jaitley went unanswered at the time of publishing this story.

The current composition of the board is as follows:

Mr Hormusji N Cama Chairman (The Bombay Samachar)
Mr Riyad Mathew Vice Chairman (Malayala Manorama)
Mr Vineet Jain Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd.
Mr Mahendra Mohan Gupta Jagran Prakashan Ltd.
Mr Aveek Kumar Sarkar ABP Pvt. Ltd.
Mr Viveck Goenka The Express Group
Mr Vijay Kumar Chopra The Hind Samachar Ltd.
Mr M P Veerendra Kumar The Mathrubhumi Printing & Publishing Co. Ltd.
Mr N Ravi The Hindu
Mr Sanjoy Narayan HT Media Ltd.
Mr K N Shanth Kumar The Printers (Mysore) Pvt. Ltd.
Mr R Lakshmipathy Dinamalar
Mr Jimmy F. Pochkhanawalla Independent Director
Mr Shyam Saran Independent Director
Prof. Deepak Nayyar Independent Director
Justice R.C. Lahoti Independent Director

At the February 26 meeting, Sanjoy Narayan from the Hindustan Times and Viveck Goenka of the Express group were not present. Narayan said he could not attend the meeting because he was busy overseeing his newspaper’s coverage of the Economic Survey. Aveek Sarkar of the ABP group, which publishes The Telegraph, was in London, but is known to be a staunch advocate of PTI’s independence from the government.

Vineet Jain, managing director of Bennet Coleman and Company Ltd (BCCL), the company which publishes the Times of India and owns the Times Now TV channel, was part of the decision to reject the candidates whose names were raised but he took to Twitter on Saturday to deny he had taken a stand.

All talk of his having taken a stand was “misinformation”, he said. “I took no stand”.

Note:  The story was edited at 4 pm on February 28, 2016 to add more details provided by another member of the PTI board.