Media Matters

Economic and Political Weekly on edge: Reflections of former editor Rammanohar Reddy

After EPW editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta resigned last week after disagreements with the trust that publishes the journal, a previous editor calls for dialogue.

There is a crisis in the governance of the Economic and Political Weekly. If not attended to, it is certain to affect the reputation and the quality of the journal. As some one who was Editor for more than a decade I hope I can offer some suggestions on what we can do.

Writing letters to the Trustees of Sameeksha Trust signals to them that we are unhappy. But that is not enough. The only effective way is to directly engage with the Trustees.

Before dismissing this as a weak-kneed response, please read on.

Which academic or journalist with self-respect and integrity will now want to be Editor of a journal whose Board can one day say (i) you can’t write under your name, (ii) we will appoint a joint editor, and (iii) we will draw up norms of behaviour (written?) between the Board and the Editor? I doubt if even Murdoch has such norms for his Editors.

(Paranjoy Guha Thakurta has claimed that the Trustees laid down these conditions, following which he resigned as Editor last week. That the Sameeksha Trust’s public statement does not refute this tells us that this did happen.)

Much as I am unhappy about what has happened in the past week, I am more worried about the future. If we do not take corrective action now, there is good reason to expect EPW to slide. And as anybody with a basic understanding of the media knows, once publications start declining it is almost impossible to reverse the trend.

The power of dialogue

The Trustees can choose to ignore any letter addressed to them even if 500 readers and writers of EPW sign it. The Trustees may feel that after some time the letter-writers will move on to other things. This is what happened in early 2016 after the turmoil on the eve of my departure and is more than likely to happen now as well.

Waiting it out is a good strategy when you have all the power. And the Trustees do have that power.

The Sameeksha Trust is a self-selecting board whose members have given themselves permanent tenure. So voting them out is not possible.

I therefore feel the only way to repair the situation is dialogue – polite, detailed and firm dialogue.

A small group of readers and writers could meet the Trustees individually and engage in a discussion about the future. The Trustees may not be aware right now, but the responsibility for repairing the damage is theirs and we have to convince them as such.

There must surely be some doubt among them that after nearly 50 years of smooth functioning, two extreme events have happened within 15 months. Something must be wrong somewhere. It can’t be coincidence.

We must convince the Trustees that they must quickly come out with a public statement that (i) affirms independence of the office of the Editor
(ii) states that in future the Trustees will not issue any directions on either selection of articles or their removal from the EPW website
(iii) asserts that the Sameeksha Trust will back the Editor and the team in any legal matter arising from publication of articles and
(iv) insists that the Editor will have full freedom in all respects other than in matters concerning the Sameeksha Trust where he should consult with the Trustees.

This may seem like an admission that what they did last week was wrong. It is so. But there is more at stake here than personal pride. As eminent academics who have written for, read and even learnt from EPW they know the value of the journal. They will not want to be remembered as individuals who oversaw the wrecking of EPW.

A statement from the Trustees on the lines I have suggested may seem like nothing much but it will serve to rebuild some confidence in the EPW community that repair is possible. That will be a beginning. It will also allow the Trustees to start on a clean slate.

Six of the eight trustees are in New Delhi and there are many members of the EPW Community in New Delhi. It is easy for a small group of the young and the old, the learned and the learning to go and talk with them.

Will it work? We have no choice but to try.

If it does not, we may well have to later say, EPW was one more Indian institution that was so difficult to build and so easy to destroy.

If it does work, it can be a beginning. There is more to be done thereafter as I hope to write in the next post.

II Ideas for change in governance

In my previous post I suggested a dialogue with the Trustees on how to make a new beginning. After the beginning more has to be done.

A friend and former colleague, Gautam Navlakha reminded me the other day about the contents of a letter I had written in February 2016 with some ideas for change in governance in the Sameeksha Trust.

Reading that letter again I think much of that still makes sense. Here are some extracts

“Public or Private Trust?

There appears to be a view that the Sameeksha Trust is a ‘private’ trust and is therefore not answerable to the ‘public’, or ‘outsiders’. This is wholly incorrect, legally and substantively.

The Sameeksha Trust is registered under the Bombay Public Trust Act of 1950 which covers, among other things, trusts set up for charitable purposes including education. The Trust also enjoys tax exemption under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act for donations made to its corpus; it is therefore answerable to the public. Public trusts cannot claim a privatised existence.

It is hoped that the Trustees of Sameeksha Trust will not make this argument to resist engagement with scholars, readers, writers and the larger body public itself, all of whom constitute the EPW community. If they do hold on to this argument it is the responsibility of the EPW community to convince them otherwise.

Towards Change

Much of what EPW editorializes on and has stood for is for our institutions to be more democratic in their functioning. Indeed, a longstanding tradition at EPW, going back to the days of Sachin Chaudhuri, has been of openness... It is therefore time for the Sameeksha Trust to look at a way of functioning that is democratic and open to interaction with the public, the very people who have made EPW what it is.

It would be in keeping with the spirit with which EPW was set up that the rules drawn up in 1966 (as embodied in the trust deed) are re-examined in 2016 [2017] and changes made where necessary to enable the Sameeksha Trust to perform its role in vastly different circumstances than in 1966..

(i) Consultative Body

As one set of correspondents has suggested:

it could be of…value if the wider ‘EPW community’ of scholars were … given a platform to interact with the Editor and…Trustees…through the establishment of an ‘Interactive Consultative Body’, comprising a dozen or so members drawn from the community of scholars, and chosen by the Trustees in consultation with the Editor.

Such an advisory body could channel suggestions from the EPW community to the Editor and Trustees, listen to what the Trustees and Editor have to say, and respond to the Editor’s requests on editorial and other matters. [It could also interact more closely with the dedicated administrative and editorial staff of EPW, with whom the Trustees rarely interact.] How such a body should be constituted, how it should function, and whether it should be a purely advisory body or be endowed with some powers, should all be matters for discussion between the Trustees and the EPW community.

Elsewhere in the world (The Guardian of the UK for instance or at home The Tribune), there are trusts which publish newspapers and magazines, and we can study their experiences in order to strengthen the Sameesksha Trust-EPW arrangement.

(ii)Constitution of Board of Trustees

(a) We need to have serving members of the academy, and also persons with experience in/knowledge of each of the following areas: academic publishing, media and the digital world,

(b) We need to give thought to having a Board of Trustees which is diverse in its composition,

(c) We must lay down the duration of each term of and term limits for the Chairperson and Trustees

There are other important areas where we need a discussion. One such is the process of selection of Trustees. The consultative process needs to be much more widespread than at present, perhaps the selection process needs to be even formalised in some manner.”

These are only ideas as we look ahead.

Somewhere I have been disappointed less with the Sameeksha Trust and more with the larger EPW community that after January 2016, it did not – until last week – care much about how to improve governance in the Trust. I hope there can be sustained involvement now.

A greater involvement of the EPW community is also important for governance within EPW, something I would like to speak about in my third and final post.

III The EPW community

When I joined EPW in 2004, I was astonished to see how passionate the legions of readers and writers of EPW were about the journal. They were ever ready with suggestions, appreciation (and criticism) and offers to help in any way. I felt then that there was this “EPW community” out there which was so fiercely protective about the journal that they would not allow “their” journal to ever fade.

Yet, the EPW community seemed to have disappeared the past 15 months.

I am aware that former heads of organisations are prone to saying “it is no longer as good as it was under me”. Yet, the change in the journal for the worse was so obvious and happened so quickly that this was not a crotchety retiree seeing things.

I am not one of those who feel that EPW is an academic journal and it should not be doing investigative stories. To remain relevant and grow, all publications must build on their strengths and refresh themselves. May be in this time of media fear, EPW could do things nobody else was doing.

However, a major shift in editorial content first needs to be extensively discussed with the staff in the organisation, with the wider community and finally with the Sameeksha Trust. A focus on muck-raking that takes on the powerful requires a dedicated team (remember Spotlight?) and a legal eye that highlights the potential weaknesses in stories. I am not aware if any of this happened.

On the investigations themselves, the few that I read were all based on either a single (anonymous) source or document. There was no cross-validation and no supplementary analysis of a primary or secondary nature – basic pre-requisites for investigative stories.

I do not want to be seen knocking Paranjoy Guha Thakurta the week after he was forced out of his editorship, and I may well be accused of being an “Adani stooge” (and even of writing a fresh job application!), but it has to be said: If I were Editor of EPW I would not have published most of the investigative stories that have appeared in EPW the past year.

They were simply not good enough, which they had to be if you were taking on some of the most powerful in the land. I did not see any defamation anywhere nor did I see any exposes.

EPW was always as much about how the journal was produced as about what it published. An open, collegial and as democratic a way of working as was possible was what gave it strength. This is also what gave its dedicated staff a sense of pride. Again I was not sure if the new EPW realised the importance of maintaining this work environment that was so important for Krishna Raj (Editor 1969-2004).

It seemed not to be so. The result was apparent. The journal continued to appear with clockwork regularity but it seemed to be drifting. It seemed as if what was published depended only on what came in. Not many articles seemed to be commissioned. Care seemed to be no longer given to ensuring a mix of discipline and author diversity, And most worrying, it seemed as if some articles had been published without prior review or evaluation.

EPW seemed to be turning into a platform for acquiring API points for promotion and meeting PhD requirements of publication. It was no longer a forum of ideas.

All good publications can see the Editor’s imprint in every issue. Here the Editor was absent other than in the investigative stories.

There remained the occasional decent article like this one on the size of the Indian middle class. These were the exceptions. At a time when we needed EPW more than ever before in helping us understand India, EPW seemed to have disappeared.

Where was the EPW community when all this was happening? Some did tell me that things were not good, but this was never publicly expressed. There was only silence.

I was also silent. Well, obviously I could not and should not have immediately commented on my immediate successor. Now I can.

‘The turn’

This was so different from the early 1990s when a group of senior scholars sharply criticised the EPW of the time for “the turn” it had taken. The Letters columns of EPW saw a passionate debate over months on what was wrong and what needed to be done. As a reader at the time, I felt the critics were wrong but what I admired was the involvement in the journal everyone displayed.

The passion has been re-energised the past week. It has taken the form of outrage, accusations and counter-accusations. It can’t begin and end with social-media activism and letter writing. There has to be sustained involvement and eagle-eye monitoring.

If a rapid slide in EPW after the current crisis can be averted on the basis of some of the suggestions I have made in the previous posts (or with other and better proposals), a beginning will have been made. However, in the long run as the environment around us continues to remain dark, the EPW community must watch over and protect the journal on a regular basis. I hope some institutional structure can be devised to facilitate an interaction with the community.

I would only say to the community, “It is your journal. If you do not look after it, the journal will fade. The responsibility to prevent that is yours and yours alone, not of the Editor or the Sameeksha Trust.”

C Rammanohar Reddy is Scroll.in’s Readers’ Editor but these posts, reproduced from his Facebook page were written from his vantage point as the former editor of the Economic and Political Weekly.

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