Mule In A Turf Club: The birth and death of India Update mag

Monday, 27 July 2015

  • How I dealt with IAS 'Media Experts'
  • One wanted to charge media for PIB pictures!
  • Another couldn't differentiate between TVCs and TV Programmes!

By S. Narendra

(Former Information adviser to PM, Principal Information Officer to Govt.of India,
and Govt Spokesperson)

 The narration in part one of this series dealt with a summary of the hurdles to be crossed for initiating a comprehensive public affairs campaign. An agency can conceive and recommend but the client has to totally buy into the philosophy, goals and objectives and the plan of action of the campaign. In the case of DAVP, it had to think both as the client and the agency. In addition, the client -the government- was not one but multiple entities each guarding its own turf zealously. The Steering committee, headed by the principal secretary, on paper was supposed to be an overarching body for overseeing reforms roll out but it also had to work through various departments and ministers that was a very slow process.

An added difficulty in planning and implementing  a  public affairs campaign for economic reforms was that  I&B ministry, filled exclusively with IAS and central secretariat officers, was oriented towards regulatory functions and prone to ‘control’ media units under it. There was no media and communication expertise within the ministry and it had to come from its media units that were looked upon as subordinate wings and rarely involved in policy making. Some IAS officers who came as I&B ministry secretaries, understood their limitations and attempted to seek professional  inputs from media units and  made other officials  in the  ministry to allow relative  functional  freedom  to media units. But more often than not, such functional freedom depended upon the individual traits of the secretary and other officials. In any case, the ministry was always preoccupied with Doordarshan, not only it bristles with problems but also because it offered more visibility, preferred by the political leadership for which all  that mattered was how much time - not to  what and for which purpose - was devoted to PM and  the government.
Speaking about individual styles of ministry’s leadership and its impact on media units functioning, here are a few instances:

There was an additional secretary-cum- financial adviser. On a financial proposal relating to the Press Information Bureau (PIB) he sagaciously recorded that since UNI and PTI were dishing out  official news widely, there appeared to be no need for the  government to have its own  PR and information disseminating unit. A secretary who came suddenly from urban development ministry to I&B, issued instructions that the government media units such as PIB, Photo Division should not make freely available photographs of  government functions to the media and should charge a fee. I had a hard time in explaining to this official that media give their  space free of cost when such photographs gets published even on the front pages. For love or money,   that space will not be available for government. He did not know how much PR effort was spent to get such media space. During his tenure in Urban Development ministry, he was overseeing renovation of Vigyan Bhavan, the principal venue for organising  important  officials functions. Ignoring my advice that the visual media must be accorded a special enclosure facing the stage, he arranged for their enclosure to be located far away from the stage, that too in small balconies in some corners of the main hall. 
Another I & B secretary, recorded his precious opinion that after the official TV-Doordarshan and AIR expanded their reach, they were capable of fully taking care of government ‘publicity’ and funding and staffing of other media units could be drastically cut. He did not realise that he was officially acknowledging a commonly known fact that Doordarshan and AIR were being used as government mouth pieces, and in the process losing their credibility and audiences.
There were several honourable exceptions to the rule of such bureaucrats and it was a pleasure to work with such officers.
Generally, there was little understanding within the ministry of the significant and subtle changes taking place in the media scene and people’s media consumption habits. Amidst such difficulty, I tried to push a series of TV spots addressing  complex economic reform themes like ‘value added exports against bulk goods’, ‘benefits of devaluation’ and so on. The ministry frowned upon such TV spot production as ‘infructuous expenditure’.
In the view of one of the financial advisers, production of TV   programmes was the exclusive function of Doordarshan and, therefore, DAVP should not stray into this area. DAVP was not expected to pay Doordarshan and AIR for their spots on reforms themes, as a consequence the slots they got depended upon their whims and therefore, there could be no media plan. The sad part of the story was that he could not distinguish between Spots and Programmes!
I had also introduced on a modest scale monitoring and evaluation (M&E) of DAVP outputs. Later, I tried to introduce similar M&E into PIB’s functions and wanted an outside research agency for evaluation of its reach and effectiveness. I was cautioned that such an exercise could expose the inadequacy of our efforts and hence, should be avoided.
Kannadiga Becomes A Telugu Bidda: The presentation that made to PM Narasimha Rao in January was a turning point in the campaign. I did not know Rao personally. Even this presentation had come about in strange circumstances. I was due to be elevated to the next level in my career and certain forces were working to edge me out and carried tales to PMO that my performance as Director General of DAVP was not up to the mark. As narrated in part one of this piece, I had made a candid presentation that almost told the story of the emperor who wore no clothes. Surprisingly, I survived and the PM’s appreciation of the negative feedback. I was already a member of the Principal Secretary’s Steering Committee overseeing the reforms. Soon, I was appointed the Principal Information Officer to government, and concurrently Information Adviser to PM, and Spokesperson. The India Today announced my appointment thus: Mr xxxxx , a person hailing from the PM’s home state, Andhra Pradesh, has been appointed as xxxx’.
Workshop for Government Media: On my suggestion, the PM directed that a 3-day workshop for senior officials of I & B ministry media units should be conducted to brief them about the reform agenda. He personally addressed this Workshop, which was followed by discussions with the finance and other ministers and senior officials. The cabinet secretary and the Principal Secretary to PM also participated in it.
In the first interaction with PM after my appointment I had informed him that when I was working inside the government councils, I would be representing the media. And when I am with the media, I would be representing the government. Also, I requested him that as the Spokesperson of government, I must be allowed to keep my credibility with the media intact. That would mean that I should have full access to all official information and be part of the decision making process. Further, putting media under undue pressure would be counter-productive in the long run.   Rao was very gracious in appreciating these points. Never in my tenure I was asked to ‘kill’ a negative media story that had some substance in it.
AICC Session at Tirupati: The PM had taken seriously the point I had raised in my presentation that the government and Congress party were deficient in their political communication. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) and the Congress party session were to be held in April at Tirupati. He told me that he would use this session to initiate political communication for removing the apprehensions of the party rank and file about the reforms. Several people were working on the speech that  Rao was to deliver as the party president at this session. Almost all drafts of the speech received from different sources were sent to me for arriving at central   unifying messages. In the final speech he included my suggestion that it should focus on Gandhiji’s reference to the poor as ‘Daridranarayan’. The ‘Talisman’ test (reforms measures) should  be invoked to see whether  they go to wipe the tears off the eyes of the poor or not. In his address, Rao explained that he had not changed the Nehruvian economic model of private and public sector mixed economy. The Reforms were meant for expanding the role of the private sector in critical sectors like infrastructure and manufacturing that would free the government resources which would be increasingly used for improving health, education and for anti-poverty programmes. He was at pains to stress that the role of the government   under the reforms would only change but it would not lessen the government’s importance.
During the  run up to the AICC session, perhaps,  I had gone out of the way in suggesting to PM  that he should  consider appointing  a trusted person as  his chosen deputy, who could  regularly  interact  on PM’s behalf, with the  party rank and file and travel to states for party communication work. I had made this suggestion because I learnt from a modest study that the district and state Congress leaders had expressed their dissatisfaction with the party’s political communication. The PM was very busy with official work  and even in Delhi  he was unable to spend time in the party office. The PM seemed to be inclined to consider this suggestion but certain manoeuvres by Arjun Singh, Sharad Pawar and other AICC members, especially their efforts to manipulate the party poll at Tirupati, made him abandon the idea. 
Investors’ Conferences: The PM was called upon to address a number of foreign and Indian investors meets   organised by various sponsors, such as the London Times, and The Economist. He used such occasions to seek to correct the impression that   India was favouring FDI at the cost of India’s sovereignty. The finance and commerce ministers were expected to say whatever appealed most to investors. For example, they would highlight the attraction of India as a huge middle class market (of about 100-150 million people), and they would assure that the government  in the course of time could  fully open up for FDI sectors that had been partially opened.

Rao was to address one such important conference. It began with the familiar mention of India as a great middle class market. When his turn came to speak, Rao   ignored his prepared text (prepared by the finance ministry) and spoke extempore. He told the investors that if they came only to exploit the small Indian middle class market of 100 -150 million, that would make the market shrink and unsettle the reforms. He said that he would welcome FDI that   aimed to make India a market of 850 million (that was the total population) by creating jobs and give a stake to them in the economic reforms. He asked them to look at India’s infrastructure deficiency as an opportunity, not as an obstacle. He even promised to remove any difficulties they faced in investing in sectors like infrastructure and food processing which the government had listed as priority areas for investment. 
While leaving the venue, Rao asked me to join him in his vehicle and during the ride explained to me   his thinking behind his speech. From whichever platform he spoke later, the prime minister would make it a point to explain to me, after the speech delivery, as to why he had stressed certain points. This was to give me background that I could use in my briefings to media commentators. This also helped me in editing PM’s speeches that were printed in several languages and distributed to a select mailing list, running into hundreds of thousands!
India Update: As mentioned earlier, economic reforms and globalisation were viewed with apprehension in many quarters. Only the pink newspapers were their supporters. I had mooted the idea of the government acquiring a voice for advocating reforms and the road ahead. The suggestion was unprecedented in the sense that it should not be identified with the government, but out of its control, could criticise government and its policies and reach out to businesses and other opinion makers.
Thus was born a fortnightly INDIA UPDATE published by a private firm but funded by the government, indirectly. The PM and his Principal Secretary A.N.Verma approved my proposal to support a fortnightly magazine focused on economic reforms. Competitive bids were invited and they were screened by a committee that included the finance ministry representative. The firm that fielded the best editorial team, content and design was to be selected. The team that won the contract for publishing the fortnightly included Siddharth Ray (later, of Star TV), Raghav Behl (later, TV 18), Vivek Sen-Gupta (who later headed IPAN) Gopalakrishnan (later editor  of Mathrubhoomi) among others. The scheme was that DAVP would contract to buy at   cover price (inclusive of distribution cost) ten thousand copies. The publishing firm was to distribute   the copies to business chambers, place the fortnightly at leading hotels, on flights and send to select opinion makers in different fields. A targeted mailing list was prepared for this purpose. In addition the magazine was sold through newspaper vendors.
The magazine, besides highlighting reforms, would espouse the cause of further reforms. Each issue would take up a sector as a special section in the 8-10 page fortnightly. The government had no editorial control over, including the views and commentaries. INDIA UPDATE acquired traction, judging from the fact that its sales went up.

Scandal Avoided: When the magazine was opened for bidding, there was a  hint from the prime minister Rao that I may consider giving it to a senior lady journalist who was known to be close to him. I met the principal secretary and submitted to him that if the contract were to go to this lady journalist, the magazine would loose its credibility and its birth would be preceded by a scandal. Myself and Verma met the PM and as politely as possible explained the likely fallout. The matter ended then and there.
One of the conditions I had put on the publishers was that the magazine should be brought out issue after issue regularly and there should be no break. Further, after one year of government support, it would be phased out so that India Update learns to stand on its own. Unfortunately, the  professional team chosen by us, after six months of continuously publishing the magazine, began to  break-up and it was not able to bring out the issue on time. As a result, I had  to change the publishers. The new outfit that took over the magazine, was not as competent. The firm wanted to curry favour with the government as a result of which the magazine lost its credibility. With the government’s permission, I withdrew the funding.

Technology Advances: Those were early days for India’s IT. Our organisation PIB, was one of the earliest ones to embrace the state of the art IT available then. As the language media was slow to adopt It, we threw open our facilities to media and offered free of cost computer training to journalists in Delhi as well as the state capitals. We introduced   an electronic bulletin board with the latest official information that could be accessed by media from anywhere. Video conferencing was a novelty then, and this facility was deployed to hold periodic briefings for the regional media. The representative of the latter were required to assemble at a regional video conferencing facility, set up at PIB’s regional centres, for interacting with me and others at Delhi.

I traveled to state capitals to meet owners of regional media for pleading with   them to station staff in Delhi who could cover economic and business subjects. With the   help of Reuters and Thomson Foundation, we organised free training in economic reporting for journalists.(To be Continued)


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