Newspapers are vital public institutions. They are the soul of a State, the conscience of the people, in a manner in which no other medium is—or can ever hope to be. Yet, the key decisions in our newspapers are opaque operations that would put a Machiavelli to shame.
The removal of K.N. Shanth Kumar as editor of Deccan Herald and Praja Vani, with effect from February 15, and his replacement by elder brother K.N. Tilak Kumar, has caught the staff in the two papers completely unawares.
The outside world too has been in the dark as to why the change was effected at a time when Deccan Chronicle is threatening to enter Bangalore, and Times of India is preparing to flex its muscle (marketing) once again.
And the hapless reader, unless she pores over the imprintline, hasn’t even been extended the courtesy of being told that such a vital decision, which affects her every morning, has been made.
S.S. KARNADSHA and PALINI R. SWAMY piece together the inside story on the palace coup in Bangalore’s oldest newspaper group.
1. The DH-PV putsch was not an overnight development. It was in the air for quite a while between the three brothers—K.N. Hari Kumar (KNH), K.N. Tilak Kumar (KNT) and K.N. Shanth Kumar (KNS)—and had gained steam in the last three months, especially after rumours gained ground that one of the three was planning to sell his share to Deccan Chronicle.
2. Like earlier, two brothers came together to overthrow the third. When KNH was displaced, KNT and KNS had ganged up. This time around, it was KNH and KNT who got together to ease out KNS. The only surprise for insiders is that KNH and KNT joined hands despite the long-festering animosity that existed between the two.
However, unlike in l’affaire Hari Kumar, who was overthrown by a unanimous decision of the board of directors of The Printers (Mysore) Limited, the move to replace Shanth Kumar with Tilak Kumar, was a byzantine family affair, arrived after old foes turned friends; the board, which has such worthies as Kuldip Nayar on it, wasn’t in the picture through much of the intrigues.
(Besides the three brothers, there are three others on the board: Nayar, Narayansa of the Dhondusa family, and Goverdhan Kumar of Hassan)
3. Since he is already Chairman and Joint Managing Director of The Printers (Mysore) Limited, the holding company, KNT reportedly did not want to be editor after KNS. (In fact, it was on this precise point, that he had grabbed all the key posts of Chairman, Managing Director and Editor-in-Chief, that Hari Kumar was pushed out.)
Wary of the precedent, KNT is said to have offered the editorship to KNH’s wife Parul Shah (PS) as a quid pro quo for the support KNH had extended in dislodging KNS. But Parul, a non-journalist, reportedly did not seem inclined to take it up at this juncture.
PS has represented KNH on the board as he has decided to stay away and is present in all decision-making meetings, including recruitment interviews. In a recent set of interviews, PS and KNT sat close to each other, with KNS at the far end, almost showing who was where in the divided Netkalappa house.
4. After the palace coup had been effected, both KNT and PS addressed the senior editorial staff. They said what was being published in DH-PV was a cheap replica of The Times of India and that they wanted to strive to retain the publications’ identity, integrity and its tradition of political neutrality.
There was also vague talk of “improving” the products although it was under KNH, in the first flush of liberalisation, that the group was at its soporific best. Deccan Herald was caught napping by TOI and then Praja Vani was caught in the same supine position by Vijaya Karnataka, which had photocopied TOI’s tactics to instant success.
5. The indication that something big was in the offing had come exactly the day before the coup, when KNT made it blindingly clear in the PV newsroom that he was unhappy with the way the papers were coming out under KNS, and that what was being published was eroding the credibility of the publications.
Although the three brothers have never been seeing eye to eye for years, never had they allowed their family squabbles to spill out in the open, and never had such a damning analysis been delivered in the open.
6. Another surprising indicator of the change ahead in DH-PV had come at least a week before it actually happened in faraway Dubai. There, a Hyderabad media tycoon who is eyeing an entry into Bangalore and who was attending the Asian Racing Federation events asked a prominent Bangalorean, a member of the Bangalore Turf Club, if the change of guard had already taken place.
The Bangalorean had no clue as what the publisher was hinting at and was plain stupefied, only to return home and find that the two papers now had a new editor.
7. It is said that a detailed chargesheet was prepared before KNS was asked to go. The KNH-KNT camp contends that the “dismissal” was signed by Chairman KNT and the newsroom fax machine was used to send it across. In other words, the dismissal was in partial public view.
On the other hand, the KNS camp avers that there was no dismissal. Just a simple office circular stating that from February 15, 2007, KNT would be the editor of DH-PV, Sudha and Mayura.
Also, there was no fax communicating the order.
The two associate editors in charge of the papers (A.V.S. Namboodri in the case of DH, and R.P. Jagadeesh in the case of PV) were both called and hand-delivered the circular. And, as is the norm in any organisation, the two associate editors were required to sign in acknowledgement that they had received the circular.
The two associate editors were then told that they would take directions from KNT hereafter.
8. However, KNS, on the other hand, is said to have responded to the circular replacing him with a fax to the newsroom fax machine, in which he contended that he had been appointed by the board and only the board could unseat him.
In turn, KNT is believed to have replied to the same fax machine, simply and directly, that the board would endorse the decision in due course. Apparently, the majority of the board members had been taken into confidence before KNT dared to move against his younger brother.
9. What the chargesheet contained is difficult to reveal at this point but in essence it describes in detail the alleged indiscretions of KNS, especially his growing proximity to people in power, his ascension to the apex of the Audit Bureau of Circulations, his association with the publishing body IFRA, his captainship of the Bangalore Golf Course, his membership of the Turf Club, and so on, all of which allegedly imperilled the editorial quality of the publications.
Watch this space.
10. The talk in the KNH-KNT camp is that KNS had become arrogant and authoritarian and did not care for his brothers or the board. He is also said to have displayed pettiness at times (especially with regard to his eldest brother, whom he had replaced).
In one particularly gnawing case, when the maintenance staff of the newspapers were used to have a portion of KNH’s residence painted, the company reportedly contemplated serving him a bill of Rs 15,000 for services rendered, till wiser counsel prevailed.
However, the KNS camp contends that this is hogwash: “When there was no meeting, no talking between the eldest and the youngest brother, where is the question of being petty?”
11. The big charge, implicit more than explicit, is that KNS had used his position to allegedly cut “deals” with the H D Kumaraswamy government. Some say that he had also developed political ambitions.
The KNH-KNT camp believes that no previous Chief Minister of Karnataka had had the power to consume or even jolt the editor of such an influential and respected newspaper group, but Kumaraswamy managed to break fresh ground here too.
KNH-KNT camp followers say KNS was fully in his spell and H.B. Dinesh, the former Praja Vani man who is now media co-ordinator to the CM, was the go-between. Within the newsroom, key PV personnel are said to have come in handy to the political establishment.
When Kumaraswamy came to DH-PV to meet senior editors of the staff, KNS reportedly insisted on serving water himself by uncorking a mineral water bottle. The KNH-KNT camp also claims that Chairman KNT was not kept informed about the CM’s visit.
When KNH was editor for 25 long years, no politician dared to engage him in small talk. Many a time he did not even take calls from the high and mighty. But KNS is accused of bringing the dignity of the paper to the streets and giving free access to powerful political lobbies.
But the KNS camp contends that KNT had been informed of Kumaraswamy’s visit, but that KNH and KNT practised a strange madivantike that they should not meet politicians socially or have dinner with them. And this although chief ministers of all colour and hue, including R. Gundu Rao, had visited the Netkalappa bungalow in Basavangudi and fallen at the feet of and broken bread with K.N. Guruswamy, the late grandfather of the three brothers.
The KNS camp claims the charge of political proximity with Kumaraswamy is a convenient alibi for what was in effect a fait accompli. “KNH believes that nobody but him has the intellectual wherewithal to edit a newspaper. And what is there is to show that KNS benefited from his proximity with the chief minister but shallow, empty rhetoric?”
12. There was a growing resentment within DH-PV that KNS was increasingly falling prey to the Brahmin-RSS-BJP lobby. Some recent appointments in DH and PV are pointed out as examples. With the change of leadership, power centres in the newsroom are likely to shift.
KNH is said to have taken particular exception to the column of Sudheendra Kulkarni, a former advisor to Atal Behari Vajpayee who later became advisor of L K Advani, being reprinted from Indian Express, North, in Praja Vani by KNS. The objection was to the fact that Kulkarni, an IIT-Bombay product, was a politician (read BJP).
But, neither the fact that Kulkarni was a Kannadiga and a former journalist in his own right who wrote an engaging column, nor the fact that Ashok Mitra, the CPI(M) ideologue and economist, had been given a column for more than a decade by KNH was sufficient to disabuse him of the idea that KNS’ decision to give Kulkarni space was only in the fitness of good journalism.
Also read: New editor for Deccan Herald
Cross-posted on sans serif