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Reliability is everything
- The Hindu celebrates its 125th anniversary

My first pleasure of the day is reading newspapers in bed (no, not The Telegraph; it does not get to me till midday). The first newspaper I read is The Asian Age — because it is such good fun. It is racily written, it has a lot of pictures, and it publishes unusual material. It gets too few advertisements, and so is terribly expensive. But I find it well worth the price.

Then I read The Indian Express. It fulfils most closely what I consider the function of the press — investigative journalism. Ever since I joined the finance ministry in 1991, I have been close to the press — often uncomfortably close. As an economist, I should not be, but I am always depressed by the influence of economic forces on newspapers. Reporters try to minimize effort: they cultivate certain people in the government or industry, ring them up around midday, and get a story. The stories would stop if they wrote anything hostile to the sources; that is how one gets a pliant press. Editors want to get close to the prime minister, to go on junkets with him, so they pull their punches.

Considering the pressures to be nice to the powerful, I am pleasantly surprised by the independence we do find in our press. And this is where The Indian Express scores highest in my view. Sometimes the stories are wrong; more often they are one-sided. But no newspaper can be expected all the time to be objective and fully informed. The truth emerges out from competition.

Different newspapers present different versions; and since they have to fill pages day after day, they reshape their own stories over time. In the end, a generally accepted version emerges. It is not always right. But it is the closest we can come to truth. There is no better process to bring things into the open. And this exposure is what The Indian Express concentrates on.

Finally I read The Hindu. For that is where the news appears as a finished product. Reliability is everything. After I have read The Hindu, I think I know the facts as well as it is possible at the moment and in the circumstances to know. The Hindu is not as readable as other newspapers. For one thing, they try to put down only what is new; whereas The Hindu will make a well-rounded, self-sufficient story. One may not need all the background, but when one does — if one wants to be conscientious and understand what is happening — The Hindu is the place to look. For another, the desire to save effort leads reporters to repeat the same story a number of times in different words. Reporters, however, seldom do this in The Hindu; there is hardly a superfluous word. Third, newspapers follow mutually conflicting objectives of having big headlines and cramming as much news on the front page as possible. The compromise evolved by most involves a high proportion of space to headlines, and many stories tailing on to later pages. The Hindu almost never does this. You can stop at the front page of many newspapers. You cannot do that with The Hindu; you have to turn the pages if you want to get the best out of it. Finally, The Hindu is perhaps the last daily in India that has not succumbed to the Screaming Headline Syndrome. In an effort to catch public attention, headline writers have increasingly gone in for sensation, slang and slickness. I often find the headlines a pain. The Hindu is one newspaper whose headlines are in complete words and immediately comprehensible combinations.

The Hindu celebrated its 125th anniversary on September 13. It published a supplement which gave a fascinating glimpse into its history. In 1878, the government of Madras appointed the first Indian judge of the Madras high court — T. Muthuswami Aiyar. The Anglo-Indian press of Madras made fun of him. Incensed, six young men — two schoolteachers and four law students — put together the princely sum of a rupee and 12 annas and printed 80 copies of 8 quarto pages, priced 4 annas each. The students soon became lawyers, chose discretion and parted company, although one kept writing for The Hindu for 60 years; the two ex-teachers carried on. G. Subramania Aiyar became editor, and M. Veeraraghavachariar managing director. Aiyar was a founder member of the Congress in 1885, and host when it met in Madras in 1887. He was a reformist; when he went to the 1889 session of the Congress in Bombay, he married off his eldest daughter, Sivapriyammal, who had been widowed at 13. He attacked the Hindu society for its attitude to women and to low castes. An advertisement in the newspaper in 1893 had the heading: “Wanted virgin widows to marry.”

His radicalism made colourful reading, but was disastrous for the newspaper’s finances. As they worsened, the two friends quarrelled, and Subramania Aiyar left in 1898. The newspaper became conservative; but that only accelerated its decline. In 1905, Veeraraghavachariar sold off the newspaper to its legal adviser, Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, for Rs 75,000. K. Ranga, as he would be called today, had business sense. He stopped sending the paper to those who did not pay, bought telegraphic news from Reuters, and introduced a sports page which was particularly good on English cricket and horse races. When he died in 1923, The Hindu was the second largest newspaper in the South with a circulation of 17,000.

Kasturi Ranga Iyengar’s elder son, K. Srinivasan, served as managing editor till 1959; the younger son, Kasturi Gopalan, became publisher and printer, and attended office every day from 1913 till 1974. On Srinivasan’s death, Gopalan’s elder son, G. Narasimhan, became managing director; in 1965, his brother, G. Kasturi, became editor. The Sixties were perhaps The Hindu’s heyday: in 1965, The Times chose it as one of the world’s ten best newspapers, and in 1968, the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association gave it its World Press Achievement award. In the Sixties, it also had three strikes — the only ones in its history.

Today G. Narasimhan’s son, N. Ram, is editor-in-chief; G. Kasturi’s son, Venugopal is editor of Business Line, the best Indian business newspaper. The newspaper is still headed by the great-grandsons of Kasturi Ranga Iyengar, the lawyer who bought it 98 years ago. It is a family enterprise in the Indian tradition. The Nineties have seen many business dynasties crumble; The Hindu, on the other hand, doubled its circulation.

The Hindu’s strength has lain in the fact that it had the southern market sewn up. Just as The Times of India was once an addiction of western Indians and The Hindustan Times that of Delhiites, many south Indians could not do without their morning dose of The Hindu.

But that is changing. The Indian market is getting integrated; and with satellite communications, a newspaper can be both national and local. The Times of India has made inroads into the northern market; The Hindustan Times seeks to go eastwards. These brash, slapdash, animal-spirited newspapers are going places; the day is not far when they will storm The Hindu’s bulwarks. The Hindu, of course, has prepared itself for this with its various city editions; but to succeed, it will have to acquire sizeable readership outside the south. Can it' Will it' I do not know. But while it tries, it will have one loyal reader in the savage North.

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