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It's not for media to crusade: M.J. Akbar

By Mehre Alam (Senior Chief Sub Editor) / 25 April 2008

Celebrated journalist-writer Mubashar Jawed Akbar, better known as M.J. Akbar to his readers, is looking forward to the mid-May 'birth' of his new 'baby', Covert, a fortnightly political magazine.

The founder and former editor-in-chief of The Asian Age, arguably India's first international newspaper, has been in the news lately following his reported 'unceremonious exit' from the daily that he founded over a decade ago over reported differences on editorial policy. But the unputdownable Akbar is no mood to be browbeaten by these developments. In a freewheeling interview with Khaleej Times, he lets the words flow on a range of issues, including the recent controversies, if one may call them so. Excerpts...

Q: Is the institution of editorship over in India?

A: No, no, no! Let me tell you that the Indian democracy is more powerful than its temporary rulers. I am not a pessimist by all means. These are marginal ups and downs. We have to learn to have the maturity to take it in our stride and carry on. After all, I am starting a new product, Covert, in three weeks from now (mid-May). This is all thanks to the vibrancy of Indian democracy.

Khushwant Singh once wrote in his column that the publishers these days scout for 'office boy' qualities in the editors...

(Laughs). I suppose it's true of some publishers.

How far is 'corporate globalisation' impacting journalism today?

Look, you cannot eliminate the role of business interests in media. It's a reality. After all, media is also a large business. But every activity has, what might be called, its own dharma (duty), its own morality. You cannot succeed if you produce a shoddy product.

But is there a clash of interest vis-a-vis this dharma (publisher vs editor)?

If there is a dispute, it must be resolved keeping in mind that integrity has to be the goal. That's all. I think the best owners understand that.

You were here to attend the Arab Media Forum. There is talk of a lack of freedom for media in the Middle East. But how free are the media in the societies where they professedly enjoy unbridled freedom? Are they completely free? Or is it all about relative degrees of freedom?

Very often one man's freedom is another man's poison. I have no problem with people holding different viewpoints. I have absolutely no problem as long as the media expresses, or gives opportunity to, different viewpoints. One of my columnists in Covert, our new magazine, said he'd be writing on a subject in favour of the government, and I said 'yes, by all means!' I have no problem with anyone supporting any government. All I am saying is that the government must not stop anyone from writing the opposite (counter) view. I really welcome anyone supporting the government. Please argue your case! My job is only to act as a bridge on which a viewpoint travels from one end to the other from the source to the audience.

You are largely credited with establishing new trends in Indian journalism and spawning a new generation of journalists. Is the current crop as promising as yours?

They are more talented.

And, are they as committed to the spirit of freedom?

I hope so. (Laughs...) There is this tendency among people to think that their generation is the best. (Laughs again...) It's not that the spirit of media is eventually protected by only a few. But all it requires is a few people to  stand up and say 'no, certain things are unacceptable to us. While we all need and like money, that's not the sole criterion by which we go'.

Is the print media not getting affected by what is referred to as the electronic media's 'dumbing down' syndrome? Too many mundane/silly things hogging the limelight...

I am not worried about that. These are market corrections. A recent Pepsi ad (sponsored by Pepsi) shows young people taking an axe and breaking up a television set because it goes on babbling about Rakhi Sawant (Indian singer-actress known for her off-screen histrionics) and her kisses and such things. Now, when Pepsi does an ad, it does it after serious market research. You can see what they are saying. Now, I like cricket but this third rate overdose... excess always kills enjoyment!

 A media scenario is like a thali (plate of food). It's not a one-course meal. Like a thali, you need rice, you need some dal (pulse), and no thali is complete without achar (pickles). All these Rakhi Sawants and such celebrities are like achar. But you make a very serious mistake if you think that achar can replace rice.

Talking of the current media scene in India, is there space/scope for a new 'independent' political publication/magazine?

I think there is space for not just an independent magazine but also for independent television, independent newspapers... everything in media should be independent.

What about a 'fiercely independent' publication?

There is nothing called 'fiercely independent' or 'tamely independent'. You are either independent or you are not independent. I don't believe in media as a crusade. I believe media is for disseminating truth. That's our job. It's not our job to go into a permanent war with somebody. I am not interested in a permanent war with anyone, and certainly not with my government.

All I am saying is that you must have the right to disseminate something as serious as the nuclear debate (the Indo-US nuclear deal). I have every right, as an Indian, to offer the alternative point of view, particularly when such a large section of the media is refusing to give space to the alternative viewpoint. And I am very happy that we shaped the nature of the debate over the past two-three years. These are serious issues. It's not about exposing scandals or doing invasive journalism. These are matters of national importance; of sovereignty being compromised in the pursuit of 'x' or 'y'. It's our job to provide the readers with the alternative viewpoint and then let them make up their minds.

To what extent should the publishers be allowed to interfere in editorial matters? Does it call for a delicate balancing act?

Everything is done through discussions, in any country, in any reality. All I am saying is that it's the dharma of everyone involved in the media to agree on one point that is, irrespective of our other differences, we'll not compromise on integrity.

You now join a list of illustrious editors shown the door rather unceremoniously ...

(Interrupts) I have always wondered what a 'ceremonious' exit is like! (Laughs...) Do you get a wedding party or something like that hosted for you? All the exits are, I suppose, unceremonious!

So, finally, Indian journalism's loss is not going be the gain of Indian politics (now that you are set to launch a new publication)...

There is one school of power which believes that after you've committed a murder, you must always blame the corpse. Things (rumours of joining politics) were floated about me. They are most welcome to float anything they like.

 
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