The former chief political commentator of The Daily Telegraph in London has written a damning piece about how his former newspaper has suppressed or severely under-played news about the British bank HSBC. The bank has been at the centre of journalist and now police investigation for the way it ran its Swiss operations, and the role it played in tax evasion and related practices; consequently, it has been much in the news. That HSBC would try and indeed succeed in attempts to muzzle a major British newspaper is news, if true. HSBC has apologised to the British public through newspaper advertisements for its banking transgressions. What it has to say on the Telegraph's former columnist's revelations and allegations with regard to the use of advertising money as a tool to influence editorial behavior would be interesting to find out.
Do companies try such stunts in India? You bet they do. Most publishing houses in India know from experience that the country's largest business houses don't think twice about blacklisting a newspaper and denying it advertising if offence has been caused by any reportage or editorial comment. Many state governments (which are often run as private empires of the chief minister of the day) do the same. Now even public sector entities, more bound by internal rules than whimsical owners of private enterprises, have resorted to the practice. HSBC, if it has been doing what is alleged, is therefore in good Indian company.
The institutional defence against such pressure is of course to have an independent editor. The advertising sales staff feel the pressure of being blacklisted because they miss sales targets, but most editors would consider this a minor irritant. Publishers would like to get over the conflict, but are usually hesitant about asking an independent editor to tailor editorial content in line with an advertiser's wishes. This changes when the editor is also the owner (as is increasingly the case), or if the editorial department has been made completely subservient to the business interests of the publishing company - which too is less of a rarity than before. In the case of the Telegraph, the change seems to have come with the editor being replaced by a "head of content". Such innovations are not unknown in India.
Company chieftains show a lack of awareness of the implications of their blacklisting decisions. If they withdraw advertising on account of editorial conduct, they draw a connection between the two that self-respecting publications try to keep apart. If the publications were to repay the advertiser in the same coin, it would mean publishing reams of negative stuff about a company if it did not give advertisements. The word for such conduct would be blackmail. But then, blacklisting publications is blackmail too, so why shouldn't a publication repay in kind? The only thing that stands in the way of such a response is a publication's internal code of editorial ethics, which would stand for accuracy, fairness and balance. But does the offending advertiser have such a code?
At a time when technological changes are putting ever more pressure on the bottom lines of news publications, their vulnerability to financial pressure has increased. Indeed, publications bought trouble by lowering the price of publications to absurdly low levels in order to win circulation wars; that increased dependence on advertising money. In the last couple of years, as it has become ever clearer that advertising money is moving away from print, some publications have started raising cover prices to levels closer to the cost of newsprint and printing. If the advertiser does not pay, the reader has to. Ultimately, readers get editorial quality and independence if they are willing to pay for it.