This space for sale

Years ago, I dabbled briefly in film journalism, and one of my first assignments was to interview this rising young female starlet in the south who came with a great pedigree and considerable qualifications [it’s a different matter that she was the movie-business equivalent of Solomon Grundy — entered industry on Monday, shot to fame on Tuesday, got bad press for arrogance on Wednesday, married a superstar Thursday, and discovered oblivion Friday].

I was a tyro at the time; when the piece appeared in the paper, I enthusiastically carried a copy over to the Kodambakkam set where the actress was then shooting. My intention was merely to thank her for the time she had given me, and to pass along a copy of the outcome. ‘Madam is busy on the shoot’, a factotum told me. I handed over the paper, with an oral thank-you message, and was asked to wait.

A few minutes later, ‘Madam’s’ hairdresser came out and thrust an envelope into my hand; I opened it, found Rs 5000 [I was freelancing at the time; my payment for the article was Rs 750], and let fly with a startled ‘what the fuck’.

The hairdresser scurried back on set with the envelope I thrust back at her; moments later ‘Madam’ materialized, took me aside and asked if the amount was not right. When I told her giving me the envelope was what was ‘not right’, she looked bewildered. We got talking. She found out I was new to the ‘game’. I found out that in film journalism in the south, a regular rate card applied: so much for a gossipy snippet; so much for snippet plus photograph; so much for an interview; x amount for a full page, and so on.

I took my outrage to senior journalists, and got laughed at for my pains. One of them pointed at the ‘doyen’ of the vernacular film press — almost a star in his own right, turning up on sets in a swank car and being lionized by everyone from the stars to the gatekeepers — at the time and asked me to take a guess at his monthly salary. Turned out, the answer was Rs 1500 per month. His editors know how he makes his money, and don’t feel the need to pay him; he knows the ‘journalist’ tag is his passport to big money, so he doesn’t care what his salary is, they told me.

When I got to Bombay, I found similar stories from among the business journalist fraternity; I once worked with a colleague who, first thing each morning, sifted through the invitations to press conferences and called up the PROs to ask what the ‘gift’ was. He had refined the thing to a fine art — he would attend only those PCs where there was cash or gift cheques on offer.

At some point, newspapers figured out that journalists were making money while managements earned nothing — and lo, Page 3 was born and with it, a cash-and-carry business paradigm where social climbers paid newspaper managements, who in turn meticulously chronicled their appearances at various inane parties [there is at least one party animal on the Mumbai circuit I know of, whose ‘celebrity status’ is entirely a Page 3 concoction].

So I guess this story merely reflects the logical culmination of the space for sale aspect of journalism.

The deals were many and varied. A candidate had to pay different rates for ‘profiles,’ interviews, a list of ‘achievements,’ or even a trashing of his rival in some cases. (With the channels, it was “live” coverage, a ‘special focus,’ or even a team tracking you for hours in a day.) Let alone bad-mouthing your rival, this “pay-per” culture also ensures that the paper or channel will not tell its audiences that you have a criminal record. Over 50 per cent of the MLAs just elected in Maharashtra have criminal charges pending against them. Some of them featured in adulatory “news items” which made no mention of this while tracing their track record.

At the top end of the spectrum, “special supplements” cost a bomb. One put out by one of the State’s most important politicians — celebrating his “era” — cost an estimated Rs.1.5 crore. That is, just this single media insertion cost 15 times what he is totally allowed to spend as a candidate. He has won more than the election, by the way.

One common low-end package: Your profile and “four news items of your choice” to be carried for between Rs.4 lakh or more depending on which page you seek. There is something chilling about those words “news items of your choice.” Here is news on order. Paid for. (Throw in a little extra and a writer from the paper will help you draft your material.) It also lent a curious appearance to some newspaper pages. For instance, you could find several “news items” of exactly the same size in the same newspaper on the same day, saying very different things. Because they were really paid-for propaganda or disguised advertisements. A typical size was four columns by ten centimetres. When a pro-saffron alliance paper carries “news items” of this size extolling the Congress-NCP, you know strange things are happening. (And, oh yes, if you bought “four news items of your choice” many times, a fifth one might be thrown in gratis.)

Besides chronicling what happened, Sainath points at the real danger of this practice:

There are the standard arguments in defence of the whole process. Advertising packages are the bread and butter of the industry. What’s wrong with that? “We have packages for the festive season. Diwali packages, or for the Ganesh puja days.” Only, the falsehoods often disguised as “news” affect an exercise central to India’s electoral democracy. And are outrageously unfair to candidates with less or no money. They also amount to exerting undue influence on the electorate.

[Hat tip ‘The Commentator’ for this link via email]

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I’ll bat first, thanks

Too many games depend to an inordinate degree on the coin toss — so what if predicting the outcome could be an exact science? In that connection, read: the physics of the coin toss. [Link courtesy Sridhar Parthasarathy in email].

Runs and ruins

A mercifully slow day [mercifully, since I have a ton of running around to do, hence less time for blog], so will leave you for now with a clip from the cricket press.

Suresh Menon, writing in Mumbai Mirror, is not particularly impressed with the Indian fielding, which makes the writer the latest entrant to a rapidly growing club.

If the Vadodara performance is any indication, then Indian fielders have a problem with anticipation (even those near the boundary sometimes look surprised when the ball is played to them), with movement, with stopping the ball, with pick up and with throw. This is a series of shortcomings that makes a mockery of the art of fielding at the international level.

Praveen Kumar impressed with his batting, but India might have won the match well before the final over had he not given away easy runs by diving over the ball or reaching it late when Australia were batting.

Why do young, fit athletes struggle to bend so much? Or appear off balance when throwing? Is it time the Indian team laid down some qualifying rules – speed of foot, ability to hit the stumps and so on – before a player is considered for selection? Fielding is crucial in all forms of the game, especially the shorter versions, and India’s approach is embarrassing.

The reluctance to run shows itself while batting too. Well as Harbhajan Singh and Praveen Kumar batted towards the end, they certainly sacrificed more than four runs while admiring their shots or assuming that the ball would go to the boundary or running only a single when with better planning they could have run two.

Good points. Our selectors and the team management have traditionally paid lip service to fielding standards [“VVS Laxman is a good batsman, but too slow in the field”] without ever applying that thinking across the board – perhaps it is time they put a premium on this aspect of cricket [incidentally, it is no coincidence that the better fielders also happen to be good runners between wickets].

Suresh mentions Praveen’s batting heroics and contrasts that with his ineptitude in the field. While watching Harbhajan take strike to the 50th over of the chase, I wondered if he was remembering with regret the last ball of the 49th over of the Australian innings. Mitchell Johnson heaved an off stump ball to backward square leg. Bajji, who was positioned there, reacted late – and even so, had the angle narrowed down enough that a simple dive would have cut the ball off. Instead, he escorted the ball; it went for four – and we ended up losing by four runs.

The Indian team has this “pack the batting” mindset, and operates on the philosophy that anything the opposition puts up, its own batsmen will hunt down. It is flawed thinking; regrettably, after a brief period when the side seemed to be aware of the importance of good fielding and running between wickets, we seem to be regressing to an earlier, more lackadaisical age.