Of human bondage and Times of India

This appears to be censorship of the worst kind. The Times of India Group now plans to own the social media presence of its employees.

But BCCL, as the company is known, is telling journalists that they must start a company-authorised account on various social media platforms. They also have the option of converting existing personal social media accounts to company accounts. On these, they are free to discuss news and related material. The company will possess log-in credentials to such accounts and will be free to post any material to the account without journalists’ knowledge. It is now also mandatory to disclose all personal social-media accounts held by the journalist to the company.

Earlier, The Hindu had asked its staffers not to share news links from rival publications. But the TOI move is vastly different.

Many companies will not permit employees to promote other products, and this is borne out by the fact that people often state that their views are personal and not a reflection of their professional roles. There is a reasonable argument to this: Would someone working for the Tatas promote an Ambani product of the same kind? Fidelity is an unstated requirement of employment.

Should the same standards apply to abstract products like news, especially when the media itself uses breaking news stories from other outlets to follow up on? The issue here is not merely the open source nature of news, but who disseminates it. A senior employee of a media house (MH) linking to a story from a rival sends out the message that her/his own MH has not managed to get ahead. This is a competitive field, like any other. The stakes, including the commercial, are high. In an ideal world this ought not to be a consideration, but this is not an ideal world.

Journalists are today on the market and will not sell their skills to less than the highest bidder. How many of them are willing to forego the benefits derived from the Response Department? How many senior hacks will give up their cushy jobs to fight against what is obviously a form of bondage? This would be the true test for many of those who have ridden on the wave of freedom of expression to join another form of oppressive media.

Why has the Times decided on owning its staff in the public sphere? There are a few reasons, besides the obvious one of wanting to be a control freak:

• TOI wants to ensure uniformity of ideas, because allowing different streams of thought dissipates its brand value.
• It cannot be seen as promoting others who its ads announce are way behind in readership, viewership and whatever other ship there is. (TOI notoriously, and unethically, does not give credit to rivals even when it uses their reports, choosing instead the vague "said to a TV channel/newspaper".)
• It knows that the social media presence of its stars gets a lot of mileage due to their association with the brand, whatever be its quality. TOI hates giving freebies.
• Some journalists tend to believe that having a social media account makes them into ideological troupers who need to be covered in glory or martyrdom. Both are win-win positions. TOI is quick on giving the latter by getting them to relinquish the former in its name!

The Quartz report further states:

According to two journalists at the group’s English-language newspapers, protests about the clauses in the contract have not yielded much result. Reporters who have raised concerns with their editors say they have mostly been told that those will be addressed in due course.

While this story might not be comprehensive, it is striking that reporters are protesting. As always, the scapegoats come from the ground. Where are the veterans, the inhouse columnists, or even the assistant editors — TOI has a slew of them, because in the pecking order of things this is already a fairly common practice to keep people quiet. Give them an AE post; it looks good and means precious little.

What will the columnists who speak about freedom of speech do now that their adoptive home is shackling its children? Will they speak out against it elsewhere?

The Times has a big presence on television, too. Its News Hour and hyperventilating anchor-editor have made it their business to represent the nation without the nation's permission. Every evening at 9 pm they also convey in no uncertain terms that they believe in free speech by muting, outshouting panelists. Will they discuss the importance of owning Facebook and Twitter accounts of staff to fight censorship or some such vacuous idea they are perfectly capable of?

More importantly, will those ensconced as experts on their panels, who had left their previous jobs because their employers had a problem with their exposés/views raise their voices against this move by TOI?

We are not going to see much action on this score.

There is something a bit more sinister, though smart. The BJP government had issued a diktat that all ministers should have social media accounts. There is a well-oiled machinery that keeps them up-to-date and makes it appear that they are reaching out. They keep tabs on media persons.

The Times of India could well want to control that because its commercial and political interests are tied up with this. Should it wish to support the BJP it wouldn't want any dissenting posts/tweets from its employees. And if it opposes the ruling party, it would certainly not want 'friends' there. Besides, not many want another Arun Shourie even though it is unlikely there can be one without a Ramnath Goenka (the two creating a controlled rebellion — controlled by the Indian Express boss, that is — rather successfully).

The Times of India can afford such arrogance because it is relying on the amnesia on social media. After a few tut-tuts, no one will care about who is saying what on whose behalf. It is this attitude that makes it possible for most news trends to be forgotten. If we cannot remember what happened, would we recall who told us about it?

© Farzana Versey