Imagine a scenario where the finest soldiers, attired in
their olive green uniforms are standing in several rows, their AK 47 guns slung
over their shoulders? Would it not make a perfect picture? Now, let’s do a
little rejig. Let’s remove a few soldiers and replace them with men wearing ill
fitting uniforms holding a baton in their hands. Now let’s remove a few more
soldiers and in their place bring in a bunch of unshaven men with unkempt hair,
wearing their pajamas. How does it look now? Obviously, it’s no more the
perfect picture, rather a depiction of a disorganised bunch of purposeless
No, I am not against the guys in the pajamas or the guys
holding the baton. This scenario reminds me of the state of auto journalism in
the country today, a total mishmash of everything unwanted, everything corny
and everything ludicrous. Who do we blame for all this? Looking back into my 30
odd years as a journalist, I blame the auto companies for this. I saw this
coming a long, long time back when I had just become a reporter with the Hindustan
Times in its business bureau.
Journalists love writing (those who are employed in
newspapers and magazines) and they love speaking (if they are working in a
radio or a television channel). In the 1990s, things were a lot different. As a
print journalist I had to use the typewriter for filing my reports. Google was
not yet born, internet was unheard of, mobile phones had not yet been invented
and social media meant nothing to any one of us. It also meant that we needed
to consult the dictionary for checking our spelling and since there was no
erase button it meant that we had to be very careful and meticulous while typing
our reports on the typewriter, as both paper and carbon copies were few and
Part I: Fall of
Indian Auto Journalism
It was also the
beginning of economic liberalisation in the country that spawned the era of
lucre and set the ball rolling for economic journalists to enrich themselves.
Press conferences would be followed by lunches and dinners. On their way out,
the journalists were handed over gifts which were at that time gift vouchers of
Rs 500 denomination and above. At times, gifts would include crockery sets and
cutlery. As my late father, who was a
political journalist working in a newspaper at that time, would advice me, “if
you want to maintain your decency, you need to stop accepting gifts”.
I tried hard to follow the advice of my old man and I must
confess, I would succumb many a times to the enticing world of gifts.
Companies, whether they were vehicle manufacturers or shoe manufacturers,
always ended their press conferences with lunches, drinks and gifts. It became
a reprehensible norm. I tried to wean myself away from this disgusting habit
and as I moved up the promotion ladder, I began covering various ministries and
press conferences of a “higher level”. It meant interviewing bureaucrats and
ministers, according to the “beat” I was assigned by my Economic Editor.
There were no gifts in government press conferences, usually
one got a cup of tea or a “pakora” or a cheaply-printed Government of India
diary! For me life was bliss. But when I finally decided to pursue automobile
journalism I was back into the big bad world of OEMs and auto component
manufacturers. I remember going to interview a vehicle manufacturer in his
plant somewhere in the hills and even before the interview could start, his
assistant gave my photographer and me two massive packets. I learnt later they
were suit lengths. I refused and seeing me do so vehemently, I saw my
cameraperson also refusing to pick up the packet. It was a different matter
that my cameraperson did not forgive me for this for a long time. “Why do you
have to play Lord Buddha always?” he asked me on the way out.
Auto journalism meant that I was privy to gifts of all
kinds. Foreign junkets in business class by plane, lunches, dinners, and
expensive wine and equally expensive gifts. That has always been the norm. OEMs
and auto component manufacturers have this funny belief that unless you give
out a gift to a journalist, your story will not come out fine. By now I had become an Editor of a home grown
auto magazine Motown India (funded by my own money). I advised my boys and
girls, like the way my old man advised me, that accepting gifts is a shameful
thing. A few obeyed me, the others cared two hoots. But I used to observe how
Editors from different accomplished magazines, senior journalists from leading
newspapers and magazines, senior television reporters, etc had no qualms
accepting gifts of all kinds. I realised I was a fish out of water here, an
Junkets, gifts, lunches, dinners, merrymaking, wine and
expensive stay, long-term cars and bikes for you to take you girl friends,
friends and family, were just the Part I of the story of the fall of Indian
auto journalism. Before the covid-19 pandemic hit our world, accepting all
these expensive treats had become an irrevocable habit. It was as though it had
seeped into our blood like high grade cocaine. It has now become part and
parcel of our lives as an auto journalist. Thankfully, our skills as an auto
journalist were not hampered to a great existence; it was only our morality
that had been torn to tatters. Abetting this moral depravity were all the
manufacturers in the automobile industry and the ones who helped them were the young
and old public relations boys and girls whom they had recruited!
Part II: The Rise of
Social Media Platforms
But in Part II, the automobile players upped the ante in
their bid to get publicity for their products. Journalism is a profession that
is supposed to be defined by ethics, rules, discipline, decent language, the
right words, genuine news and preferably governed by a body like the Press
Council of India. In auto journalism, all rules are thrown into the garbage
bin. Part II saw the rising popularity of social media platforms. Every other
person with pelf and power, or anyone learned or unlettered, could be a part of
this huge social media circus that goes by the name of Twitter, YouTube,
Facebook, Instagram, etc. These platforms started getting more powerful than the
media house itself. As long as these
social media platforms are confined to innocuous banter, it’s just fine. But
the moment they begin to influence and take over a profession (as is the case
of Journalism), it is like treading on dangerous grounds.
The worrisome part of this was that anyone, whether an OEM,
a rich guy, a poor guy, a joker, a journalist, a hatemonger, an auto component
manufacturer, a student, a professor, or a dopey could create his own account.
Fair enough, I guess. But who is going to monitor the content? Who is going to
monitor the language? Who is going to monitor the accuracy? There are no rules
here. You can do anything to garner supporters and followers, you can post
anything, funny or stupid, you can dance, take off your clothes, pay the social
media platform owners tons of money to promote your post and get millions of
views and followers, likes and comments. So is this wrong? Of course not, it’s
a free, liberal world out there.
Auto companies themselves started having their own accounts
on these platforms and they started investing huge amounts of money in their
accounts to popularise their posts. The top management of several auto
companies also resorted to airing their views. A few got ballistic and obsessed
and found it a way to be quoted in the main media for insane comments. Even if
they were to like a dog wagging its tail, the media would report how Mr X liked
dogs wagging their tails. Soon, there was no difference between news and views,
sense and nonsense, good and bad. But did this digital revolution see any
exponential growth of vehicles? Nah! That went its normal way depending on
monsoon, GDP and the income of people… economic parameters that govern demand.
What about journalists working in auto magazines and TV
channels? What about auto journalists who working in newspapers? They continue
to exist but all of them whether they like it or not have to be a part of the
social media circus because it is believed that unless you did that you would
not be taken seriously in the world of auto journalism. Thus, the conventional
world of auto journalism that consisted of journalists working with the “real”
media began to travel and report along with exclusive hardcore and popular
social media account holders. The latter
was referred to as “INFLUENCERS”. Now whether you were a blogger, a vlogger or
a journalist working with an established media outlet, the grim fact is that
you better be a smart “Influencer”. Because that is what an OEM likes.
Yes, OEMs which have also been so good at vitiating the
world of auto journalism with their free gifts, hotel accommodation, expensive
plane rides and sundry other freebies, now decided to put the INFLUENCER and
the journalist on the same pedestal. Almost everyone, whether he or she was an
Editor with an established magazine, newspaper or television channel, donned
the attire of an Influencer. You had no choice. Every bit of news from the auto
world that came their way had to be tweeted, had to go on their Instagram
account, their Facebook account, their YouTube account, or any account that the
OEM felt was interesting. The OEMs wanted publicity at any cost.
As for a few auto journalists like me who tried to remain a
“journalist” at heart, trying to maintain an ethical stand, tried to survive in
this world of intense “circus” competition, was shunned into a dark corner. Now
without the support of an OEM whether it is an advertisement in a magazine or a
car or bike for review, the world of an auto journalist comes crashing down.
That is what I realised when I became an entrepreneur in 2010 and when I
started Motown India magazine. I could never wag my tail in front of a
corporate leader, I was not very popular on the social media platform because I
refused to grow the inorganic way (where you have to pump in money to become
popular, very similar to the way politicians pay those who attend their
rallies) and most important, I wanted to be ethical in my ways.
I know I am like a marooned Alexander Silkirk, who famously
said, “I am the monarch of all I survey, my right there is none to dispute….”
But the real fact is that I am in the midst of “influencers” wearing pajamas,
shorts and glitzy attires. Some of them are naked too. As for me, I am
foolishly clinging on to my dignity, waiting for a sea of change in my world of
auto journalism. But the bitter truth is that I have no other way but to dance
with the influencers, a task I am sure I am incapable of performing at all.
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