Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
- A song of the late 1960s popularized by Mary Hopkin
When I made a career switch from College Teaching to Journalism in the beginning of the 1970s, I was rather proud that I was joining a profession hailed the world over as the ‘Fourth Estate,’ the Fourth Pillar that supports Democracy. Now, nearly one and a half decades after my retirement, I am being persuaded to have doubts whether my choice was right and proper. That is mainly on account of the exceptionally odious epithets hurled at that profession day in and day out now, like such gender-less niceties as ‘Presstitutes’ and ‘nalam lingakkar,’ or the ‘Fourth Gender,’ whatever they mean. Don’t I have reason to feel uncomfortable, if not offended, with retrospective effect?
But in spite of whatever is said about the profession now, I tend to look back on the good old days with a little of pride and a lot of nostalgia, good old days when we were good and young, and bubbling with energy. There is no comparison, of course, between the media scenes then and now, the outmoded and outdated version of the former a far cry from the technology-driven, filthy rich, arrogant, assertive and self-centred purveyors of news, or what they intend to be news, among the plush TV channels and plusher newspapers of today.
The middle of March may not be the most auspicious time to begin something, as evidenced by the celebrated forewarning the soothsayer gave to Julius Caesar: ‘Beware the Ides of March.’ Whether it portended good or bad for me, I happened to join duty as a Journalist in the New Delhi Head Office of the national news agency United News of India (UNI) exactly on the 15th of March in 1972.
When I entered the service of the organization, UNI was practically an early teenager, having been incorporated only thirteen years back, in December 1959. But despite its young age, UNI was a vibrant, visionary and rapidly expanding news organization that gave its older and more stable rival PTI a run for its money.
PTI in fact had a very long tradition, being the offshoot of the first news agency on Indian soil, started by the redoubtable K C Roy, a high school dropout who became one of the most distinguished journalists in pre-independent India. It was a news pool arrangement by Roy and three friends to beat a British rival that ultimately led to the formation of the first Indian news agency, the Associated Press of India (API) in 1910. API became such a powerful organization that nine years later the imperial news agency, Reuters, chose to take it over as its Indian subsidiary, but agreeing to Roy’s condition that it retain its name, API. And a month after Independence, API transformed itself as PTI, the Press Trust of India.
PTI was already a behemoth when the fledgling UNI commenced news operations on a modest scale on 21st March 1961. Floated by eight leading newspapers, the rationale behind UNI’s formation was the need for a competing agency. Newspaper editors felt that being the only news agency in the country PTI had become rather lethargic, that is slow in news gathering and slower in dissemination. In order to stir it out of this self- imposed stupor there was need for a rival outfit. This thinking was also reflected in the recommendations of the Second Press Commission appointed by the central government. And UNI was born, with much goodwill and a lot of hope. To begin with, UNI was forced to make use of the rusted teleprinters of the UPI, an agency started in pre-Independent days that folded up in 1958 because of financial constraints. Incidentally the father-figure of both the UPI and UNI was the West Bengal leader Dr B C Roy.
By the early 1970s when I joined UNI, the agency had an extensive teleprinter network of over one lakh kilometers in the country, bureaus in most of the districts in all the states and news exchange arrangements with various other national news agencies, especially with the world’s largest, the Associated Press (AP). In the media world it was a force to reckon with and the drive, the vision and the enterprise of the people who made up the organization, from its charismatic Chief Editor and General Manager G G Mirchandani down to the last employee, made it score repeatedly over its abler rival in national and international news breaks, justifying its original motto, ‘Fast With the News,’ later modified as ‘First With the News.’
When for the first time I entered the premises of UNI Head Office, at the landmark address of 9, Rafi Marg, I was struck by two things. The frenetic activity going on uninterruptedly in the news and transmission rooms and a noticeably large number of outsiders casually making a beeline to the rear of the building. It was only later that I realized that UNI’s Staff Canteen run by a South Indian Brahmin was as famous as or even more famous than UNI itself. It was one of the most popular eateries in that area which housed several important government offices and was close to Parliament Street.
The greatest blessing that UNI was endowed with was undoubtedly the choice of G G Mirchandani as its Chief Editor and General Manager. He took over the reins of the neophyte agency in 1968 after voluntarily retiring from central government service as Director of News, All India Radio. One of the most distinguished officers of the central information service, he had previously handled many challenging assignments, including that as Press Officer to Jawaharlal Nehru.
GGM was the third chief executive of UNI, after founder Chief Editor Dattatray Wagle and Kuldip Nayar. But it was under his stewardship that UNI grew exponentially, emerging within a short time as the third largest news agency in Asia. He tirelessly went all over the country, setting up offices and recruiting resourceful people to head them and enlisting newspaper and other subscribers. His enthusiasm, vigour and dynamism were indeed infectious. Everywhere he went he was able to motivate the staff to rise above the mediocre and put in their best to see that UNI indeed was Fast With the News.
My first meeting with Mirchandani was an hour after I joined duty before the News Editor. The daily morning conference was due at eleven and all editorial and reporting staff were trooping to the Chief Editor’s office. I too followed suit and occupied a back seat, watching the proceedings.
Mirchandani was tall, fair complexioned, very handsome even in his old age, rather hefty and impeccably attired. He had an eye for detail and had come for the morning conference after scanning several newspapers and noting down where all UNI had scored over PTI and where all we lagged behind and why. There was a pat for the winners and a note of caution for the losers, to whichever bureau they belonged. And after the conference GGM’s personalized messages also went out to various bureaus.
Most of the journalists manning the Desk and the Bureau at that time were very competent and acknowledged for their merit even outside the UNI circle. The News Editor was B R P Bhaskar, one of the best news editors the agency had. It was mainly Bhaskar who had given shape to a Style Book for UNI which came in handy for UNI journalists across the nation to follow a uniform pattern of stylistic nuances peculiar to a wire agency. The Deputy News Editor was K P K Kutty, equally brilliant in his work but more amiable and good-humoured in his dealings with colleagues. Kutty had two assets that were much talked about among friends. He was an accomplished Veena player and an expert watch repairer, one requiring deft hands and the other fine tools. (Incidentally his retirement engagement in his native Palakkad is as a Veena teacher for aspiring children of the locality). Assistant Editor Samuel was a gem of a mentor for trainee journalists. Deputy General Manager and Chief of Bureau V P Ramachandran, VPR among the journalistic fraternity, was reputed to be very close to the powers that be, enabling him credit for many important news breaks. (But the same closeness was of no avail during the early Emergency period when one of his off the cuff remarks about the then crown prince of the Gandhi family cost him his job at Delhi. The remark was promptly conveyed to the person concerned and the next day VPR was shunted out to Ranchi as UNI’s ‘Industrial Correspondent’).
U R Kalkur was not only an outstanding journalist, but one who achieved fame as a writer and translator. He had come in for much praise for his excellent English translation of Shivaram Karanth’s classic Chomana Dudi. V Ganapathy was another gentle soul, always remembered with fondness. V R Narayanan Nair, who retired as Kerala’s Director of Public Relations, was also a senior member of the Bureau, exclusively dealing with the Supreme Court.
What was remarkable in the way of functioning in those years was the spirit of innovation displayed by Mirchandani and others. Apart from providing teleprinter news service to newspapers, radio stations and other subscribers, he came up with the idea of a weekly Backgrounder Service. A detailed backgrounder on a relevant topic or current issue, with up-to-date data and excellent write up is given out as a mailer. In the days before the Internet and information at your fingertips, this was a service much sought after by research scholars, planners and those aspiring for competitive examinations. UNI also heralded a separate Financial News Service in the country, a Hindi News service, Varta, and a service in Urdu, followed by a photo service. At a time when information from Pakistan was scanty because of the strained relations with that country, Mirchandani came up with the novel idea of monitoring Pakistan Radio for important news nuggets. A separate monitoring room was set up in the Head Office and despatches from the service became very popular among the newspapers those days.
UNI was perhaps at its best and the brightest phase when the Emergency struck a death blow to it, albeit temporarily. After the declaration of the Emergency and imposition of press censorship Prime Minister Indira Gandhi felt that the best way to spoon-feed the newspapers with doctored news was to have a single, government controlled news agency in place of the two English and two Hindi news agencies existing then. So the hapless four, PTI, UNI, Hindustan Samachar and Samachar Bharati, were coerced into a merger to form a single unit, Samachar. Indira Gandhi’s Man Friday Mohammed Yunus was put in charge of the agency.
In hindsight it could be said that Samachar also played a significant role, however indirectly, in helping the downfall of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency regime. There was a popular joke about the Soviet newspapers Izvestia (News) and Pravda (Truth): ‘There is no truth in News and no news in Truth.’ Samachar brought about a similar situation.
Towards the close of the second year of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi wanted to gauge the mood of the people and caused a nation-wide survey undertaken by Samachar. All journalists of the agency were asked to personally interview as many people as possible and put out the story. Every single report filed by every reporter across the country was, however, doctored and a combined report overwhelmingly favourable to the regime was released by Samachar honchos as dictated by the Censors. Incidentally, this was by any account the biggest ever report put out by any news agency in the world, running into several hundred ‘takes.’
With the Censors in position at every news centre, newspapers also dutifully carried the doctored story. How far this untruth purveyed as truth influenced Indira Gandhi’s decision is not known, but she declared elections shortly thereafter, obviously convinced that the people were with her. The rest is history.
UNI and other agencies had a re-birth on April 14, 1978, Vishu Day, after the Morarji Desai government disbanded Samachar. Mirchandani again took over as Chief Editor and General Manager and embarked on a development phase on an unprecedented scale. Mirchandani died in December 1986, shortly after retiring from its service.
In the post-Mirchandani phase UNI had many stalwarts as Editors and General Managers, including K P K Kutty, U R Kalkur, V Ganapathy, Virender Mohan, M K Laul etc. But somewhere along the line decline started, contributed mostly by management apathy, manipulations by a few owner-newspapers, interference by some Left leaders and the tragically myopic vision of the employees unions. What would have continued to develop as a glorious news agency had been reduced to just a shadow of its former entity.
It is a fervent wish that UNI comes out of the malaise that has set in now and rise back to its old pristine self.
In spite of the rapid strides of modern technology involved in newspaper production, the daily drama unfolded in newspaper offices around the world, of which news agencies form an integral part, remains almost the same as it was decades ago. One of the best descriptions of that continuing drama comes from Malcolm Muggeridge, journalist and broadcaster, who, incidentally, has a Kerala connection, having been a Lecturer in UC College, Alwaye.
‘So, before going to bed, I sit surlily reading my first edition, mopping up the news like an avid eater cleaning up his plate with bread…. Impossible to calculate the vast expense of time and concentration on this evanescent pursuit, the equivalent, may be, of painting twenty Sistine Chapels or writing the Decline and Fall of several Empires. Words tapped out, scribbled or telephoned; then printed, rushed to delivery vans, trains and aeroplanes; put under door-knockers or laid beside bottles of milk, held up at break-fast tables, uncomfortably squinted at in buses and trains, by midday discarded, by tea-time superseded, by evening relegated to lighting fires or wrapping fish.’
(From Chronicles of Wasted Time, Part I)