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Of Shopfloors and Newsrooms: Faiz Ullah

August 6, 2012

Guest Post by FAIZ ULLAH

It’s that time of the year. Newsrooms of television news broadcasters are buzzing. Human Resource (HR) professionals may choose to see it as the culmination of a significant process called performance appraisal, but for young news producers and journalists – a decidedly young species – it’s time to see that overdue promotion or promised increment in remuneration. Sometime during the beginning of last financial year these young professionals must have set up their ‘specific and measurable’ KRAs, or Key Result Areas, by using formulaic proformas sent to them by the HR department. This year, a few months ago they would’ve again got a mail from the HR department asking them to revisit those excel sheets with their line supervisors and have their performances graded on the scale of 1 – 10 or some such. Every story filed, every source cultivated, every special ‘half-hour’ show done must reflect on this document. ‘Domain expertise and knowledge’, ‘integrity’, ‘self-discipline’ and ‘adaptability’ are some of the ‘competencies’ against which the supervisors are required to assess the performance of their subordinates additionally. What don’t find mention on these appraisal forms are day to day frustrations that are part and parcel of a news professional’s job and anxieties that permeate his/her larger lifeworld.

These days, even a good performance appraisal rating doesn’t guarantee a commensurate rise in the compensation, that is, if one’s job hasn’t disappeared altogether.

A majority of news outlets are still grappling with the aftershocks of the 2008-09 slump. Advertisers are holding on to their purse strings tighter than usual. News gathering activities have been severely curtailed in the face of mounting operating losses. Ask any news reporter or producer and he/she will tell you how, of late, access to even basic resources like cameras and vehicles has become so much more difficult. An eight hour long workday can easily stretch to 12 hours just because one has to wait for a camera or a car to come along.  This within an ecosystem where a substantial part of what one sees on the television sets, in any case, comes to the channels for free by way of press releases, conferences and junkets. News stories have been fast replaced by forms – live updates from the field and studio discussion shows – which are cheaper to produce. But all that one already knows.  What I want to highlight here is the fact how equally exploitative spaces, if not more, news channels have become, faintly mirroring the horrible stories we’ve heard of, say, the shop-floors of Maruti Suzuki India Limited (MSIL) plant at Manesar.

There’s a world of difference between the salaries of the queen and the worker bees. Though, entry level salaries have crashed through the floor – in absolute terms, they’re much lower than what they were six to seven years ago – middle to top management suits have strangely succeeded in preserving their boom-time salaries. When annual increments do not keep pace with rising inflation it’s not difficult to figure out who gets hit harder. Curiously, brutal retrenchments, or restructuring as they like to call it, have also largely taken place at the lowest level, as if they’re solely responsible for the organisations not being ‘agile’ and ‘nimble’. Even after shedding ‘weight’ such organisations remain remarkably hierarchical. Commonsense and contingent circumstances would warrant flatter, more intimate structures, but then management isn’t really commonsense, we’re repeatedly told.

Last year, in one of the business news channels that I’d rather not name, 40-50 junior reporters, producers, videographers, graphic designers and broadcast engineers were summarily fired one Friday evening. The front desk executive had left by then and the security guard manning the desk was handed the list of people with an instruction to send them to the human resource department one-by-one. With a pretty long list to go through the guard decided to make things simple and instead of personally informing the people whose names were on it deemed it fit to deliver the summons via telephone. Phones started going off in different parts of the office in a set but not readily apparent pattern and an uncharacteristic, deathly silence enveloped the newsroom. Everybody, by then, knew what they’d get to hear if they answered the call. They’ll be asked to come to the HR head’s office, explained coldly why they’re being ‘separated’ from the organisation, given their two months’ salary, asked to sign a ‘fake’ resignation letter and told that this was their last day at work.

Later that month, the business head of the channel explained to whoever was left in the organisation that it was a painful step but had to be taken for the larger benefit of the organisation and, therefore, its employees. He also mentioned how a consultancy firm helped him carry out the ‘process’ objectively and effectively. One of my friends who became an unfortunate casualty of this insensitive action later told me that in spite of her hard work she somehow had inkling what might befall her:

“The day it happened, somewhere I felt it might happen to me as well considering they were gonna shut down our programs. But obviously was praying it dint happen to me given the opportunities I was given in the organisation and appreciated for my work.”

So why would a person who’s doing well be fired? Like I said, good performance isn’t really much of a guarantee these days. She was one of the few forthright people I had a talk with on this issue and to me it clearly seemed that she was penalised for her bluntness. One of the mid-level HR managers that I spoke to told me that employees and workers are essentially let go because of their ‘problematic attitudes’ than their performance or output. The latter can be remedied easily.

A laundry list of your achievements and competencies is one thing; what you eventually need to furnish is incontrovertible proof of your submissiveness. A good conduct bond, so to speak. That’s one of the reasons why newsrooms these days are being increasingly populated by young interns, a good number of whom are being churned out of institutes run by big media conglomerates themselves (Times Group, NDTV and TV Today Network). A conventional journalism programme at any half-decent college will try to instill and nurture a critical attitude among students, even if by way of ritual. But evidently that’s not acceptable anymore. Aspiring news professionals now must pay to be trained in an insulated environment and then continue to work for free in it, at least for some time. They must not get to know the difference between a lockout and a strike.

As is my habit, a couple of weeks ago I circulated the Maruti Suzuki Workers’ Union’s statement among all the channels where I have friends. Unlike MSIL management inputs that were being continuously ‘flashed’, ‘tickered’ and read verbatim on various channels, it took some time for the workers’ statement to find an on-air mention. When it did it was reduced to just these two lines of text on one of the channels I’d sent the statement to:

“MARUTI SUZUKI WORKERS UNION
Blames Management For Latest Standoff
Willing To Talk To Mgmt To Sort Out Issues”

Was it vetted and run by a desk editor who knew what he/she was expected to do? We may never get to know.

Uncritical acceptance of the management’s line, not seeing the current crisis in its historical perspective and consciously choosing to frame it within with the larger conservative discourse pivoted around growth/development/reforms – the television news coverage of the labour action at MSIL has been quite distorted. There’ve been a few exceptions, of course, but by and large the ongoing reportage leaves one marveling at the new channels claims of objectivity and impartiality.

***

Most treacherous is not the robbery
of hard earned wages
Most horrible is not the torture by the police.
Most dangerous is not the graft for the treason and greed.
To be caught while asleep is surely bad
surely bad is to be buried in silence
But it is not most dangerous…

…Most dangerous is that eye
Which sees all but remains frostlike,
The eye that forgets to kiss the world with love,
The eye lost in the blinding mist of the material world.
That sinks the simple meaning of visible things
And is lost in the meaning return of useless games.

- The Most Dangerous by Paash (September 9, 1950 – March 23, 1988), Trans: Dr.Satnam Singh Sandhu of Punjabi University, Patiala.

***

In early 2009, one of the most high profile CEOs of Indian media industry, rounded up all his employees in a Central Mumbai auditorium for a Steve Jobs like stage performance. While assuring them that he’s not going to fire even one of them, in spite of the backbreaking economic conditions, he expected them to put in ‘10X’, if ‘X’ is what they’ve been doing so far. “X isn’t good enough”. Of course, they were also told to not expect any kind of salary hike that year.

In September 2011, in the same organisation the HR head sent out this tersely worded email to everyone:

“We regret to inform unfortunate sudden (emphasis mine) demise of Mr.  K. from our XXXXX Production Team on Xth September. Our deepest sympathy to the family and may God give them strength to endure the loss.”
Young K, all of 26, died of brain hemorrhage/heart attack/drunk driving/death by overwork. Those who worked with him never really got to know what exactly killed him. Unlike the Japanese, perhaps we haven’t yet developed a vocabulary to describe and understand such deaths.
The newsroom which stretched open wide, every now and then, to celebrate birthdays could only offer a few corners for grieving. What do we make of such cold and sterile institutions and spaces? How can we expect them to offer us a sympathetic view of things?
Who own the television news media? Who gets represented fairly and adequately and who doesn’t? Who act as gatekeepers of ideas and agendas, and why? What do the viewers make of the media and how do they negotiate with them? How do these institutions shape and alter our social and political lives? These are essential questions to ask. But the sometimes intangible, sometimes manifest symptoms of the debilitating and totalising effect of this new culture of capital in newsrooms must be explored in greater detail. For example, The Leveson Inquiry on Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press, set up in the wake of News Corp. phone hacking scandal, is interested in tackling this aspect, among many others, of the news industry:
“With the advent of the internet and 24 hour news as well as declines in revenue and circulation, we have heard that fewer journalists are having to do more work. The seminars also raised the issue of the casualisation of the workforce. The inquiry would be interested in experiences of how this may have changed the culture in newsrooms and what it might mean in terms of journalistic practice, with examples where possible.”

What kind of a scandal, I wonder, will it take for an inquiry to be equally interested knowing how the advent and pervasiveness of scientific management, assembly line production, not to forget truant global finance capital, and government inaction have changed the shop-floors over the last century?
While making feeble connections between the television newsrooms and industrial shop-floors I’m keenly aware of the naivety of my arguments. But for some odd reason I do want to continue looking for a common ground, however small it might be. Unfortunately, as of now, there exists none. What I find instead are several gaping ravines in between: of power, privilege, class, caste, etc. Common grounds on which new solidarities can be forged is probably just another utopia, an ideal place, a nowhere land, or perhaps John Berger’s prison :
“Between fellow prisoners there are conflicts, sometimes violent. All prisoners are deprived, yet there are degrees of deprivation and the differences of degree provoke envy. On this side of the walls life is cheap. The very facelessness of the global tyranny encourages hunts to find scapegoats, to find instantly definable enemies among other prisoners. The asphyxiating cells then become a madhouse. The poor attack the poor, the invaded pillage the invaded. Fellow prisoners should not be idealized. Without idealization, simply take note that what they have in common—which is their unnecessary suffering, their endurance, their cunning—is more significant, more telling, than what separates them. And from this, new forms of solidarity are being born. The new solidarities start with the mutual recognition of differences and multiplicity. So this is life! A solidarity, not of masses but of interconnectivity, far more appropriate to the conditions of prison.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Vishnu permalink
    August 6, 2012 3:12 PM

    The culture of ‘submissiveness” is also seen in IT companies. Performance appraisal is a farce and is the best time to fix “errant employees”. Low performace will be tolerated, but not spine.

    Indians are a feudal lot.

  2. noid permalink
    August 6, 2012 5:06 PM

    Thanks dost. Workers (TV karamcharis too) of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains! Is it too much to ask that you use the same lens when you talk to us of others’ ways of work, and resistance

  3. August 6, 2012 7:53 PM

    The article echoes something of what has happened across industries together, who have seen the ups and downs.

    Once upon a time, journalism was the one field where your salary was less important than the opportunity to take a pot shot at establishment. Engineering was another field where your measly remuneration compared to the stuffed-shirts in administrative or commercial functions was less important than the fascination of building something original. Sycophants and mediocre ‘passengers’ always got better pay and survived all the retrenchments.

    The appraisal process was much tighter those days when Personnel Managers were typically trained for at least 5 years in all the related functions and hence knew the jobs and every person inside-out. They also held weight as assessors or even as coordinators in an appraisal process. The in-house Publicity/Comm Managers were equally thorough as were the AEs in the ad agencies, with regard to the business, market, competition, business-environment including government policies. Press Relations was about knowing which journalist takes interest in what area and feeding them appropriate facts about your company and Govt Liaison was about feeding the right information at the appropriate stage of an application or apt reports to the right official. Labour/Ind’l Relations was about firmly conveying the company’s policy correctly to each employee from selection to relieving, assuring compliances, placing the workers’ or Union’s issues squarely to the management, pressing for balance and thus being a fair negotiator in crises.

    The present stock of HR professionals leave as much to desire as do PR pros of today, even if it has a wider role to play today, in giving their organisation/client a competitive edge.

  4. Khushboo Patodia permalink
    August 8, 2012 4:32 PM

    Faiz… what can i say… you have produced it all too well here. Bravo! It was rather engrossing. Would like to add… the scenario isnt any different and its all too hazy even today!

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