The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible.
Pearson, the company that owns the Economist, Financial Times and fDi Magazine—an offshoot of the latter—can no longer credibly claim that its publications enjoy editorial independence. It just showed that the proprietors of the company can overrule the decisions of one of its publications’ editorial management team, albeit in response to vociferous lobbying. Surely it is reasonable to assume that if Pearson’s management can yield to one group of well-connected lobbyists, it can also yield to others? Of course, if governments exert pressure on media companies it is coercion; if shrill members of ‘civil society’ do it, then it is not only acceptable, but accepted.
We are talking about the episode of fDi Magazine’s Personality of the Year 2009 Award, which now has been given to the Indian state of Gujarat. Gujarat became a personality after the Gujarati personality it was initially awarded to was suddenly found unworthy of the award—although the factors causing the unworthiness were not hidden to the people who initially gave the award. When it first recognised Narendra Modi—fairly in the Acorn’s opinion—for his achievements in attracting investments to Gujarat, fDi magazine certainly knew that his role in the post-Godhra riots of 2002 was under judicial scrutiny. Now, there have been arguments that Mr Modi’s achievements are overstated—just as there have been arguments that Manmohan Singh’s role in the post-1991 reforms, and indeed those reforms themselves have been overstated. It is inconceivable that a publication with the FT pedigree could have been unaware of these criticisms. (See V Anantha Nageswaran’s post). They still chose to give the award to Mr Modi.
But Mr Modi’s detractors couldn’t digest that. They targeted the management of Pearson in an email campaign, dropping names of people and organisations that Pearson’s CEO was affiliated to and demanded not only that the award be taken back, but also a “public statement of regret” from the publication.
In such circumstances, you would expect a media organisation of repute to stand behind the decision made by its editors. It would not have been difficult for Pearson’s management to respond to Mr Modi’s critics—that he is innocent until proven guilty by the Indian justice system, and that they would be prepared to rescind the award in the event that he is pronounced guilty.
But in this case Pearson caved in. In a laughable move, it gave the Personality of the Year award to a region, and to boot “decided to highlight the geographic regions of all the other winners.” But it is unclear whether Iraq’s al-Anbar province, Nigeria’s Lagos state, Denmark, Mexico’s Yucatan state and United States’ Louisiana are also recognised as ‘personalities’ now (psst if you are a critic of Bobby Jindal—you know what to do!). fDi magazine also airbrushed Mr Modi from its webpages. (The original pages live in Google cache, for now).
Pearson comes out of this one with its reputation dented. The next time one of its publications claims editorial independence, it’ll be a little less credible. That’s a pity, because without the presumption of independence, it would only be fair to question the motives of the highly opinionated views coming from the Economist and the Financial Times. You know, someone might just have dropped the name of the president of the club that the editor is a member of…
Tailpiece: This episode shows that Mr Modi’s critics are the mirror image of his supporters. The former see him exclusively in the dubious context of the post-Godhra riots (where he has much to answer for) while the latter see nothing but the post-Godhra economic take-off that took place under his watch. And by ignoring reasonable arguments from the other side, they damage their own.