The sacking of Ruben Banerjee, group editor-in-chief of Outlook magazine, is a stark reminder of the crisis in the media due to its dependence on advertising revenues. The trigger, according to sources in Outlook, is a fallout between Banerjee and the management led by CEO Indranil Roy, mostly over the editorial position of the magazine.
“They sacked me on 15 September when I wanted to return to work after about a month’s leave,” Banerjee told Newsclick, “As editor-in-chief, I was in touch with the CEO, to extend my leave, and I also raised a few very legitimate concerns and issues. I heard from Roy on 12 September. He said we would speak face-to-face [about these issues], but that never happened,” he said.
It is ironic that Banerjee’s three-year stint, smooth at first, was marred in the end by conflicts with the management. For Roy is known to have approved Banerjee’s appointment and played an active part in his selection.
According to a source in the magazine until very recently, their conflicts escalated this summer after Outlook published, under Banerjee’s watch, a cover story criticising the central government for going “Missing” during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Until then, the source said, Roy and Banerjee were “great allies”. This issue (26 May 2021) went viral on Twitter.
The buzz among Outlook employees is that the management side could not countenance any criticism of the government at the Centre, the dispensation ruling Uttar Pradesh or other state governments and agencies. The reason was Outlook’s dependence on revenue from government advertising and failing finances. Criticism of government policies stoked strong apprehensions of revenue losses.
Outlook has been facing a financial crisis for several years, and dues to employees have piled up. Last year, salaries for five months to mid-September were not paid to most staff. Things are not much better today.
“Some in the magazine feel that of every four stories, three can be [pro-government] but the fourth should be critical. They feel this is a good business strategy, for if all four are pro-government stories, why would we get ads,” says a second insider. Others feel that this risk is not worth taking with the government on a media raiding spree and its consistent denial of advertising to those it perceives as its critics.
However, Outlook’s internal surveys have in the past shown that its readers are people who are keen on anti-establishment, liberal views. This niche gets threatened if its editorial position changes. According to a senior former Outlook employee who has worked with Banerjee at the magazine, Banerjee’s and Roy’s “objectives were aligned until the very last weeks of his exit”. He also said Banerjee acted honourably on some occasions, such as coming around to resisting the sacking of journalists. “Both things are true,” says this former employee.
Another issue contributed to problems at Outlook: Every editor wishes to leave a legacy, and it is the cover story that defines any magazine’s intent and ability. The “Missing” cover story seems to have allowed Banerjee that shot at editorial legacy—readers congratulated him on it, even if rival India Today beat him to it. The senior former employee says the India Today cover story (issue date 17 May 2021) and editorial note by Arun Poorie critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s handling of the pandemic triggered Banerjee to produce a “strong” cover in Outlook magazine. This employee says Banerjee contracted Covid-19 at around this time, and it seemed to have altered his perceptions of how the public suffered during the brutal second wave.
A controversy erupted over this cover story after the magazine sought to withdraw a cover image designed for it from its website. The cover, a blank white, reads, “Missing. Name: Government of India. Age: 7 Years.” It was subsequently reinstated. According to the senior former employee, Roy called the removal of the image a “marketing decision”. Banerjee confessed to the former employee that he was asked to “lie low” as the cover had gone “disproportionately viral”. In other words, it may—or had—upset powerful people.
At any rate, Banerjee “stood his ground” after this cover story, says the first source. He began insisting on more straightforward—if not outright critical—reporting on issues. The same source says he believes Banerjee and Roy could no longer see eye to eye. That is when the editor decided to take a month off, starting the second week of August.
“There was too much meddling,” Banerjee told Newsclick on Thursday. Several heads of departments and even two editors were appointed without consulting him, he says. This includes the recent hiring of journalist Chinki Sinha as editor.
A third employee, who left the company some time ago, says the management seemed to have in its toolkit no instrument to revive Outlook financially “except firing people and cutting costs”, and for the most part, the editor went along. When Banerjee went on leave in August, there were demands to slash Rs.70-80 lakh more off the annual salary budget. This time, he resisted, fearing that there would be hardly anybody left to produce a magazine if staff were constantly made to go.
It made things worse when, after Banerjee went on leave, Roy told Newslaundry, a prominent media-watcher website, that a story proposed by the editorial team was not only discussed with him but had “nothing new” in it. The story was on Pegasus, the hacking scandal, which Outlook published in its issue dated 2 August.
“The ‘nothing new’ comment was highly unusual,” says the insider, adding, “As a publisher, he needed to say that what happens to stories is not his decision but an editorial call. Instead, he declared he determines what is a story or isn’t. Doesn’t this tell us who was taking calls at Outlook?”
“How can you be dismissive of a story on Pegasus when so many Indian people were placed under surveillance using it?” Banerjee says.
An employee who has worked at Outlook for several years says the Pegasus story the magazine published was “wishy-washy”, and still there was talk about how powerful people, including some in the BJP, were unhappy over it. To him, it also seemed Banerjee had struck a “fine balance” between “nudge-wink criticism and criticism”, and yet the management was unhappy. “There was constant talk the party ruling at the Centre is unhappy about what we wrote,” he said, adding, “I think Outlook is under a harsher scanner than some other places.” During the term of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the owners of Outlook were raided, causing significant hardship.
Still, seen in retrospect, when his month away was over, Banerjee sought to return to his old, presumably chastened, “ally”. That is not how Roy seems to have read the situation.
On 15 September, via email and on the office WhatsApp group, Banerjee proposed a cover story on “Abba Jaan & Adityanath” to Outlook staffers. He said the story should be written up and published soon, “unless someone can convince me otherwise”. A magazine-style brief followed, detailing communal polarisation in Uttar Pradesh as the Assembly election nears, the Chief Minister’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, the disorder in the Opposition camp. It proposed examining “all issues” including “how Yogi [Adityanath] stands to gain by communalising the polls, particularly in the face of the farmers’ agitation and the supposed Muslim-Jat unity in western parts of the state”.
Within an hour, at 10.46 am on 15 September, Roy sent Banerjee an email terminating his contract and calling him “erratic” for going on leave during a hectic phase. (A launch related to the Outlook website was due.) Roy accused him of having “vitiated the atmosphere” with “correspondence exchanged”. Within minutes, Banerjee was ejected from the official WhatsApp groups.
But in August, Roy had told a Newslaundry reporter that he had “approved his [Banerjee’s] leave” and that the latter had only sought “a break”. Therefore, it is unclear whether the “correspondence” Roy refers to in his 15 September email relates to the story Banerjee proposed on the WhatsApp group or the “legitimate concerns and issues” he had earlier raised.
Banerjee has reportedly decided to approach a Delhi court against his dismissal. Yet, in hindsight, it is quite evident that Banerjee was kicked upstairs in June, and therefore the fall is that much harder.