Where power is the ultimate orgasm
October 5, 2017

This is a work of fiction but one focusing on how media houses work in today’s market-dominated milieu, throwing ethics to the winds, in their obsessive pursuit of circulation, power and profits. The author (who passed away sadly, at age 49, after a heart attack) was known for his byline and had extensive experience of working in mainstream media.

Although this is a fictionalised account, many of the parameters and perspectives are drawn from real life, to portray how powerful media barons can shape not only government policy and public perceptions, but also ‘news’. It is a chilly take on the current scenario in the media. It is a ‘thriller’ as one comment has put it, combining a variety of masala (spicy) elements, from murder to rape, the antics of Page 3 personalities, sexual escapades, and settling scores through hired goons.

Harivanshrai (Harry) is a media baron, owner, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Sentinel daily with headquarters in Mumbai and multiple editions. He has his own private jet, and a lifestyle marked by hard partying, hard drinking and domestic discord. He wants his paper to be the biggest English daily in Asia, and is ruthless in his pursuit of this goal – get rid of editors who don’t tow his line, co-opt the mafia to eliminate those who object to his tactics in fashioning the agenda for his paper, including reporters from rival papers engaged in investigating the shady dealings underlying the Sentinel’s rise to pre-eminence.

sentinal
SENTINEL HOUSE
Author: Allen Mendonca
Publisher: Raintree Media Publishing, Bengaluru
Pages: 348 pages
Price: Rs 225

As someone who worked and written for the mainstream media, I became aware of the kind of ‘deals’ that shape editorial-managerial policy, in the pursuit of profits and rising sales graphs, that this story describes – the editorial agenda is almost always set by the proprietor (not the journalists) based on his or her political-commercial preferences (“We are going to be a business backing publication” – does that ring a bell?).

This also applies to today’s television and social media. Journalists who want to focus on the truth and report objectively sometimes get jettisoned, because the truth doesn’t fit in with the owner’s allegiances – and these allegiances, though reflecting political stances, do not even mean subscribing to those political ideals, it is just a means to push up circulation and readership. This story reflects the sad reality.

Open the day’s paper, and you have to get past two or even three full-page ads before you get to the day’s headlines. Supplements for the day are given over to cars, motoring, travel, real estate or ‘education’ (with plenty of ‘advertorial’ copy on coaching classes or ‘academies’ – the word ‘advertorial’ didn’t exist fifty years ago when I began my journey as a journalist). Every supplement means increased revenue in lakhs – so who’s complaining?

Over 70 per cent of space in each supplement is bought by advertisements. As an exultant Harry observes, “We must have more supplements “and also expand beyond print, to other media, like television, radio, music and entertainment” – which is exactly what has been happening in real life.

Power is the ultimate orgasm, and power translates into sales and profits. If someone believes that power brings with it responsibility, sorry, he/ she has to go. In this ‘corporatised’ media world, the place for ethics keeps shrinking. It is marketing professionals, not editors (however competent) who run the show. The more gory the event reported (riots or Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination) and the more graphic the ‘exclusive’ pictures of tragedy and inhuman violence, the better it is, to “entice readers” as Harry puts it. The Sentinel’s circulation keeps growing – and that’s what counts, for the owner.

There is even a nun in the book who, in the novel’s denouement, turns out to be… but no, I can’t reveal the secret, that would spoil the readers’ excitement. Woven in through the tale are real incidents including the Bofors saga, invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, notorious bandit Veerappan’s kidnapping of matinee idol Raj Kumar, and black money stashed away in Swiss bank accounts.

Some readers could be put off by the extra flowery phrases woven in just for effect (especially at the beginning) but the plot picks up speed in the second half. Here is a smorgasbord that can cater to a variety of readers’ tastes.

(Reviewed by Sakuntala Narasimhan.)

July – September 2017