Sonali Desai

Issue 6

In Editions on January 23, 2011 at 8:15 am

WAS HE ASKED TO GO?
Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of Karnataka’s leading daily Vijaya Karnataka, exits amid a whirlwind of rumours and speculation. An exclusive report by Chetana Belagere.

Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of Vijaya Karnataka, has resigned, setting off speculation about what could have led to his exit. He told City Buzz he had begun to feel uncomfortable in the past few months, even though he hadn’t encountered anything unpleasant in the office.

However, many in Bengaluru’s journalism circles are saying he was asked to leave. Bhat, who made Tiumes of India owned Vijaya Karnataka the state’s most widely read daily, announced his resignation on Wednesday after meeting senior executives of the Times Group including chief executive officer Ravi Dhariwal, who were in Bengaluru.
“I wanted a three-year break which the Jains (owners of Times Group) didn’t agree to. I plan to study, now that I am free of professional commitments,” he told City Buzz.

A Times Group insider said E Raghavan, a former editor of the southern edition of Economic Times and current editor of Vijaya Next (which is to Vijaya Karnataka what the Crest edition is to the Times), would replace Bhat.
What led to it?

Bhat had made many enemies. The paper veered overtly to the right, much to the discomfiture of his bosses. In the past six months, several hardline Hindu and anti-Christian articles had appeared in the paper. Retired judge M F Saldanha had got them translated and mailed to Bhat’s bosses in Mumbai.

Meanwhile the management had given enough indications they wanted him to quit. After the CEO, Chinnan Das was transferred from Vijayanand Publications Ltd, the sub-group that runs Vijaya Karnataka, and Sunil Rajshekar was brought in his place, Bhat could not establish a rapport with him. Columnists like Pratap Simha wrote aggressively against minority communities, leaving the management vulnerable to charges of communalism. Bhat’s bosses also reportedly questioned his integrity after he built a house in Rajarajeshwari Nagar.

Sensational story
Of the many big stories Vijaya Karnataka broke during his tenure was the one about minister Halappa, who was accused of rape. Halappa lost his cabinet position. In the public perception, Bhat was pro-BJP but anti-Yeddiyurappa. He began to attack Yeddyurappa but sided with his cabinet colleagues Shoba Karandlaje, the Reddy brothers, and Aravind Limbavali.

Gauri Lankesh, editor of Gauri Lankesh Patrike, has been writing for years against Bhat and his “Hindutva agenda.” She is relieved he will no longer edit the paper. She in one of her columns wrote: “Ever since Vijaya Karnataka was launched in 1999, the state has witnessed a media war, fought on both price and content. Unfortunately, the idea that the more ‘Hindutva’ the publication is, the more readers it will gain, has spread. Add to this the fact that proprietors and editorial staff are often from the Hindutva camp, and the combination becomes even more rabid.”

Editor who changed the game
Bhat is a gold medalist in journalism. He used a simple style, and took newspaper reading to an untapped audience in the districts. He turned Vijaya Karnataka into a market leader, beating Prajavani of the Deccan Herald group in less than five years, with a series of innovations. He encouraged many young writers, who brought a snappy tabloid style to the paper. Several sub-editors and reporters, now resident editors for the paper’s district editions, were trained under him.

An MSc in geology, his love of writing prompted him to take up an MA in journalism. He went to England to do an advanced journalism course. His political interests were no secret: he worked as Officer on Special Duty to H N Ananth Kumar, then a minister in the Vajpayee cabinet. Bhat was assistant professor at Asian College of Journalism when it was run by the Indian Express group in Bengaluru.

Bhat’s colleagues know him as an avid reader. He has translated several books into Kannada, which sold well. As a hands-on editor, he packaged news well, and introduced modern layouts and fun headlines to Kannada journalism. Bhat was the only editor in Kannada journalism who did not get stuff written by ghost writers. Naturally, several readers are writing supportive messages on his Facebook wall.

A right-wing journalist
Vijaya Karnataka was launched by Vijay Sankeshwar who, when he started the paper, was already a senior BJP member of parliament. After some trial and error, he picked Vishweshwar Bhat to be his editor.

Bhat was a member of the ABVP and maintains close links with the sangh parivar’s many outfits. Once Bhat took over, he brought in writers from the saffron brigade. One of them was Pratap Simha, who raves and rants in his weekly column against “pseudo secularists” or anyone opposed to the sangh parivar. Thanks to this official atmosphere, many of Vijaya Karnataka’s reporters and sub-editors had developed right-wing sympathies.

Without doubt, Bhat was widely seen as a rightwing journalist. Additionally, the management started asking questions about where he got the money to build a posh house. Many in the Yeddyurappa government had complained to the Times Group against him.

As the paper had fallen to the No 2 position and was losing numbers, the management was also keen to induct someone who could halt the slide. A source said the management had been hinting he should leave. The Times Group had invested Rs 300 crore in the paper when they bought it from Sankeshwar. They have made enough money from it to feel comfortable about a change in leadership.

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