I wish to express my gratitude to the society’s executive committee members who have walked the extra mile to make this afternoon a reality. Beyond the rituals of a landmark celebration, there are important facets of our life as a society of newspapers that must be acknowledged. We are 75. By virtue of our age and our experience, we must be presumed to possess a mature appreciation of the needs of newspaper industry. We have faced several crises in the years gone by. We have dealt with these with equanimity and occasionally even with a degree of skill.

But it must be noted that this jubilee is being celebrated even as the newspaper industry faces an existential crisis, one whose contours haven’t quite been appreciated by various stakeholders – including government and newspaper employees. A recent judgment of the Supreme Court, upholding the validity of an Act that ought to have been circumscribed or even repealed by the legislature for its lack of relevance to 21st century India, threatens to drive many of us to closure and it may do so after it has taken severe toll on the industrial peace we have so carefully nurtured.  Our forbears crafted beneficial legislation that took into account the newspaper’s capacity to pay. In other words, it was aimed at being a sustainable model of wage determination. Now, in the hands of authority, it has empowered a prescription that is far divorced from even the newspaper’s capacity to earn. It will not be appropriate for me as head of a premier industry body to wonder on its 75th birthday if it will survive until its 100th. Such dire thoughts might even be considered inauspicious. But the crisis that looms and the storm clouds that have gathered are direly ominous and therefore these fears must be voiced. Someone wise once said books and minds work only when they are open; both literally and metaphorically this is valid for newspapers as well.

There are other challenges, too. The health of newspapers is undermined by the presence of other media. It gets affected by occasionally intrusive policies of the government that impact our sustainability. It is dented by rising costs, especially by the fall in the value of the rupee that directly impacts our cost of production since a large quantity of newsprint that we consume is still imported. It is undermined by advertisement policies of Central and state governments that elevate to a fine art the subvention by newspapers of the state’s messages to citizens. Equally it must be admitted that the health of newspapers is also undermined by the actions of some of us, especially by a phenomenon such as paid news that strikes at the very roots of an independent Press.  Unhealthy competition, predicated on the desire to consolidate media power, assails the democratic commandment to present a plurality of views. These challenges must be addressed. The point I wish to emphasis though is that the society, as a responsible body of newspapers and periodicals, is quite capable of dealing with challenges, provided it is allowed to do so. The fact that we are 75 underlines our maturity; it ought not to give rise to the belief that we either need assisted living or judicially-directed euthanasia.

We note with some alarm and considerable dismay that the solution of those in authority is to legislate or to impose regulations on us, when we are quite capable of determining solutions and imposing these on ourselves. Amendments to the Press and Registration of Books legislation, especially moves to link content to licensing, are a case in point. The continuance of the anachronism of Wage Boards, withdrawn from every other industry, is another. Artificial and arbitrary fixation of government advertisement rates is yet another.

Newspapers disseminate knowledge. They empower citizens. They play a critical role in nation-building. They nurture the intellect, and offer a cerebral counterpoint to the occasionally mindless shenanigans of other media. A democracy thus owes itself to ensure that its newspapers are empowered to be free and fearless. A jubilee is a milestone. My colleagues on the Executive Committee felt that one of the ways to mark this milestone was to bring out a commemorative book. I was humbled and flattered by their faith in my ability to research and write this book, which has been titled Threescore and Fifteen.

Written under the pressure of a very severe deadline, this book attempts to trace the origins of the society, the vision of its founders, the challenges it has faced, the challenges that it continues to face, the successes it has recorded and the failures that bedevil it. The book quotes the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, extolling the virtues of a free press in these ringing words: “To my mind, the freedom of press is not just a slogan from the larger point of view but it is an essential attribute of the democratic process. I have no doubt that even if the government dislikes the liberties taken by the press and considers them dangerous, it is wrong to interfere with the freedom of the press. By imposing restrictions, you do not change anything; you merely suppress the public manifestation of certain things, thereby causing the idea and thought underlying them to spread further. Therefore, I would rather have a completely free press with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom than a suppressed or regulated press.”

These are the words of a liberal; they are words that deserve to be cast on tablets and placed in every newspaper office and in various nodal ministries of the press. But it is the slow poisoning of the well of liberalism that has compromised the completely free press Nehru had envisioned. On this platinum jubilee occasion, it is important for all of us – those inside newspapers and those responsible for policy - to revisit the basics of freedom and liberalism and to craft a path that makes newspapers both relevant and viable. In presenting the first copy of this book to the nation’s first citizen, it is this society’s earnest wish and prayer that winds of change will fan the fires of freedom, and cleanse us of the occasional intolerance that has dogged the polity. As James Madison said more than 200 years ago, “I believe there are more instances of the abridgment of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” It is these silent encroachments that we must cast aside as we chart a course for the future.

(Author is INS president Ravindra Kumar. Views expressed by him are personal.)