Loss of plurality is worrying: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

21 May,2012

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

By Paranjoy Guha Thakurta


This sort of an acquisition is part of a growing trend of ‘corporatization’ of the media where big business houses such as the Aditya Birla Group and the Reliance Industries group are investing into existing media groups. Through this process of consolidation, they are also bailing out these groups.


The Raghav Behl-led Network 18 and Ramoji Rao-led Eenadu are now part of one big conglomerate because Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) has bailed out both by pumping in a huge amount of money. On paper, it appears as if they are still separate corporate entities, which they are, as per the laws of the land. But the kind of associations they have struck gives an impression that they are now going to work like a conglomerate. Now this is exactly what has happened in the case of Mr Aroon Pourie who heads the India Today group which is also going to be one major conglomerate. So what we are seeing, in that sense, is the ‘cartelization’ of the media. There are cartels being formed, there are oligopolies being formed.


The recession in the west has led to shrinking of advertising expenditures for the media in India and across the world especially after 2008, and this has had a direct impact on the fortunes of media organizations. So this process of consolidation has got expedited. What this means is that the media in India is going to become less plural, it’s going to be dominated by relatively fewer groups. What you are really seeing is, large corporate groups exercising greater dominance on the media. Now there are two implications.


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One is, of course, you are finding telecom companies (Mr Aditya Birla also happens to be the head of Idea and Mr Mukesh Ambani’s RIL is a major player in the broadband wireless access space), which are providing you communications, are also now playing an important role in companies that produce content. So the content providers and content distributors are coming together. This, in my opinion, is going to result in a loss of heterogeneity, resulting in a loss of plurality. In a sense, the oligopolies that are going to be formed will also impact the listeners of content, the viewers of content, or the readers of content. The content they get will be less heterogeneous.


The other part of the story is that these companies are also big advertisers. Therefore, the clout of the advertiser will go up. As I said, the telecom service providers are now becoming important stakeholders in companies that are producing content. So the distributors of content are becoming stakeholders in the producers of content. Similarly what you also see at another level, the companies which are big advertisers are also now becoming the owners of the media. So in my opinion, these trends towards ‘cartelization’, or the formation of these giant corporate conglomerates is not going to lead to greater plurality as far as the consumers of content are concerned.


The numbers of TV channels and newspapers and websites often give you a very deceptive kind of a picture and the capital is a classic example of that.Delhiis the only city in the world with 16 English language daily newspapers. This gives you a misleading picture, that readers of English dailies inDelhihave a huge choice. But the fact of the matter is that two newspapers, The Times of India and Hindustan Times would account for well over three-fourths of the total market of all English daily newspapers. And if you add to that Economic Times, then these three publications put together would account for more than 80 per cent of the total circulation of all English newspapers in India. So, in terms of numbers it looks good, but if you look at the structure of the market, you see few dominant players.


In India, unlike in other countries of the world, like US, UK or Australia, there are no cross-media restrictions. In other countries, there are both vertical as well as horizontal restrictions. Vertical restrictions mean that the content producer and the content distributor are different companies/groups. In India, the same guys who are producing content are also distributing the content. You have the DMK controlling the distribution channel and also producing the television channel; you have Zee News producing news and also controlling Dish TV. There are clear conflicts of interest that arise if your distributor and the provider are the same. That’s only one part of the story.


The other is what is called horizontal cross media restrictions. That means, the same company dominates all forms of the media, like print, radio, TV, in the same geographical area. In our country we don’t have any legal restrictions on cross media holdings. As far as the media is concerned, the group concept or the conglomerate concept does not operate in our country. So you have Bennett Coleman Ltd which brings out various print publications, and then you have Times Global Broadcasting which brings out the television content. These two companies happen to be controlled by the same set of people. But because the legal restrictions that exist in India apply to individual entities and not to conglomerates, effectively you have no cross-media restriction.


Speaking of editorial content, editors will not publish or broadcast anything that would go against the interest of the corporate that controls; these would become subtle forms of censorship and control. For instance, Living Media which includes, Aaj Tak, India Today, Headlines Today and Mail Today, these publications or these broadcasters are unlikely to publish anything negative that could affect the business interests of the Aditya Birla Group. So that could be an eminent danger, that degrees of freedom that editors and content providers would enjoy, would get curtailed not just because of the pattern of ownership but also because the owners of major conglomerates are also major advertisers.


Even if on paper, the editors have the autonomy and independence to publish what they like, there could be subtle forms of censorship wherein editors would feel constrained or would think twice before publishing any story that could in any way go against the interest of the promoters of the company that control these media conglomerates.


I am optimistic about the future of media in India but I am also concerned about the fact there is loss of heterogeneity, loss of choices to the consumer.


(As told to Shruti Pushkarna)


Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is a senior journalist, editor and broadcaster based in New Delhi.


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One response to “Loss of plurality is worrying: Paranjoy Guha Thakurta”

  1. Rajesh Uderani says:

    Indian media is confusing now where media would answer all your questions now your not sure how to judge what the media is stating is true or false