Is news media ownership a cause for worry?

30 Jul,2012

 

By Shruti Pushkarna

 

Hardly had the news of the acquisition of English news channel NewsX by ITV Media Group and Hindi news channel Live India by Prosperity Agro filterd in, there were murmurs on whether it was vital for the government to impose entry barriers for the news media. ITV of course has been in the news for around five years and Live India already had a sizeable stake by a property developer HDIL.

 

As part of MxM Mondays, we spoke to a cross-section of news media practitioners to offer their views on the issue.

 

This issue of media ownership has been debated on in the past, and more so recently, because of the entry of corporate groups into the news media. Earlier this year we saw two big corporates enter the media domain, when Reliance Industries bought a stake in Raghav Behl-led Network18 and Aditya Birla Group invested in the Aroon Purie-led Living Media India.

 

While big business owning media is not a new phenomenon, there are numerous instance of politicians owning and controlling sections of the media, especially in Southern India.

 

Hence the question arises: Is it a cause for worry when people with non-media interests start owning the mass news media?

 

Here are a cross-section of views from captains of the industry (in alphabetical order of their last names):

 

Tariq Ansari, Chairman and Managing Director, Next Mediaworks Ltd

Tariq Ansari

The worry is not around who owns the media but whether they act in a way that is consistent with journalistic standards of integrity and fair play. We seem to have forgotten simple journalistic conventions like a declaration of interest from the owner of the publication/channel on stories in which there is a substantial commercial interest.

 

Media, much like steel or fertilisers or communications, will eventually belong to those who have the means and desire to invest in it. The point about it being the preserve of a few is inexplicable. Nobody is stopping anyone from raising the capital to start a newspaper/magazine/TV station/radio station/website. We live in a free country. Anyone who has the ability to own media should be able to do so, without limitation. Clearly my preference would be that criminals or those with clear vested interest should not own media, but I am not sure if the law of the land can prevent this from happening.

 

Vinod Mehta

Vinod Mehta, Former Editor-in-Chief, Outlook magazine

I am worried. Media diversity is very important for freedom of the press. I don’t want Media in the hands of a few owners. It should be open to all.

 

 

 

And here’s what MxMIndia’s regular columnists say:
 

Ranjona Banerji, senior journalist, columnist and Contributing Editor, MxMIndia

Media ownership is a worry to the extent that journalists are not able to withstand corporate pressure. For instance, the Birlas started Hindustan Times and the Tatas has a stake in The Statesman (to name just two) and the battle between marketing and editorial is as old as the profession. The problem comes when senior editors capitulate and reader interest is surrendered or sacrificed. I would turn the spotlight back on journalists: are we fighting the good fight?

_______________________________

 

Mediaah/Pradyuman Maheshwari, editor-in-chief, MxMIndia:

Many years back when I asked a leading industrialist why he was keen on starting a news channel he replied with the famed Deewar dialogue (some alcohol in the system did the trick): Aaj mere paas buildingey hai, gaadi hai, bank balance hai, but even then these guys owning newspapers and channels are ruling the world. We were in the late 1990s, and journalists and news media owners were indeed much sought after. That may have waned over the years, but the desire to own news media stays. What hasn’t changed is that the intent of owning the news media goes far beyond returns on investments.

 

When the British ruled India, it was the desire to mobilize public opinion that led to several national leaders and even businessmen to embrace news. Post-Independence, with the birth of a new economy, it was a mix of nationalistic sentiment and also to use it as an ally in a tightly controlled business environment. The ’60s and ’70s saw the media taking off with magazines like the Illustrated Weekly of India, later India Today and several others in regional languages. The imposition of the Emergency got people to realize the importance of the news media as the liberalization of the economy and and the airwaves ensured that there is no looking back.

 

Being a democracy, there are no entry barriers to the media. And rightly so. However, when a few years back a few real estate and assorted players jumped into news television there were representations to the information and broadcasting ministry that there ought to be tighter controls.

 

The current murmurs are being heard because NewsX has been acquired by businessman Kartikeya Sharma. ITV, his media company, also runs the newspaper Aaj Samaj and regional and Hindi news network India News. And the reason for the concern: it was feared that being the brother of Manu Sharma who has been convicted in the Jessica Lallmurder case, he could misuse his position to influence the executive and the judiciary. Well, the Supreme Court upheld its sentence of life imprisonment in 2010, so evidently he didn’t achieve much. To be fair to Sharma, a senior editorial and business executive who has worked with him, told me that he saw no interference on content, especially on the Manu Sharma front.

 

Clearly, the money power of rich businessmen and politicians cannot bring in readers or viewers, as the case may be or make a success of the media enterprise. In the late’80s, the Ambanis acquired Commerce Weekly and converted it into a business daily. They also acquired The Sunday Observer that was once edited by Vinod Mehta and was exceedingly popular.  The Ambani indulgence in the media failed despite hiring top journalists and publishing executives. They could only use the papers to fight a few minor battles, and even those without much success.

 

Mehta worked and fell out with industrialists Vijaypat Singhani and L M Thapar as both found news too hot to handle and counter-productive to their primary businesses (and revenues). One had assumed he would meet the same fate when Rajan Raheja, a then-emerging industrialist with some interests in real estate, set up the Outlook magazine group. Mehta has led many battles with the mighty and powerful in his magazine and both Raheja and Mehta have survived each other.

 

Save the Outlook example which is a good indicator of business interests and independent journalism co-existing, clearly big money is not enough to drive consumption of news media. My worry though lies elsewhere:

1. Lack of transparency in the ownership of media.

2. Creation of a monopolistic scenario with business groups investing in multiple and similar vehicles

3. Level playing field for competition in case of vertical and/or horizontal cross-ownership, and

4. Diversification of media companies  into entities beyond news

 

1 & 2. Transparency requirements in media ownership are critical. When the government announced recently that a certain conglomerate doesn’t not have interests in the media, is it really the case, or is that what is on paper and hence deemed correct? While doubts have been raised about how the acquisition of a sizeable chunk of Network 18 via an independent trust would impact the editorial independence of the group, the real worry is the rumoured interests of the group in other media ventures too.

 

Could we have a situation that a genre of channels or newspapers or the media entities in particular region of the country be owned – directly or indirectly – by one group? How do we tackle a monopolistic scenario such as this?

 

3. The PR head of a radio station in Delhi once complained that she could never hope to get her press release into the two main English dailies in the city because both had their own FM stations. So, while the most inane event from the group’s radio station gets covered, the lady’s FM frequency never got a mention even for a big activity. So rampant is this blacking out of a rival group’s activities that it’s now considered standard practice. In many countries there are strict rules for horizontal and vertical cross-ownership. While the TRAI has suggested restrictions in vertical ownership (a TV channel can’t fully own a DTH or cable platform etc), horizontal ownership is fine (so a TV channel can also run a newspaper, radio station etc).

 

4. The last of my worry areas can be a bigger concern, and, if misused, even graver than big business or a political party getting into the media. Many news media groups have invested in sectors outside of news and doubts have been expressed if there is any connect between the relationships with governments via the news media and the winning of such contracts.

 

Even though the government at the Centre is weak, and we can be sure it will flex its muscles often enough in the run-up to various elections until 2014, I don’t see any immediate solution to the problem. But what can play a deterrent for those who abuse the media will be public opinion via social media.

 

Sevanti Ninan, Editor, thehoot.org and Columnist, Mint

Sevanti Ninan

Yes, it is a cause for worry when people with vested interests start owning the mass media because political ownership of the media is increasing, and there are no transparency requirements on media ownership.

 

Readers and viewers are unable to discern ownership-related biases. There is also a renewed trend of corporate investment in media increasing. Media companies are supposed to file ownership details with the registrar of companies, but one, it is not properly done, and two it is very difficult for lay people to access the correct and latest data.

 

On the issue of media being a preserve of only a certain groups, even now it is fairly widely owned.

 

Maheshwar Peri, Chairman, Pathfinder Publishing India Pvt ltd

Maheshwar Peri

In my opinion there is no cause for worry. I think, increasingly, the cause for worry comes from a few industrialists who’ve gotten into media. But if you go back to the flag bearers of Indian journalism in the 1980s, Indian Express was owned by RNG, an industrial group. So, to say that ownership by industrialists would hurt media is a slightly wrong way of looking at it.

 

There is definitely a cause for worry when people get into media for reasons other than running it as a professional empire. If you look at some of the politicians who’ve come into media or political parties that are launching their own channels, that’s a cause for worry because they have a reason to dish out news which suit their needs and opinions.

 

So there is a problem when people in public office get into media, but it’s not so much of a problem if industrialists or venture capitalists or any others moneybag get into it because they want to make it a commercially viable operation. And they know they can make it commercially viable only when the reader/viewer respects them. In case of politicians, they are not interested in making it commercially viable; they just want to ensure that their point of view finds a space in the public domain.

 

I think unless a reader or consumer respects you, you won’t be able to sell beyond a point. So all of us, whether or not owned by corporates, are always trying to ensure that we give unbiased and credible information so that the reader continues to respect us as well as the advertiser continues to invest in us.

 

And what makes one think that they have a better opinion about media than a fruit vendor? I don’t think there can be a classification of who has a better opinion about certain things in this country – we are a democracy. So the worse thing is to say that ‘these’ kind of people can get into media and ‘those’ kind cannot.

 

Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief, Tehelka magazine

Tarun Tejpal

To some extent, there is cause to worry about media ownership. We have to air, discuss and examine issues of monopolies, cross media ownerships, and of cross business ownerships. And to try and build in some structural safeguards that both help ensure the financial viability of honest, robust media, and deter media owners from using their media instruments for unfair advantage in their other businesses.

 

Theoretically, it (media) should be open to all. But we must build in safeguards that minimize the misuse of public discourse and public instruments of media. This is not easy, but a discussion must start on this issue at all levels.

 

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Senior Journalist

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

The growing corporatization of the Indian media is manifest in the manner in which large industrial conglomerates are acquiring direct and indirect interest in media groups. There is also a growing convergence between creators/producers of media content and those who distribute/disseminate the content.

 

In India’s unique ‘mediascape’, it is often contended that the proliferation of publications, radio stations, television channels, and internet websites is a sure-fire guarantor for plurality, diversity, and consumer choice. There were over 82,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers. There are over 250 FM radio stations in the country. Despite these impressive numbers of publications, radio stations and television channels, the mass media in India is possibly dominated by less than a hundred large groups or conglomerates, which exercise considerable influence on what is read, heard, and watched.

 

One example will illustrate this contention. Delhi is the only urban area in the world with 16 English daily newspapers; the top three publications, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, and the Economic Times, would account for over three-fourths of the total market for all English dailies.

 

However, what is unacceptable is media barons using news outlets as tools to further their business interests. In this country, as in the world over, large media corporations are clearly playing a bigger role in the political economy that they report on. Though a free media is fundamental to the existence of a liberal democracy, concerns about the accountability and transparency of media companies remain. For instance, the RIL deal has enabled Network 18, Eenadu, and the merged group to expand its offerings to benefit its stakeholders and its advertising target audiences. What remains to be seen is whether clear boundaries can be etched between the boardroom and the newsroom.

 

There’s absolutely no doubt about the fact that if it’s truly going to be a responsive media, then the media should reflect the views, the interests, the aspirations of a larger section of population as possible. The problem with much of our media is that they are too busy trying to ‘reach’ consumers to potential advertisers than providing information to citizens.

 

Next Week:

Why do we all like to damn TAM?

The Sectoral Innovation Council recommendations last week said that there was need for an alternative to TAM, short for the media research company formed by a jv of two international research biggies: Nielsen and Kantar. This is a view that has been expressed several times over the years.

 

One of the main peeves against TAM is the number of Peoplemeter boxes present to collect data. Can 8000+ boxes effectively poll a populace of 1.2 billion, is what many broadcasters keep asking in public. In private though, not many are ready to pay up by increasing their subscription fee to enable the installation of more boxes across the country.

 

Also, what’s happening to BARC, the joint industry body that was to provide an alternative?

 

MxMIndia will speak to a cross-section of the industry to get answers. Meanwhile, if you have a view, email it to us at editor@mxmindia.com with the subject ‘MxM Mondays #2’

 

Post a Comment 

One response to “Is news media ownership a cause for worry?”

  1. Tejpal says:

    Taun Tjpal is a real good one pick. He is thew most corrupt communally biased person who was paid blank cheque to demonise Hindus/BJP/Modi and he did this wonderful job brilliantly. His associate Sibbal helped him but dissociated and left him alone to fend for when Tarun mian got ensnared in the rape scandal.

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