Boomtown Troubles

Photos: Shailendra Pandey

IT IS one of the inspirational legends of Indian journalism that James Hickey, founder and editor of the Bengal Gazette — this country’s first newspaper, with its first edition going back to January 1780 — was a fearless seeker of the truth, taken to court and imprisoned by Warren Hastings, then governor-general.

Crossing the line The media acted like Anna Hazare’s auxiliaries during the protest against graft
Crossing the line The media acted like Anna Hazare’s auxiliaries during the protest against graft

Reality is a little different. Hickey’s paper was often a gossipy, yellow rag. It thought nothing of publishing scurrilous reports, writing colourful stories about Hastings’ wife and playing factional politics within the governor-general’s council. When a rival paper was promoted by Hastings’ friends, Hickey sought to guard his monopoly by attacking the business interests of the new paper’s financial backers.

Has anything changed? From start-up newspapers that claim established incumbents put pressure on distributors and advertisers to start-up news channels that wonder if cable operators and DTH providers associated with rival channels will carry them, the sharp practice of the Hickey era is just so contemporary. So is the curious mix of an incestuous and adversarial relationship between the press — or the news media as it is now known — and the government.

What does this mean for the only-for-profit industry — with the possible exception of politics, one might be tempted to add — that draws protection from provisions in the Constitution? Is the media performing its duty? Indeed, what is its duty or obligation to society and its readers and viewers? Is the fact that so much of public discourse and political process is driven by television images and almost tailored for prime-time appeal something to worry about, something to celebrate or merely something inevitable? Is the media a monster or a necessary evil? Does it need regulation and checks and what role, if any, must be government be allowed here?

Battle for eyeballs Fringe news channels are left to fight over a smaller slice of the pie
Battle for eyeballs Fringe news channels are left to fight over a smaller slice of the pie

These questions are not new. They have been growing in recent years — through the Niira Radia tapes episode, through the Anna Hazare hysteria (when news channels often seemed to breach the line between independent or even opinionated observers and Anna’s auxiliaries. It has reached a stage where the government — any government, in the Centre, in the states, from one party or the other alliance — fears the media more than it does the Opposition. The UPA government through its season of scandal, the BJP government in Gujarat through Modi’s decade in power, the CPM in the nasty build-up to the West Bengal election of 2011: the common enemy was always a media accused of misrepresenting facts.

The phenomenon worries politicians. When the Hazare fast began at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi in April, at least one BJP MP said, “Of course, we will support him because it will hurt the Congress, but it sets a dangerous precedent. It could be us if we come to power. The media can make a hero of anyone. And remember the media likes us less than it likes the Congress.” The Congress would nod vigorously, except it would insist the media hates it even more.

If this phenomenon worries politicians, it worries serious media practitioners even more. As Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of Outlook, says, “Transgressions of the media, in style and in content, are growing. The atmosphere of polemics and namecalling is distorting national debate. I’m not concerned by complaints from the governments. But even dedicated and assiduous watchers of news channels are complaining. This is our constituency.”

‘Self-regulation is OK for the other guy, not for yourself. Editors find excuses when it comes to their set-up,’ says Vinod Mehta

SO HOW does one remedy the situation and do so in a manner that does not impede press freedom and democracy, the default defence of over-the-top journalism? It can’t be the government, but what’s to stop it from trying? This past week, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting took a new policy for granting permission for uplinking and downlinking of channels to the Cabinet and got the necessary clearance.

Before the new rules could be notified, there was a furore. At a meeting with television editors on 11 October, I&B Minister Ambika Soni backtracked and announced the policy would be vetted by a committee of stakeholders, including representatives of the News Broadcasters’ Association (NBA; the collective of 21 major broadcasters that between them run 46 24/7 all-India news channels), the India Broadcasting Foundation (IBF; a grouping of 250, largely entertainment-based channels) and the Broadcast Editors Association (BEA).

The storm had blown over and the spectre of “content regulation” had been felled, but what was it all about in the first place? India has an astounding 745 television channels. Three hundred and sixty-six of them — one for each day in a leap year — are categorised as news and current affairs channels. Another 600 channels have applied for licences to commence operations. If this rate of growth continues, it is conceivable that by the end of the decade, India will have more television channels than the rest of the planet put together.

A whole bunch of channels are due for a licence renewal after their initial 10- year licence runs out. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asked the ministry whether it was considering across-the-board norms for licence renewal. The ministry came up with at least two controversial proposals.

First, the net worth of an entity seeking to operate a non-news/entertainment channel was raised from Rs 1.5 crore to Rs 5 crore. For news channels, the figure was raised to Rs 20 crore from the existing Rs 3 crore, with a Rs 5 crore addition for every incremental news channel the broadcaster sought to run.

Second, renewal of licences for a further 10 years would be considered only if the channel had not violated the Programme and Advertisement Codes on five occasions or more. Clearly the target was news channels.

Funnily, the government could have claimed it was actually liberalising norms. As per the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, and the Cable Television Networks Rules, even one infringement of the Programme and Advertising Codes can result in a channel being taken off the air. Section 6 of the Rules lays down the Programme Code. It is vague and wide ranging, prohibiting a programme that:

• Offends against good taste or decency
• Contains criticism of friendly countries
• Contains anything obscene, defamatory, deliberate, false and suggestive innuendos and half-truths
• Is likely to encourage or incite violence or contains anything against maintenance of law and order or which promote anti-national attitudes
• Contains anything amounting to contempt of court • Criticises, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country
• Contains visuals or words that reflect a slandering, ironical and snobbish attitude in the portrayal of certain ethnic, linguistic and regional groups

Five violations of this decidedly subjective code, written into law by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting bureaucrats and interpreted by successor bureaucrats, could result in denial of licence renewal, or so the policy cleared by the Cabinet seemed to suggest. “The code,” says Anup Bhambani, lawyer for the IBF, “goes well beyond Article 19(2) of the Constitution, which places reasonable restrictions on Article 19(1)(a) — the right to freedom of speech and expression.”

At the 11 October meeting, Soni reportedly told the news channel editors that she was under pressure from colleagues in the government but suggested a route out. The five violations would be determined not by bureaucrats but by a self-regulatory mechanism. Rajdeep Sardesai, editor-in-chief on CNN-IBN, was probably expecting this. As he said, “The government, and Mrs Soni in particular, has been encouraging of a self-regulatory mechanism. So this move had come as a surprise.”

DOES SELF-REGULATION work in practice? Mehta is cynical of how self-regulation is perceived. “Self-regulation is okay for the other guy,” he says, “not for yourself. Every editor talks about it but finds excuses when it comes to the publication or channel he edits.”

NBA has another view. Three years ago, the NBA set up the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA). The NBSA is an adjudicatory body headed by Justice (retd) JS Verma and has eminent persons like former foreign secretary Chokila Iyer, technocrat Kiran Karnik and academic Dipankar Gupta as members, besides editors from member channels who serve a term.

Especially after the public disquiet following the 26/11 terror attack coverage, the NBSA has begun to be taken seriously by its constituents, Sardesai says. For instance, the supernatural and ghost-reincarnation shows, so beloved of Hindi channels, are being eased out.

India TV Editor-in-Chief Rajat Sharma, whose channel walked out of the NBSA in 2009 after it was fined for apparently misrepresenting the views of a Pakistani strategic analyst but who was then persuaded to come back, is categorical: “The three years under Justice Verma have seen a sea change. Greater interaction between editors of channels has also helped. There is a willingness among broadcasters to aim to win public trust.”

That does sound less than believable but Sharma has an anecdote to back it up. When cricketer Mohammed Azharuddin’s teenaged son died following a motor accident, there was a rush of cameras outside his Hyderabad residence, asking visitors the usual “How do you feel?” question. “A relative of Azhar’s,” says Sharma, “asked our journalist to go easy.” An India TV editor contacted other channels and a unanimous decision was taken to give the family its moment of privacy.

Touching as this story is, it is the exception. In breaching the privacy of non-VIPs, those who aren’t politicians and cricketers and don’t have the editor’s number on speed dial, channels are decidedly gung-ho. The 2007 hoax sting operation by Live India TV led to a schoolteacher in Delhi being falsely accused of pushing her pupils into prostitution. The channel was banned for a month and a few journalists lost their jobs, but everything soon returned to normal.

In AP, politicians own 13 news channels, with three more on the way. And wings of the DMK clan seem to have their own channels

THERE ARE other examples. Shashi Tharoor was a minister and Sunanda Pushkar the alleged recipient of undue sweat equity in the Kerala IPL mess, but did Pushkar’s parents genuinely deserve to have television crew barging into their residence. “What about the common man?” asks Mehta, “the person who knows nobody and has no means of redressal?” The fact that the NBSA has decided on 193 cases in the past three years will provide some hope to him, but only some.

Self-regulation sounds very nice but is only as strong as the NBA members want to make it. Its 46 members are the Big Boys of newscasting, accounting for 80 percent of news viewership. This has also meant that they have not been worried by the government’s proposal to raise the capital base for any new television channel.

Television is an expensive medium and takes much more than printing a handbill or a small newspaper. Yet can the government institutionalise and validate news television as a rich man’s sole preserve, as the Rs 20 crore criterion is doing? “It can be challenged in a court of law,” says a lawyer, “as an infringement of the right to freedom of expression.”

A channel owner argues that the base capital issue is only the thin end of the wedge. “Today,” he says, “setting up a channel and acquiring a composite licence for uplinking, downlinking and running a channel, is a tedious and time-consuming process. It requires the applicant to get clearances from five ministries — home, defence, finance, telecom and, of course, information and broadcasting. It even requires permission from something called WPC.” That abbreviation stands for Wireless Planning and Coordination, an agency under the Ministry of Communications.

A section of the NBA is planning to challenge this complicated process and demand a transparent and accountable mechanism, rather than one beholden to government subjectivity. A regulatory institution to oversee licensing as well as possible content breach is an obvious solution. “In the end,” says Sardesai, “we have to move to something like Ofcom in the United Kingdom.”

India’s only experience has been with a toothless Press Council (see box story) and an NBSA that can be snubbed by its members should they so choose. It is very different in other mature media markets. In his book Media Ethics: Truth, Fairness, and Objectivity(OUP is publishing a revised edition next month), journalist-educator Paranjoy Guha Thakurta talks about the 2004 Super Bowl game in America that led to the so-called ‘Nipplegate’ controversy.

The half-time entertainment event in that match featured Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake and had Timberlake tearing off Jackson’s shirt and exposing part of her breast. “The Federal Communications Commission,” says Thakurta, “imposed a fine of $550,000 on CBS. The key thing is, it required the channel to pay first and then appeal, say it was not at fault, it was inadvertent and so on. It had to pay first.”

Are Indian channels ready for such rigour?

THE EVOLUTION of the dowdy press to the coquettish media has exposed a hitherto unknown facet of India and Indians — an unabashed, almost brazen exhibitionism. Indians will do anything to appear on television — including admit to incest. This happened on Sach ka Saamna, a Star Plus show that was taken to court by the I&B ministry. The Delhi High Court delivered its judgment in September 2011 upholding the ministry’s warning for the channel against showing “vulgar and indecent” episodes in the future.

When this template is put to news channels, it creates a situation where no political event or initiative is taken in the absence of a media plan and having factored in television schedules and ‘slow news’ periods.

Sometimes, the slow news periods are artfully anticipated, as in the case of the Anna Hazare fast in early summer, which took place after the cricket world cup and before the IPL. Sometimes they happen by accident. In May 2009, the Indian media was gearing up for a month (or a summer) of hectic dealmaking after an expected indecisive election. However, the voters decided otherwise and the UPA won a handsome victory. With no story to do, the news channels (and some newspapers) invented a war with China.

In August-September 2009, Indian newspapers reported Chinese incursions in Ladakh. News channels soon picked this up as a sample of a new Chinese belligerence and a desire to “teach India a lesson”. Soon Indian television anchors and Chinese government spokespersons were declaring hostilities against each other, with the Indian government a confused spectator.

The Indian media’s China war was revealing of just how much of public discourse and transmission of popular ideas and prejudices is now driven by news networks and, to a lesser degree, publications. Tellingly, it can be argued that the Indian media today influences politics more than policy. Was it different an age ago?

Consider the real-life India-China war of 1962. Jingoistic newspaper articles pushed Jawaharlal Nehru into a forward policy his army was not prepared for, and led it to claim territory it was not in a position to defend. This is not the only reason for India’s humiliation in 1962 but it certainly played a role.

The jingoistic news channels of 2009 did not influence government policy, but did heighten the political atmosphere. Some in the Indian external policy establishment probably ended up finding the media useful. Those quarters of the Ministry of External Affairs that had always wanted to “hit back” at China, but needed a roundabout approach due to the wariness of the political leadership, came to consider the aggressive news channels as an unintended ally.

The China story was big, a showstopper almost. In everyday media life, there are a dozen such stories — planted or spun by some politician or party or government department — that are broadcast, even if to be contradicted the next day if not during the next bulletin.

Is such a media-driven agenda healthy? More to the point, is it inevitable? Can it be checked, and will that checking be quantitative or qualitative?

Without public policy thought shops, India allows its media a free rein. US has its thinktanks; India makes do with 8 pm chat shows

FOR A start, even the numbers are in dispute. Sharma discounts talk of 366 news channels with more to come. “The rules define even a general channel that has one 30-minute news or current affairs show in a day as a news channel. These are not all 24/7 channels,” he says. There is a point here. Take Hindi channels. India TV, Aaj Tak and Star News account for 60 percent of all viewership. If you add the Hindi channels of the NDTV, IBN and Zee networks, viewership climbs to 80 percent. The 15 odd other national Hindi channels fight for the crumbs.

Yet the consolidation picture is not marked by as much clarity elsewhere. In Andhra Pradesh, politicians own 13 Telugu news channels with three more waiting to be launched. In Tamil Nadu, even different wings of the DMK family seem to have their own channels. How do you stop this? If a paid-up capital stipulation is fundamentally unfair, then what will work?

There are no easy answers. “I’m certain no more than 5 percent of our news channels are genuine, professional operations,” he warns, “but once you get into the area of subjectivity in granting licences and give the power to exercise that subjectivity to the bureaucracy, you are going down a slippery path.”

The ballooning numbers don’t worry Sharma. In its own way, the media is doing its job he says. “It converts social anguish into a public event,” he stresses, “Mahatma Gandhi asked the media to understand people’s feelings and transmit them, to support valid emotions in society and to expose social ills. Isn’t the media doing all of these?” For him, the angularities of the moment are only transitory, a phase before the inevitable consolidation of news TV.

Despite Sharma’s optimism, the fact is media is putting off more people than it did before. The All India Radio FM news bulletin — with a straitlaced report on a flood in Manipur, a political crisis in Srinagar and a commemorative anniversary in Bundelkhand — is often a better mid-day round-up of India than the breathless, “breaking news” factories on the small screen.

What hurts people even more is the absence of alternatives. If the media is shrill, loud and only occasionally believable, then politicians and several other institutions are even less credible. If everything from the Lokpal Bill to Australia’s relationship with Indian students is discussed in a black-and-white, us-andthem, now-or-never manner, it also reflects the paucity of alternatives and complementary sources of intelligible and accessible public ideation.

Indeed, rather than shorten the line called media, the government — or the Indian State — needs to be thinking about drawing a longer line to offset it. As TEHELKA Editor Tarun Tejpal says, “We can’t and shouldn’t curb the media. But the State needs to incubate mechanisms for considered examination of issues, to help shape public discourse.” Without a network of foundations and public policy thought shops, India allows its media a free rein. America has its think-tanks; India makes do with 8-10 pm chat shows.

Such are the pleasures — and perils — of our media epoch.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.

Putting Paid to Media Ethics

Paid news has become a money-spinner for media houses. Kunal Majumder tracks the phenomenon

Unfair gains Former Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan is allegedly one of the prime beneficiaries of paid news
Unfair gains Former Maharashtra CM Ashok Chavan is allegedly one of the prime beneficiaries of paid news

ONE OF the first instructions Justice (retd) Markandey Katju gave after taking over as Press Council of India (PCI) chairman was to make the report on paid news public. In an order on 19 September, Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi had instructed the PCI to upload the controversial report on its website.

Prepared by senior journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K Sreenivas Reddy, the 71-page document is a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of paid news and the role print media played in recent polls, particularly the 2009 Lok Sabha polls.

Earlier, through a vote on 30 July 2010, the PCI had refused to reveal the findings and had instead submitted a 13-page report to the government. Many PCI members alleged that this was a diluted version of the original report, which contained explosive revelations that would embarrass many journalists, publications and politicians.

The report is finally public. It contains details that are not only uncomfortable for the journalist fraternity but also raise critical questions about the relationship between media and politicians: What happens when the distinction between news and advertisement is blurred? Why are the monetary transactions between concerned politicians and particular media organisations not disclosed? Why do candidates not report the money paid to media organisations to the Election Commission?

The report found that the phenomenon of paid news has become widespread in the Indian media. Both newspapers and news channels are part of this menace. And what is worse is the ‘organised’ manner in which ad agencies and PR firms, along with journalists, managers and owners of media companies have created an entire illegal system. The candidates who refuse to be a part of this business are deliberately denied coverage. Thakurta and Reddy call it an ‘extortionist’ practice.

The candidates who refuse to be a part of this business were denied coverage

One of the most serious allegations about the nexus between news media and politicians was made by The Hindu’s rural affairs editor P Sainath. In his deposition before the PCI, he claimed that the Lok Sabha elections of 2009 saw a paradigm shift in the manner in which candidates and political parties worked hand-in-glove with media houses. He points out a news item on former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan that appeared in three Marathi newspapers — Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times, which were similarly worded from beginning to end. In his election expenditure statement, Chavan has mentioned that he had spent a mere Rs 5,379 on newspaper ads and Rs 6,000 on TV. However, Sainath says this is not possible as there were over 150 pages of news on Chavan, who had been CM for just 11 months. Compare this to the US President Barack Obama, who ran the costliest political campaign ever and yet had just five full pages of news coverage.

Another interesting example given in the report is that of the Varanasi edition of a Hindi daily that carried a report during the same elections claiming that there was a “wave in favour of Congress”. Representatives of the newspaper later told PCI that the report was in fact an ad designed in news format by an “overzealous advertising manager”. Once they realised the mistake, they carried a ‘clarification’ the very next day.

A more blatant justification for paid news comes from a major media conglomerate. It argues that if PR firms are already ‘bribing’ journalists to ensure coverage of their clients, there is nothing wrong with eliminating the intermediary. Therefore, the idea was conceived of paid news, under which anyone can pay to get editorial space in newspapers of the group.

The report does put out some good news. Thakurta and Reddy praise business daily Mint, published by HT Media, for its code of journalistic conduct. Dos and don’ts were formulated for the professional conduct of its employees. Security and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had cautioned PCI about the private treaties between media organisations and listed companies as well as companies coming out with a public offer.

This arrangement could lead to commercialisation of news since the same would be based on the subscription and advertising agreement entered into between the media group and the company. The ‘private treaties’ scheme, claims the report, brings in private equity investments in exchange for ad space. The media group doing this, however, denies providing positive editorial coverage to its ‘private treaty’ clients.

The report suggests that the problem can be fixed by including clear demarcation of news from advertising by printing disclaimers, appointing ombudsmen and better self-regulation. Now that the report has been made public, will the media houses and government work on its recommendations? Thakurta is not optimistic. “Media and politicians have a perennial love-hate relationship. Each needs the other. So it’s difficult to say if much change is possible soon,” he says. On the other hand, Katju says he has just taken over the reins of PCI and would not like to comment at this stage.

With inputs from Shonali Ghoshal and Prakhar Jain

Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.


Should Media Barons be Cut to size?


A TRAI report has advised that cross-media ownerships in India should be dismantled. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Alice Seabright access this exclusive report and debate the solutions to India’s big media riddles


Illustration: Samia Singh

IN INDIA’S unique ‘mediascape’, it is often argued that the sheer proliferation of publications, radio stations, television channels and websites is a sure-fire guarantor for plurality, diversity and consumer choice. There are over 72,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers, over 250 FM radio stations (the number is likely to cross 1,200 in five years), nearly 800 TV channels, including over 300 that claim to be ‘news and current affairs’ channels, and an unspecified number of websites. Quantity has, however, hardly translated into quality.

Despite this impressive number, mass media in India is dominated by less than a 100 large groups or conglomerates, which exercise huge influence on what is read, heard and watched. The intensification of competition, instead of improving quality, has led to a lowering of ethical standards. ‘Dumbing down’, sensationalism, trivialisation and an unhealthy obsession with crime, cricket, cinema and celebrities have become the norm instead of the exception.

India’s established media conglomerates have staunchly refused to accept the need for restrictions over ownership and control, arguing that this would result in devious forms of censorship and have resurrected the ghosts of the 1975-77 Emergency to shore up their argument. The government too has played along. After all, powerful politicians need media barons as much as the latter need the former — a mutually beneficial back-scratching society of sorts. In fact, the differences between the two have got more and more obliterated as several media barons have become members of the Rajya Sabha.

To tackle similar concerns, the governments of many countries across the world, including the US, the UK and Australia, have imposed vertical (across different media such as print, radio and television) and horizontal (across geographical areas) cross-media restrictions. On 22 May 2008, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting sought the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s view on crossmedia ownership restrictions in India. The TRAI report of 25 February 2009 was never made public, (though a copy is now with the authors of this article), nor has any action been taken on it.

Soni and Linga fought to get the minimum wages of tribals doubled, and kicked up a row about policemen pocketing money from illegal teak trade

The existence of large media conglomerates poses ethical problems because such business groups acquire extremely powerful means of influencing public opinion. Rupert Murdoch’s media outlets across the world, including Fox News, strongly supported the war in Iraq. This was partly in accordance with Murdoch’s personal political views, partly because he considered warmongering to be a good means to boost viewership, and partly, because by Murdoch’s own admission, “the greatest thing that would come out of this for the world economy would be $20 for a barrel of oil”.

Illustration: Samia Singh

As far as India is concerned, the debate on media ownership is almost as old as the nation itself. The country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon would castigate the ‘jute press’ in a clear reference to Bennet Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL), then controlled by the Sahu-Jain group, which also controlled New Central Jute Mills. Then came references to the ‘steel press’. The Tata group, which has a substantial presence in the steel industry, used to be a part-owner of the company that publishes the once-influential The Statesman. Ramnath Goenka, who used to head the Indian Express group, made an aborted attempt in the 1960s to control the Indian Iron and Steel Company (IISCO). What was being clearly suggested by politicians was that particular family-owned groups would use their news companies to lobby for their other business interests.


How to create a level-playing field

Regulator TRAI believes that certain restrictions are needed to keep media houses from becoming monopolies

RESTRICTIONS IN general should go from being company-based restrictions to being entity-based, to avoid large corporate groups bypassing them.

Ground rules Broadcasters should not have control in content distribution, says TRAI
Ground rules Broadcasters should not have control in content distribution, says TRAI

• Vertical integration: Broadcasters should not have “control” in distribution and vice versa. In other words, any entity that has been licensed for television broadcasting or has more than 20 percent equity in a broadcasting company, should not have more than 20 percent equity in a distributor and vice versa. The existing broadcasters who may have “control” in distribution should be given three years for restructuring.

• The current restrictions regarding the limit on number of licences available to a single entity are adequate for the time being.

• Cross-media ownership or horizontal integration across different sectors of the media: A detailed market study and analysis should be carried out by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting to identify appropriate safeguards.

• Concentration of media ownership: After working out required safeguards for horizontal and vertical integration, the merger and acquisition guidelines for the sector should also be issued to prevent media concentration and creation of significant market power.

• Cross-ownership across telecom and media sectors: No restriction should be imposed for the time being. The issue should be reviewed after two years.


TODAY, THE situation described by Nehru has intensified multifold. In fact, instead of using their media companies to lobby for their non-media business interests, many large media groups have been able to diversify their business activities thanks to the profits generated by their media business. Promoters of media companies have subsidiary business interests in sectors as varied as aviation, hotels, cement, shipping, steel, education, automobiles, textiles, education, cricket, information technology and real estate. Just one example is the Dainik Bhaskar group, which, in 1958, ran a single edition Hindi newspaper from Bhopal, but now owns seven newspapers, two magazines, 17 radio stations, and has a significant presence in printing, textiles, oils, solvent extraction, hotels, real estate and power generation.

There is a growing influence of the corporate sector in media houses that have restricted themselves to the news business. The board of directors of many media companies include (or have included in the past) representatives of big corporate entities that are advertisers. In fact, media companies tend to have a variety of professionals on their boards, such as investment bankers, venture capitalists, chartered accountants, corporate lawyers, and CEOs of big companies. Professional journalists, ironically, rarely figure. As a result, those at the top of the decision-making hierarchy are those for whom the bottom-line, not the by-line, is most important.

Thus, instead of media houses relying on advertisers to fund quality journalism, the relationship becomes insidiously reversed: advertisers and corporates begin to rely on news outlets to further their interests. In 2003, BCCL started a ‘paid content’ service, which enabled them to charge advertisers for coverage of product launches or celebrity-related events. In the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the more clearly illegal practice of ‘paid news’ emerged and became widespread. ‘Rate cards’ or ‘packages’ were handed out listing prices for positive coverage of a candidate, or criticism of an opponent. Those who refused to comply with these conditions were denied coverage. Here, the very tenets of journalism — to deliver fair, accurate and unbiased information — are turned on their head.

The pernicious behind-the-scenes influence of corporate and vested interests was made particularly apparent by the leaking of tapes recording conversations between Niira Radia, a powerful lobbyist with clients such as the Tata Group and Reliance Industries, and a variety of businessmen, politicians and journalists. They revealed what had long been an open secret: the collusion and uncomfortable closeness between corporates, politicians and journalists, a world in which the line between politics and business, PR and news, is increasingly blurred.

This has to some extent always been the case. Journalists who rub shoulders with the powerful on a regular basis can develop signs of mild megalomania, basking in their own importance to the extent of forgetting their ethical duties. However, what was once confined to individual transgressions on the part of erring journalists seems now to be occurring on a scale of dramatic and worrying proportions. Large conglomerates have the financial muscle that forces smaller companies to adapt if they are to survive. In the race to grab eyeballs, the rest of the industry tends to conform and unethical practices spread like cancer.

So what can be done to control these media giants? According to the TRAI report, it is important that “necessary safeguards be put in place to ensure plurality and diversity are maintained across the three media segments of print, television and radio”. However, during the consultation phase, there was strong resistance on the part of media groups to the idea of restrictions on their sector. Many different arguments were proposed, among others that regulation would stifle growth, that the multiplicity of mediums and the highly fragmented nature of the Indian market prevents monopolisation, and that regulation of the sector amounts to an impingement on the constitutional right to freedom of speech. Further, some groups, “particularly those associated with print”, even argued that it was not under the jurisdiction of TRAI to make recommendations on any matter that did not relate directly to telecommunications. Given that no regulatory authority exists for the media as a whole, this argument conveniently suppresses the debate on cross-media ownership.

These issues are all addressed at length in the report. Drawing on the Supreme Court’s observation in the Government of India vs Cricket Association of Bengal case that “the right to participate in the affairs of the country is meaningless unless the citizens are well informed on all sides of the issues in respect of which they are called upon to express their views”, the report argues that reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the media to maintain the plurality and diversity of views crucial for a healthy democracy, and that these restrictions in no way undermine the right to freedom of speech.

GIVEN THE the fuss that was kicked up about whether TRAI even had the right to comment on media other than telecommunications, the authority demanded a clarification from the Ministry of I&B. The ministry confirmed that the issue should be examined in its entirety, and that it was perfectly within the jurisdiction of the TRAI to make recommendations regarding cross-media ownership.

Having considered the arguments by media groups, TRAI nevertheless came to the conclusion that certain restrictions are required. For one, restrictions on vertical integration — that is, restrictions on media companies owning stakes in both broadcast and distribution companies within the same media. The reasoning is that vertical integration can result in anti-competitive behaviour, whereby a distributor can favour its own broadcaster’s content over the content of a competitive broadcaster. In such a scenario, large conglomerates would be able to impose their preferred content, a clearly dangerous situation.

According to the report, vertical integration in the media market is already causing serious problems. There have been numerous disputes brought before the Telecom Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) between broadcasters and cable operators alleging denial of content by other service providers. New cases are being added regularly, which the TRAI regards as “a clear indication that the current market situation requires corrective measures”.

The report also calls attention to the fact that all restrictions on vertical integration are currently placed on specific companies. However, media conglomerates are usually groups that own many different companies. This allows them to have controlling stakes both in broadcasting and distribution by acquiring licences under their different subsidiary companies, thus totally bypassing current restrictions and defeating the purpose of their existence in the first place. The report, therefore, suggests that the restrictions no longer be placed on ‘companies’ but on ‘entities’, which would include large groups and conglomerates such as BCCL and Dainik Bhaskar.

This absence of restrictions in India is in stark contrast to most other countries in the world with a free press, including the US, the UK, France and Canada. The report argues that the ministry should conduct a detailed market analysis in order to identify which safeguards would be most appropriate in the Indian context.

OF COURSE, regulation is not a panacea to all of the media’s problems. Far from it. The real challenge becomes apparent when one accepts the fact that the media is, and will always be, a business. Its dual role — as a moneymaking business and as the ‘fourth estate’, with a commitment to the dissemination of information for the benefit of the public — creates a huge dilemma. Consumers are simply not willing to pay the full price of producing quality news. This is why most of the media’s revenue is forced to come from advertising. Consumers’ willingness to pay for print media, in particular, is likely to dwindle even more with the advent of free news on the Internet. On the other hand, the production and distribution costs of television are huge. As the production costs increase and subscription revenue falls, resources are stretched and the money has to come from somewhere.

‘Dumbing down’, sensationalism and an unhealthy obsession with crime, cricket, cinema and celebrities have become the norm

It is not surprising that many media companies argue for the right to consolidate when one considers the difficulties of breaking even, let alone making money. From a business point of view, media consolidation has undeniable advantages. It allows for economies of scale, which enable media companies to absorb the costs of content and distribution over a large volume of revenue. This in turn allows companies to invest in better resources such as talent or technical equipment. In a competitive market, small media companies have a hard time surviving. Consolidation makes a lot of economic sense and can even, to some extent, translate into improvements in quality.

However, it is unacceptable that media barons use news outlets as tools to further business interests. Murdoch, whom we recently watched fall from the heights of his empire due to the phone-hacking scandal, had spun a massive web of political influence, based mostly on the power wielded by his many newspapers and organs of propaganda (such as the far-right conservative Fox News) to influence public opinion. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has done away with the middleman altogether. As the head of the political establishment and most of the country’s media outlets, his business interests fear interference from no one.

Regulation is necessary to ensure that the media’s primary role is not held hostage by corporate and political vested interests

Democracy is, therefore, not a safeguard in itself. There are more insidious ways of distorting the production of news than explicit censorship. The first and foremost goal of news groups should be quality journalism, with business interests serving that purpose or secondary to it. When business becomes the main goal, and content becomes a means to an end, we have reason to worry. Finding new business models that make quality journalism viable, in an age of satellite television and the Internet, will require ingenuity. Regulation is necessary to ensure that the primary role of the media — to deliver fair, accurate, thorough and unbiased information to the public — is not held hostage by corporate and political vested interests. Unfortunately, the new media world is changing so rapidly that there is very little in our experience to tell us how to deal with the future.

However, despite the difficulties, one should not lose sight of the British journalist and publisher Charles Prestwich Scott’s adage that “comment is free, but facts are sacred” and his belief that newspapers fulfilled a higher function than simply striving “for profit or power”. In 1921, on the occasion of the centenary of The Guardian, he wrote an article in which he argued that newspapers have a “moral as well as a material existence” and commented on the ethical pitfalls of the tendency for “amalgamation”, which we would nowadays call consolidation. The article is just as relevant today as it was then, just as applicable to India as it was to Britain, which goes to show that these issues are perhaps inherent in the dual role of the media. There is no such thing as the perfect solution — it is a constant battle.

Alice Seabright is a freelance British journalist