First published in The Pioneer, May 25, 2013
Isn’t it time TV channels began their programmes with voluntary disclosures of the names of entities, political or business, having stakes in their holding companies?
Wet behind the ears 17 and 18-year-old political science students learn about how the three branches of modern, liberal democracies — the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary — provide balance in a system that could otherwise run amuck. These three estates, which could join hands and become autocratic or self-serving when super majorities are elected to parliament, or the senate, house, and the White House in the United States, therefore need an unelected monitor, the press or the media, to inform the people and protect democratic ideals. When the fourth estate is compromised then chaos can be just round the corner.
The British are gone, and the time when the great Indian newspapers whose publishers and editors did pitched battle with the colonial authorities ended at the midnight hour on August 15, 1947. There were still, till about the 1970s, a few of the great editors, and uncompromising publishers, who believed in providing news, in being nonpartisan, and in writing the carefully argued, and sometimes pugnacious editorials that made the powerful — in government and business — squirm.
But many of the big media houses were owned by big industrial houses, and the nexus between government and business, in the days of the license raj, was clear to many insiders and a bane to the careful observer of the Indian reality. The Birlas, the Tatas, the Jains, the Goenkas, and the Thapars all owned media houses, and given the nature of Indian politics and business one was never sure of the hands that held and controlled the marionettes. And yes, journalists have been bought and paid off by parties in power, with a site here and an award there, or with promises of an especially lucrative sinecure or a prestigious
Rajya Sabha seat. That was then. Despite all that the Indian newspaper reader, whether the elite, urban middle-class English language newspaper subscriber or the studious and serious local or regional language newspaper reader had faith in the Indian media, when the media meant just newspapers and a few magazines. Enter television, and welcome liberalisation, and the Indian media landscape changed:competition and big money via big business and cash rich politicians has warped news production and dissemination in ways unthinkable before 1990.
Political parties, especially in a state like Tamil Nadu, are owners of mega-media conglomerates, putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. That we do have bitter political rivalries, however, assures the citizens some hope of the truth emerging from the slugfests. And in an interesting survey conducted last year by the Australia India Institute, it was found that 86 per cent of Indians believe the Indian media report events accurately!
Either the media are indeed doing a good job or Indian readers are suckers, or yet, the survey instrument was badly flawed. Whatever it is, compare that to how Americans think about journalists and the media: according to a 2012 Pew Survey, nearly a third of Americans have stopped watching or reading the news because the news outlets they were accustomed to no longer provided them with the news they were getting. By 2008 for every one person in the news industry there were nearly four people in the PR industry, whereas in 1980 it was a 1:1 ratio. And the American distrust in media grew in 2012 with nearly 60 per cent of the people saying they have little or no trust in the mass media. There are many reasons why this large a percentage of Americans have become distrustful of the media, but one major reason is of course the election of Barack Obama as President, and dire conspiracy theories circulating over the Internet and vile talk radio nonsense spewed by the likes of Rush Limbaugh.
Indians may be sanguine, however, because many of them are making a lot of money, and they are simply willing to shut their eyes and ears to the shenanigans by politicians, crooks, and business leaders. We do have, via the inimitable Justice Markandeya Katju heading the Press Council, intimations of the many challenges the media face but what we seem to have had from him is more “motor mouth” than a sustained and careful investigation and monitoring of how the press has been bought and compromised lately. There are a few who are devoted to minding the media business, like the commendable “The Hoot,” but given just an online presence, and the focus overwhelmingly on the English language media, its reach and clout are rather limited.
So, what should we be concerned about or should we be concerned about big business buying and owning media outlets? What is the difference between the ownership of the media in the past and present-day business and political dynamics? We have learned from the last nine years of UPA-rule especially that crony capitalism and corruption at high tables has made India very much the Wild West. From the case of Robert Vadra, the country’s First Son-in-Law, whose business fortunes sky-rocketed through soft loans and is now worth about Rs 300 crore ($60 million) to Jagan Reddy’s fortune which ballooned in just two years from about Rs 75 crore to about Rs 450 crore, to that of the recently dethroned Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal’s family business holdings which increased from about Rs 15 crore to about Rs 150 crore in six years, and that of Rs 757 crore of cash infused into former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati’s son, Anand Kumar’s businesses we see the effects of crony capitalism. Business leaders just don’t give away money or invest money in businesses run by the sons, son-in-laws, and relatives of politicians. There is always the quid pro quo.
But how does this affect the business of media and the new dynamics of big businesses owning big media houses? What does a 27.5 per cent stake (valued at Rs 600-700 crore), in Living Media, which owns India Today and Aaj Tak by the Chairman of the Aditya Birla Group enable the corporate house to influence? What does an investment of Rs 1,500 crore by Reliance Industries in the media companies owned by Raghav Bal (like CNN-IBN and other TV channels) buy the Ambani brothers that they already don’t have?
Once profits become the goal then it is a fast, downward descent into pandering and increasing sales. Watch the split screen image of modern Indian newspapers, magazines, and television: wanton hussies gyrate and seduce in one half of the screen, while in the other half a breathless commentator is on a rant about the latest incident of rape in the town. Both are about pandering and profit, and neither is news.
Politics and business are the art of the possible, and after four decades of a socialist/license raj command economy that seemed to grind Indians to the ground people rejoiced at the opening of the economy. But we now have a system where corruption and criminality are rife, and a few people have begun cornering the country’s assets. This is what the good Justice Katju and concerned citizens should be looking at, and providing honest politicians resources to enact laws that can curb this dangerous trend. If indeed the media are to protect democratic ideals and inform the public truthfully and in a timely manner, then we should all be concerned about the big business and big media business nexus.