Of Tycoons and Trolls

article

Though Indian media has always been in corporate hands, the recent interference with the business of news has become a threat, only to be exposed on the social media

ALAM SRINIVAS

ALAM SRINIVAS

Alam Srinivas is a business journalist with nearly three decades behind him working for The Times of India, India Today, Outlook Financial Express and Business Today. He is the author of Cricket Czars: Two Men Who Changed the Gentleman’s Game

It sounds like the Indian news media, as is the case in other countries, is in the hands of a clutch of large business houses. The house of Ambanis has its fingers in English and other language cross-media pies (print, TV news and online), and is not interested in TV distribution (cable and/or direct-to-home). The house of KM Birla has a near-majority in the India Today group. Not to count the dozens of realtors and chit funds firms, among others, that control media properties.

Coupled with this trend is the fact that several distinct media-only houses have entered non-media businesses. Bennett Coleman & Co, the owners of the Times of India, Economic Times, and Times Now TV channel is an example. So is Tamil Nadu’s Sun group. There are countless others. Hence, media researchers and experts are worried about the intense, and growing, corporatisation of the news media. A 2016 article on www.livemint.com said that “India is no exception to global patterns of concentration of ownership and conglomeration”.

In its August 2014 recommendations, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) captured the two aspects succinctly. “There are two facets to the problem of corporate ownership of the media: first, many non-media corporate entities with varied commercial interests are increasingly interested in controlling media outlets. Second, many media corporates diversify into other, non-media businesses by leveraging their clout and visibility. The reasons for their respective diversification differ, but, in both cases, the media entity has multiple business interests, and the inherent conflict of interest raises questions about the extent to which this affects the balance in the presentation of news and opinions. Clearly, this requires close scrutiny.”

However, despite the existing evidence, there are crucial differences between global trends and what’s happening in India. More importantly, corporatisation was invariably a part of the Indian news media for almost a century, or at least, the past 70-90 years. Post-Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru constantly bickered about the ‘Jute press’ (Hindustan Times, owned by KK Birla) and ‘Steel press’ (a reference to the Tata group). In the past 2-3 decades, several media companies acquired corporate structures and traits that enabled them to expand and grow.

So, why are the decibel levels of the concerns so high? Why do we fear an Ambani but had seemed reasonably comfortable about Birla and Tata? Why do we believe that there is more news bias today which has diluted news diversity? Are the new corporate owners worse than the earlier ones?

Global Fears, Indian Reality

Last year, www.forbes.com listed 15 US billionaires who “own America’s news media companies”. Among them were the usual suspects such as Rupert Murdoch (News-Corp), Jeff Bezos (Amazon; the Washington Post), and Warren Buffet (Berkshire Hathaway; 70 regional dailies). But there were a few surprises – ever heard of Cox family, Joe Mansueto and the Barbey family? It added, “Several other billionaires, including Comcast CEO... and Liberty Media chairman... own or control cable TV networks that are powerful but not primarily news focussed.

In 2012, an info-graphic (www.businessinsider.com) trended on social media. It claimed that six US conglomerates – GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner and CBS – owned 90% of the country’s media. Media, mind you, which includes entertainment, and not just news media. Almost two decades ago, a similar percentage was owned by 50 groups. The graphic revealed that less than 250 media executives (in the big six) “controlled the “information diet of 277 million Americans”. Thus, there were clear signals of oligopoly and concentration of ownership.

Before his conviction, Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, had interests in several businesses, including the media. During his heydays, articles highlighted the links between his media empire and his politics. One of them (www.nytimes.com; 2013) said that there was a “deep intertwining of Italian politics with Berlusconi’s economic and media interests”. It added, “Freedom House has ranked Italy as the only west European country with a ‘partly free’ press.”

Is the situation in India as grave as in the US and Italy? On the face of it, this doesn’t seem to be the case. In English news, the Ambani-owned news channel is not the leader. But the same cannot be said about their interests in news channels in other languages through Eenadu TV. In English, though, the leader is Times Now, which is owned by Bennett Coleman, a conglomerate in its own right. The Birla-India Today combine is a leader in Hindi news, but not in online.

TRAI Trials

However, the conclusions change if we only look at what the part-media regulator, TRAI, called the ‘relevant’ markets. These could either be at an individual state or language level, say Tamil or Bengali. In most of the larger states, and popular languages, there are clear leaders in print, TV and online. Many of them are part of large business houses. More importantly, such groups have sizeable and influential cross-media presence, both horizontal (print, TV and online) and vertical (TV and distribution, through cable, DTH, or both).

In 2014, TRAI made several recommendations to dilute and curtail cross-media ownership, and the Modi government quickly put it in the cold storage. But the report made a valid point: “Being the depository of facts and information, it (media) is the preeminent instrumentality that moulds public opinion, tastes and values. The media cannot be allowed to be captured by narrow interests of its titular ownership. It must be ensured that no particular interest is allowed to dominate media, both at the aggregate level and at the level of the individual media entity.”

Chinese Wall

One of the reasons why TRAI, and other global regulators, view ownership concentration, or large-scale corporatisation, as unnecessary evil, is because of a breakdown of the Chinese Wall between the editor and owner. Decades ago, the media owners gave overall directions and ideological framework, and the editors were in-charge of the day-to-day operations. The latter decided what went in print, on air, or on the internet. The owner could criticise, debate, and discuss, but stayed away from directly interfering in the editorial process.

Globally, this largely changed with the rise and rise of Murdoch in the UK. In India, one of the major trendsetters was Bennett Coleman’s Samir Jain. Murdoch personally set the editorial agenda. Jain passed this work on to its marketing team, as he focussed exclusively on the bottom-line and profitability. The result: the rise of weak (by comparison) editors, who cow-towed to the owners. In the Indian language press, though, there were cases of owners, who were editors. This was also the case with India Today, which was launched in the 1970s.

The relationship between the editor and owner reached lower and lower depths. In his autobiography, the late Vinod Mehta, former editor of Outlook, wrote that at one of the newspapers, he was handed over a ‘sacrosanct’ written list by the owner. It had the names of powerful individuals that the paper couldn’t write against. Informal or verbal lists of similar kinds existed in other news organisations. Most news media became pro-government-in-power for obvious reasons. With corporatisation, the tendency has reached a fever pitch.

Editors and journalists acquired new ambitions and desire to become multi-business or media entrepreneurs, or enter politics (or Parliament). These tendencies existed earlier, but exacerbated in the past few decades. Look at the number of former editors who have become businesspersons, with monetary and other favours from politicians and large non-media business houses. Journalism visibly and openly joined hands with politics and big business, even as the latter two realised the benefits of owning news media.

Possibly the best example of this nexus between the powerful interests is Republic TV. The majority owner is Rajeev Chandrasekhar, who has interests in media, defence, technology, and other areas. The other shareholder is a company owned by former editor of Times Now channel, Arnab Goswami, and his wife. The latter got the money from assorted people, who had interests in different businesses, including media (cable distribution). It was a perfect case of cross-media ownership within a single company, and a marriage of big business and news media.

News Bias

Such ownership, as TRAI pointed out, has embedded conflicts of interest. The owners, with business and political interests, influence the news coverage. There is censorship as well, or rather the ‘absence’ of news. In contemporary times, the Ambani-owned newspaper, Business & Political Observer, signified the extreme form of news bias. The group’s corporate enemies were reviled, business interests were protected, political alliances, albeit changing, reflected in news and opinions, and bureaucratic and cabinet reshuffles were reported to ensure that the Ambani-man got the coveted post or portfolio.

It reached an idiotic point where large media owners aren’t interested in news anymore, or at least that’s what they say in public. Consider what Bennett Coleman’s Vineet Jain, Samir’s brother, said in an interview with the New Yorker in 2012. One of his telling comments: “We are not in the newspaper business; we are in the advertising business.” The reason: the papers’ cover prices yield minimal revenues, and 90 per cent of the income comes from advertising.

Advertising automatically got intrinsically linked with certain forms of news. The New Yorker said that Bennett Coleman developed its own form of ‘paid’ news so that “nearly all Bollywood movie releases pay for promotional coverage ahead of movie releases, and actors/actresses pay to develop their brand through coverage in the paper”. Vineet said that he got the idea from Richard Branson of UK’s Virgin group. Branson revealed in an interview that he carried out various stunts because the publicity he got saved him millions of dollars in advertising.

It was a Eureka moment for Vineet. “When I read it, I said, ‘Oh my god, Eureka – I am stupid! Why these guys are not advertising in my paper is because I’m giving them free PR.” Now, the Times of India ‘paid’ news model is pursued by several media firms. Some of them have taken it to another level. Instead of treating such news as sponsored content, it is displayed like normal news. Politicians were among the foremost to adopt ‘paid’ news, especially before the elections.

In the old days too, there was news bias. Editors and journalists, sometimes owners, would insist on news being carried because it related to their friends, family or news sources. We don’t know the extent of it, since it wasn’t documented or analysed, but the practice was prevalent. Editorial coverage, especially in business news and corporate public issues, was linked to advertising support. It was common for a PR to say, “You write a page on my client, I will give you a page or two of ads.”

Moreover, ideological bias has remained an inherent part of Indian and global media. In the past, Hindustan Times was known as a Congress paper. The Times of India was pro-government. The Indian Express was anti-government, but pro-certain politicians. So is the case internationally. The difference: in the UK and the US, such biases are known and worn on the organisation’s sleeves. In the case of India, both then and now, they are hidden, as are the real ownership patterns.

Biz Mainstream

Decades ago, until the 1980s, business coverage in mainstream English papers was minimal – one page with a half page ad. Although business and economic papers started earlier – Economic Times in 1961 – they were hugely jargonised and meant for the senior and elitist business professionals. The interest in economic, business and corporate affairs catapulted almost four decades ago, largely because of two controversial, aggressive, and highly-politicised corporate wars.

The first was the London-based Swaraj Paul’s attack on two large Indian companies, the Nanda-owned Escorts, and Bharat Ram-managed DCM. It involved all the political and business drama – shenanigans in the stock markets, government’s economic policies on hostile takeovers, role of state-owned financial institutions, which held sizeable stakes, and role of the prime minister, and her cabinet colleagues, especially the finance minister. Since the two sides – the attacker and defenders – also fought to create public pressure, media became one of the logical theatrical settings to provide the pros and cons of the debate.

Such media carpet-bombing was taken to another level a few years later, when the Nusli Wadia (Bombay Dyeing)-Indian Express (Ramnath Goenka) combine took on Dhirubhai Ambani. Other newspapers and magazines joined one side or the other. Business-corporate coverage, in the context of economics and politics, donned the front pages. Post-reforms, business and economic news became the flavour in the coming decades. Businesspersons realised how they could misuse and manipulate the media. After the advent of TV, managing the media became a fulltime job.

Obviously, this forced the media to enhance and expand its financial coverage. Mainstream English newspapers allocated 3-4 pages; magazines had regular 5-10 pages of business section; TV too joined the bandwagon. That’s when it became convenient for the large business houses to own the media. The trend, which already existed, reached higher levels. Today, even in social media, debates on economic and business issues dominate certain days.

Democratisation

Globally, there are worrisome signs of increased media corporatisation, as is the case in India. There is an increased tendency for news bias and interference by the corporate and other owners. However, on the positive side, this is being countered, at least to an extent, by the democratisation of news. Thanks to social media, news is no longer the prerogative of the mainstream, largely corporate news media. Media researchers now talk about the emergence of a ‘symbiotic’ relationship between mainstream and social media in the news category.

What appears in corporate media can be amplified, but also decimated by the bloggers, WhatsApp groups, and Facebookers. The latter can also force the mainstream media to focus on what it had earlier censored, or diluted. Let’s take a look at a few incidents that prove such linkages. The first was the decline and decline of the legendary American news anchor, Dan Rather. It was his famous comeback that proved to be his ultimate downfall, thanks to the bloggers. In the broadcast of 60 Minutes in 2004, a famous programme, the CBS anchor “accused (George W) Bush of having shirked his Vietnam (war)-era duty”. The broadcaster had documents to prove it. They had shown them to experts. Alas, the story turned out to be a piece of ‘shoddy’ journalism and the documents were proved to be fake ones. Not by experts, or other members of mainstream media, but by bloggers. Some of them pointed out that the text font didn’t belong to the typewriters, which could have been used. And the typeface seemed nearer to those in Microsoft word, which didn’t exist during the Vietnam War.

A 2013 paper by Admire Mare concluded, “Far from being competitors, mainstream and social media have converged in complex ways to broaden the mediated public sphere in South Africa. While social media was instrumental in breaking news during social protests, mainstream media weighed in with verification, contextualisation, and amplification. The convergence between the two public spheres has necessitated the emergence of collaborative journalism practices, making heard the voices of previously silenced and delegitimised voices.”

One has witnessed such trends in India. Mainstream media was practically forced to take cognisance of the Nira Radia tapes because of the activities on blogs, Facebook and Twitter. The explosive tapes, which hinted how businesspersons, middlemen, journalists and civil society manipulate and influence policy making, and the making of cabinet, were in existence for months. Only when social media started buzzing with its contents that two magazines, Open and Outlook, published the contents.

Another trend in India is that even what has appeared in the so-called smaller, and non-mainstream, news media can be amplified by the latter and social media. This consistently happened during the open warfare between the two Ambani siblings, elder Mukesh and Anil.

As they battled with each other in late-2004 and early-2005, the younger brother used small newspapers, with circulations of less than 10,000 each, to attack Mukesh. The former was able to set the next day’s agenda for the mainstream news channels, as also the larger print media.

Of course, there are problems with smaller media and social media. Facebook and Twitter are full of ‘fake’ and false news. It still lacks the credibility; not that the reliability of highly-corporatised media is any good. However, the tensions and bonhomie between mainstream and social media will evolve in the near future.

As corporatisation threatens news, democratisation may either expedite the process, or act as a weighty counter. May be all these will co-exist.

But clearly, corporatisation of the news media is a huge threat for various reasons. However, the process also throws up new opportunities. The fact remains that corporatisation isn’t new; only its shades and contours have changed – become stronger in some ways, and weaker in other ways.

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