Anticipatory bail for editorial freedom

THE MEDIA REGULATION DEBATE: TRAI's recommendations are a sort of anticipatory bail for editorial freedom.
They might restrict ownership but will preserve the journalists’ freedoms, says TCA SRINIVASA-RAGHAVAN*

When Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, I was working for a paper that started off admiring him ardently. So when I wrote an article criticising his handling of the Kandu Khera-Abohar-Fazilka dispute between Punjab and Haryana, the editor spiked it.

A few months later he retired and the owner appointed a new editor who was Rajiv’s close friend. On budget day he and the owner instructed me to write a ‘friendly’ editorial.

But just a few days later, for reasons that were not clear to us minions, the newspaper turned virulently anti-Rajiv. After a few weeks, a new editor was appointed to carry out a campaign against Rajiv.

Things came to a head on the next Budget day. This editor said I was to find nothing positive in the Budget and focus only on its bad parts.  I tried to argue and the editor, an impatient man, decided to write the edit himself. I soon left that paper.

Two decades later, I found nothing had changed. I was working for a business paper owned by a South-based group. The group’s flagship newspaper had an informal standing instruction that nothing positive should ever be written Narendra Modi.

Both were family owned papers.  But there was another family owned paper that I worked for in the early 1990s which had a clear commercial agenda. However, it had no political agenda. Editorial freedom was complete.

So perhaps ownership proves nothing as far as editorial freedom is concerned. But that said, the question must be asked: is there a need to erect a regulatory firewall between editors and owners?

The TRAI has overlooked this aspect. It should perhaps add a lemma to its theorems because although the personal preferences of the owners didn’t matter as long as no newspaper dominated the marketplace, things have changed now.

The problem of dominance

True, that even now no single media entity dominates the Indian media space. But the economics of the business suggests that we are well on the way to a situation when a few owners will account for perhaps as much as half the media platforms in the country and thereby acquiring a lot of influence.

I think that’s the eventuality the TRAI paper is trying to avoid. The point of the TRAI’s recommendations is not to abridge the owners’ rights but to make sure that just one or two entities don’t dominate the business and influence public opinion disproportionately. 

Let me explain.

Today, the media industry is what in economics is called a situation of perfect, or near-perfect, competition. This happens when there are no restrictions on entry and exit and no single newspaper or TV channel can influence the market conditions by varying its output. There are too many of them for that to happen.

This has happened because the costs of entry are very low. This allows even relatively small entities with very poor capitalisation to enter the media business. In India this is what has happened.

(By the way, it is only in the media business that the owners acquire disproportionate influence relative to their investment. Dominance acquires a different meaning here as it is accompanied by influence on public opinion).

Meanwhile, the resulting fierce competition also means that keeping operating costs low is crucial to survival. Since most of them are under-capitalised, they soon start making losses.

This, in turn, means that entities with deep pockets – TRAI has caused needless confusion here by mixing up conglomerates with corporate -- can easily acquire the loss-making ones, which are several. This is how dominance is gained. 

Such acquisitions are unlikely to be made be out of altruism. So it is reasonable to assume a political agenda, even if it is a neutral one.

Even if the owner doesn’t want to plug a particular political line, he/she/it may try not to annoy the government. He may sell the business to someone who has a political agenda. In a free for all, anything is possible.

The intensity of such an agenda varies inversely with editorial freedom. Political parties owning media outlets and businesses with deep vested interests in the government come to mind in this regard.
It is possible to argue from this that unless the entry of entities that are likely to have a self-serving political agenda (which serves a commercial purpose) is minimised, editorial freedom is a risk.

The problem of financing operations – where will the money come from if not conglomerates etc – would remain. But this is as true of the media business of any other business. A viable business is usually able to attract investors.

The paradox

This leads us to a paradox, the one with which everyone is trying to grapple: the consumer of media output, like say the airline business, is the one which actually benefits from reducing competition to a large oligopoly comprising 6 or 7 owners.

As the industry’s aggregate capital requirements come down, viability should become less of a problem and, subject to the owner’s preferences on brand positioning – adversarial or friendly -- the medium can follow an appropriately calibrated policy towards editorial freedom.

At the same time, it is futile to expect the owner not to have a say in editorial policy. However, since it is good for brand positioning, even the most biased owners opt for balance between friendly and adversarial. That balance is a matter of judgement and not formulas.

In the end though, regardless of who owns a newspaper, on a day-to-day basis it is the editor who decides the extent of freedom. His/her powers are not subject to any checks and balances except via legal action.

What the TRAI has failed to note is that even without dominance you can have completely biased reporting and opinions – as we saw with regard to the UPA government after 2011.

In sum, the TRAI paper should have restricted itself to the issue of dominance.

*Disclosure: The TRAI chairman, Rahul Khullar, is a friend of over 40 years, and we have desultorily discussed the issue of dominance in the media on a couple of occasions.


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