Possible to insulate editorial?

BY hoot| IN Law and Policy | 04/03/2014
TRAI is grappling with issues of media freedom and media ownership and wondering if a wall between boardroom and newsroom is possible. Meanwhile a trail of leaked emails from Goa illustrates the problem.
A HOOT editorial, with inputs from MAYABHUSHAN NAGVENKAR.

Last week Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) Chairman Rahul Khullar told a newspaper that the regulator was grappling with issues of media freedom and media ownership. “There are three main kinds of owners — politicians, corporate houses, and non-media corporate establishments. We have to deal with the ownership issues surrounding each. There are some critical areas that need to be looked into. At media firms owned by corporate houses, where is the line dividing boardrooms and newsrooms?”

The same problem applies to media firms owned by politicians and non-media corporates. And is best illustrated by an example which has come to light recently in Goa, regarding the paper’s managing director and the editor’s struggle to stay clear of his dictates during the last state elections. A string of leaked emails document the pressure brought by the management at the newspaper OHeraldo to publish paid material damaging to some candidates, and favourable to others, at the behest of politicians close to the management.

Freelance journalist Mayabhushan Nagvenkar has written to Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar (who recently aired his dim view of journalists) citing these emails which suggest manipulation of editorial content in the newspaper and the role played in this by a former journalist working in the CM’s office in 2012, before the elections which brought Parrikar to power.

The scanned emails specifically document the managing director’s pressure, if one chooses to accept their authenticity. They can be accessed here. He has also written on the matter to the president of the Goa Union of Journalists, asking him to ensure that his complaint to the chief minister is collectively pursued. (Nagvenkar has taken on OHeraldo on paid news before as well.)

Meanwhile,  on March 3, just days after these mails were uploaded, OHeraldo carried an editorial on paid news, which journalists in Goa are wondering what to make of.  

In the immediate context of ensuring a wall between boardroom and newsroom, the Hoot is citing this example not so much from the point of view of tackling paid news, as to draw attention to the vulnerability of an editor and his team in some media houses, to the dictates of the owners. 

When a regulator approaches this challenge in the Indian context, it has to define for itself what it can possibly recommend in the case of numerous media houses, particularly in the regional media, where the owner is also the editor. There are professional editors in family owned newspapers, and there are professionals from the proprietor’s family performing the editorial role in others. The latter is true of the Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar, for instance, as also of  the Ananda Bazar Patrika and the Hindu.

There the issue might be one of insulating an editorial employee from editorial demands linked to the business concerns or political biases, or like and dislikes, of the owner-editor. As these elections are beginning to demonstrate, some media owners will have preferences in terms of the politicians they wish to back through their media outlets, and are already seen to be picking senior editors with that in mind. What cues are professional journalists within such media outlets supposed to take from such decisions?

As TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar and his colleagues will discover when they approach this issue, there are categories that the problem falls into. There is the issue of how much investigative reporting you can do on a major advertiser. There is the slightly different issue of intrusive advertising and non transparent advertising that the management accepts because higher rates can be charged. Then there is the issue of how much the newspaper or TV channel’s management may want to take on the government of the day, or the more powerful corporations in the country, even if their journalists are raring to do so. The first two advertising-related editorial challenges can be handled by laying down codes of conduct and privileging editorial’s say in advertising display decisions. The latter issue is the one which tests the mettle of both the editor and the owner. When there is less dependence on advertising, government or corporate, and when there is a willingness to fight costly legal battles, the challenge is confronted better. Whether a regulator can prescribe a solution without being accused of interfering with media independence, is doubtful.

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