Ramoji Rao’s two hats

BY B.P. Sanjay| IN Media Practice | 24/02/2007
When the business interests of a media baron conflict with interests of the public how relevant is the freedom of the press argument?

B.P. Sanjay


Press freedom  advocates may find it difficult to understand the relationship between the business aspects of a media company, its political affiliation and the content of the media that is apparently intended to serve the public interest. The truism that a free press has been defended in the past to mask among other aspects, the attacks on related business enterprises of a media company, has been reinforced in the current developments in Andhra Pradesh. The action initiated by the government against a chit fund company owned by Ramoji Rao who runs the popular Eenadu newspaper and a multilingual television network, has been in the news for a while.

 The coverage of the raids conducted on the premises of the chit fund company by the state government was  predictable. With the Deccan Chronicle carrying a front page story on the committee report pertaining  to the chit fund company and the same story being tucked to an inside page by The Hindu, the alignment was evident. With N Ram, editor in chief of The Hindu impleading in the special leave petition filed in the Supreme Court by Ramoji Rao, the business association was transparent. It may be pointed out that the Hindu and Eenadu have a marketing alliance to leverage their combined readership base. "To enable our large circle of advertisers and clients to achieve their communication objectives for this market with immediate ease and efficiency, two leading media vehicles - The Hindu and Eenadu have come together to offer AP on a platter." This combined offer began in 2001.  

The coverage in the Hindu was not necessarily in conformity with its claim of applying pure editorial values. As indicated earlier  an official committee report of the government was relegated to the inside pages while the front page anchored a story on the furore over the searches of the chit fund company. Further almost an entire page barring the ad space was devoted to the story that included  AP gag order against the media (the backdrop to this story was evident), Ramoji Rao¿s response with his photograph and Jayalalithaa¿s description of the raid as undemocratic. The Bharatiya Janata Party¿s response and Chandrababu Naidu meeting the governor were also given importance along with defense of the ruling party that the raids, etc. was not in any way tantamount to an attack on the freedom of the press.  

The coverage in Deccan Chronicle, apart from the front page treatment to the official committee report that is likely to cause anxiety among the depositors,  focused on related official action and justification in the inside pages, including references to the protests etc spearheaded by the Telugu Desam party in particular.  

There have been headlined  media stories in the past highlighting the misdeeds of other chit fund companies and financial institutions and alarmist reactions by the depositors have also been featured. Call it media power, the alarmist perspective is missing in this case. The episode is being treated as the hyper critical attitude of the media baron towards the present state government, and the government¿s response of muzzling the media by actions that are described as "financially destabilizing the media enterprise from running the daily Eenadu and 12 television channels."  

A threat to Freedom of the Press is being invoked in the context of various actions by the State government that is probing the activities of the chit fund company. The affidavit filed before the Supreme Court goes on to suggest: "The freedom of press and the right to free speech enshrined in the Constitution are in grave danger and…are part of the attempts of the State Government to silence Eenadu."  

The relationship between Freedom of the Press and the capitalist order is problematic especially in the context of the economics of media industry where both cross media and vertical integration practices prevail. In cases where the interests of the media baron conflict with that of the public and their resources how relevant is the threat to freedom of the press argument? This is an important question as the public¿s right to know is enshrined in the RTI act and media claims to be a champion of probing all matters that concern the public. By extension it cannot shirk from its primary role although  the story refers to the same group.  

The reactions to the chit fund company raids etc., are being framed as a media freedom issue and thus the media¿s claim to transcend conflict of interest dynamics and posit a public interest dimension is once again under scrutiny. When political and business interests converge to operate media enterprises the  pretense of public interest is exposed. The fragility of public discourse on matters that concern them is also evident. The poor public¿s right to know is always added as a defense to fight what apparently is the right or wrong practices of a company that is owned by a media baron. 

The Supreme Court while refusing to stay the inquiry taken up by the state government into alleged irregularities of the Margadarsi group made a few observations that are valid in the context of media and editors¿ reaction to the raids. Taking a view that financial institutions are always in trouble the Court asked why the government cannot intervene? One of the honorable justices observed: "When the Chief Minister commits a mistake you pointed it out. Similarly, when you did wrong, the State government has acted. Your client (Mr. Ramoji Rao) is wearing two hats. One as a newspaper owner and the other as a proprietor of chit fund company." The intervener applications filed by N Ram and Kuldip Nayyar evoked a different reaction from the Court. "It has nothing to do with the freedom of press. It is only a financial business."




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