Transparency and the media

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 10/08/2009
It is of great importance for the public to know who the owners of the newspapers and the channels are and what their primary source of funding is.
It is also important to know who is on the Boards of these enterprises, says PADMAJA SHAW. Pix: Praful Patel. Biased interview?

Parliament elections are over. The verdict is unambiguous. The new government has presented its budget.  And the corporate media are once again hounding the already schizoid government on ‘reforms’ and ‘disinvestment’. Much like the ‘now-on-now-off’ reforms from the government, the urgently needed reform in the attitude of the corporate media is also on ‘loose contact’.


The aggressive anchors of some English channels seek to push their stock-market fetish (what one could call the ESOP-speak) down the throats of the unsuspecting viewers and the reluctant ministers who surface on their programmes. One could dismiss this as part of an effort to fill airtime, but for the fact that often such programming raises conflict of interest issues as well.


For instance, a leading channel (with a private airline for its business partner) is orchestrating a loud campaign on disinvestment in public sector airlines to the extent of questioning whether government should be running airlines. The channel should have scrolled its association with the private airline as a disclaimer while telecasting the two interviews with the Minister for Civil Aviation. The tone of the anchors is, ‘what is good for us is good for India’. There was a completely biased interview with the Civil Aviation Minister by a younger anchor a few days back that is followed up with an interview of the minister by the channel’s boss.


The owner of the channel was deriding the public sector airlines as the worst in the world. While some may agree, it is still his opinion.  He held a one-on-one argument with the Civil Aviation Minister on why the private airlines should be supported by whatever means – bail out, buy equity, whatever. The gist of the channel head’s argument is: ‘It is a waste of public money if the government supports Air India, but it is the right of the private sector to get support from the government.’ The flamboyant owners can then go ahead and fly a plane-load of models to exotic locations to produce an exclusive calendar of bikinied beauties while talking of fiscal discipline, lay offs and salary cuts for the employees of Air India! Even in the United States of America, from where all the corporate role models seem to emerge, there is great public awareness and criticism about profligate corporate bosses rewarding themselves for lousy management.  The worst part of the interview was the anchor pushing his case by saying, "Ask anyone, ask any foreigner what they think of Air India". Is that how disinvestment decisions are made in India? Ask any foreigner?


The minister in this case held his ground admirably (whatever the policy outcome, after such relentless pressure from an interested party) in both the interviews.


The same channel also was orchestrating the candidature of one of their Directors for the post of President of India some time back. The person may be iconic and of impeccable credentials, but the channel still needs to let the public know of his particular relationship with it. Incidentally, no other channel was plugging for him so hard.  One wonders how many viewers were aware of this when they were asked to vote on the campaign. While one is deeply appreciative of the commonsense of the person on the street in not falling for such campaigns, nevertheless the over all ethical issue remains. Think what would be said of Doordarshan if it ran an orchestrated campaign to promote one of the eminent directors on its board of governors! Such influence peddling would be unethical journalism by any standards.


On a related issue, there is much debate on transparency in public life in a democracy. Often media, the primary champions of transparency confine the idea to state and central government institutions. But the private sector, which ultimately is run on public money anyway, sees itself outside all frameworks of accountability, more so the media industry, which strong-arms public and policy agenda on many issues with varying degrees of success.


For instance, there are over a dozen TV news channels and several newspapers in Andhra Pradesh. Except for a few owned by prominent people, little is known about the antecedents of the investors of the rest. Very few of these have updated websites. Those that do have websites like TV9 have removed detailed information about their investors, who happen to include Srini Raju (erstwhile CEO of Satyam and boss of iLabs – which seems to have changed its name to Peepul Capital) and others. (Only iLabs is mentioned, no mention of the other directors and their background).


The websites of both ETV and RTV, which clearly state ownership and information about the other businesses the channels are involved in, are exceptions. Some of the websites (HMTV, for instance) are still under construction.


It is of great importance for the public to know who the owners of the newspapers and the channels are and what their primary source of funding is. It is also important to know who is on the Boards of these enterprises, the stakes they have and the terms of their engagement with the enterprise, as sometimes it is these people who surface on the same channels as experts.


Broadcast legislation should mandate it as a licensing requirement for channels in the  public interest that the information about the entire board of directors and their antecedents should be placed in public domain. Now only listed companies have their information so available. But it takes a highly motivated, savvy search to discover the information. This information should be made easily available to people who visit their websites, as has been made mandatory for state-run institutions under the RTI Act.


In a country where every piece of printed material, including 1/8 demi pamphlets are mandated to carry information on the source, the publisher and the printer, major news operations that sway public opinion are allowed to operate without the minimum requirements of transparency. It is not enough that the government agencies know who they are licensing to spread information and entertainment. The audience has a greater need to know to put the information they receive in perspective.


If we accept journalism as a special category of business that is allowed sweeping powers to access and disseminate information, it is also necessary to treat it as a special category of business with special requirements to practice transparency. It cannot be allowed to hide behind the excuse of private domain information.


And lastly, an idle comparison of Doordarshan with the private channels: Doordarshan may shoddily promote the cause of a party in power and change colours as soon as a new dispensation takes over. We know it may profit an individual officer in some way while it does not do much good for the channel.


But the ownership of private channels is not up for assessment every five years. They indulge in unapologetic self-promotion and promotion of the interests of their corporate cronies and political friends for profit and political clout as long as they are the owners of the enterprise. This routine strategy is occasionally flagged with a good investigative story or documentary, absolving the channels of their long-term responsibility to the viewer. (Is poverty alleviation possible through crony capitalism?) If tomorrow the channels get into financial trouble, must the government treat them on par with Doordarshan and provide liquidity to ‘save the industry’?

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