Who is afraid of conflict of interest?

BY ninan| IN Media Practice | 21/07/2003
It sometimes seems as if educated Indians grew up without any consciousness of conflict of interest being dinned into them at any stage.


Sevanti Ninan



Conflict of interest is an old chestnut where journalistic ethics is concerned. But in the trendy new times we live in it seems a bit of an anachronism that only righteous bores would think of harping on. Instead, pragmatism abounds. Got media? Use it, man, use it.


Look around and everybody is doing just that. From the biggest and the second biggest, to others down the line in India media’s impressive top ten line-up. The biggest, Bennett, Coleman and Company has been doing so for some time. Want the licence fee for radio revised so that your Radio Mirchi has a better chance of breaking even and making money? Write an editorial in the Times of India asking for more rational licence fees. Want the competition kept at bay with the status quo on foreign direct investment in media? Launch a tireless campaign against it through your newspaper. Want to dispute the latest readership survey figures on circulation because your competition has come out on top? Hold forth on how valid the competing readership survey is.


And declare your interest upfront while doing all this? Of course not, don’t be so silly. Actually it goes back in time a few years to when the Chairman of the group had to face foreign exchange violation charges. The paper launched a human rights campaign lambasting the government of the day. What it was really meant to uphold is the human rights of those accused of violating FERA. (Foreign Exchange Regulation Act).


The latest provocation for some front page campaigning (without revealing its own interest in the issue) in the Economic Times and the Times of India is the uplinking controversy involving Star News, a channel of Star India, which is now the second largest media company in the country, and Bennett, Coleman and Co.’s competition in more ways than one. Its Radio City is competition for Radio Mirchi, and the groups are competing for the same advertising pie. So the TOI and ET have been exposing various loopholes in the foreign direct investment rules  that Star India has exploited, and they have  has also energetically exposed the front companies and shell companies the Star group has been using to circumvent government regulations.


They have company in this endeavour from India Today whose interests include a Hindi news channel that is direct competition for the Hindi Star News. Do either of these media groups declare upfront, in a separate statement, their own interest in the issue? There is no tradition as yet of doing that, in Indian journalism.


Then take the Star News uplinking issue itself. Forget uplinking, given the fact there comprehensive broadcasting regulation is not yet in place, Star as Rupert Murdoch’s ambitious media venture in India is anxious not to fall afoul of the government of the day in any way. It has a DTH license to obtain, and other interests to take care of. So it did not renew its contract with NDTV, the software house that was producing Star News until the end of March. The latter had irked the government with its no-holds-barred coverage of the riots in Gujarat in February-March 2002.  Today the government can be sure that the next time something like that happens, the coverage on Star News with be far more circumspect. 


And what of conflict of interest on the part of government itself? Should licenses and regulation governing media be administered by the government of the day which also makes policy? Does that not mean that it will take care of its own interests while doing so? Should not regulation be handled by an autonomous regulator? But there is none as yet in information and broadcasting. The ministry is doing the work of the regulator. It also controls release of advertising to many publications, and the government has in the past used this as leverage to pressure publications dependent on it for advertising.


Countless small publications all over the country are in business because they are able to get one or two substantial advertisements a year from the state or central government. Will they be critical of the government when the need arises?


From 1994-95 a shrewd director general of Doordarshan began to co-opt media houses in an effort to get a good media build up for the state broadcaster. This was a key element in fighting off the satellite TV competition. Rathikant Basu began handing out TV programmes to journalists to make, to newspaper editors to anchor, and to TV subsidiaries of media houses to produce. Conflict of interest issues began to emerge right then. He would turn frosty if a magazine was critical of Doordarshan. Didn’t its proprietor have a TV production house that had come to him for programmes? India Today had a famous cover featuring the Information and Broadcasting minister in a chair, with his secretary in the ministry, and director general Basu on either arm of the chair. It signaled India Today’s ambition for a strong TV presence. It got a daily TV news programme on DD, a precursor to the channel Aaj Tak.  Simultaneously its media coverage, at least of DD, went soft.


In the latter half of the nineties newspaper and magazine publishers have sought cross media advantages by getting into radio and TV. Simultaneously conflict of interest issues have begun to crop up. When India Today writes on news channels it manages to queer the story’s pitch in a way that gives its own two news channels an advantage. When it attacks Star India it says in the course of the story that its own group has a competing channel, but does not declare this upfront.


On a personal level, newspaper editors have been tempted to acquire a television presence. The Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi, who has a programme on Star News laid himself open to criticism when he criticized the implementation of the conditional access system by the government two weeks in a row in his Sunday column. Star was at that point opposed to immediate implementation of conditional access. Now Sanghvi has become a five per cent shareholder in Star News when the channel was disinvesting its own equity in a hurry to comply with government regulations in this regard. As of now that by itself does not constitute conflict with his role as newspaper editor or columnist, but a situation could arise if the paper has to take a stand on something Star does or wants.


When business journalists are buying shares in companies they have to declare their interest. In 1996 the Press Council actually came up with separate guidelines in this regard. Sanghvi has no conflict of interest hang ups. He writes a food column and interviews his restaurant owner friends on it. He flies an airline, and tells you just when it is starting a new route from India, how well they looked after him and what a good way to visit London that airline will be.


Others are less upfront. You have to look  around a bit to notice the friendliness that creeps into professionalism. It is there in book reviews. Penguin publisher David Davidar’s maiden fiction venture got him enormous space in many publications, and largely favourable reviews.  A leading book critic also  fell in line and privately confessed to friends that she should have been more critical than she was. Davidar is a powerful figure in the Indian publishing world. It is not easily that someone who covers publishing will risk upsetting him. So reviews should not be done by such a person. Similarly, particularly vicious book reviews are also a sign of some one getting even on some score.


The same nexus operates in magazine covers, where new age gurus with followers in the right places gets cover story treatment.  And recently the Hindu saw the exit of a book section editor who happened to also be, with her husband as partner, a publisher with her own imprint.  When the same paper gives an events-of-the week column to a woman who handles programmes at the Habitat Centre and she has no qualms about featuring her Centre’s programmes generously, week after week, the same conflict rears its head again.


It sometimes seems as if educated Indians grew up without any consciousness of conflict of interest being dinned into them at any stage. You are expected to feature your friends if you anchor a programme or run a publication. In the UN and other donor agencies grants for making films are handed out by programme officers to relatives in some cases.  Its the accepted way of doing business here. 


And less known to the public is the way conflict of interest operates at the grassroots media level. Almost every major regional newspaper uses stringers to collect news at the lowest level. They are either paid nothing, or a pittance. So who becomes a stringer? Small traders, shopkeepers, advocates, and contracters who use their clout as stringers to get close to the district administration and the lower bureaucracy. It is a contact which comes in handy when required. It is of much more value than a measly salary from the paper.    


And yet in media in other countries there is constant honing of sensitivity on this issue. Italy has a prime minister who is also a media magnate, and neither the political opposition nor the watchdog bodies, nor the rest of the media ever let the public forget that this conflict of interest issue is a major challenge to Italian democracy. It is a piquant situation indeed when the state broadcaster constitutes competition for the prime minister’s own three commercial TV channels! Reporters Without Borders has conducted an investigation into the consequences of Silvio Berlusconi`s conflict of interest for press pluralism in Italy.


Last year the BBC warned its most senior presenters that they must get managers` approval in advance of their freelance work to avoid any charges of political bias. It restated its guidelines with reference to conflict of interest. This requires regular news and current affairs presenters to make sure that anything they write or say publicly off-air does not undermine their role. The organization was concerned that many of its presenters were writing columns and should not become a associated in the public mind with a bias that would have an effect on the public`s view of BBC.


If only such scrupulous sensitivity was on display in our own country.


Sevanti Ninan is a media writer for the Hindu and the Hoot.

Contact: sevanti_ninan@yahoo.co.in












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