Does owning media help?

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 02/05/2013
It is difficult to get too sanctimonious about media ownership. Family owned media have also had proprietors who were occasionally up to no good.
Meanwhile politician entrants are discovering that their media assets do little for them, says SEVANTI NINAN


Sevanti Ninan


Is all the indignation over the increasingly variegated and colourful ownership of TV channels and other media in this country justified?

Following the collapse of Saradha Group owner Sudipta Sen’s media empire-- which brought him more loss than gain-- media ownership is back to being a hot button issue. The I and B ministry is reported to be re-examining the shareholding pattern and equity structure of the television channels operating in the country and has asked channels to update changes in their shareholding pattern. The ministry’s uplinking and down linking form already asks for all of this, so if proper scrutiny had been there in the first place, they would be no need for a panic reaction now.

On the contrary the minister for information and broadcasting has said on at least two occasions in April that the government did not want to create roadblocks that stymied growth, and that it wasn’t even enforcing the uplinking conditions too stringently.   It was said in the context of TRAI’s (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) new advertising norms but it applies to the ownership and shareholding argument as well. If the ministry wanted to be particular about who should own the media, it had the means to do so. 

Instead a spokesman of the ministry clarified recently that permission is given “to a company, not to a person. We forward the company’s application to the Ministry of Home Affairs for verification of antecedents towards a security clearance. Once the MHA and Department of Space clear the application, we cannot deny permission to the company simply because it is engaged in some other business.”

The broadcast industry loves to use such developments as the Saradha media collapse  to decry the ownership of media by those they do not consider sufficiently blue blooded.  The objection seems to be that they are non-serious players claiming a piece of the ad pie to the detriment of professional players.

Zee chairman Subhash Chandra  at a meeting of the Kolkata-based  Indian Chamber of Commerce last week made this extraordinary generalisation: "There are 400 news channels operating at present. I believe people running news channels are history sheeters, builders are running channels to keep police away,'' the Time of India quotes him as saying, adding that media was unfairly accused of ruining the "India story". "We don't generate news, we only report it,'' he said.

May I point out that if someone had listed professionals eligible to start TV channels  20 years back, rice traders might not have been among them.  But Mr Chandra was not stopped from entering the business  and proving his considerable mettle as a media entrepreneur.  And two small corrections. He and his channel did generate a lot of news recently, in the context of the Naveen Jindal’s allegations of extortion. And every builder is not a history sheeter. Other broadcasting industry stalwarts at the meeting voiced similar sentiments.

Last week  a former bar owner in Maharashtra with real estate interests announced that he was setting up a TV channel. He figured some years ago in a match fixing scam.  The more righteous among us do not think politicians, chit fund owners, former bar owners, really big business, builders and yes, history sheeters, should own media. But it is difficult to get too sanctimonious about media ownership. 

Its not as if leading media houses owned by family owned media have not had proprietors who were occasionally up to no good. Including being charged with foreign exchange violations. Today we are ok with family owned media even though at least three such groups whose publications figure among the top ten publications in terms of readership in the IRS 2012 Q 4  practice charge money in different ways for news or advertisments masquerading as news. That’s kosher, but acquiring media for political clout or local influence  is not.

Who should be allowed to own media and who should not? Isn’t the right to have your own media also about free speech? The moot point is are they employing professional journalists and letting them function?  Did not Vinod Mehta edit a magazine  for a builder which helped to make him an eminence grise of the profession, featured every night on leading news channels? Hasn’t Outlook done its bit to set standards in the profession?

In fact going on available evidence one is tempted to argue that owning media does not do that much for the allegedly non-serious players. You could argue that in a chit fund business a larger than life image for the promoter helps, whether he is Sahara Shree Subrata Roy or Sudipta Sen. The small investors putting in their humble savings into these funds think these are influential company owners and their money will therefore be safe. But in Sen’s case the primary spin seems to have been, invest in his finance company because he is close to the ruling party. Not because he is a media owner. In Roy’s case hobnobbing with Amitabh Bachchan and other Bollywood stars probably did much to build his image in the public mind.

Both men are in serious trouble despite the media empires they owned. Sen names names and says “my overall business fall down is due to the media entry, extortion from the above name persons and blackmailed by my own staffs and executives.”  He writes to the CBI "Pratidin assured me that the agreement will help me protect my business from the government because they have a close connection with chief minister Mamata Banerjee.”  Today, to add to his other headaches,  Sen also now has a case filed against him by the journalists he employed for non payment of dues.

So how much has media ownership actually achieved for politicians and businessmen who have invested in it? Does it really bring clout? If the media interests don’t make money for their owners, nor do they seem to be really that helpful in other ways.

His media empire has not helped Jagan Mohan Reddy stay out of jail, nor has launching a channel helped either the Telangana Rashtra Samithi or its leader K Chandrasekhar Rao realise their dream of a Telangana state.

Mr K D Singh became one of the  financiers of Tehelka though there is nothing in their current  shareholding declaration that suggests that he has shares in the company which owns this magazine.  Mr Singh is now in trouble with the Serious Fraud Office having opened investigation into two of his companies. Because he too is a Kolkata finance company owner and a Trinamool MP for good measure.  Is his investment in Tehelka going to help him at this point?

Even if you assume  Trinamool won elections in Bengal  substantially because of Mr Kunal Ghosh’s efforts at Channel 10 or Pratidin (which is unlikely), why did the CPM with its impressive media empire and a more established news channel Chobbish Ghanta  lose so badly?  The chief election commissioner S Y Quraishi has listed one advantage a politicial with media has at election time: he does not have to spend money on paid news. But while the latter is a year-round expense the former is only a seasonal one, so on the balance the media-owning politician has to spend a lot to gain advantage.

As for really big business acquiring media,  does  it get that much advantage from media ownership? Such deals certainly invite a lot of free wheeling commentary. But Mr Mukesh Ambani business dealings with the government have demonstrated often enough his impressive political clout in this country. So does he need the services of the channels of either Network 18 or ETV?

Finally, should journalists care about who owns the publications they work for? Journalists who worked at the Delhi bureau of the Bengal Post say the following: ‘we didn’t know he was into chit funds. We were told his business was in mining and real estate. And even if we  knew it was chit funds, we did not know that chit funds were bad.’

At Bengal Post journalists were not paid after November, till the newspaper shut down.  But over the last year or two several media employees in mainstream media have been laid off or seen their salaries delayed. The truth the media job scene is not booming. There are layoffs which we do not even hear about.

Its fair to say that journalists  care principally about being allowed to function professionally, and about the pay packet and whether it will keep coming. Some of the best journalists in the city of Hyderabad were reported to have been recruited by Sakshi and it was a pretty good professional paper, with design inputs from Mario Garcia, no less. The downside came when Jagan Mohan Reddy’s political woes led to his companies’ bank accounts being frozen.

(This is an expanded version of a column which appeared in Mint, May 2, 2013)

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