Ownership blues

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 12/06/2014
The past fortnight has underscored the triumph of media proprietors over media stars.
Media ownership has its own irrefutable logic for different parties, says SEVANTI NINAN. Pix: the Ambanis. rediff.com

Sevanti Ninan     


The past fortnight has been an educative one. It  underscored the triumphing  of media proprietors over media stars,  and demonstrated that the latter are dispensable, and that owning stake is no protection. Investors have the ambition to become owners and will move in at the right time. Simlarly, media owners have succession plans.

We learned a few other things as well. That a stern prime minister busy laying down ethical ground rules for his ministers and party men, could well be tested in the long run on how willing he is to let the current regulator (the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) regulate media owners, declared or surrogate, who also happen to be businessmen whom he needs, in various ways.   

Another learning was the dawning realisation that in a situation like the present where the mainstream media has temporarily (one hopes) lost its teeth, politically owned media is the only hope for any critical coverage.

After Reliance Industries Limited announced at the end of last month that it would invest about INR 4,000 crore through  the Independent Media Trust, to acquire 78 per cent stake in NW18 and about 9 per cent stake in TV18 Broadcast,  there has been renewed debate about the corporatisation of media. Reliance is the sole beneficiary of Independent Media Trust. In 2012, RIL had done  an investment deal with Network18. (Last week the company said that the open offer to acquire a controlling stake in the media conglomerate and its units would begin on July 21 and close on August 4.)

Some of the media stars at the channels involved, including anchor-proprietor Raghav Bahl who has helmed CNBC TV18  since its inception, may no longer remain with the company once the deal is completed.   About the future plans of Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose  at CNN IBN there is uncertainty while they are currently on leave. But the show will certainly go on and a new team of journalist-managers has been announced as moving in.  

Another media star who announced he was moving on during the same period,  to another stable,  was Shekhar Gupta, editor in chief of the Indian Express who became synonymous with the paper he has edited since 1995.  The proprietor announced that the show would continue with Gupta’s two top lieutenants moving up the ladder to continue running  the paper. Gupta was also CEO of the paper until last year when the proprietor Viveck Goenka decided he would take back the running of the company.  His 27 year old son Anant Goenka  heads the company’s digital division.

Coming as these changes do right after a change of government much is being read into the timing of Mukesh Ambani’s decision to acquire Network18 and TV18. The ostensible reason given by the company in its announcement was that the many channels owned by the companies being acquired would provide content for the Telecom company Reliance Jio as it plans for its 4G rollout 

Mr Ambani’s interest in media has long been written about, his alleged surrogate ownership of  two media companies has also come under the government’s scanner, as reported earlier in this column. A lawyer associate of his explained recently that businessmen like him don’t buy media for publicity uses, they invest in media because people who matter will then come to him to get the media off their backs. 

Media ownership has its own irrefutable logic for different parties. Former chief minister Ajit Jogi once made the same point  about a local businessman acquiring the Chhattisgarh franchise of a newspaper chain. Businessmen think  politicians give more importance to those who own media, he said.. And he agreed that they do. 

Why does a trucking company owner in Assam want to own newspaper? Because he thinks it will protect him from insurgency outfits in the state, as the editor of one such newspaper in Guwahati explained. 

Why does a politician want to own media?  Because it gives him both a platform and a tool. Jagan Reddy will doubtless mobiilse Sakshi media to provide a strong  opposition to Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh. And one of the saving graces of the current  Modi dominated public sphere  is that at least some kinds of media are taking an oppositional stance on account of their ownership. 

When other channels are running specials on Modi kurtas, and Doordarshan and Rajat Shama's IndiaTV sound like they are competing with each other in giving our purposeful new prime minister a platform, you feel grateful for NewsX's  efforts to be oppositional.  Majority ownership in NewsX is held by the son of  former Congressman  Venod Sharma. (Shama had tried to switch parties and join  a BJP ally, but the BJP blocked that.)  The intelligent thing to do though would be to strike a critical note less through tone and tenor and more through facts and follow ups. “CBI  chases  the conspiracy ghost!”  it thundered earlier this week. And contrasted the alacrity with which an enquiry was ordered into the death of Gopinath Munde with the inaction over the rape incident in Badaun.  

It is early days yet. But a country with a decimated opposition will definitely need media inclined to do the job of keeping the government on track. 

Reprinted from Mint June 13, 2014

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