Ownership, self censorship, etc

IN Opinion | 18/10/2013
Some media owners are people in public life and will be in the news, for good or bad. How should they be covered? How much self censorship should there be if the news is bad, how much publicity if it is good?
A HOOT editorial. PIX: The missing story

Covering one’s own is tricky business. As media proliferates, changes hands, and its ownership diversifies this challenge is going to be cropping up more frequently. As more politicians and business people acquire ownership stake in media, the magazine, newspaper or TV channel’s professionalism is increasingly put to test. Some media owners are people in public life, and will be in the news, for good or bad. How should they be covered? How much self censorship should there be if the news is bad, how much publicity if it is good?

When it is for an achievement, it is not uncommon in India to see substantial coverage of the event in the media outlet the newsmaker might own. From Haryana for instance came the recent example of media owned by Congressman Venod Sharma giving coverage to his speech in the Haryana Assembly when other media ignored it. A far more prominent example is of YSR Congress leader Jagan Mohan Reddy’s fortunes being covered in the newspaper and TV channel he owns, and the volume and nature of the coverage.

Earlier this week the self censorship question popped up when on Wednesday morning the city of Delhi woke up to a black out of the news of the FIR against Kumar Mangalam Birla in the Hindustan Times. It stood out more because every other newspaper that morning and most TV news channels the previous night had extensive coverage.

Why would a newspaper with a long history and solid brand equity in the country’s capital want to look the other way when something newsworthy happens? The naming of Aditya Birla Group chairperson in a coal allotment case as being someone who sought to influence a top government official allegedly successfully to bag an allotment, was a major news story. Most newspapers on the morning of October 16 lead with it. But the news was not there in the Hindustan Times. Was its page one coverage pulled out at the last minute?

The conduct of the paper is curious because no ownership is involved, only family ties. Why would the paper’s chairperson put the credibility of her 90 year old newspaper at risk by dictating, if indeed she did, a complete blackout? Why is coverage per se an act of disloyalty? You cannot wish away a news development. You can project it with full and balanced information. Mr Birla in fact got precisely such coverage in other newspapers that came out on Wednesday morning. And two days down the line the coverage is rapidly turning sympathetic and reflecting the dismay of the business class at this development.

In the case of K M Birla, the news concerned preferential allocation of coal blocks allegedly being made to Hindalco, a company owned by Kumar Mangalam Birla’s Aditya Birla Group. He became a media owner last year when he acquired 27.5  percent stake in Aroon Purie’s Living Media company which publishes India Today.  

In the case of both HT Media and Living Media, different media outlets have treated the news differently. In the first instance while the flagship paper blacked it out the first day, the online edition and the financial paper Mint had some coverage. In the case of the India Today group the online edition of the weekly magazine had the news the first day and subsequently, its daily newspaper Mail Today had coverage way inside the paper the first day, and if the TV channel Headlines Today did indeed run the news on October 15 when the story broke, it was not to be found.  It was missing from two headline tickers scrolling on the TV channel.

After ignoring the news the first day both the Hindustan Time and Headlines Today turned to the story when the focus shifted to the prime minister, and what he did or did not do as coal minister. Revolving around the then coal secretary PC Parikh’s statements. In the case of the Hindustan Times, the story was written the second day without any mention of Kumar Mangalam Birla’s name on page one. 

After Reliance Industries Ltd took control of Network 18 the freedom to comment on one’s owner’s business activities was put to test when the price at which natural gas was being acquired by the government from this company became controversial. And the editor of Firstpost.com decided that he had to take a stand on an issue others were writing about.  

Let’s look around elsewhere. How did Rupert Murdoch’s other media outlets cover the News of the World telephone hacking scandal, and the subsequent Leveson enquiry? The Times London, owned by him, is not to be found in the list of papers, led by the Guardian, which took the story forward. But it did carry a tasteless editorial cartoon after some days showing starving children in Africa with a bellyful of News of the World coverage, with the caption “Priorities.” Fox News, a Newscorp subsidiary picked up the story two days after it broke and handled it somewhat gingerly. And the Wall Street Journal was the paper Murdoch used to make his statement on the scandal, until which time the story was covered but played down in the first two days, according to a critique in The Daily Beast.

A wide range of media ownership is permitted in India because the Constitution does not disallow it. The right to free speech includes the right to own media. Mr Rahul Khullar at TRAI disagrees as he mulls the idea of restricting media ownership. The matter is increasingly controversial because the numbers of politicians investing in media is increasing. And while industrialists have long been media owners in this country, the trend has seen a recent revival with big industry, including the biggest, now acquiring stake in different kinds of media—but mostly television and print. 

The degree to which owners permit professionalism in this matter and the extent to which editorial heads are able to guard their own turf, in the interests of their readership or viewership, is under scrutiny. So might some norms emerge on how to handle coverage of owners?  What makes it less easy, is that even media consumers do not insist on media conduct reflecting best practices that should govern this important estate. There is not enough popular demand for editorial integrity. Passive acceptance is the norm. Once that changes, media houses will get away with less. 

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The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

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