Ridding the news media of its demons
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s recommendations on media ownership are causing a ruckus within media. A lot of the coverage has been pretty negative. Here are some facts and what the TRAI paper says in that context.
Fact The Times of India owns a television, radio, outdoor and Internet business. Sun TV and its affiliates own television, radio, newspapers, cable and DTH. This is true for several other media firms in India in several other regions.
The TRAI recommends using the Herfindahl Hirschman Index, a globally accepted metric, to calculate media concentration and impose cross-media restrictions.
News is a powerful but expensive, difficult and unprofitable business to be in, globally. Pic/Thinkstock
Fact More than 60 per cent of the cable systems in India are owned by local politicians. In states such as Punjab or Tamil Nadu, it is routine to block news channels that are neutral or show the politicians owning the cable firm in a bad light. About one-third of India’s 135 news channels are owned by politicians and real estate chaps who are in it for the influence and power, not to become news brands.
The TRAI recommends Politicians, political parties, their affiliates, government and governmental organisations, religious bodies or their surrogates should not be allowed to own broadcasting and TV distribution. And any such bodies already into news, should be provided an exit route. Also, corporate ownership of media should be controlled. It makes a clear distinction between ownership and control.
The TRAI reckons that control of the media can happen without majority ownership, too. So, it defines control very widely to include loans. It also recommends mandatory disclosures on shareholding patterns and direct and indirect interests in a news brand.
These are among a dozen odd recommendations it makes, some good, some bad, some ill-informed.
The idea is to facilitate a plural, diverse, independent and accurate news media. (The paper clearly limits itself to news media) Many of these are bound to raise hackles among media owners, who are loathe to let go of their bastions or exit without protest, especially if they happen to be politically connected owners.
But the paper, which tackles everything from private treaties and paid news to soft censorship and privacy, is a great starting point to tackle issues that the media has shied away from, for too long. Why not use it to clean house?
The fact is that the self-regulatory bodies in news media either don’t have the authority or the courage to crack the whip on news channels or newspapers who or unethical or simply inept. In the light of the 2009 general elections, it was discovered that some of the largest newspapers took cash to print or not print news about a candidate. The Press Council of India (PCI) commissioned a report and then ignored it. According to the Election Commission of India, instances of paid news went up in the 2014 general elections. To quote the TRAI paper — “ Out of the 135 news channels operating in the country, only 28 news broadcasters owning 57 news channels are members of the News Broadcasting Association. The standards set by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority apply only to these channels. A majority of the news channels, therefore, do not even come within the ambit of the limited self-regulation that exists.”
The fact is that news is a powerful but expensive, difficult and unprofitable business to be in, globally. Yet, none of the big global news brands turned to private treaties or paid news to overcome that. It is a failing particular to India. A powerful product without a powerful regulatory framework or financial backbone, therefore, has become the home for scores of dodgy investors. This, then, has led to the downfall of what was, till even ten years back, a pretty placid business.
The TRAI paper simply is a call to acknowledge it and start correcting that instead of attacking the messenger.
The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik