A spectre is haunting Big Media in India — the spectre of transparency. And the latest manifestation of this terrifying spirit is a document issued by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) with the innocuous title, ‘Recommendations on Media Ownership’.
While questions will no doubt be raised about the right of a telecoms regulator to poke its nose into the affairs of the media, TRAI’s report is the product of a specific request by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting for a study of vertical and horizontal integration in the media and the impact of this on the “plurality of news and views.” That said, its dramatic recommendations – which touch upon virtually every aspect of the media business from ownership and control to editorial functioning and ethics – obviously have no legal standing until such time Parliament legislates an appropriate statutory mechanism for their enforcement.
The starting point of TRAI’s endeavor is the notion that the media industry, like the banking sector, has the potential to pose a “systemic risk” to the country as a whole. “Being the depository of facts and information, it is the preeminent instrumentality that moulds public opinion, tastes, and values… It must be ensured that no particular interest is allowed to dominate media, both at the aggregate level and at the level of the individual media entity.”
TRAI’s report comes against the backdrop of concerns about the independence of the media and the state of Indian journalism triggered by the growing ‘corporatisation’ of television channels and newspapers and increasing evidence of media owners seeking to directly control or influence editorial operations. The latter impulse has raised direct fears about the freedom of the press because of the political and business pressures that often lie behind it.
But the crisis of the Indian media is also primarily a crisis of its business model and this is where the TRAI report delivers its deadliest blows. To my mind, the business model consists of the following elements: (1) a very low product price, so that sales or reach is maximized, with (2) upwards of 90 per cent of all revenues coming from advertising; (3) keeping newsgathering costs as low as possible by substituting reporting with opinion-mongering; (4) squeezing revenue out of news columns to compensate for declining advertising yields; and (5) using a media property to attract new business partners or to develop collateral business interests in other sectors.
Taken together, these elements have proved lethal for Indian journalism, particularly when the prevailing economic and political climate has further reduced the average media proprietor’s appetite for risk. This is the broad reason why Indian journalism, particularly on TV but also print, has acquired a certain insufferable uniformity, and the credibility of the Indian media has steadily fallen in the eyes of the public.
Such a pathology cannot be easily countered or reversed but TRAI’s prescriptions at least point us in the right direction.
The case for media plurality and transparency that TRAI makes is at three levels. First, to spell out metrics for excessive cross-media holdings in news and current affairs broadcasting and print. “If the same media entity controls outlets across different media segments, it raises the concern that similar views and opinions are being disseminated across all segments, thereby limiting plurality,” the report notes. Although TRAI has proposed a cut-off level in terms of market share, it ought to have applied its measurement formula to specific media segments in order to see whether certain media houses with significant cross-holdings – Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd in Mumbai, say, which has Times of India, Mumbai Mirror, Economic Times, Maharashtra Times and Navbharat Times in the print space, and also two TV channels, Times Now and ET Now — are at or beyond the threshold. One must however, also concede that the absence of reliable circulation or readership numbers for newspapers and TRP ratings for TV will make the task of calculating market share quite difficult.
The second level at which the TRAI report defends the public’s right to know is to identify those aspects of the media’s business model which compromise “internal plurality”, i.e. the integrity of editorial operations, and recommend that they be proscribed. These aspects “are in no way less pernicious to plurality than the cross-media ownership issues being discussed,” the report notes, adding: “Political and corporate control of the media to serve vested political and business interests; the insidious practice of “paid news”; and threats to editorial independence are manifestations of the menace that has severely compromised the rights of individuals to truthful and objective information.”
Apart from advocating “restrictions” on corporate ownership and control of the media and a ban on political parties and religious bodies entering the broadcasting and TV channel distribution sectors directly or through surrogates, the Authority directly targets the concept of ‘private treaties’ pioneered by the Times of India group but now prevalent elsewhere. Arguing that these deals — in which a company hands over some of its equity to a newspaper in exchange for free advertising — invariably involve side agreements on favourable news coverage as well, TRAI wants private treaties to be banned. Equally significant is its suggestion that advertorials be clearly marked as paid content – I would add that a newspaper must also disclose who has paid for that content – and that ‘paid news’ must impose liabilities not just on the purchaser (eg. politicians who pay for news coverage can run foul of the Election Commission) but on the newspaper which sold its news columns too.
Since advertorials, paid news and private treaties have become important sources of revenue for many newspapers, these suggestions are bound to evoke howls of protest, as will TRAI’s demand that media houses show a much greater degree of transparency about their finances, especially the source of their revenues.
The third broad proposal TRAI makes is for the creation of an independent media regulator that would be free from government, political or corporate control, with powers to adjudicate complaints on subjects such as paid news as well as interference by owners in day-to-day editorial matters.
With media houses showing no signs of engaging in any serious self-regulation, and the political class – especially the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – treating journalists as “news traders” (to use Narendra Modi’s infelicitous and even ominous phrase), the debate over media regulation is bound to sharpen in the coming months and years. By locating the crisis of Indian journalism and the need for an independent regulator squarely within the flawed political economy of the media industry, TRAI has performed a valuable public service.
One omission in its report is the role of online journalism. TRAI cites two statistical reasons for keeping the Internet out of its report on media ownership. First, broadband access is still very low – hardly five per cent of Indians access high-speed Internet. And second, the last Indian Readership Survey (IRS – Q4, 2012) revealed that only 6.8 per cent of all media consumers use the Internet, compared to a figure of 87.6 per cent for television and 53.55 per cent for newspapers.
These numbers will surely change, and change rapidly, as wireless technology evolves, putting additional strain on the business model of the Indian media. How this will affect the plurality of news and views is unclear. Another lacuna in the TRAI report is the enormous clout governments at different levels can wield – both officially and unofficially – over media houses. Many newspapers live off government advertising, particularly regional language papers, and are quite happy to tailor their coverage to suit the interests of their patron. Conversely, newspapers seen as hostile are denied government advertising, even when their circulation is high. Finally, income-tax raids, privilege motions, criminal defamation and contempt laws are also a part of the toxic eco-system that Indian media inhabits. In its earlier avatar as a website, Tehelka was forced to shut shop after the erstwhile Atal Bihari Vajpayee government went after its promoters with a vengeance for having exposed corruption in the arms procurement process. The memory of that event still weighs heavily on the Indian media today.