Reprinted from Mint, June 7, 2012
If you were a journalist would you rather work for a media house owned by industrialist Mukesh Ambani or one owned by YSR Congress leader Jagan Mohan Reddy? Currently that may seem like a no brainer: a Congress government in Andhra Pradesh or anywhere else would show less alacrity in setting the CBI upon the assets of a media company owned by an Ambani. You would be financially far more secure in the corporate arms of one than the other. But that is because the YSR Congress is not in power in AP today. If it was it would be a different story. You only have to go back to 2008 when YS Rajsekhar Reddy was alive, leader of the party that is now harassing his son Jagan. The latter was riding high and able to launch an attractive 23-edition newspaper at one shot.
Two developments last month have revived the debate on trends in Indian media ownership. The Aditya Birla group announced that it had bought a 27.5 per cent stake in Living Media which publishes India Today and owns TV Today. And across Andhra Pradesh journalists were out in the streets in support of their colleagues at Sakshi, the newspaper owned by Jagan Mohan Reddy. Its bank accounts were frozen after the CBI honed in on Reddy in a disproportionate assets case. The High Court quickly “unfroze” the accounts.
In a third development the ministry of information and broadcasting wrote to a new chairman at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India asking it to look afresh at the issue of cross media ownership. TRAI has done so before and made recommendations to the ministry.
The two noticeable media acquisition trends in evidence are those by corporate and political entities. Historically neither is a new trend--- back in the 1950s and 60s the Tatas, Birlas and the Sahu Jain group owned the Statesman, the Hindustan Times and the Times of India, respectively. Political parties in West Bengal and Kerala have long owned newspapers as have political families like the Pawars and Dardas in Maharashtra.
But over time the big business ties loosened for various reasons; the Tatas got out of The Statesman, the Birlas split and are no longer a monolithic business house, and Sahu Jain lost their non-media businesses and became a de facto media house. Now that we are into a different season of need, the corporate acquisition of media is growing again. Media entities have multiplied but not diversified their financing model. Media houses that were successful earlier are making losses (eg. Bhaskar and Zee launched DNA in Mumbai, with disastrous financial results), with everybody chasing the same advertising. So they are more open to investors than before.
Business meanwhile is ready to rediscover the charms of media ownership for more than one reason. It is a powerful, profile-conferring industry. And given an increasingly uncertain political and regulatory environment for business, the imagined clout of the media is a welcome factor.
You could argue that the relationship between a politically powerful media house like Eenadu and a business conglomerate like Reliance Industries Limited with its offshore investment in the state, has had its useful moments for both. Rajshekhar Reddy’s attack on Eenadu owner Ramoji Rao’s chit fund business and the central government’s denial of permission to Blackstone to invest in Eenadu and ETV, drove Rao to seek an investment from financier Nimesh Kampani, which was later revealed to be an investment by RIL.
The advent of satellite television, its accessibility and the exposure it gives has also led to a substantial increase in political media since the early nineties—there are some 33 plus TV channels, newspapers or magazines with political connections.
If both trends are here to stay what do they spell for media independence in terms of the journalism practised? A self-respecting media industry should be able to put necessary walls in place between business and editorial. But guess who has been steadily chipping at the wall? Not corporate-owned media but family-owned media with its documented penchant for paid news.
Effective media regulation has eluded us so far. TRAI’s writ has been extended to media but its recommendations on media ownership and cross media ownership remain unimplemented. It suggested merger and acquisition guidelines for the sector. But if these were made one is not aware that anything kicked in inJanuary this year, when RIL entered into its complex financial arrangement involving the Network 18 and Eenadu groups.
Meanwhile major challenges loom. How to keep television content and carriage ownership separate? Should telecom companies be allowed to invest in media? Should there be restrictions on political ownership of media? This last aspect is never touched upon by either TRAI or the I and B ministry.
There is also insufficient regulatory recognition of media expanding into other sectors of the economy. Media houses which have acquired corporate scale now have business arms which are investing in power and infrastructure. The Bhaskar (DB Corp Ltd)and Zee (Essel) groups, to name two. As the trend grows, will the media influence give muscle to their corporate arms? And what sort of capitalism would you call that?