Warning that cross media ownership leading to a monopoly of opinions could pose a grave danger, new Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chief Rahul Khullar announced plans to bring out a consultation paper on media ownership soon.
Speaking at a roundtable conference organised by industry chambers association ASSOCHAM, Mr. Khullar said self-regulation by media was not enough, emphasising that he was not talking of regulation of content, but rather of ownership and market dominance.
“If one newspaper controls all contents of opinion through cross-media ownership, if one TV group owns both channels and cable distribution, it could pose grave danger. No democracy can survive if you do not have plurality and diversity of opinion,” he said, according to an ASSOCHAM statement.
The issue of cross media ownership had come into the spotlight recently when stock market regulator SEBI started probing whether Reliance Industries had made requisite disclosures before announcing its investment in the TV18 group which would ultimately fund a consolidation with the Eenadu TV group. The investment potentially creates a cross-media empire which spans digital divides to encompass print publications, news and entertainment broadcasting, consumer internet, film production and e-commerce.
The issue is not limited to these companies alone. Mr. Khullar also pointed to the linguistic barriers to plurality leading to the non-competitiveness of the South Indian media market.
Media monopoly was a larger issue than corporate monopoly in other fields, said Mr. Khullar, pointing out that unlike manufacturers of ice-cream, shoes or bed linen, “media products are competing to influence you”. He also drew a parallel with the financial sector, where industrial establishments are denied banking licenses. Similar problems can arise when television and radio channels and newspapers in different languages have a common owner, who also owns the means of distribution, whether a cable or internet network. “Should a broadcaster here swallow the distributor?” he asked.
The regulator will explore the need for a mandatory disclosure requirement for affiliation and ownership and the limits on market share needed to ensure plurality and diversity, he said.
TRAI will also study the global experience with regulation of media ownership, said Mr. Khullar. International regulations include restriction on ownership across platforms, or ownership arising from mergers and acquisitions.
Lessons from U.K.
He drew cautionary lessons from the scenario in the U.K., where the British Parliament has seen a threat in the cross-media ownership of the Rupert Murdoch empire. “Freedom to form one’s own opinion is denied in such monopoly,” he said.