Indian Broadcasting Foundation terms it ‘Orwellian’

Veteran editors, media analysts and democracy activists have welcomed the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI)’s decision to recommend curbing corporate control of the media, while pointing to the complexities in operationalising it. An industry body, however, termed the move as potentially ‘Orwellian’.

The Hindu reported on Wednesday that in its submissions to the government on restricting cross-media ownership, TRAI will recommend creating an ‘institutional buffer’ between corporate owners and editorial management of the media. TRAI chairman Rahul Khullar had pointed to ‘conflict of interest’ in owners with multiple business interests using the media to project a ‘coloured point of view’.

While unsure of whether the issue fell under TRAI’s remit, Outlook Group editorial chairman, Vinod Mehta, said it was ‘high time’ the conversation on ‘corporate control of the media’ started. In a situation where print and TV channels required money to survive, many were selling ‘equity to corporate houses’. “But there must be a regulatory framework to determine how much a corporate house can invest, in how many media houses. Editorial control cannot be mortgaged for revenue.”

Mr. Mehta was, however, sceptical of how TRAI’s move to create a ‘buffer’ would work in practice. ‘Corporates do not get into the media to make money because there is no money, or very little money, to be made in the media. It is to control editorial policy.” It is not through formal structures, but informal and subtle ways, including through the appointment of a pliable editor, that such control is exercised.

Jagdeep Chhokar, a former dean of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and a democratic reform activist, said a standard management practice was to separate ownership and management, but this was missing in the media. “Corporate control over media content has distorted democratic practices through ‘paid news’. With the line between news, views and propaganda blurred, readers are misled. And big businesses have one more tool to influence the political system.”

Recalling that such a proposal to separate management from editorial control had been mooted way back in 1971, and faced a backlash from the ‘capitalist press’, senior journalist Kumar Ketkar said it was ‘obvious’ that certain corporate houses, ‘which controlled almost 35 per cent of the media,’ were backing a ‘particular leader’ for PM. ‘This distorts the discourse. But we have to be careful to resist state control as well.”

While such a move was ‘desirable’ to ensure greater plurality, media analyst Paranjoy Guha Thakurta felt ‘nothing will happen’. “In the run-up to elections, the political leadership will not antagonise the corporate media, or even be seen as acting against their perceived interests. There is an intimate nexus between politicians and big-business, and politicians and the media.”

Mr. Mehta concurred with the view, suggesting that the challenge to corporate control must come from ‘civil society and those in favour of a free press’.

Industry body wary

Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), the umbrella body of Indian broadcasting networks, many of which have corporate backers, was wary. Its secretary-general, Shailesh Shah, told The Hindu, “Media ownership being curtailed is wrong. There can be certain guidelines to ensure editorial content is objective, but this must happen within a self-regulation framework.” If the ‘government decides to intervene’, it will be ‘1984 all over again, George Orwell and Big Brother will be back’. If there are concerns, there will be ‘self-correction, given our democratic culture’.

In a signed piece, responding to The Hindu report, R. Jagannathan, editor of Firstpost.com — which is a part of Network 18, whose promoters are partly financed by Reliance Group — wrote Mr. Khullar’s ideas were ‘dated’, and government wished to ‘control public discourse’.