Friday, April 8, 2011

When Politicians Control Television What Happens To Journalism?

In its 17th media dialogue series, the Foundation for Media Professionals ( along with Friedrich Ebert Stiftung ( organized a panel discussion titled: When Politicians Control Television What Happens to Journalism? The discussion took place at India International Centre Auditorium on 8 April, 2011. In her introduction, Shalini Singh (senior assistant editor at The Times of India) mentioned that media is a serious business. She asked whether businessmen can run the media industry. Conflict of interest may arise when businessmen become politicians and run the media business. She announced that the Foundation for Media Professionals supports several provisions of the (Jan) Lokpal Bill.

The panel comprised of the following:

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, author of 'The Indian Media Business,' and media columnist in the Business Standard

Kanwar Sandhu, Founder and Managing Editor, Day & Night News, Chandigarh (Sandhu was former editor, Hindustan Times, Chandigarh and former resident editor, Indian Express, Chandigarh edition).

Sanjay Salil, Founder and Managing Director, MediaGuru (this is an organization that has set up the following TV channels: Channel 7 (now IBN 7), Sakshi TV, Manorama TV, News 24 (of Congress MP Rajiv Shukla), Newslive (Assam's leading channel), among others.

Jay Panda, Member of Parliament, Biju Janta Dal from Kendrapara Parliament Constituency, Odisha.

Sashi Kumar, Chairman, Asian School of Journalism and former founder of Asianet

Teresa Rehman, senior journalist from North East India

Vivian Fernandes, Editor, Special Features, CNBC-TV18 moderated the discussion.

Vivian Fernandes explained the reason behind holding the panel discussion. He said that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has licensed many channels. There are 122 functional channels out of which nearly 40 are owned by political leaders/ parties. Kairali TV is backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Similarly, JaiHind TV is supported by the Congress party in Kerala. Fernandes asked whether one should be alarmed by the rising number of channels owned by politicians. Rupert Murdoch is known as a media mogul as he owns various news channels. Murdoch wanted Sky News network of Britain to go down a polemical 'Fox-style' route. The Reddy brothers have opened up a channel after a programme called Mining Republic was aired by CNN-IBN.

Sanjay Salil shared his experience of working with politicians in the media industry. He said that he has worked with top 5 politicians both inside and outside India. One set of politicians ask not to worry about the budget. In such cases, there is lack of transparency. Some politicians are however sensible in spending. Newslive and NE TV are run rationally. For some politicians who run the television channels, the motive is not only to influence but also to do business. However, their budget is 20-25 percent more compared to the rest. When operational cost gets higher, the checks and balances are introduced. TV stations cannot be owned by the journalists since the minimum threshold to enter has been raised to Rs. 100 crore. So, the real estate companies are entering into the media business. Salil informed that Asianet did not carry Manorama news. Manorama news has not paid any carriage fee till now. He reminded the audience about the Uma Khurana case, when the TV channel Live India did a sting operation without verifying. The channel was banned for a month and the reporter behind the sting was arrested and sent to Tihar jail. However, Live India is now a growing channel. He asked whom to blame for poor content—politicians or journalists. For 95 percent journalists, there is no external pressure. Only the 5 percent at the top face pressure. There is no need to blame politicians for everything. Journalists face pressure when they open the door to politicians. He informed that regional newspapers are owned by the politicians. Common man is wiser than what we think.

Teresa Rehman told that Newslive is a popular channel in the North East. Media coverage of the assembly polls in Assam is revolutionary. There are 4 news media channels in Assam. One may ask from where the money is coming from for running these channels. The question is who the real stakeholders are in these channels. There are 2 news channels which are owned by people based in Kolkata who run chit fund companies. There should be a level playing field. The North East is cruelly marginalized by the mainstream media. The quality of journalism in North East is poor. People do not necessarily like all the content shown on TV. There exists only 10 percent journalism and the rest is technical. Massive corruption in the media could be observed and editors indulge in unscrupulous activities. Privacy of the people is not cared while TV reporting takes place. It would be wrong to presume that rubbish is liked by the audience. Politicians are using the names of TV channels in their speeches. Low salaries are being offered in local channels in Assam. There is need for media ombudsman. She asked whether channels become fair and objective when politicians do not own them. Rehman shared her experience of reporting despite scarce resources because of her spirit and passion. Her voice has not been stifled in the North East, she claimed.

Sashi Kumar noted that Tamil Nadu is an extreme example of how media is politicized. News channels are owned by politicians. Jaya TV and Sun TV are arch rivals and they are deeply politicized. There are 3 channels which are owned by the Congress and one channel owned by the PMK. One cannot be sure that politically owned channels are worse than the neutral channels. A politically owned channel may be better than a surrogate or proxy channel. The Hindu NDTV channel is city based and lacks enough outreach. In the neighborhood state Kerala, political and commercial channels coexist. Andhra Pradesh is a good case of surrogate channels. It is the regional language channels and not the English language channels that are making profits. There are problems associated with distribution. Getting license is easier. If content is the King, then distribution is the God. DTH operation is a big scam. Cross media restrictions are strong in the US. Only a handful of people own the media worldwide. Political capitalism has emerged lately. Politicians are getting associated with media. Sarkozy influences the French media. Regulation does not mean censorship but to provide level playing field. There exists no free market competition among the media houses. Media is owned by the corporates. There are strong entry barriers artificially created by the Government. Average starting cost for a channel is Rs. 15-20 crore. Giving people what they want is not going to work for serious media. Earlier there was more demand for TV journalism courses. Now the trend has changed and there is demand for print journalism courses. News channels cannot insult the viewers. In India, the redressal mechanism is slow and weak. The audience cannot sue a channel. TV viewers are not considered as consumers. The credibility of some news channels cannot be improved. The dharma of journalism is not getting fulfilled. The problem is with unethical journalism. Journalists should insulate themselves from politicians. Journalists are engaging in extra-journalistic practices. Every journalist must follow his/ her own guideline. Many scams have surfaced because of independent news channels. Human frailty brings journalists close to politicians. TRP is not the last thing for advertisements to come. Young journalists have the potential to change the trend. Politicians cannot be stopped from owning TV channels. It is fait accompli. But safeguards can be strengthened. There is a decline of the role of editor. Today editor is the CEO who has to see the financial bottomline.

Kanwar Sandhu said that in the past, there were a lot of discussions on paid news and private treaties. But it has been a good idea to raise the issue of TV ownership. The way television channels are owned in India one may call it a complete blackout. In Punjab, there exist surrogate channels. Politicians in Punjab have learnt the art of not owning TV channels but know how to control them. IPTV is new. Tata Sky and Airtel have no bandwidth. Various DTH platforms are available but they are costly (cost 15-20 crore annually). The local channels are available at the mercy of the cable operators. There used to be 3 cable operators earlier but the number has reduced to only one. The cable operator called FastWay is owned by the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP and it has the monopoly on cable operation. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 is faulty and there is no non-discriminatory clause in the Act. There should not be any entry barrier. There should be a level playing field. Cable will continue for another 7-8 years. Digitization is happening for cable too. Digitization is not the answer. Prasar Bharti needs to tie up with VSNL to float alternative cable platform. Cable Act (1995) needs to be amended. The scope of Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, 1969 needs to be widened. There exists a stringent process when one applies for opening a news channel. In Punjab, channels can be viewed without uplinking or downlinking. Most of the state governments are unable to monitor content in the local channels. Sandhu agreed with Sanjay Salil that the content of Hindi news channels is poor. Cricket, crime and cinema are used to improve TRP rating of the channels. The rules of the game are not clear. He asked whether religious programmes can be telecasted in news channels. In Punjab, it is the politicians who control content in surrogate channels. Putting a channel on platform requires permission from politicians. Disturbing signals and muting channels are tactics used by the cable operators. There is no direct evidence that Government is controlling cable operation. When politicians own TV channels, good journalism goes for a toss, Sandhu added.

Jay Panda expressed his mixed feelings for politicians and media. He informed that he hailed from a business family running business for half a century. He agreed with Kanwar Sandhu that cable operators are holding the channel owners to ransom. He demanded that the sources of funding should be known by the public. Credibility comes when viewers know who is behind a channel. It is difficult to establish who owns channels. Viewers are not dumb. There is need for media watchdogs. Panda informed that there are 18 Oriya channels and they don’t face discrimination by the cable operators. Over the last few years, one saw surrogate channels cropping up and private treaties taking place. A good chunk of the investment in the television industry is coming from the real estate companies and people earning profit in the private colleges. There is a great amount of unaccounted money that is being invested in the TV industry. Legislation is required to bar a certain section in making investment in the TV industry. Financial transparency needs to be imposed. The Companies Act can be strengthened. Money entering the media industry must be accounted money. Hypocritical laws can be broken. The Cable Act is faulty. There is no must carry clause in it. DTH platform can ensure 15-20 percent market share for a news channel. DTH is growing faster than cable. Technological solution can reduce the gap in demand and supply in distribution. Non-serious players have dubious sources of funding and they are here to influence and not to do business. It is essential to crack down on black money. Marginal players do not have adequate revenue from advertisement and they have low TRP ratings. Loss-making marginal players are getting money from tax havens like Mauritius.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar emphasized that it is not merely competition but non-serious competition which is the issue. Nineteen years back India had 1 news channel. Today India has got 122 news channels, according to the TAM Media Research. The regulator could not cope with the rising number of news channels. The Cable Act has become obsolete. Newspapers are owned by real estate companies. However, news has become factual and localized due to rising variety of channels. Out of the 122 news channels which are operating, only a few are earning profit. Of the five listed TV news companies, only Zee News and TV Today made post-tax profits in March 2010. In India media law is adhoc. There is problem of revenue flexibility. Operating cost has gone up. Revenue earned from advertisement has stagnated. Viewership has fallen despite the rise in number of news channels. Independent and autonomous regulator is needed. She asked for a body like Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in India. The stake of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the print media has been raised to 49 percent. The Doordarshan needs to be autonomous. There is no autonomous news broadcaster in India unlike the BBC in the UK. Media companies do not train their journalists and staff. The media industry has not yet professionalized itself. The TV viewers are more addicted to watching scandals. Journalism is interesting since it is not monotonous. .

Vipul Mudgal, who was in the audience, said that the cable operators are like mafia. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta informed that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is sitting on a report on media ownership, which has been prepared by the Administrative Staff College, Hyderabad. He asked how a system of rating better than TRP can be created and introduced.

Further readings:

India's broken news business by Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, The Business Standard, 25 March, 2011,

Uma Khurana files defamation case against Live India, Express India, 5 November, 2007,

Need for a debate on cross-media ownership rules by PN Vasanti, Live Mint, 12 December, 2008,