Posts Tagged ‘Rupert Murdoch’

When Mukesh Ambani writes the media’s cheques

15 January 2012

The fears over what happens when a big business house with deep pockets and political influence across parties funds a big media house to legitimise its hitherto-hidden media interests are coming true even before the controversial Reliance Industries -Network18/TV18-Eenadu Television deal can be inked.

Obviously, the political class is silent. Obviously, TV18′s competitors won’t touch the story for reasons not difficult to imagine. Obviously, The Hindu won’t even publish a media column for reasons not difficult to fantasise.

But there has been no serious discussion of the implications of the deal on the media or on democracy in the mainstream media. Not on any of Network18′s usually high-decibel shows since the tie-up was announced on 3 January 2012. Not even on Karan Thapar‘s media show on CNN-IBNThe Last Word.

Print media coverage too has at best been sketchy. Even the newspapers and newsmagazines which have attempted to probe the complexities of the menage-a-troisThe Economic Times and The Indian ExpressOutlookand India Today, have barely managed to go beyond the numbers into the nuance.

Rajya Sabha TV, the newly launched television channel of the upper house of Parliament, has filled the breach somewhat with a no-holds barred discussion on the subject.

Anchored by Girish Nikam, a former Eenadu reporter who wrote five years ago on Ramoji Rao‘s travails, the RSTV debate flags all the important issues raised by the deal and underlines the role public service television can play in the service of the public when the corporate media gives up—or gives in.

Some of the comments made by three of the four participants on The Big Picture:

S. Nihal Singh, former editor of The Statesman: “My first reaction [on reading of the deal] was that it was time for India to have a really good anti-monopoly law for media, which is the norm in all democratic countries in the world, including the most advanced….

“The press council of India is totally dysfunctional because of the new chairman Justice Markandey Katju, who is baiting the media, who doesn’t believe in conversing with the media, or exchanging views with the media.”

***

Madhu Trehan, founder-editor of India Today and director, content, of the soon-to-be-launched media site, News Laundry: “It need not have happened if the government and corporates were more alert. One person owns much too much….

“Already every policy is decided by corporates as the 2G tapes (of Niira Radia) show. Not only is it dangerous that Mukesh Ambani will be deciding what policy will be decided, as you know has happened in the past, but he will also decide whether we can talk about it, or criticise it or expose it….

“Why is Reliance interested in media? It is not for money; it is obviously for influence. Rupert Murdoch was endorsing PMs and Presidents in three continents. Now we have the richest man in the country owning the largest network. Yes, there is an independent trust, but I don’t believe that. The purpose is to control the media. You are influencing policy, you are influencing how the government decides, and now you are going to decide how the people will hear about about you and the government….

“When a politician or a government spokesman speaks, we don’t believe them, but when somebody like Rajdeep Sardesai or Sagarika Ghose speaks, or anyone at IBN7 or TV18 comes on, we presume we should believe them. Now there is a big question mark [when RIL has indirect control over CNN-IBN]….

“In a deal of this size we are looking at very subtle plants of stories, subtle angles, subtly putting things in a certain way so that people think along in a certain way for a particular way. I don’t know if anyone can shut the door. It’s too late.”

***

Dilip Cherian, former editor Business India, head Perfect Relations: “Globally we have seen when big capital enters media, that is exactly what we are about to replicate for ourselves.

“Oligopolistic tendencies are visible in global media today, whether it is Silvio Berlusconi or Rupert Murdoch, the fact is they exercise humongous influence not on media but politics. Are we headed down the same road? At this time, the answer seems to be yes. Is it good? The universal answer from the question is that it isn’t,  not just because it affects the quality of news but because it affects the quality of politics….

“The entry of big capital is not new or news. What has happened in this case is a big distinction between foreign investment and domestic. Because of 4G, because the same business house owns the pipe, owns the content, there could also be another issue of monopoly. If I were the owner, I would say there needs to be a publicly visible ombudsmanship [to dispel the doubts]….

“There is room for concern, there is room for elements of self-rgulation. As a country we are not able to legislate for two reasons. One because of the influence business houses have on policy making. And two, when you bring in legislation (on regulation) up, the other group that is affected are politicians who own media houses of their own. You are talking about now a coalition of forces which the public is incapable of handling. You won’t see Parliament doing the kind of regulation they should, in an open manner, because there are interests on all sides.”

* Disclosures apply

Also readWill RIL-TV18-ETV deal win SEBI, CCI approval?

Why Indian media can’t laugh at Murdoch’s plight

18 July 2011

SANJAY JHA writes from Bombay: Rupert Murdoch, the emperor of media leviathan News Corporation, shuttled on a transatlantic flight over a tumultuous week-end that saw a popular British Sunday tabloid bite the dust, never to rise again.

News of the World (NOTW) was founded prior to the Great Indian Mutiny of 1857, but closed with a 72-hour notice period in tragic infamy on account of startling revelations about its surreptitious hacking of private mails and messages, in a manner both macabre and sleazy.

For Murdoch, the closure was not a generous act to protect the Holy Grail but a calculated trade-off for acquisition of the more alluring BSkyB.

Greed is a driving ambition, often meeting a ruinous end.

It could happen in India too.

Despite much heart-burning and pious pontification, the Press Council of India report on paid news accumulates dust in dark dungeons, like used files. It does manifest our questionable standards, the media’s inability to smother its own insuperable demons.

While we hyperventilate to the world, our own backyard emits a sordid stench. Paid coverage is stealthy advertising, which legitimizes self-promoting campaigns on unsuspecting readers posing as dispassionate reporting. It is indeed an ethical violation of astronomical proportions, but everyone seems nonchalant, blissfully blasé about it.

Dileep Padgaonkar once famously stated that The Times Of India editor was the “second most important man in India”. That was not hubris or a silly exaggeration , it was a near-factual assessment. But today no media big gun can make such lofty claims.

Multiple channels and news publishers have made mass distribution of news our new business reality.

Once I waited every Sunday morning to read Khalid Mohamed’s review of a Bollywood blockbuster. Now several experts miserly dole out glittering stars on Friday itself, even as thousands of faceless bloggers become the new film critic.

It’s literally first day, first show.

Media is now truly democratized; so truly there are no king-makers. With Facebook, Twitter and blogs gathering high-speed on the social networking highway, media activism has also assumed formidable power to influence public opinion, so far considered the sacrosanct preserve of an elite club.

India’s subterranean media revolution is underway.

Media organizations must also frequently take core ideological or strategic positions on sensitive issues, it will enhance their quality. That’s what often distinguishes the print media from television. The snarling watchdog needs to be just that; it can’t have a shrill bark, a toothless bite and lazily snooze when Rome burns, reacting only under extreme provocation.

For instance, last year when Shiv Sena became a quasi-sarkar in threatening to black-out Shah Rukh Khan’s My Name is Khan, the conventional protocol of TV channels of giving both sides a voice was rather superfluous , even preposterous.

Even to a naïve outsider, Shiv Sena was indulging in unlawful transgressions exploiting media platform shamelessly to espouse its parochial claptrap. The worst indictment of the media is when it willingly succumbs to made for TV manufactured events.

Whatever happened to professional discretion?

Aren’t leaked reports also obtained often with at least moral illegality with an in-built clause of quid pro quo?

In a country bedeviled by innumerable scams, a deadly diabolical nexus between criminal elements, political leaders and business-builder behemoths, media is critical. But discharging that onerous responsibility is not a child’s play.

Like WikiLeaks, one foresees alternative mediums to emerge to fill the gaping vacuum created by status quo coverage these days . Investigative journalism has become comatose in a commercially dictated news content age. Something is gone missing.

Are we becoming tabloid-like, allowing any bearded spiritual free-agent, violent wife-beater or a just-released bone chopper to capture India’s attention? Can we then be so self-righteous as to take umbrage under “mere reporting”?

Oh, come on! For all the political faux pas of the government, the media should have used its own grey cells to fathom Baba Ramdev’s bona fides. The modern-media is society’s crucial “ influencer”, not a reseller of titillating tales. Media integrity is a non-negotiable instrument. We need to enforce it.

I hear several grumble ; why does the media never do a comprehensive follow-up to serious unresolved issues instead of chasing the next wife-thrashing maverick promoting his televised marriage? Whatever happened to several disproportionate assets cases against powerful CMs?

Who really covertly leaked the Radia tapes, and why?

How is Lalit Modi “ officially absconding” and purchasing large mansions in downtown London without a valid passport? Whatever happened to the Srikrishna report on the Bombay riots?

Narayan Rane had publicly stated that he was aware of powerful people who knew about 26/11 terrorist attacks—really? If so what happened? Despite singular success stories like Jessica Lal, the CWG and 2G scams, Gujarat riots and several successful petitions, paradoxically enough, media itself is losing the perception battle.

Aamir Khan’s Peepli Live! ridiculed media to atrocious levels but to appreciative applause.

In India, where our daily lives resembles a cacophonous collage of absurd and horrendous tales, news television often degenerates into infotainment category. The truth is that good news is boring.

It’s like breathing. It’s predictable, monotonous, rhythmical, but it is also bloody necessary.

Or else we have the kiss of death.

We are too often celebrating India’s unseen imminent demise, our own pornography of grief. It is time we appreciated that even thorns have roses. At least one channel has begun to share a daily dose of cheer.

Competitive journalism is natural marketing warfare, after all, newspapers and TV channels are not in the charity trade. But intent is pivotal. Phone hacking is unambiguously unethical. Bribery pay-offs of police personnel is contemptible. Killing news to protect favoured parties is equally lamentable.

But isn’t paid news also guilty of disingenuous, distorted presentation of facts?

In the long-run , media houses that practice quintessential consecrated ethical behaviour will survive. Others will flounder.

The editor is media’s conscience-keeper, its guardian angel. They are the ones who must separate the wheat from the chaff, and ensure that the chaff does not get headline attention. But the quarter to quarter pressures of EPS for the publicly listed media companies can result in editorial compromises.

The editors need to be sacrosanct, inaccessible to advertisers and CEO’s business plans, working behind a Chinese wall. Editors should have no employee stock options, and must not be on boards of these companies either; that will eliminate conflict of interest issues.

Instead, they should be compensated by equitable fixed salaries, benefits, bonuses, and given flexibility for research projects, reimbursed higher learning expenses and encouraged to author books and take up teaching assignments.

We need to de-link organizational bottomline numbers with editorial policy.

Editorial independence is a must; they cannot be the brand managers with brains. Also, celebrity editors could do with relative anonymity . Anonymity powers the personal brand. Proximity to suave glib talking industrialists or political power-brokers can be jeopardous as was evident in the Radia tapes.

David Cameron flushes crimson on his selection of the arrested former head of NOTW, Andy Coulson. Tony Blair too is red-faced. And more is still to surface.

Every media company must make public its own independent advisory board with an ombudsman , besides an industry watchdog. Ethical workshops are needed, as young recruits can be susceptible to short-cut methods for quick career windfalls.

Press, public relations , big business and the politicians will have to tread with circumspection as there could be grave overlaps on account of the vested , conflicting interest of each. The unholy nexus is no longer a well-concealed secret. The path is slippery , shaky and serpentine. It is easy to become the news of the world. Very easy.

Good night and good luck!

(Banker turned web entrepreneur, Sanjay Jha is the founder of Cricket Next. This piece originally appeared on the website Hamara Congress)

Image: courtesy Time

‘Media standards not keeping pace with growth’

18 April 2011

Sanjaya Baru, editor of Business Standard and former media advisor to prime minister Manmohan Singh, delivered the second H.Y. Sharada Prasad memorial lecture on media, business and government at the India International Centre on Sunday, 17 April. This is the full text of his address:

***

By SANJAYA BARU

I first met H.Y. Sharada Prasad in 1982 in the very room in which I later sat in the Prime Minister’s Office. He knew me only as Rama’s husband!  I was in Delhi on a visit from Hyderabad where I was a University lecturer and went to call on him because Rama had asked me to.

I would meet him occasionally during my days at the Economic Times and Times of India and tried hard to get him to write for the editorial page of the TOI, when I was in charge of it in 1994-96. He always declined the invitation with a smile. Finally, when he chose to write a column I had already left TOI and it was M.J. Akbar who managed to get him to do so for The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle.

Perhaps as a consolation he called me one day and told me that he had informed Encyclopedia Britannica that he would stop writing the chapter on India that he had written every year for close to fifty years, and henceforth they should approach me for the chapter.

I was flabbergasted, flattered and honoured.

The editor of Britannica wrote me a warm letter saying that I must be someone very special because after a “life long” association with EB, “Mr Prasad has chosen you to inherit his annual contribution to the Britannica.” I have written that chapter since, every year.”

On 2 June 2004 I joined the PMO in the morning and called on “Shouri mama” (as Sharada Prasad was called by his friends and family) the same evening to seek his blessings and take his advice. He spoke to me at length about the office itself, and the significance of every nook and corner.

“You are sitting in the same room in which Jawaharlal Nehru first sat as Prime Minister,” he told me, referring to the corner room next to the cabinet room. Nehru had to wait for a month to move into what is now the PM’s room, since that room’s earlier occupant, Girija Shankar Bajpai, would not vacate it till the room assigned to him was ready, that being the present principal secretary’s room.

I too had occupied that very room briefly till I moved into the much larger adjacent room, the one Shouri had occupied with great distinction for almost two decades. After letting me know that I was sitting in Nehru’s first room in the PMO, he added with a mischievous smile, “of course Natwar (Singh) also sat there!”

He regaled me with stories about the various occupants of the PMO during his decade and a half there, about their egos and their foibles. He gave me valuable advice on how I should discharge my duties both as media advisor and speech writer that stood me in good stead throughout my four-and-a-half years in the job.

On a couple of occasions when I had difficulty convincing the PM and his senior aides about my media strategy in dealing with an issue, I would called Shouri and having received his endorsement of my plan inform the PM that Mr Sharada Prasad has approved my idea. The PM would instantly fall in line and allow me to go ahead, over ruling the dissenters. Securing Shourie’s imprimatur was enough.

For a man who wielded a powerful and elegant pen for the Prime Minister of India, who had the unquestioned trust and confidence of a powerful Prime Minister like Indira Gandhi, who had travelled around the world with her, hearing her read out his prose, whom generations of Indians had seen in Films Division documentaries and front page photographs sitting next to Mrs Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, here I was with him on my first day in the PMO in his two-room, Punjabi Bagh DDA flat.

Every day of my four-and-a-half years in the PMO, I would recall that first evening that I spent with Shouri.

Don’t fool yourself, I would tell myself, you may be here today, but one day you too will have a modest apartment to retire to. Shouri was among the very few who worked with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi who had no Vasant Vihar or New friends Colony or Maharani Bagh house to leave for his children. It is the combination of his wisdom and simplicity, his prose and wit, his deep knowledge of both India and the world that makes him a truly unique occupant of that all powerful corner of Raisina Hill. This memorial lecture is dedicated as much to Shourie as to the values he embodied.

***

One of the things that Shouri said to me when I met him the evening of my first day at the PMO was that during his long tenure at the PMO he kept in regular, almost daily contact, with key interlocutors in just five newspapers – Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Statesman, The Hindu and Times of India. That was a different world.

While India reported less than 500 newspapers in the years Shouri first came to deal with them, and only one television channel, by 1991 there were 923 newspapers and still only one TV channel. But Shouri regarded dealing with just the top five English dailies adequate to influence the rest of the media. These five, he presumably believed, set the tone and the agenda for all others to follow. It is also possible he believed having these five on one’s side is what mattered as far as the PM was concerned.

In 2008, the year I left PMO, the Registrar of Newspapers reported that 2,337 newspapers were in circulation in India. In 2004 there were already several news TV channels, but by 2008 the number had more than tripled. By the time I left my position in mid-2008 I would normally be dealing with at least a couple of dozen newspapers and TV channels every day.  The era when one could happily say that the PM’s media advisor kept in touch with just five top English newspapers was long gone. Not only had Indian language TV and print become more important, but even English language TV and print had burgeoned and the internet had arrived.

It was during my last days in office that I acquired a Facebook account and Outlook magazine put me on their cover, along with some celebrities, for being the first PMO official with a Facebook account. Twitter had not arrived by the time I left office. Today Shouri would not be able to recognise, much less relate, to the media scene in India. My 84-year-old parents take pride in letting me know that they neither watch TV news, nor spend more than a few minutes reading a newspaper. They have opted out of daily news.

But, the rest of India has not. Nowhere has there been a bigger boom in media than in India.

At the last World Association of Newspapers convention in Hyderabad in 2009, India was hailed as the great global hope for media, especially print. The WAN invitation to the Hyderabad convention said:

“Developing literacy and wealth are part of but far from all the story: Great credit needs also to be given to Indian newspaper professionals, who are re-inventing the newspaper to keep it vibrant and compelling in the digital age……. Although broadband and mobile are booming in India, print newspapers are growing right along with them. The country has more daily newspapers than any other nation and leads in paid-for daily circulation, surpassing China for the first time in 2008. Twenty of the world’s 100 largest newspapers are Indian. Newspaper circulation rose a further 8 percent last year.”

Salivating at the India numbers, News Corp top executive James Murdoch told a FICCI–Frames conference in Mumbai last month that “India’s media industry is a ‘sleeping tiger’  waiting to be awakened.” He described global media firms as “grey and tired”. “The impressive achievements of the last two decades have not even begun to fulfill the potential of this great land,” said the son of media mogul Rupert Murdoch.

This boom is witnessed in every language, with Hindi’s Dainik Jagran emerging as the great success story in print media. But with growth have come its wages. The quantitative expansion of Indian media continues to outpace its qualitative development. Extreme inequality in compensation structures means there are some journalists who get world class compensation that would be the envy of even developed economy media, and there is a mass of under-paid staff, many of whom with low skills and lower motivation.

Speaking at the Silver Jubilee of the Chandigarh Press Club in September 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

“With the rapid growth of media in recent times, qualitative development has not kept step with quantitative growth. In the race for capturing markets, journalists have been encouraged to cut corners, to take chances, to hit and run. I believe the time has come for journalists to take stock of how competition has impacted upon quality. Consider the fact that even one mistake, and a resultant accident, can debar an airline pilot from ever pursuing his career. Consider the case that one wrong operation leading to a life lost, and a doctor can no longer inspire the confidence of his patients. One night of sleeping on the job at a railway crossing, an avoidable train accident, and a railway man gets suspended. How many mistakes must a journalist make, how many wrong stories, and how many motivated columns before professional clamps are placed? How do the financial media deal with market moving stories that have no basis in fact? Investors gain and lose, markets rise and fall, but what happens to those reporters, analysts, editors who move and make markets? Are there professional codes of conduct that address these challenges? Is the Press Council the right organization to address these challenges? Can professional organizations of journalists play a role?”

Apart from the problem of quantitative growth outpacing qualitative development, there is also the challenge of conflicting objectives and a clash of cultures. News media has become subsumed into the larger business of information and entertainment. This is in large part a consequence of the growing dependence of media, especially news media, on advertisement revenues, though India still has a substantial segment of the market that is still willing to pay for news.

One of the consequences of this growing dependence on advertising revenues, as opposed to subscription revenue, and the competition from competing media is that news media has become increasingly a mish-mash of news, views and plain entertainment.

A recent  FICCI- KPMG report, Hitting the High Notes on the Indian media and Entertainment Industry in 2011 not only unabashedly refers to ‘media and entertainment’ as one industry, but also points to the growing inter-linkages between the two sides of business. News is entertainment and entertainment is news! And, the stakes are high.

According to KPMG, the Indian Media and Entertainment (M&E) industry stood at US$ 12.9 billion in 2009. Over the next five years the industry is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13 per cent to reach the size of US$ 24.04 billion by 2014.

A PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report titled ‘Indian Entertainment & Media Outlook 2010’ predicts that the industry is poised to return to double digit growth to touch US$ 22.28 billion growing cumulatively at a 12.4 per cent CAGR to 2014.

Apart from the phenomenal growth prospects, which have become the envy of media companies around the world, and therefore attracting many of them to India, it is important to also note that there has been a vertical and horizontal integration, along the technological spectrum, of news, entertainment and communication. Print, TV, radio, film, music, gaming, mobile telephony, internet and banking and finance are all getting integrated. New technologies will integrate the businesses and the markets even more.

The KPMG report adds, “While television and print continue to dominate the Indian M&E industry, sectors such as gaming, digital advertising, and animation VFX also show tremendous potential in the coming years. By 2015, television is expected to account for almost half of the Indian M&E industry revenues, and more than twice the size of print, the second largest media sector.  The contribution of advertising revenue to overall industry pie is expected to increase from 38 percent in 2007 to 42 percent in 2012.”

When news and entertainment become two sides of the same coin, indeed some would say the same side of one coin, with advertising revenue being the other side of the coin, and when the distinction between news and views gets blurred, journalism enters an uncharted territory where there are as yet no professional yardsticks to judge either purpose or performance. But it is not just the integration of businesses that is having an impact on media. It is the integration of business with politics and politics with business that is now shaping news media, and not just at the national level.

***

Tamil Nadu is a particularly good example of the complete backward and forward integration of media business and politics. The ruling political party dominates print, TV and film production and distribution. In Andhra Pradesh the Y.S. Rajashekhar Reddy family was well on its way to achieving this kind of integration of business interests in media and politics.

The relative ease with which the Karunanidhi-Maran families in Tamil Nadu and the YSR family in Andhra Pradesh, to a lesser extent the Pawar family in Maharashtra have acquired substantial stakes in media, entertainment and politics is a pointer to trends at the national level. There have been reports that the Congress Party plans to start its own TV and print media businesses. The Left walked down this path in Kerala but was unable to achieve the kind of dominance that DMK has succeeded in acquiring in Tamil Nadu.

The FICCI-KPMG Report shows that while there has been a phenomenal expansion of the media business, in almost every major language segment and in most states 3 dominant players together control between 65 per cent and 75 per cent of the market. In other words, the media pyramid in India is highly skewed. A few newspapers/ channels at the top of the pyramid, controlling close to three-quarters of the readership and/or viewership and a large number of small players below sharing the rest of the cake.

Part of the problem in regulating the media business arises because of the growing links between politicians, political parties and the media and entertainment business.

In Andhra Pradesh, for example, the top two media companies, with print and television business, are Eenadu and Sakshi – the former owned by the pro-TDP Ramoji Rao, and the latter owned by YSR Rajashekhar Reddy’s son Jagan.

In Tamil Nadu the power and influence of Kalanithi Maran’s Sun TV is even more brazen. Indeed, the DMK as a party has acquired enormous control over the entire media business including circulation, cable network and film distribution.

In Maharashtra, every media company has its own political interests. Across the country in almost every State, including the North-East, the nexus between politics, business and media is very close and pervasive.

With such visible and known links between political parties and media companies, what is the kind of regulation that government qua government can impose? Indeed, in a democracy the question does arise whether government or even a quasi-official body should have any powers at all to regulate media.

This market structure is ripe for oligopolistic practices and it has been alleged for a long time that such practices have become all too common in India. Very often the intense rivalry and competition between professional journalists in rival media firms masks the implicit collaboration and non-compete clauses – including deals on advertising, circulation and hiring of journalists – between the firms themselves.

Indian media needs a framework of reference to define what constitutes a competitive structure, what policies amount to being restrictive trade practices, how can such practices be curbed and who curbs them? Has the time come for the Competition Commission of India to consider a framework for regulation of cross-media ownership, predatory pricing and other restrictive and unethical business practices, including the phenomenon of ‘paid news’, in the media and entertainment industry?

A few years ago when the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Board of India, G.N. Bajpai, convened a meeting of all editors and suggested that the media accept a SEBI code for journalists reporting on markets and companies, a majority of the editors gathered there opposed any SEBI imposed code and instead offered to come forward with a code of their own that media companies could adhere to. Nothing has been heard on the subject since.

Institutions like the Press Council of India have lost their élan, and the Editors Guild of India has become a club of former and future editors with little influence on those presently occupying the hot seat! The inability of the Editors Guild to reverse the phenomenon of ‘paid news’, which it campaigned against, even though many members of the Guild were in fact guilty of the crime, illustrates this better than any other example.

A related issue of internal governance that has profound implications for freedom of press is the nature of editorial control in media. Just as politicians have become media barons and media barons have become politicians, establishing a continuum between media, politics and government, there is a parallel continuum between media, business and editorial leadership, with publishers and CEOs becoming editors and editors becoming publishers and CEOs.

Time was when many professional journalists worried that the post of editor was being devalued with print and TV companies not naming editors and dividing up the editor’s work among several persons, both journalists and managers. As a consequence, today several print and TV media have no single editor and, therefore, weak editorial control and leadership.

As some of the conversations recorded in the famous Nira Radia Tapes reveal, senior journalists not only worry about the fate of politicians in power, but they also worry about their company’s bottom and top line. Given the unabashed blurring of roles, an increasing number of business persons and politicians are now quite blasé about using carrots and sticks to influence and brow beat the media.

But a far more insidious development has been under way – namely the integration of the positions of publisher/ CEO with that of Chief Editor/ Editor. The job of Editor has been under threat in Indian media for a long time, but today professional editors – who have no ownership stake in the media company – are becoming an endangered species.

Owners or CEOs are editors and editors have become shareholders or CEOs. Those who worry about content also worry about revenue. It is not difficult to see what this means for editorial freedom. It is also not difficult to see that the famed separation of powers between “Church and State” in the media no longer exists.

Owner/ CEO/ Manager/ shareholder- editors either impose corporate objectives or their personal whims. Editors who speak eloquently about the freedom of the press and autonomy of media are often the first to impose their dictatorial and arbitrary style on their own colleagues.

Editors, who demand accountability from elected representatives of the people, are often quite happy to censor dissent and straitjacket diverse opinion within their own organizations. When such tyrannical editors are also owners or CEOs of their media establishments there is no internal court of appeal for a journalist.

***

The burden of my song has been to draw attention to the fact that the impressive growth of Indian media in recent years has not been matched by a similar rise in professional standards, both on the editorial side and in business ethics and practices of media firms, and media accountability.

As a consequence, despite the phenomenal growth of the media and the high visibility of media personalities, the public regard for journalists has not in fact risen. A recent poll in the US and UK rated ‘nursing’ as the most ethical profession and ‘journalism’ as among the least ethical ones!

I have not been able to find a similar poll in India, but the result is unlikely to be very different.  Concerns about corruption in the media are just beginning to surface. When a couple of cases get exposed their impact on the credibility of our profession would be hugely destructive.

Because of all these trends, Indian journalism is presently facing a crisis of both credibility and competence. In the past few years we have witnessed increased public scrutiny of the executive, the legislature and even the judiciary. More recently we have witnessed some early signs of a similar scrutiny of the media.

The cynicism and anger that have come to characterize public criticism of the other three ‘estates’ will sooner rather than later be seen in the criticism of the media. Each of the ‘four estates’ have from time to time drawn public attention to the short-comings of others. Sometimes three of the four have combined to bring the fourth to heel.

So far we have not seen in India a coming together of the executive, legislature and the judiciary in a joint bid to discipline or rein in the media. During the emergency, when media was under attack, the judiciary was in fact an ally of the media. When the Rajiv Gandhi government proposed an anti-defamation law, the entire media stood as one and with support from other political parties resisted the move.

Today, the media will find it more difficult to defend itself against such scrutiny and regulation. The day may not be far when public opinion will demand more accountability and transparency on the part of media organizations. With public opinion on its side, the executive and/ or the judiciary may well begin to demand such accountability from the business and editorial heads of media organizations, and from prominent TV anchors and columnists, not to mention the regular reporters.

What is worrying, however, is that in response to such public anger and cynicism the media may be turning populist – a standard response of a politician – in an attempt to ingratiate itself to its critics. This too is a dangerous trend. Media populism is in part a response to public anger and, paradoxically, a response to public disdain and indifference.

To an extent this is the logical culmination of the phenomenon of qualitative development not keeping pace with quantitative growth. The ‘dumbing down’ of the media brings in its train disregard for it, disrespect for it, disenchantment with it. This makes the media ripe for greater regulation.

If Indian media wish to avert this threat, then it must look within, introspect and rediscover professional values. This is easier said than done. It is not because of a lack of will that this has not happened. There is often no incentive for such introspection and no reward for mending ways.

The good thing, however, is that we live in a society and a nation in which we have the freedom to debate these issues. In paying tribute to the memory of Sharada Prasad, my generation must pay tribute to his for the freedom they secured for us and for posterity.

Shouri was a freedom fighter, like Kamalamma [Sharada Prasad's wife], like my father and my grandfather and grandmother. Their generation was the architect of a unique experiment in human history – building a vibrant and liberal democracy in a diverse and stratified society, a backward and poor economy. Shouri epitomized by the best instincts of that generation, symbolizing the liberalism and pluralism of a generation that was inspired by Gandhiji to value High Thinking and Simple Living.

These values are under threat and the media is not doing enough to protect them. By encouraging those with contending view points to argue with each other, we are not doing enough to create greater consensus between conflicting views.

The greatness of the Indian people is not that we are argumentative, as Amartya Sen has celebrated with an eye to a global audience. The real greatness of the Indian people is that we are in fact consensual.  Merely because we invented the ‘Zero’ and made possible the binary 1:0 system, the foundation of the current information era, does not mean that the Indian mind sees the world in black and white. Thinkers like Sharada Prasad have always reminded us of the range of gray possibilities in comprehending the reality around us.

The day the Indian media moves away from its binary world view, its argumentative ‘me and you’ divides, and moves closer to the consensual frameworks of reference of a people who have always valued the idea of Sarva Dharma Sambhava – of Unity in Diversity – it will have created a new paradigm, a very Indian paradigm, in the world of communication.

That would be the best tribute we can pay to a great Indian, a truly renaissance man, a liberal scholar, a non-argumentative Indian like Sharada Prasad!

Also read: When editor makes way for editor, gracefully

‘Go to bed knowing you haven’t succumbed’

‘Masth maja maadi for I am a WorldSpace widow’

29 December 2009

RAMYA KRISHNAMURTHY writes from Bangalore: Dozens of fine people decided to take leave of our company in 2009: Gangubai Hanagal and D.K. Pattammal, Gayatri Devi and Leela Naidu, Tyeb Mehta and Manjit Bawa, T.S.Satyan and C. Aswath.

All these accomplished individuals had led full and wonderful lives. But if there is one death that will touch me even more, one death I will mourn even more, it is the death foretold: the premature passing away of WorldSpace, the satellite radio station.

When my JVC receiver will crackle no more two days from now, an inanimate but inseparable partner over the last nine years will suddenly vanish from my life.

I will become a WorldSpace widow.

It is a loss difficult to explain; even more difficult for those unaware of the phenomenon to understand what it means. But that is the nature of death; the sky darkens for a close few; the rest will wonder what the fuss is all about.

To the former, I offer my commiserations.

To the latter, I offer my heartfelt sympathies.

***

Radio was an integral part of our lives while growing up in Vontikoppal in Mysore in the 1970s and ‘80s. With television mercifully a long way away, it was our window to the world, like it was for thousands of families.

Pradesha Samachara on All India Radio at a little past seven. Old Hindi songs on Radio Ceylon (later Sri Lanka Broadcastig Corporation) with a mandatory K.L. Saigal number as the clock inched towards eight. Aap hi ke geet from 8 to 9.

Kelugara Korike in the evenings, with sports news at 8, followed by Yuva Vani. Soundtrack on Vividh Bharati on Sunday afternoons.

Much of this was standard fare in most homes and it provided us all at school and college, a set of common points to discuss and debate. For those of us assigned to read the news at the morning “assembly”, it provided the cutting edge.

But my father, a radio-head, opened our eyes (and ears) even more.

A long wire-mesh antenna that ran from the front of the house to the rear, spread the net far and wide. The daily catch brought us Radio Netherlands and Radio Deutsche Welle, Radio Australia and Radio Moscow, Voice of America and Armed Forces Radio.

I vividly remember that October 31 morning when Sir Mark Tully broke in to announce that Mrs Gandhi had been shot. Or the night of May 21, when Rajiv Gandhi lay splattered in Sriperumbudur.

The voices of correspondents like Phillip Short (Paris), Humphrey Hawksley (Hong Kong) and Red Harrison (Sydney), and anchors like Willis Conover (Jazz Hour, VOA) and Suzanne Dowling (Soundabout, Radio Australia) are still fresh in my memory.

V.M. Chakrapani, anyone?

The initiation wasn’t easy. Initially, we had a “Murphy” diode radio at home, that took its own time to flicker to life. Fine tuning it was a precision-art, like threading the needle; just a bit more produced static, just a little less woke up the world.

The entry of a Grundig transistor radio at first and then a Sony 12-band world receiver made listening a lot easier. Thus, writing fanmail to the stations, requesting for schedules and freebies, and collecting QSL cards become a hobby that gave a decisive edge over those collecting stamps, coins and feathers.

It was WorldSpace that completed the radio revolution.

***

Suddenly, on one nifty little receiver, you could receive near CD-quality music and crystal clear news and views of every kind. All you needed was a cute little antenna that had radio-illiterate neighbours wondering what it was.

I picked up my JVC receiver at Suleiman Sait’s Radio Shack on Brigade Road the day it was launched in Bangalore. And thus began a nine-year love affair that ends suddenly at the stroke of midnight on 31 December 2009.

For nine years, I have woken up with one constant partner by my side, and truth to tell, it has not (always) been my gallivanting husband.

It’s WorldSpace.

Carntic music on Shruti in the mornings. Western classical on Maestro in the mid-afternoons. Jazz on Riff during the afternoon snooze. Alternative rock on Bob in the evenings. Plenty of National Public Radio in between.

And the odd couple of Punjabi Tunak and Radio Vatican, plus WRN.

Where will I now go for my daily fix when the peddler has fallen prey?

***

Two things fascinated me about WorldSpace from the very beginning.

The first was that it was DTH before DTH. The radio signals came into our homes, rooms and hearts through the antenna without the cable operator deciding what we should listen, like it was for television.

WorldSpace gave me the power to listen to what I wanted, when I wanted.

The second was the realization that, like satellite TV was a gift India gave to the world (SITE, satellite instructional television experiment, gave Rupert Murdoch the idea for satellite broadcasting), satellite radio was a Third World gift to the globe.

The man behind WorldSpace was Noah Samara, an Ethiopia-born Sudanese space engineer, and he brought satellite radio to Asia and parts of Africa and Europe, long before the Americans got it through XM and Sirius.

But the reason WorldSpace became so much a part of my life as it did thousands of others was the quiet, unintrusive manner in which the world wafted into our homes— educating us, entertaining us, engaging us—without expecting too much in return.

The beauty about radio is that unlike television and unlike the newspaper, it doesn’t demand your full attention. You can do what you are doing, like I am writing this or you are reading this, and still be listening to it.

Going about her daily chores, which Carnatic fan on Shruti can say, hand on heart, that she has not been touched by the dedication of Srividya Prakash morning after morning?

Or the sincerity of Mahadevan with his artiste interviews?

Above all, unlike the illiterate’s picturebook that is television, radio, satellite or otherwise, enables you to imagine.

Somebody paints the words on the air waves, you fill the images in the mind. With WorldSpace’s clarity, there was nothing lost in translation.

***

Initially, when I purchased my receiver, there was no subscription price and I was over the moon. The introduction of an annual subscription fee a while later did little to dampen my enthusiasm for it, such was the way in which it filled a vital blank.

Looking at the complete lack of advertising on the three-dozen-plus channels and given the low subscription fees and the glitzy schedule they mailed subscribers, I often wondered how long WorldSpace would be able to sustain itself, when its American peers had merged to survive or done strange things to stay in the business.

I saw a brief ray of hope when A.R. Rehman came on as brand ambassador to coincide with a subscription drive, which saw WorldSpace receivers even being given away free with magazine subscriptions.

To hear WorldSpace in pubs and bars and in shops and malls, was a sign that the clientele was growing. Rumours that WorldSpace would be soon available on car radios convinced me that the concept had come of age.

When somebody from WorldSpace contacted me to ask if I would be willing to test devices that WorldSpace was rumoured to be making—like a USB device that would bring WorldSpace to computers—I was convinced WorldSpace had it all worked out.

But it was too good a story to last.

And it was.

***

Reading the almost-clerical reports of WorldSpace’s impending demise on the business pages of our newspapers and the reports of the execrable FM stations thriving makes me wonder if we even realise what we are about to lose.

And if we care enough.

What WorldSpace’s fate shows is that while it is fashionable for the chatterati to talk about the lack of “quality” in our media, it is crap that the Indian masses really want, and it is crap that really sells—and survives.

Obviously, we do not know the circumstances under which WorldSpace has to down its shutters and whether it might not come back in a new avatar, but what it tells me is that quality is a very small and finite market and it is possible to overestimate the intelligence of the Indian listener.

Above all, looking at WorldSpace’s fate, makes me wonder about our entrepreneurs and investors who are willing to put in hundreds of crores on junk (24-storey houses, me-too TV stations), they cannot put their money in institutions that ought to another day.

It is a cliche to say all good things must come to an end.

It is also a cliché to say it is not the end of the world.

But surely it is not a cliche to say we are a nation of dumb suckers?

***

While you work that out, may I take the opportunity to wish everyone at WorldSpace who brightened my life over the last nine years, a big thank-you and a happy new year?

CHURUMURI POLL: Right to bar foreign journos?

7 November 2009

The Great Wall between India and China is not made of bricks and mortar; it is made of freedom and liberty. Any debate, any discussion, anywhere, on the superpowers-to-be is sealed, signed and delivered by the roaring presence of those essential ingredients in plentiful on our soil, and the utter lack of it in our great neighbour.

China notoriously detests dissent—and democracy.

It bars foreign media from freely moving inside its boundaries; Tibet is off-limits to them as is Tiananmen Square. BBC was famously taken off Rupert Murdoch‘s Star Network at the behest of the comrades. Google and Yahoo effortlessly dance to the tunes of the Chinese dictators. Chinese citizens routinely can’t log into YouTube, Facebook and other media. And so on.

But has difference between “us” and “them” been erased by the Congress-led UPA government?

In barring foreign journalists from going to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh to report the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama‘s week-long visit to the northeastern State which China off and on claims as its own, has the Manmohan Singh government thumbed its  nose at India’s great democratic traditions?

Has India missed a trick in showing its inviolable sovereignty before a global audience? In behaving much like China would, has the Congress-led regime obliterated the difference between democracy and dictatorship? Or was the government right given the war-mongering that has recently been on display?

Also read: Media freedom is what separates India and China

Censorship in the name of ‘the national interest’?

A fitness regime for the moral police by remote

30 July 2009

The licence-quota-permit raj may have been consigned to the dustbin (at least in theory), but Victorian regulation runs deep in the Indian psyche, especially when it comes to the media: films, television, newspapers, books, art.

Don’t like M.F. Husain‘s painting? Just hound him out.

Don’t like a newspaper report? Smash the skulls out.

Don’t like a scholar’s biography? Burn down the library.

Don’t like a journalist’s views? Ransack his house.

Don’t like a scholar’s opinion? File a criminal case.

Don’t like Savita Bhabhi‘s advances? Just get it banned.

Don’t like Balika Vadhu. Sharad Yadav will take up your cause.

And so on and on.

All last week, the honourable members of the Parliament of India, having solved all the problems facing this large and great country—hunger, poverty, malnutrition, disease, deprivation, illiteracy, violence, corruption—were frothing at the mouth about Sach ka samna, an execrable television show out of the Rupert Murdoch stable.

Yesterday, a division bench of the Delhi High Court comprising chief justice A.P. Shah and Justice Manmohan delivered the moral police—the only police force which has no trouble finding new recruits—a stinging lesson in life and liberty.

***

“In this land of Gandhi, it appears that nobody follows Gandhi… Follow the Gandhian principle of ‘see no evil’. Why do you not simply switch off the TV?

“We have very good advice for you. You have got two judges sitting here who do not watch TV at all. It will certainly help. Individual ideas of morality are not the business of the court. We are not sitting here for moral policing… You approach the Parliament and get the remedy.

“The courts cannot be expected to deal with issues that involve different individual perceptions.”

“Our culture is no so fragile that it will be affected by one TV show. Moreover, nobody in his individual capacity can be allowed to take upon the social order and ask for directions.

“You are asking us to entertain an area which deals with perceptions and opinions. Further, morality yardsticks are to be decided by the government. We cannot decide the issue. We are not sure whether the show has brought out the truth of many people but it is certain that it has brought out the hypocrisy of various ministers and parliamentarians.”

Image: courtesy Savita Bhabhi

Also read: In the name of Bhagwan, All, Christ…

One question you are dying to ask a real celebrity

27 July 2009

The Star Plus “reality show” Sach ka saamna has been just what “Dr Murdoch would have ordered.

The show has created a big buzz in the media. The format, lie detector and all, has gripped audiences. Court cases have been filed. And parliamentarians known for taking cash for questions have been riled by the sight of celebrities taking cash for questions like “Have you aborted a child?” etc.

Result: it’s going to rain rupees in Rupertland.

At one level, the show throws light on the murky area ratings-hungry television is getting into. At another level, the show is an indication of the growing voyeurism of a consuming class that doesn’t know where public ends and private begins. In other words, anything goes.

So far, only B-grade if not C-grade celebrities—Vinod Kambli, Raja Chaudhury, Urvashi Dholakia, et al—are letting it all hang out.

Question 1: Which A-list name would you like to see on the show?

Question 2: What is the one question you would like him/her answer?

Also read: Rupert Murdoch on India, China and democracy

‘I don’t envy those who have to follow Murdoch’

When Puravankara says Jayakar Jerome zindabad

19 May 2008

PALINI R. SWAMY writes from Bangalore: It is perhaps a sign of the times when nothing shocks or surprises us any more. Or perhaps a sign that the line between public and private is fast disappearing in post-liberal, anything-goes India.

Or perhaps not.

Jayakar Jerome, the former commissioner of the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA), has joined a leading developer in Bangalore, barely two years after his retirement from service—and true to a City where only 44 out of 100 voted, there has scarcely been a whimper of possible conflict of interest.

Jerome, an IAS officer of the 1983 batch, earned plenty of good press—thanks to the deft handout of “G” category sites to journalists and “journalists”—during S.M. Krishna‘s regime when he was credited with having resurrected a moribund BDA and giving it a good name.

As one blogger wrote at the time:

“Once considered highly corrupt and destined for the boondocks, BDA was resurrected, revamped, cleansed, organised, professionalised by a dedicated Jerome and his team. Land sharks, who once ruled the roost, were stamped down as was corrupt BDA staffs, who hitherto, were a law unto themselves.”

When the Congress-JDS coalition government of Dharam Singh transferred him, allegedly at the behest of H.D. Deve Gowda & Sons, Krishna, who had been sinecured to Bombay as governor of Maharashtra, sought Jerome’s services as his secretary.

Jerome who was deputed there, retired in that post in May 2006. (When a World Bank report called Karnataka (under Krishna) “the most corrupt State in India in 2004″, it was secretary Jerome who released a WB clarification to the contrary.)

“He was one of the finest officers I have seen in terms of conceptualising and implementation. To my mind, he would rank in the top 2 per cent of India’s bureaucracy,” Infosys chief mentor N.R. Narayana Murthy said in an Indian Express interview.

But, in 2008, with a new government barely a fortnight away from being sworn in in the State, how appropriate is it for Jayakar Jerome to join Puravankara, the realty major whose rise into the real estate limelight in Bangalore roughly coincided with its rise as an IT City under the benign gaze of S.M. Krishna?

According to a report in The Economic Times, Jerome, a sixth-generation Bangalorean born in Richards Town, will spearhead Puravankara’s proposed infrastructure foray.

“The Purvankara Group is looking to set up separate subsidiaries for infrastructure, hospitality as well as low-income housing. Mr Jerome is likely to head the infrastructure division,” a source told the paper.

For the record, former Times group president Pradeep Guha is a director on the Puravankara board, as are two IT mascots, Jaithirth Jerry Rao and Ravi Ramu of Mphasis BFL.

To be fair to Jerome, there has been a “cooling-off” period of two years from the day of his retirement in March 2006, and a full four years since he left BDA, before his lurch towards Puravankara. So he is probably not carrying any of the short-term “state secrets” from BDA that might benefit his future employer unlike, say, Rathikant Basu who left Doordarshan one day and was with Rupert Murdoch‘s Star Television the next.

Or Vivek Kulkarni, who was IT secretary one day, and heading an IT company the next.

Moreover, if scientists and researchers can leave our sensitive laboratories for greener pastures, what is to prevent a former bureaucrat from making the most of the remainder of his serviceable years, especially when the city of his birth needs it the most?

And to be fair to Puravankara, if they were smart enough (and rich enough) to hire Jerome’s services, why should it be held against them? After all, if recently retired cops can stand for elections like Subhash Bharani and recently retired bureaucrats like N.K. Singh can become “consultants” to all manner of corporates, why should Jerome not lend his services in his area of expertise?

If expertise is the core determinant of Jerome’s recent employment, the jury is still out.

Jerome was credited with designing HSR Layout—destination of the super rich and the home several of the “G” category media beneficiaries. The media went to town about the project. However, it took just one season of heavy rains in 2005 to reveal the planning that had gone into the project. BDA blamed poor designing and location.

OK, maybe Jerome’s expertise, like Abdul Kalam‘s, is in “man-management”.

Still, in a City whose most prized jewel is its real estate, the fact that a BDA chief can now comfortably sup and cohabit with a high-profile developer with deep pockets—with whom he would have certainly dealt with in his four-year and nine-month term—without a single political or analytical eyebrow going up, doesn’t augur well.

Jayakar Jerome may be as honest, competent and efficient as he has been painted to be. But what is to prevent his underlings from picking up a cue and lubricating their way with builders, developers and other land sharks into lucrative future employment?

Photograph: S.M. Krishna (left) with Jayakar Jerome at the dedication of the Hebbal flyover (Karnataka Photo News)

After Big B’s cold, the small screen catches…

7 April 2008

The tabloidisation of Hindi television, a trend aped by Kannada, Telugu and other language channels, continues relentlessly.

On Rupert Mordoch‘s Star News channel, the bellwether of tabloid journalism on Indian television, a blogger captures another piece of pure magic. Breaking News shouts the super: “Dilli: Commissioner sahab ka kutta mila” (translation: “Delhi: Commissioner’s dog found”)

Also read: When AB baby’s cold becomes hot news

Link courtesy Content Sutra

Cold is gold for the unwashed television masses

7 February 2008

The unseen hand of Rupert Murdoch in skewing the vision of news television in India, especially in the vital Hindi space, is a subject no media analyst, critic or observer has yet turned her spotlight on. Thanks to the headway made by the execrable output of Star News, news channel after Hindi news channel, has taken the same low, tabloid road in the name of giving what the viewer wants.

Villagers chasing snakes, ghosts drinking milk, supernatural incidents, election results as qawwalis, etc, all are dished out, Ekta Kapoor style, in an endless flurry of jump cuts as the distinction between news and entertainment is very nearly wiped out by head honchos with an eye on the meters.

Amit Sharma captures a moment of pure magic on Aaj Tak, which comes out of the respectable India Today stable, and which too has gone the same way in its quest to remain at the top. “Amitabh Bachchan ko thandh lagi,” reads the “Breaking News” super at the bottom. Translation: Amitabh Bachchan catches a cold.

Also read: Huh!

Link via India Uncut


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