Watching the watchdog

  • Dr Pankaj Bhan
  • Publish Date: Jun 11 2017 4:01PM
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  • Updated Date: Jun 11 2017 4:01PM
Watching the watchdog

Ahsan Chisti’s book is a timely warning against the growing Murdochisation of Indian media

 

Ahsanul Haq Chishti’s India’s Changing Media Landscape covers three distinct yet interrelated themes–Cross-Media Ownership, FDI and Broadcasting Bill – and brings out how the government’s 

lackadaisical approach to these over the years have brought the Indian media to a juncture which is fraught with adverse consequences. First about cross-media ownership. Ahsan Chishti defines

cross-media ownership as “a type of media ownership in which one type of communication (say a newspaper) owns or is the sister company of another type of medium (such as a radio or TV channel).” In other words, it is a single owner/ entity owning different genres of mass media communication channels like newspapers, TV channels, advertisement companies, film production and so on and thus exercising undue control over how the message is disseminated. To go back in history, during the earlier years of India’s independence, print media, the only media available to masses, was owned by a handful of corporate groups (Birlas, Dalmias, etc.) and the government’s declared policy was to control their influence and to encourage small and medium size newspapers and periodicals.

Under this policy, the latter were patronized by doling out to them cheap newsprint, government ads etc. so that they could stand up to the big business controlled media. In fact, the big business controlled print media was rather pejoratively called “the jute press” and its owners “jute barons”. The media critics of the times too argued that the Indian newspapers were largely controlled by “monopoly capitalists” and both the First  Press Commission of 1954 and the Second Press Commission of 1982 contended that the powers of the monopoly media barons should be curtailed so that they are not in a position to influence and mould  public opinion any which way they wanted. Simultaneously, when the  broadcasting media arrived, it was kept under the government’s wings and its paraphernalia not shared with private enterprises.  Radical changes in societal expectations and technological  advancements, especially after the onset of neo-liberal economic paradigm, resulted in drastic changes in the media scene. Over and above  the print media, visual media and digital innovations made rapid  advances throwing up many genres  and sub-genres of communication and proliferating the number of channels and units beaming information  of all kinds. Soon, these print, audio and audio-visual  media started making ownership linkages both within the country and at transnational levels. Thus emerged giant groups like India  Today, Times Group and others owning media units at all levels and genres of media communication, forming cartels and monopolistic controls and also teaming up with foreign players in transnational deals. 

The growing proximity between media groups and political forces  added yet another disturbing dimension to it. Ahsan Chishti provides data to show how some media groups have become media conglomerates holding a wide range of cross-media ownership and exerting undue influence over the polity. While there may be some merit in cross-media ownership as argued by some media analysts, a comprehensive view of the issue makes it clear that such  kinds of monopolistic tendencies in information dispensation pose danger to democracy and pluralism and may even lead to a Murdochisation of the media scene ultimately affecting the political stability of the system. 

The enactment of a model Broadcast Bill is another issue that is tied up with cross-media ownership. Various attempts have been made to  draft the bill and to get it passed in the Parliament to make it a law. In 1997, during the United Front government, the first-ever draft Broadcast Bill was prepared. By the time things could advance, the government fell. Again, in 2007 a Broadcast Bill with changes was prepared–its 19th amended version. But no government has been able to turn the bill into an Act of Parliament so far for one reason or the other. There have been vacuous rhetoric, political chicanery and underhand deals between media barons and political class and no government has had “the temerity to enforce regulations  of cross-media ownership and diversity.”

Likewise on FDI, there has been a lot of rhetoric on not allowing FDI in media as it will lead to looking at one’s own country with foreign lenses. But notwithstanding it, the FDI window is gradually being opened up for media with varying percentages fixed for infusion of foreign funds. Thus while it is the highest for non-news publications, film production and advertising (100%), it is the lowest  for an audio medium like radio (20%). In this dispensation,  there is enough leeway for trans-national linkages over ownership  between the Indian and the foreign media barons. 

While some of these problems affecting the Indian media have been known and discussed, Ahsan Chishti has done an excellent job in tracing the history of discourse on these discrete and yet related issues to present a comprehensive picture of the challenges facing the media. He rightly concludes that “there is a dire need of a national level authority to regulate and oversee growing cross-media interests in the country … to monitor the functioning of cross-media units, their circulation and market share, their TRPs, mergers and tie-ups, content and other related issues on a full-time basis.” 

The book is a must-read for all– professionals and amateurs alike– who want a healthy and objective media to cater to the needs of the country and its people. 

(The author is the Editor, ‘Miraas’)