Business-media relations in India

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Rahul Verma in conversation with Sandeep Bhushan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta.

WE are joined by two eminent media observers and journalists, who have spent considerable time in analysing and writing about the media-business complex in the country. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, author of Media Ethics, in his numerous articles has drawn our attention to the political economy of the news media – how the media is funded and who funds it. Sandeep Bhushan in his recent book The Indian Newsroom has charted out the manifestations of this, in all its varied aspects – the rise of star anchors, the deterioration of news reporting, and the changing shape of newsrooms. In the following conversation, Rahul Verma, Fellow, CPR, interviews them on questions pertaining to their work around the business-media nexus, the implications of this on viewership and news content, the emergence of social media as a separate news and media platform, and the challenges it presents not just to traditional media, but to the consumption of news and views by citizens across the country.


Rahul Verma (RV): In recent years we have seen increasing corporate control of the media. What would you say about this influence and how it impacts newsroom editorial decisions being made today?

Sandeep Bhushan (SB): Having been associated with the media at close quarters, I think this is not a new phenomenon: media in the country was always heavily under the influence of its chief promoters. This trend predates any kind of big investment or big capital. It started with the early days of television news itself, where Doordarshan was an important cashcow for the major promoters in the media business today.

Across the spectrum of media news agencies, one finds that the channels really function as the handmaidens of their respective promoters. This phenomenon must be looked at in conjunction with other business opportunities that opened in the country with liberalization. The capital class’ influence on businesses is the norm across industries; it is just that the issue gets complex because news is a unique product. There is hardly much profit in running or having stakes in the media business; the stakes are beyond simple material profits. Post the global meltdown of 2007-08, we today find that the Reliance group has a lion’s share in the business. Other businesses too have equity stakes in different groups, such as Aditya Birla or the Motilal Oswal group; what is common across all these is that they are family owned ventures. Thus, with a public good like media, which is in the business of providing a public utility and interrogating state power, control of promoters in content and editorial positions is an issue that needs urgent reckoning with and therefore wider discussion.


RV: Sandeep’s response posits two important questions for us to ponder: what competitive advantages businesses see in investing in the media if there isn’t real profit and whether over the years ownership of media has changed in its nature. How would you assess this, Paranjoy?

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (PGT): I think a historical perspective is necessary when discussing the issue of business-media interaction. Right from the start, as the freedom movement gained credence, we saw leaders of the day using newspapers to spread their message across the masses. Even a small publication like the Harijan edited by Mahatma Gandhi could make an impact on the mighty colonial empire of the British. The legacy of media interaction that was started with Gandhi and Nehru has continued till date among today’s politicians. The reason for associating closely with them was that these leaders realized the immense power and mass appeal of this medium. For instance, Nehru and V.K. Krishna Menon were fond of commenting on the ‘jute and steel press’, referring to the ownership of popular media with business honchos of the jute and steel industries, such as the Sahu Jain Dalmia group (who owned Bennet Coleman & Company, the publisher of the Times of India) and the Tatas (that once had an interest in the Kolkata-based Statesman). It was argued that the owners of the press would use its pages to try and influence government policies, especially its industrial policies as the owners had diverse business interests. This was even alluded to in the report of the First Press Commission in the country.

After the 1990s, important changes have occurred in the business of the media. Now we found media barons themselves diversifying into various industries by investing the profits they made in the media, from coal mining to power plants to real estate. Examples here would include The Indian Express group founded by Ram Nath Goenka, the Dainik Jagran and the Lokmat groups. In this period, the television media burgeoned dramatically, to the extent that pre-Covid we had around 900 television news channels registered with the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. Currently, business houses have interests in the entire media spectrum. Interestingly, Vineet Jain once famously remarked that he is not in the business of news, but in the business of advertising. So, the newspaper became a commodity and was no longer a public good. These promoters are in the business for political and social clout. With the ability to use political clout comes the emergence of partisanship. Hence, we see greater partisanship, with certain houses supporting certain media outlets. But in the post-Covid world, we are witnessing a sharp decline in the profitability of what is described as the ‘traditional’ or ‘mainstream’ media including print and television and consequently, the business-media nexus is on the cusp of another major overhaul.


RV: Sandeep, you have done work on ‘star anchors’ within the media. This is a phenomenon we have observed in the US as well: star anchors position themselves as partisan warriors. How would you relate the phenomenon with the partisan interests in the media that Paranjoy mentioned?

SB: I think these are two distinct but correlated questions. With partisanship and polarization, I think the most obvious explanation is that viewership has become completely fragmented – there is little crossover in terms of political positions of the viewers, in India and even the US. Concurrently, on social media we see an emergence of influencers, who take particular political positions. These days such influencers are more than reporters; they are news creators, peddling their opinions in the form of facts. Hence, overall, the audience gets completely divided into different camps. This has led to much political polarization, but also contributed to the decline in true reportage.

With this, we can turn to the question of the ‘star anchors’. It really goes back to the idea of privileging studio anchors over ground reporters. This pitch works to garner greater advertisement and viewership. The TRP game has precipitated this interest in anchors. This later got welded to political power and sundry players who were very prominent in shaping Delhi’s media discourse, which plays out nationally. The credibility crisis that the media finds itself in, across the world and at home, is linked to political clout of some media personalities, and their proximity to those in power.

This situation where ‘stars’ have been central to India’s news production business starts actually with the pioneers of television news. These initial ‘star anchors’ often had very similar elite institutional affiliations that helped in the entry of a certain kind of English-educated anchors to the newsrooms. This also helped them in getting greater access to the who’s-who in the corridors of power. In fact, it is an unwritten rule in a lot of newsrooms even today that these stars will have the first access to any breaking story. It is only passed on once they give the go-ahead.

Partly because of the revenue model, and partly because of the rise in numbers circa 2005, it was believed that profit margins would thin out with greater competition. Thus, the need to stand apart from others became a survival issue. One of the ways to market yourself is to create a conversation and a symbol that gave the audience something to aspire towards. Elite anchors with polished accents became that aspirational cause. It was not just about the news; it became about the ‘star’ personality. Even investors felt confident in putting money behind such a personality. Over time, as demographics changed, it became more important to connect with a larger, non-elite population, mofussil India. This is where we see the explosion of Hindi news channels and their ‘star’ anchors, and the coming of new media outlets that didn’t alienate the viewer but catered to their interests and to popular cultural tropes, transforming reporting fundamentally.


RV: Why do you think this explosion in the media, in terms of numbers and reach, has not been followed concomitantly with the increase in diversity of the newsroom? Specifically, in relation to caste and religion. What are the reasons behind this?

SB: There is an important aspect of TV personalities that needs to be studied here. What is the kind of personality politics that makes one want to watch certain anchors. These anchors today might be the butt of jokes on social media and might be criticized by the more erudite media observers, but they still make their money, still stay relevant, still register cash in the box office. In the last 20 years, there’s been a sea change in the social composition of the population that is coming to watch TV and social media, and in some ways they have more sway than the elites. Yet, if you go to any English-language newsroom today, there is no concept of a Dalit reporter/anchor. That caste identity holds no meaning there. If I’m a Dalit reporter, I have no choice in deciding stories; I may have some choice in deciding the editorial line of my script but that too will be processed later. I won’t have any elbow room to say something that I want to say. In fact, you may not even be allowed to cover Dalit stories on television, because it’s got no traction in the market.

PGT: It is a fact that newsrooms in Indian media organizations are woefully short of certain kinds of employees, especially at the senior level, who belong to the underprivileged sections of Indian society, whether these be Dalits or Tribals. This is simply because the media, its owners, its top rank of editors are themselves very, very elitist. So, this phenomenon continues and in fact has been reinforced and unlikely to change in the near future.


RV: It seems that the role of opinion industry, access journalism and lack of credibility of the media are all linked. In the post-truth age, everyone seems to be seeking a different truth coming from different facts. Do you think this delegitimization has had some effect on the media?

SB: It is important to understand how delegitimization has taken place in India. Just following the ‘Radia Tapes’ controversy, we had the emergence of the India Against Corruption movement. These tapes became an important mobilization plank for those opposed to the Delhi Lutyens’ nexus with politicians. The fact of lobbyists using their influence with politicians helped taint the media immensely. This was the first time when everyone realized the complexity of the political-attendant media connection and the role that prominent media personalities played.


RV: Paranjoy, you have both written about the ‘Radia Tapes’ controversy and also on the influence of money in the media. This controversy crystallised an image of the media as ‘news traders’ and power brokers, hence the infamous term ‘Lutyens’ Media’. How can this situation be remedied? Is greater regulation of media industry the answer?

PGT: I think the disclosures in the Radia conversations were very important because what was hitherto discussed behind closed doors came out into the open. We all knew that there were journalists who doubled up not just as blackmailers, but that journalists doubled up as lobbyists. They’ve always existed. This is not new. There was at least one well known former editor of The Times of India who reportedly famously described himself as the second most powerful person in the country after the Prime Minister. The discovery of those tapes point to the deep nexus of business and politics and the role media plays in mediating between the two.

At a time when we are seeing vertical, horizontal, and diagonal integration of the media – where what you’re holding in your palm is your newspaper, magazine, book, radio and television channel – everything is getting integrated to a single source. I mean, even in this new era of convergence, does it make sense to have such a fragmented system of regulation! We in India have the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the Press Council of India, and the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT). What is prevailing at present is regulatory anarchy. It’s free for all, anybody can do anything. As for self-regulation, it works only up to a point and beyond that, it doesn’t, whether it be the Advertising Standards Council of India or bodies like the News Broadcasting Standards Authority. In a situation where you have regulatory anarchy and you have antiquated rules pertaining to defamation and sedition, influential people, corporates, governments can actually misuse the law to harass and intimidate journalists and that has a chilling effect on the rest of the media. The short point is, today, we are seeing how first information reports (FIRs) can be used to intimidate journalists. We are seeing how provisions of various laws, the Indian Penal Code, and the Code of Criminal Procedure can be used and misused to harass journalists. This aspect of the media ecosystem has become entrenched and some of these trends have accelerated and become more pronounced.


RV: Generally, our conversations regarding the business-politics-media nexus has Delhi and Mumbai as the reference point. I guess such a relationship exists at the state and regional levels and would perhaps be even more pronounced there. Can you both share your perspectives on this?

SB: I think we need mass awareness about the rights of people with respect to media integrity. Especially when we look at regional media, which is growing in viewership and reach, even after the Wall Street crash, we find that the amount of money and influence involved is very large. So, clearly this business is profitable. At the local level, earlier stringers played an important role in getting news and influential sources, right from within the government sometimes. They still serve an important purpose, but now with the financial mess, the amount they get paid for their service is appalling.

As for regional reporting, there exists a linguistic boundary outside the Hindi belt. There has been no attempt to regulate regional media. TRAI is perhaps the only body that has the wherewithal to do a market survey to figure out the various major players. In Tamil Nadu for instance, Arasu, which is a government-run cable network, is still active. The fact that there is a political slant to all news channels is pretty much clear. It is true outside the Hindi-speaking region – it’s true for Telangana and Kerala, as well as for Tamil Nadu. The Jaya TV versus Sun TV competition is well known. So clearly, the question of influence on regional TV networks and their relation to politics is important and needs to be answered.

PGT: I want to add a few points to what Sandeep has said. If the TRAI regulates, which it can, it would also need to be actively engaged with another government regulatory body, the Competition Commission of India (CCI), to do any meaningful regulation or even an analysis of what the absence of cross media restrictions has meant, in terms of domination of different kinds. We see that across media, television, print and radio, conglomerates control markets. For instance, in the city of Mumbai, the dominant players are Times of India in the print segment, Radio Mirchi in radio and Times Now in English television news. Should one conglomerate be allowed to dominate more than two segments of the media? Everything has changed today because of convergence. Even in countries like the US, Canada, Australia, cross media restrictions on ownership have got considerably diluted. I am not particularly optimistic on this front because of the strong nexus been media owners, the government and big businesses. In my opinion, what is more important is the issue of control over flows of information.

After 2008, when advertisement revenues started drying up across the world and also in this country, the media in India became more dependent on government advertisements and sponsorships to earn revenues. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Therefore, there was increased pressure to conform to the government. And that has led to polarization. Those in the media who wanted to continue working in an independent manner, without prejudice, and continue to hold truth to power, they have got increasingly marginalized and are now having to depend more and more on crowd funding, on philanthropy, on organizations like the IPSMF (the Independent and Public Spirited Media Foundation).

It’s not just political parties, but individuals with political affiliations that also influence the overall line that a particular media organization takes up at a particular point in time. The point that Sandeep made about stringers is also equally important. Stringers are made to double up as advertisers. And if this becomes their source of livelihood, their source of sustenance, the way they can keep their home fires burning and the way they can ensure that their children’s education bills are paid, then they have to perforce compromise and not antagonize potential advertisers but also those in power and authority.

SB: And just to add to what Paranjoy said, I think the stringer situation needs urgent reconsideration. Earlier, they could get paid anywhere between Rs 5000 and 8000 for a good story, and even more for a story that went ‘viral’. But the last time I spoke to one of my former stringers, they now earn only in three figures! They only make money if a brand television sticks to them. Therefore, the side business of racketeering and advertisement that Paranjoy mentioned becomes more common. Unfortunately, for some, that is the only way to survive. And all this has taken a toll on the media ecosystem. Along with digitization, it has ensured that the reporting system has broken down. Today ANI is the only prominent newswire that everyone relies on, further distancing ground realities from newsrooms.

On the other hand, we also have an explosion of fake news. There’s no concept of apologizing for publishing a fake news story. There’s never a question of retraction. Social media influencers have become experts. I’m not deriding social media. Social media is an important platform, especially as we saw in the case of the Covid-19 lockdown-induced migrant crisis. But it has certainly queered the pitch in such a way that there is no regulation, there is no gatekeeping within news organizations, editors, and there is no answerability.

Recently, the Supreme Court has intervened in a crucial case that relates to the Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, but now as a response to it, everybody’s getting booked for any story. The news environment is so unwieldy, you can’t see anything clearly anymore. There is smoke all over. There’s a kind of madness that has gripped, especially, the digital media ecosystem. This has happened even as traditional media too faces its own challenges. The singularly united outcry against Sonia Gandhi’s suggestion to the PM to curtail media revenue from government advertisements attests to how much influence government revenue holds today, especially for traditional media outlets.


RV: Paranjoy, this brings us to your observation about the pre and post Covid world. To add to that, I would like to invoke another term – the Post-Truth world. With what Sandeep has described, it’s clear that reportage is dead. TV news media has especially become a place to cook news, with high profile opinion makers. So, my question to you is, what role do you foresee the media play in this post-Covid, post-truth world? And, can one imagine an alternate model for media given the economics of it?

PGT: I think you have diagnosed the problem really well. It’s not just the post-Covid situation, we have been living in this Post-Truth world for some years now. Now, there are some things which have happened which we never imagined would happen. Over the last 20 years, we thought the internet would not just inform people, but educate them, provide them knowledge or even wisdom. We presume the internet would actually empower people, democratize societies. We never imagined that the internet would be dominated by a few players. And if you look at the two of the world’s biggest corporate conglomerates – Alphabet (Google, YouTube, and most importantly, the Android operating system) and Facebook (Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram), these two account for over 90 per cent of all the data that traverses the internet at any point in time, outside China. Now, big tech has become more powerful than ever before. The power of the social media has become unprecedented. Today WhatsApp claims it has 400 million users in India. Facebook is tying up with the Reliance group as we speak. The fact is in a country where the population is roughly 135 crore and an electorate of around 90 crore, can you imagine how powerful WhatsApp has become in India with its 40 crore users?

If you have such huge digital monopolies, and with traditional media revenues collapsing, these monopolies become more powerful than ever before. Even as advertising revenue for the print and television has shrunk, the advertising revenue earned by Google and Facebook has been unaffected by Covid. In fact, despite the Covid induced economic depression across many, many parts of the world, including India, the tech-index of NASDAQ has gone up. Very few countries, including Australia, have been able to talk tough with Google and Facebook and actually threatened them by saying that you are monetizing the content that has been produced by others and sharing only a minuscule part of the revenues you earn. The people who use these platforms are not giving them anything, they are not the source of revenue. But the data generated from users, the documentation of their behaviour and their preferences (including their political preferences), are monetized by Facebook and Google by selling the data to advertisers (including political parties). These companies call themselves tech companies and not media companies. But they are the biggest disseminators and distributors of information. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg reportedly remarked to media companies ‘work with Facebook or die.’ Now, there are issues about competition laws if these are being violated. In the current post-Covid world we are living in, the existing trends and processes that we saw in the media over the last 10-12 years have accelerated at a tremendously fast pace. The old media doesn’t exist anymore.

According to the India representative of the World Association of Newspapers, Indian newspapers lost between 75% and 80% of their advertising revenue in the months of March and April alone. That’s huge, because this is the old revenue driven model. The advertising driven revenue model is perhaps never going to come back. We are not clear what kind of revenue model will replace it. How will people monetize content on the net? Will it be the New York Times model where you get most of your revenues from subscribers? What kind of pay walls would be offered – give three articles or seven articles free in a month and then make subscribers pay?

There is a bloodbath in the media today. People being thrown out of their jobs, people being asked to take drastic cuts in salaries – hundreds and thousands of journalists, photographers and other media personnel. And we also see a different kind of bloodbath in India. There have been recorded cases of at least 60 journalists between March and August 2020, post Covid, who have been targeted through FIRs lodged by the police and through other means, including physical intimidation and harassment, because of their reportage.

SB: In the post-Covid world, the size of newspapers has shrunk drastically. The content going into it is extremely slim. Some of the leading newspapers seem to have cut their pages. There is much more of government advertisements that you see, and you can clearly see that some news outlets are being favoured. To top it all, the lay-off situation has become even worse. And freelancers hardly get paid enough. This crisis was already in the making in the pre-Covid world; the pandemic has only made a bad situation worse. And reporting suffers the most, which always was in the boondocks to begin with but in the last decade it has been further distanced from the newsrooms. It is star anchors who draw the majority of viewers and resources, while reporting suffers.

PGT: This is the core issue which has been touched upon by Sandeep that, in this post truth era, with media organizations not devoting enough resources to report on what is going on in the ground, doing investigative reportage has become more challenging than ever before. Those who are in positions of power and authority in India and elsewhere, are very happy with this kind of a situation where reportage is neglected and therefore, fake news and propaganda can flourish.

With revenues from advertisers shrinking and people unwilling to subscribe, who pays the writer? Who pays the videographer? Who pays the illustrators, cartoonists and graphic designers? And if you’re not willing to pay for what you watch and what you hear and what you listen to, then you would be flooded with fake news, with disinformation and with propaganda. The crucial question is that if you want quality content, are you willing to pay for the engagement or employment of quality writers, journalists, researchers, investigators, creative artists, cartoonists, still photographers and videographers? If not, what kind of livelihoods will they have? We are today at a very important inflection point in the history of humankind, in the history of democracies post-Covid and, of course, the media.


* The interview was transcribed by Ilika Trivedi and Ankita Barthwal.