By Invitation By Jehangir S Pocha Among all the transformations taking place in media, here’s the crucial one – the media baron is being replaced by the media conglomerate.
Corporations are buying news properties once owned by individual proprietors at a rapid pace. Expectedly, media mavens and professionals are crowding conferences to express their angst: Are these oligarchs becoming media’s new moguls only to protect their empires and project their interests? Will they interfere every time a story is done on their favourite babu, minister or party?
But this holier-than-thou approach that automatically assumes a media baron is better for journalism than a media conglomerate is as reactionary as it is wrong. A corporation owning a news property can be expected to slant or kill a story inimical to its core interests. But those are few and far between.
After all, how many core interests can a corporation have? On the other hand, many media barons have been notoriously whimsical, politicized, opinioned and ideological, slanting almost every story almost every day, and killing (or overlooking or underplaying) almost every story out of sync with their ideology, views or interests.
In all democracies, the most slanted and ideological journalism has always been driven by media barons, from William Randolph Hearst, to Ramnath Goenka, Thaksin Shinawatra, Rupert Murdoch, Silvio Berlusconi, Michael Bloomberg and others.
Their news properties have openly, sometimes shamelessly, displayed their biases. Compare Murdoch’s Fox News with its corporate-owned competitors, NBC News (owned by General Electric), CBS (owned by Westinghouse), ABC (owned by Disney) and CNN (owned briefly by AOL). Which is most slanted? Which is most protective of vested interests? Which would any unbiased media professional rather work for?
Yes, a media corporation might protect its pet politicians and restrain its news properties from covering its other businesses fairly. But many media barons do the same. Some appear to have more pet politicians than any corporation. In fact, often the “other business” of media barons is politics (consider Berlusconi, Thaksin, and Bloomberg).
When it comes to coverage of oneself, it is India’s media barons who have constructed the self-serving maxim that “media mustn’t cover media”, leaving them free of all public scrutiny. That’s what’s allowed some of these tycoons to injure Indian media and dupe their viewer/reader by introducing poisonous practices like “paid news” and “private treaties”.
It is highly unlikely that any media conglomerate would allow such practices precisely because of the fear of public scrutiny that publicly-listed and/or publicly known corporations naturally have. Companies run by professionals and overseen by a board of directors that includes independents and representatives from government-owned institutions are generally forced to put in place the systems and standards needed to run a business right. Media barons exempt from oversight rarely do so.
This is why Murdoch’s newspapers spy on people and others don’t.
This doesn’t mean concerns over how corporations will manage their new media enterprises can be ignored. As Indian media comes of age it must codify its journalistic standards and rigorously implement them through an independent body akin to Britain’s Media Standards Trust. Such a body should give India’s journalists protections, such as the legal right not to disclose a source, and freedom from prior restraint (attempts to prevent publishing/airing of an opinion/idea/story before it is published/aired).
Every news organization must also be required to have an independent Ombudsman charged with ensuring fair and balanced coverage. At the same time, this Ombudsman and/or the standards authority should also ensure journalists and news outfits respect the rights and reputations of others (anti-defamation), separate news from views, eschew ‘paid news’ and private treaties, protect national security, public order, and public health, and prevent incitement to hostility, violence or discrimination.
Stringent regulations that prevent any monopolistic control of news are also essential to any democracy. To some extent, digital technologies and social media already ensure this. A smart line on Twitter or great video on YouTube can become more influential than an op-ed in the Times of India. But the government must still work to ensure there are enough voices in the media and that no one voice dominates the national discourse.
Corporations enter (and sometimes dominate) the media business because it is highly capital-intensive. So, one effective way to maintain a plurality of views in news is to keep entry barriers and operating costs in the business low. For example, existing distortions in media policy, such as exorbitant “carriage fees” that benefit the well-heeled and hurt small news operations must be ended. Banks must be encouraged to lend to smaller media companies, capital requirements in the industry should be eased and more journalism schools built to develop a larger talent pool. Building stronger news-related services, like more text and video wire services, freelancer organizations, and shared news infrastructure, would also help newer and smaller players. Lastly, the government must pass laws to separate carriage from content, and control media cross-holdings.
Ultimately, every kind of media owner – the government, individual, the public trust and the corporation – comes with pros and cons. India knows well the short-comings of the first three. We will now discover the dangers of the fourth. But as long as all four kinds of news organizations are allowed to exist and flourish – and are subjected to firm and fair regulation and oversight – the news media in India will remain strong and vibrant. Jehangir Pocha is CEO, INX News. The views expressed here are the writer’s and not necessarily those of MxMIndia.