Indian media is not really the fourth pillar it claims to be
Indian media industry is growing faster than the country's GDP. This, we all know, is because media is no longer a watchdog or nation’s conscience keeper—today, it’s just an industry.
So said the legendary American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow: “A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves”.
There have been several interpretations to this poignant observation, all of which had a common thread: we are responsible for what becomes of our leaders. The attitude of our leaders is determined by ours; and if we forgive their mistakes/ incompetence, believe their lies and inflated hyper-nationalism cries, we better not complain when we lie face down in the drain.
And that can’t be more fitting for us: the media professionals.
It was Murrow himself who warned that we must never confuse dissent with disloyalty. Telling our leaders that they are wrong should never ever be confused for disloyalty or disrespect.
Most media companies have business and political affiliations, which become more straightforward and visible as one goes deeper into the regional level. This interdependence between media, business and politics presents a high risk to media freedom and pluralism.
According to the ‘Media Ownership Monitor’ research by DataLeads and Reporters Without Borders, as many as ten out of the 58 leading media owners have direct or indirect links with politics, while some of them even represent a political party.
“There are countless others however, who have refused to declare their political affiliations, but yet own media companies. Between them, media owners with political links control a sizeable share of viewership/readership,” the report said.
It is starkly evident that media is owned by those people who have direct access or are in close proximity to power. The ownership by people with political connections focus more on creating and influencing opinion—acting as propaganda machines that serve the agenda of a certain political ideology or thought.
Let’s look at an example here: Prime Minister Narendra Modi received about three times more TV airtime than Congress President Rahul Gandhi while campaigning for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in April, BARC data showed.
Most of the media companies in India have also business interests outside of media sector, interestingly real estate appears to be one of the most popular side businesses.
If we can’t control you, we’ll choke you
Truth be told, the subscription model hasn’t really worked out by far for the Indian media. Hence, they depend on advertising a their source of revenue.
And that presents a loophole.
According to 2017 figures, the Department of Audio-Visual Publicity—the government department that allocates government advertisements to print outlets—spent as much as Rs 21.34 million for Hindi and Rs 14.09 million for English print advertising.
“Government advertising therefore is the bread and butter for many, but in particular, for smaller Hindi newspapers allowing the government to exploit its advertisement spending and the subsequent financial dependency of media outlets as a means of control,” the report said.
Bearing the brunt were two leading English dailies in Jammu and Kashmir—Greater Kashmir and Kashmir Reader—when the state government began witholding all advertising from them without any explanation on February 16, 2019.
Oh, the cacophony!
Advertising, meanwhile, can present another form of potential control over editorial content since more and more media show greater dependence on advertisement revenues.
Senior journalist Punya Prasun Bajpai had to resign from ABP News after Patanjali suddenly withdrew its advertisements from the channel last year. This was regarding an episode in which Bajpai showed the misleading publicity of Modi government that a woman farmer had doubled her income after signing up for one of the prime minister’s schemes. As it turns out, the ad returned after his exit.
According to the figures released by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI) for 2018, the Indian Media recorded a cumulative growth of 13 per cent in 2017 to reach Rs 1.50 trillion and it expects the sector to cross a volume of Rs 2 trillion by 2020 at a Compounded Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 11.6 per cent, faster than the country’s GDP growth.
This, we all know, is because media is no longer a watchdog or nation’s conscience keeper—today, it’s just an industry.
And as Vineet Jain, the managing director of Bennett Coleman and Company, famously said in 2012: “We are not in the newspaper business, we are in the advertising business.”