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Media ownership blues

LiveMint logoLiveMint 11-06-2014 Sevanti Ninan

The past fortnight has been an educative one. It underscored the triumph of media proprietors over media stars and demonstrated that the latter are dispensable, and that owning a stake is no protection. Investors have the ambition to become owners and will move in at the right time. Similarly, media owners have succession plans.

We learned a few other things as well. That a stern prime minister busy laying down ethical ground rules for his ministers and party men and signalling his distance from mainstream media could well be tested in the long run on how willing he is to let the current regulator (the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) regulate media owners, declared or surrogate, who also happen to be businessmen whom he needs, in various ways.

Another learning was the dawning realization that in a situation like the present where the mainstream media has temporarily (one hopes) lost its teeth, politically owned media is the only hope for any critical coverage.

After Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) announced at the end of last month that it would invest about `4,000 crore through Independent Media Trust to acquire a 78% stake in Network18 Media and Investments Ltd and about 9% in TV18 Broadcast Ltd, there has been renewed debate about the corporatization of the media. In 2012, RIL had inked an investment deal with Network18. Last week, the company said the open offer to acquire a controlling stake in the media conglomerate and its units would begin on 21 July and close on 4 August.

Some of the media stars at the channels involved, including anchor-proprietor Raghav Bahl who helmed CNBC-TV18 since its inception, may no longer remain with the company once the deal is completed. About the future plans of Rajdeep Sardesai and Sagarika Ghose at CNN-IBN there is uncertainty while they are currently on leave. But the show will certainly go on and a new team of journalist-managers has been announced as moving in.

Another media star who announced he is moving on during the same period to another stable was Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, who became synonymous with the paper he has edited since 1995. The proprietor announced that the show would continue with Gupta’s two top lieutenants moving up the ladder to run the paper. Gupta was also chief executive officer of the paper until last year when proprietor Viveck Goenka decided he would take back the running of the company. His 27-year-old son Anant Goenka heads the company’s digital division.

Coming as these changes do right after a change of government, much is being read into the timing of Mukesh Ambani’s decision to acquire Network18 and TV18. The ostensible reason given by the company in its announcement was that the many channels owned by the companies being acquired would provide content for the telecom company Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd as it plans its 4G rollout.

Ambani’s interest in the media has long been written about, and his alleged surrogate ownership of two media companies has also come under the government’s scanner, as reported earlier in this column. A lawyer associate of his explained recently that businessmen like him don’t buy media for publicity uses; they invest in the media because people who matter will then come to him to get the media off their backs.

Media ownership has its own irrefutable logic for different parties. Former chief minister Ajit Jogi once made the same point about a local businessman acquiring the Chhattisgarh franchise of a newspaper chain. Businessmen think politicians give more importance to those who own the media. And he agreed that they do.

Why does a trucking company owner in Assam want to own a newspaper? Because he thinks it will protect him from insurgency outfits in the state, as the editor of one such newspaper in Guwahati explained.

Why does a politician want to own media? Because it gives him both a platform and a tool. Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy will doubtless mobilize Sakshi media to provide a strong opposition to N. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh. And one of the saving graces of the current Narendra Modi-dominated public sphere is that at last some kinds of media are taking an oppositional stance on account of their ownership.

When other channels are running specials on Modi kurtas, and Doordarshan and Rajat Sharma’s IndiaTV sound like they are competing with each other in giving our purposeful new Prime Minister a platform, you feel grateful for NewsX’s efforts to be oppositional. Majority ownership in NewsX is held by the son of former Congressman Venod Sharma. Sharma had tried to switch parties and join a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ally, but the BJP blocked that.

The intelligent thing to do though would be to oppose less through tone and tenor and more through facts and follow-ups. “CBI chases the conspiracy ghost!” it thundered last week. And contrasted the alacrity with which an enquiry was ordered into the death of Gopinath Munde with the inaction over the rape incident in Badaun.

It is early days yet. But a country with a decimated opposition will definitely need a media inclined to do the job of keeping the government on track.

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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