What Lies Beneath in India Mass Media
By Malyamita Bandyopadhyay *
The robust growth of the Indian media industry over the past two decades has been well documented. From a single state-owned news channel (Doordarshan) and radio station (All India Radio) until the early 1990s, the figures have grown exponentially.
In his essay “More News is Good News: Democracy and Media in India”, eminent journalist Prannoy Roy estimates that there may be as many as 250 news channels before the general elections of 2014. There has been a similar growth in the radio industry with nearly 250 private FM stations, although they do not have the license to broadcast news. Newspaper circulation has also increased with the spread of education.
However, the boom in the news industry has been accompanied by growing calls for content regulation. Although the conduct of the print media is under the vigilance of Press Council of India (PCI), the electronic media is largely unregulated. The proposition of PCI’s chairman Markandey Katju to bring the electronic media under the purview of the Council has been largely debated and contested.
In a democracy, the media is the fourth pillar. While the other three pillars, that is, executive, legislature, and judiciary are institutionally accountable, the media has a free run, leading to demands for external regulation of content.
However, many argue that the media has an internal system of checks and balances and tampering with this system might curb the powers of the press to act as the watchdog. External regulation might lead to stringent censorship of the Press as was the case during the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. Any form of external regulation will curb the ambit and meaning of free press.
Others, like Krishna Prasad, the Editor-in-Chief of Outlook magazine say that content should not be the major concern, but what drives the production of inferior quality content should. Media practitioners are concerned about ownership patterns and trade practices that govern the industry, as the content is largely determined by these factors.
Despite subscription and advertisement-based revenue models, the media has not been able to resist corporate influence. Reliance Industries Chairman, Mukesh Ambani’s recent investment of purchasing 95% of the stocks of Infotel, a TV consortium with 27 entertainment and news channels in almost all regional languages is an example.
Apart from this, the media is also viewed as a platform to influence the public and get votes, and hence political parties float news channels to widen their voter base. Former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi’s Kalaignar TV floated in opposition to Kalanidhi Maran’s Sun TV is an example of this. Others like Jaya TV function as the mouthpiece of AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) headed by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalitha. Such political allegiances disrupt fair exchange of ideas and hinder a democratic decision-making process. There needs to be strict governance about corporate and political alliances of media houses as the content they generate is largely determined by their owners.
Trade practices like cross-media ownership also need to be regulated. The absence of restrictions in this regard has allowed certain conglomerates and companies to dominate markets horizontally (that is, control certain geographic locations), as well as vertically (that is, own different media platforms like press, radio, internet and television).
In a report to the government of India, Advertising Standards Council of India, a self-regulatory voluntary organization, pointed out that the practice of cross-media ownership is highly concentrated in regional media markets in comparison to national markets. Such tendencies shut out all avenues of healthy competition, leading to monopolization and cartelization of the media, wherein, the content is largely coloured to suit the interest of the corporate or political owner.
There also needs to be regulation as far as integrity within the news media is concerned. In recent times, the Indian media has seen the phenomenon of paid news, where the electronic media, newspapers and magazines publish articles in favour of institutions and political parties in exchange for money. The news is like an advertisement without a tag, and often deceives readers. Moreover the payment practices violate tax laws.
P. Sainath, journalist at The Hindu says, “The phenomenon of “paid news” goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies. It has become pervasive, structured and highly organized and in the process, is undermining democracy in India.” Corruption within the media undermines its own function of maintaining the democratic structure of India by keeping a check on the executive, legislature and judiciary.
Content is the final outcome of the different influences that govern the functioning of the media. Thereby imposing regulations on content will be a superficial solution to handling problems like inferior standards of reportage and sensationalization of news. It is important to look deeper at the underlying malaise that afflict the news media and impose regulations on the system that govern its functioning, rather than concentrating merely on the end result.