The problem with the Indian media and why you should care

by Hartosh Singh Bal

Dhoni2 In 1977 an Australian media tycoon changed the world of cricket. His name was Kerry Packer, but in his approach to life and business there was little to separate him from Rupert Murdoch. Before Packer intervened, a game of cricket lasted five days, was played by players wearing white and required a level of athleticism that would not shame a Chess or Scrabble champion.

Packer’s intervention was the result of a tussle with the Australian Cricket Board over TV rights for his Channel Nine operations in Australia. He set up a league of his own outside the control of International Cricket Council, a coterie of largely English gentlemen who had run the game internationally as their fiefdom. Packer paid out large sums of money to attract the best players across the world, dressed them in colored clothes, reduced the duration of the game to a day or sometimes a night when it was played under floodlights. By the time of his reconciliation with the ICC a couple of years later, he had changed the game forever.

Thirty years later, as the power and wealth of the Board of Control for Cricket in India increased thanks to a growing economy and India’s success in the very form of the game promoted by Packer, the ICC already under siege, ceded a large measure of power to the Indian body which launched another league of its own, the Indian Premier League (IPL). Unlike the Packer League, the IPL, which is as avowedly commercial in its motivations, has done little to change or improve cricket. Rather, in bringing together Indian corporate interests and politicians looking for both money and power through their association with the game, the game as organized by the IPL has come to resemble a bout organized by the World Wrestling Federation. In the process IPL has actually managed to make Packer look like a visionary saint.

The media

On the face of it the story of cricket may have little to do with how the Indian media is shaping, but the same process the feeds an appetite for cricket, a growing middle class with money to spend and an economy that is expanding at the rate of 7 to 10 per cent every year, is feeding a demand for media. A recent survey in the Economist on newspapers across the world reported that India was a outsize exception to the worldwide trend of decreasing circulation and revenue, “Between 2005 and 2009 the number of paid-for daily newspapers in the country increased by 44% to 2,700 and the total number of newspapers rose by 23% to more than 74,000… In 2008 India overtook China to become the leader in paid-for daily circulation, with 110m copies sold each day. Newspaper and magazine advertising expenditure increased by 32% in the year to June 2010, according to Nielsen India, a market-research firm.’’

The story in other sectors such as television news is equally heartening from a commercial viewpoint. The result of such growth is that Indian media companies are acquiring financial heft that is giving them an opportunity to expand not just in India but abroad. In 2008 the cash rich Bennett Coleman group, which owns the national daily Times of India and the newschannel Times Now, had bought Virgin Radio, a commercial radio rock station in the UK for 53 million pounds. At some point or the other we are likely to see purchases of media brands that are weakening across the English speaking world. It should come as no surprise if a decade or so down the line organizations like the New York Times are run not by Murdoch but by Indian owners. And as and when that happens, Murdoch will seem much like Packer seems today in light of the IPL, a saint.

Media ethics in India

Much in the manner in which the IPL has imposed its norms on world cricket, the way the media conducts itself in India is a precursor to how it will operate in the rest of the world. Over the past year, as the controversy over the Murdoch owned New of the World has played itself out in the UK, India saw a parallel media scandal play out, ranging across government, corporate and the media. The differences in how the two countries have dealt with the fallout are telling.

In September last year, the newsmagazine I work for, Open, came in possession of a set of phone conversations that had been recorded by the government. The phone lines of Niira Radia, the PR head of one of India’s leading communication company Vaishnavi, were twice placed under surveillance by the Income Tax department (based on a tip off by the Central Board of Direct Taxes) for a few months in 2008 and 2009. Niira Radia represents both Tata, an industrial house that owns brands such as Jaguar and Land Rover, and the Mukesh Ambani owned Reliance Industries Limited, India’s largest industrial house.

After vetting the conversations for over two months, we finally published them in November last year. Niira Radia's conversations ranged across a number of highly influential people, a number of them routine for a PR company but a few that were startling. They involved journalists discussing and passing on information on Cabinet formation and other policy issues of use to Radia’s clients.

Among the most prominent journalists in conversation with Radia were Barkha Dutt, a near iconic TV anchor for NDTV, one of India’s leading English TV newschannels, Vir Sanghvi consulting editor for the Hindustan Times, one of India’s largest selling English dailies and Prabhu Chawla, then editor of India Today, India’s largest selling English newsweekly.

In a recent column in the Hindustan Times Karan Thapar, who hosts one of India’s most watched current affairs programs on English news television noted, “ The true horror of the News of The World's behavior was revealed by the meticulous, relentless and determined efforts of The Guardian and the BBC. In doing so, they did not hesitate to criticize or take names. When it came to exposing politicians, journalists did not cavil at telling Prime Minister David Cameron on live television that he had “screwed-up”. And he took it on the chin.

In contrast, when the Niira Radia tapes or paid news (many dailies in India had implemented schemes where clients could directly pa for news content in their favor) was the big story, we were defensive, reluctant to question leave aside expose our colleagues and the affected channels/papers simply battened down the hatches.’’

Since the publication Radia tapes top politicians and industrialists have been jailed. In contrast the journalists whose name surfaced in the tapes remain largely unaffected. It is no one’s contention that they were engaged in the same kind of illegal activity as those arrested but at the very least, their acts amounted to gross journalistic impropriety. Apart from Vir Sanghvi, who has been confined to reporting on food, Barkha Dutt continues much as she always has, and Prabhu Chawla has moved on as editor of the New Indian Express. There are a whole host of other journalists who emerge with little credit on the tapes who also continue as normal with their jobs.

The roots of silence

Almost a year and a half after the conversations between NDTV anchor Barkha Dutt and Niira Radia, Radia’s clients Reliance Industries Limited (RIL) announced a joint venture with US-based hedge fund company, the $ 20 billion DE Shaw. This year, two weeks after the announcement, DE Shaw picked up 14.2 per cent of NDTV.

Commenting on a number of such deals by the group, financial journalist Sucheta Dalal noted, “Its viewership claims are impossible to believe; its credibility at a nadir; and its finances in a mess. Yet, every few months, the financially beleaguered NDTV India pulls off a coup by getting deep-pocketed ‘strategic’ investors and top-flight private equity investors to abandon their stiff standards and pick up big chunks of its equity.’’

The deal may be legal but the questions it raises in light of Sucheta Dalal’s observations, suggest the investment in NDTV should have been a major media story even without the Radia tapes but it found very few takers. Months after the Radia tapes were published, the media, the very same media in India that had gone to town with its coverage of the News of the world scandal in the UK and the setback to Rupert Murdoch, has still preferred to maintain a silence on reporting stories about its own.

Much of the silence about other media organizations, or other people in the media, stems from the fear that we are all vulnerable, and in fact the fear is true. In India, the media industry is marked by a lack of transparency and a cozy consensus among insiders that include journalists, anchors, anchor-owners, politicians and industrialists that makes the world of British tabloid journalism seem almost tame. It is a consensus that is obvious to any casual listener of even a few of the Radia tapes.

Consider the case of Private Treaties, a Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL), the company that owns the Times of India. Launched in 2004, the initiative involved BCCL picking up stakes in various companies in return for long-term advertising and publicity. It was again Sucheta Dalal who revealed the contents of an internal mail by Rahul Joshi, editor of The Economic Times owned by BCCL, which suggested that journalists were being asked to provide favorable coverage to private treaties clients. The Press Council, a body to monitor the print media, commissioned a report on paid news that included Private Treaties in its ambit and then proceeded to give it a quite burial by not officially endorsing it. Other media companies rather than worrying about the ethical issues involved wanted to follow suit with private treaties firms of their own. Many of these ventures did not really take-off simply because they coincided with the recession.

It was also largely a BCCL initiative which saw the implementation of the contract hire and fire system that currently operates in most organizations. It has brought in certain benefits including much better pay packages and the possibility of a more vibrant media culture, but it has also taken away the distance that is necessary between journalists and proprietors, totally removing safeguards that would prevent commercial considerations from overriding necessary journalistic standards. Almost no journalist can today cite journalistic norms in defense of any practice that goes against the perceived commercial interests of the proprietor. As a result journalists have learnt to anticipate what is required of them and largely steer clear of issues that could raise such conflicts.

This process has been further heightened by a new breed of professionals that have arisen in the Indian media, the owner-editor, and if not an owner-editor, a journalist who has significant stakes in the business end of the organization he or she may be working for. The problems created by such a situation, the potential for a conflict of interest where a journalist is committed more to his organization than his profession, are more than obvious and are lived out on a daily basis in the Indian media.

The result of these structural changes is what is reflected in the Radia tapes. Politicians and industrialists had their linkages in India, it is no secret how elections are funded, and beat journalists had their own separate linkages with politicians somewhat insulated from commercial considerations. With owner-editors stepping in and proprietors taking a far more active role in the media, these two different linkages have become part of the same network, the result as is clear from the Radia tapes, is a system that works to the advantage of every profession involved but journalism.

Sooner or later, this is an issue the media will be forced to address. The failure to impose ethical standards or even to debate the issue, the willingness to avoid reporting or commenting on transgressions by other organizations or journalists will eventually come back to haunt the industry. The reasons for the current state may be structural, they may well lie outside the purview of any single individual or organization but if the industry as a whole fails to change there will eventually come a case that will force reconsideration. The hacking of a kidnapped girl’s phone shut down a tabloid with a large circulation and a long history in the UK, it may well change the way the industry is run in that country. Perhaps, India will have to await an event that arouses similar public revulsion to realize how far we have deviated from journalistic norms. But if this reconsideration does not take place, there is reason to worry across the English speaking world.