The Economist & Political Weekly (28 January) ran a powerful editorial on a subject that should be of deep interest to the public at large. The editorial was referring to a deal worth Rs 2,100 crore struck between Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) and Network 18/TV 18. The editorial said “Few are discussing it. India has just seen one of the biggest media deals, where the country’s leading industrial and business giant has bought into the largest network of News and Current Affairs TV Channels…. Is the silence deliberate, given that most media houses do not want to be seen as too critical of a company that already has enormous influence in innumerable spheres? Or do they fear that too much talk could result in pressure on the government to look again at suggestions about regulations on cross-media ownership?”.
As EPW saw it “the deal is significant for more reasons than one. Thus, it is the first time that a non-media company of the size of RIL has obtained a direct stake in the media”. The point was made that while there are other smaller businesses, such as real estate companies that have invested in the media, as have politicians and political parties, none of the leading business houses have done so”. What EPW believes is significant about the RIL deal is that Network 18/TV18 which owns seven TV channels including News and Business Channels will now control Eenadu TV (ETV) that has a vast reach through its twelve regional languages channels with a viewership in at least ten stages. Asked EPW: “Why should the RIL deal be a cause for concern?” And it answered its own question. It noted that currently there are around 745 TV channels of which 366 are in News and Current Affairs. Of the latter, 21 networks with their 46 channels have 80 per cent of the viewership. The rest have a limited reach and barely survive.
The majority of Networks, according to EPW, including large ones like Network 18 “are struggling with the bottom line”. Why, then, has RIL dared to invest a huge amount of money in this business? To this question, the EPW’s own answer is that “when big business and big media converge, the impact on politics, policy and peoples’ views is enormous” and “it virtually kills media plurality and allows a small group to manipulate opinion to suit its own interests”. EPW conceded that authorities are aware of this and indeed, in 2009, the Telecom Regulating Authority of India (TRAI) had made several recommendations on this issue, but apparently the report has never been made public. It is EPW’s view that this “illustrates the power that business houses already have”. As it put it: “In India the influence of business and politics on media content is already apparent in many ways such as ‘Paid News’ that guaranteed favourable coverage to candidates contesting elections, or ‘private treaties’ between media houses and businesses. The RIL deal represents major leap towards further media concentration and subsequently more direct influence on media content. Nothing could be worse for democracy where media independence and plurality are essential”. The EPW mentioned how Rupert Murdoch who owned News Corps and Silvio Berlusconi who also ran an Italian media empire, functioned, drawing the conclusion that “India does not need desi Murdochs and Berlusconis”.
I may be excused if I quote extensively from an article in the same issue of Economic & Political Weekly (28 January) by Sahana Udupa that throws fresh light on today’s media in India. I understand that some parts of the extensively researched article have appeared in the India In Transition series hosted by the Centre for Advanced Study on India, University of Pennsylvania.
According to Media partners (and I am quoting the following facts from EPW) the subscriber base for DTH television in India is slated to increase from 17 million in 2009 to 45 million in 2014, overtaking the United States by 2012. The same report forecast digital cable to grow to 17 million subscribers and cable broadband to three million household subscriptions by 2014. And think of the following: Between 1995 and 2007 more than 300 statellite networks entered the Indian market. More than 50 of the satellite network were 24-hour satellite news channels, broadcasting news in 11 different languages. With a total of 325 million readers (more than the total population of the European Union) India’s newspaper industry generated Rs 172 billion ($3.8 billion) in sales in 2010 and this figure is expected to rise by 9 per cent per year over the next four years to Rs 267 billion. And, according to the World Newspaper Congress held in Hyderabad in 2009, India has more daily newspapers than any other nation and leads in paid-for daily circulation, surpassing China for the first time in 2008. And twenty of the world’s 100 largest newspapers are Indian! And the highest selling newspaper is in Hindi.
Actually, if the latest available Indian Readership Survey is to be trusted, of the first ten top-selling papers, the first three are Hindi-based (Jagran, Bhaskar and Hindustan followed by a fifth (amar Ujala) and an eighth (Rajasthan Patrika). The total readership of all Hindi dailies stand at 13.61 crore while their English sisters had do make to with a paltry 3.2 crore. The point to remember is that the Indian mind is more or less conditioned by Indian language papers, considering that among the ten top-selling papers are two Malayalam dailies Malayala Manorama and Mathrubhoomi, one Marathi (Lokmat) and one Tamil (Dina Thanthi). What this suggests is that the Indian literate mind is conditioned largely by journalists who ‘think Indian’ and are not greatly influenced by Indian with an ‘English’ background. But can one believe it: no newspapers in English ever is known to have a column on what the Indian Indian media thinks and feels. Worse, if we are to believe The Sunday Indian Media Watch (June 2011), “with no professional superiors as protectors, intellectual and moral leaders and role models, the lower editorial drones (in the Hindi media)” are a stupefied, demoralised lot”. And what does that say about Hindi journalism? Or ‘Indian Indian’ thinking?