Even a cursory glance at the Indian media scene will throw up many surprises. For instance, many people may not be aware that out of five top circulating daily newspapers four are published in Hindi with one in Malayalam. The largest “readership” (a controversial concept) is claimed by Hindi newspaper Jagran at 16.393 million. Compare this with what the advertisers think: the maximum ad revenue goes to the English newspapers. Almost all of the dailies in major languages including English are today multi-centre editions.
When it comes to magazines, the top most is the Malayalam publication Vanita, 2.6 million as of 2011. Interestingly two of the top five magazines are in Malayalam(both from the same Manorama group) , two in Hindi and one in English. The dominant show of Malayalam in readership is noteworthy for many reasons. Kerala has a population of about thirty million. The nine million and odd readership of the daily of just one group of Malayalam publications along with readership of two of the same groups’ magazines (together adding up to four million) reveals the power of decades of educational thrust giving 100 per cent literacy. Just one daily newspaper in Kerala has a readership of over nine million which is more than the 7.7 million households in that State. Hindi language speaking people are sum of the two top Hindi magazines at around four million exposes the huge leeway that Hindi speaking region has to make in terms of literacy, political awareness and quality of journalism. The proportionate sales of daily Hindi and Malayalam newspapers also reflect the same story.
If you take the country as a whole, the literacy gap is about 30 per cent. That means over 300 million people. Looking at it household wise, the “census households”are nearly 250 million. The total daily newspaper circulation is around 100 million. Again we see there is a huge market waiting to be tapped. Contrast this with the 116 million households having tv. Viewership far exceeds readership by any criteria, more so when the literacy gap is also so large.
Taking only the print media, the growth of the newspaper industry has been phenomenal. In the ten years ending March 2008 circulations of dailies simply doubled from 5.83 crore to 10. 57 crore. In the year 2000, when the Manisana Singh Wage Board surveyed the print media scene in its report the highest category of newspaper groups were classified as those with revenues above Rs 600 crore. The Majithia Wage Board in its report in 2010 raised this to Rs 1,000 crore and there were more groups in this category than in the highest category in the previous board’s report. The latter board also pointed out that in just two years 2006-07 and 2008-09, “there was considerable growth of small and medium newspapers” from 1,797 to 2,445 and 6,508 to 11,702 respectively. Note also that the “gross value of newspapers” rose from Rs 5,153 crore to Rs 14,851 crore in that period. FYN newspaper employees point out that despite this increase, their wages as a proportion of gross value remained around 10 per cent only. So you may imagine who has taken the cake and who was given only the bread. In many cases the journalists are asked to live by crumbs or even worse are asked to fend for themselves by collecting advertisements as was revealed in a article in the business paper Mint( May 13, 2013). Asking journalists to be advertisement agents also is against the ethics of the profession and the Press Council and an Odisha court has said so emphatically after the National Union of Journalists raised the issue. In this age of all round corruption ethics is more of a nuisance than a commitment.
The high rise of the print media ( as well as the TV media with over 800 channels and many waiting to get licence) has had a flip side. The most important of which is the dominance of newspaper groups, the growing cross-media ownership pattern and the various ways corporate India is creeping into editorial rooms while in the 50s to 90s, marketing managers feared to cross the Lakshman Rekha drawn by the editorial section. Today it is the reverse situation; some newspapers are published without specifying who the “Editor” is. Recently the Gujarat High Court has commented on the editor’s position and responsibility. The Neera Radia tapes on the other hand exposed yet another side of some people on the editorial side failing to keep corporate lobbyists at arms length.
Fortunately for the freedom of the Press, the present chief of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, Rahul Khullar has promised strong steps against the growing cross-media ownership and monopoly. What happens to the vital input of democracy, that is plurality of views, if the same group owns newspapers, TV chanels, online news and other channels of communication like cable network, Khullar asked in a newspaper interview. This is no fiction. Most leading newspapers in the country have their own TV channels, have their finger in the cable pie and their own online dimension. This is a safe way of controlling ideas and thereby reaching out to control public authorities at different levels. No wonder many land mafias, chit fund operators and even criminals are now owning both channels and newspapers. The recent collapse of the Sharda group in Kolkata exposed only part of this rot.
In a consultation paper floated by TRAI on the issue, the question has been posed : “So as to ensure media pluralism and to counter the ills of monopolies it is felt that reasonable restrictions may need to be put in place on ownership in the media sector.” Further “ media ownership rules should be so designed to strike a balance between ensuring a degree of plurality of media sources and content, and a level playing field for companies operating in the media sector on the one hand and providing freedom to companies to expand. Innovate and invest on the other.” Let us look forward to the Khullar doctrine in the coming months eagerly to save the media from attempted singularity.
Also we should hope for someone to look into other weaknesses also. Many newspapers were arraigned earlier for paid news. Other ways of influencing public discourse on vital matters of national ( and for corporate their) importance have also cropped up. Newspapers are signing up private deals with corporates on assured advertising space in return for assured good coverage of the firm or its products. There are private equity deals from different types of funds controlled by the corporate entities with newspaper owners. In the name of marketing advance all these are enshrined as “progress”. In a recent expose the Economic Times (January12, 2012 issue) revealed in an article on corporate influence on media in India and abroad, that “Promoters take a shine to media, raising concerns on independence”. Those in the “business” of news according to the article included the two Ambani brothers, Sameer Gehalaut, one of the cofounders of India Bulls, Abhay Oswal, Rajan Raheja, among others. Investments into media groups in one case topped Rs 800 crore as per the report. Do these investors observe the Lakshman Rekha? Worth investigating.
It should have been the concern of the Press Council of India, the statutory regulator, to tear the curtain over these insidious moves. But the PCI is deliberately ignored by daily newspapers. It seems there is an unwritten understanding among newspapers not to publish any finding of the PCI. So for over all the loud condemnations of various sins of the newspaper publishers by the voluble chairman of PCI, Justice (retd) Katju, the dailies have refused to publish the findings of the PCI and have tended to ignore the stator institution.
There is a strong demand for a regulatory system of the electorinc media. And recently a parliamentary standing committee has given its support to it. The National Union of Journalists had been asking for quite sometime for a single media regulatory authority covering both print and electronic sides. The media barons oppose this in the name of freedom of expression. Freedom also demands responsible ownership of communication resources. That presumes owners who have the breadth of vision to exercise freedom with responsibility. But what the public perceives in the media is a dog ready to bite another dog or bark so fiercely that the majority of the public would take the decibel strength to be the measure of truth.