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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 27, June 22, 2013

Media: News as Business Enterprise

Saturday 22 June 2013

by Anil Chamadia

The media is looking for money in news. And in the process, it has shed its veneer of being a source of information about what is happening around us. Rather, the media has been indulging in dispersal of ‘propaganda packaged as news’—an unethical practice which has come to be known as ’paid news’. Propagating an advertisement of a product/service after realising money through the media along with dispersal of news has been its revenue-earning model ever since the news outlets switched their dependence over to the industry dispensing with the earlier subscriber-based revenue model. The advent of an era of neo-liberalism coupled with the digital revolution and the media becoming solely dependent on the industry for revenue have brought about fundamental changes in trans-forming news as business. These developments put together have broken the earlier ‘revenue model’ which sustained and also offered profit to the print media (the newspaper industry) dominating the media scene for decades.

In the changed scenario of the day, ads from the industry and service sector—notably private enterprises—have become the blood and soul of the media. The share of government ads meant to propagate and popularise official policies is dwindling by the day under the sway of privatisation and globalisation. Hence, the supply of ads by the industry and the acquiring of those by the media assumes a level of convergence of interests between two parties in the field—a game of ‘give and take’. Of course, the media as the beneficiary cannot dictate terms to its ‘donor’. So, it is the industry that calls the shots. In fact, the media now stands in the service of the industry; it colludes with it and looks after its interests while propagating the political ideology that suits the industry and big business—which we can safely call the corporate sector. Media magnate Vineet Jain, the owner of The Times of India group, however, openly admits that they are doing the business of ads, not of news. And his group is known to be the first in developing some innovative methods of garnering ads and of selling editorial space for money. Subsequently, other media outlets virtually ran amok in selling the editorial space, particularly during the elections to the Assemblies and Parliament. And this scourge came to known as the ‘paid news’ practice. Over a period, the media outlets have developed an expertise in befooling the readers, viewers and listeners to such an extent that the latter are now finding it difficult to differentiate whether they are receiving infor-mation or consuming just inspired propaganda material from interested parties. The material presented by the media outlets is now a matter of research and investigation.

Another aspect has come to the fore: that ads donors sometimes use their overwhelming influence and command in suppressing certain information and news perceived as not being conducive to their business interests. The media hardly feels shy in becoming a willing ally to the ads donors in such dispositions and inadvertently turns a blind eye to its declared and moral duty of informing the public about genuine developments. Through such collaboration, no doubt, the media gets due reward. Former Planning Commission Deputy Chairman P.C. Mahalanobis, who had advocated the separation of ‘newspaper and entertainment industry’ from the general industry in 1964, also observed that the industry and big business tended to control and manipulate the media by ‘doling out and restricting’ ads. His report to that effect was, however, ignored by the successive Union governments. Rather, the ruling political class itself began using the same tactics in controlling and handling the media. In his memoirs of almost fifty years (1935 to 1978) in journalism, Hamdi Bey has refered to private companies declining to give ads to media outlets which had propagated some information detrimental to their business interests. After a media outlet carried news confirming that cigarette smoking was injurious to health, the cigarette companies invariably stopped their ads to that media outlet. This piece of his memoirs was written at the request of the Second Press Commission by Hamdi Bey.

The British too had used ads to silence the opponents to their rule. And, the same practice was, however, followed by the successive governments during the post-independence era. The report of the Press Council of India (PCI) on the Bihar media has clearly exposed how the media companies had behaved in an erratic manner under pressure from the ads donors.

Similarly, we can see that the space of ads (business) has continuously been increasing in the media to the extent of occupying 80-90 per cent of the total available print area. A news media consumption survey of the electronic media (TV) for the space given to ads during 10- hour prime time (from 8 to 9 pm) from March 1 to 10, 2013 showed that ads accounted for 3 hours 13 minutes and seven seconds in ABP news programmes and 3 hours 54 minutes and nine seconds in Aaj Tak news bulletins. A thorough study in this respect should be done. In the race for acquiring ads, the media outlets are sacrificing news and hence their social base. The small and medium media platforms too are becoming socially irrelevant. In fact, the democratic set-up of the country has reduced itself to a ‘propaganda venture’ sustained by ads. How to restrict and regulate ads in the media is a matter of serious debate.

The author is the editor, Mass Media, a monthly research journal published from New Delhi since April 2012, and Chairman, Media Studies Group. He can be contacted at e-mail: namwale@-gmail.com

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