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Mainstream, VOL L, No 38, September 8, 2012

Media: Lessening the Scourge of Managed News - Need for a Press Commission

Thursday 13 September 2012, by Kuldip Nayar

I am not surprised that the remarks by the Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) have not been followed up or commented upon by the mainstream media or, for that matter, by any newspaper or television channel. TRAI Chairman Rahul Khullar has been candid enough to say that leading newspapers in India have spread themselves all over the media, from television to radio and such other avenues, without permission from any authority. He has explained how in every country there is regulation which restricts the domination of the media market.

I wish such a statement had come from the Press Council Chairman, Justice Markandey Katju. He is supposed to be the custodian of the press. But his priority is different. He is obsessed with the quality of journalists who may not be up to the mark but still do their job satisfactorily in the circumstances they face. But he says nothing about the media moguls who misuse newspapers, television channels or radio.

The question of cross-media ownership that Khullar has raised is nothing new. This is a bane of the Indian media. Every newspaper of means has at least one television channel, if not more. Yet this aspect has been seldom taken up by even such top people as the TRAI Chairman. I have seen his remarks for the first time. It is heartening to hear that his set-up will examine the ownership of broadcast, print media and television. Strange, the government has never taken up this issue.
Some years ago, I too took up the matter with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He was very enthusiastic and talked about the appointment of a Press Commission to find out which newspaper controlled what. He discussed with me at length how to go about on the whole gamut of the media. I followed up my meeting with a paper on the terms of reference. But nothing came out of the exercise because someone sabotaged the proposal of a Press Commission.

A little later, I took up the matter again. The Prime Minister was all for it, but again he did not come back to me. I wonder whether the powerful media houses sabotaged the appoint-ment of a Press Commission. In fact, there has been none since 1977. Television came into the picture after that. Even now the issue is alive.
There is a need to probe the relationship between the media owners, journalists and the government and between owners and editors who have been devalued over the years. The Working Journalists Act has been circumvented and a contract system has been introduced. Is it legal to do so? Even for its own purpose, the government has not done anything. Former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee says that the contract system in media is illegal because it does not take care of what has been suggested under the Working Journalists Act.

Khullar is correct in pointing out that everywhere there is regulation which restricts the domination of the media market. His argument is that this is a different sort of market which deals in ideas for influencing minds. But India has left it to the owners whether they want to prowl in other fields without any fear. “We all know how the media get into bed with power and politicians. This is not new to India. The News of the World example is staring us in the face,” says Khullar.

In fact, it is time that media barons are shown the mirror. They have come to believe that they—and they alone—know what is news. In fact, they know the market and have, therefore, converted news into a commodity. In other words, they realise how to package news to sell it.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is justified in her remarks that comments in a newspaper or on television channel are sponsored. And this is no secret that one can purchase slots at a price. This goes for the press as well. Even the tainted or slanted news run in newspapers or on channels is like any other news or comment. A reader or a viewer never comes to know whether what he watches or reads is based on facts or not. He blindly trusts what he hears or reads.

The phrase ‘paid news’ came to be coined only after some activists came to know that the news columns and editorial space were sold to any political party or leader to mix their comments with the news. Such instances came to light in the last general elections. The Press Council of India prepared a scathing report on the manner in which propaganda was mixed with facts. The report as such could not be published because the Council was divided between editors and owners. A watered-down report, which was conducive to the owners, was adopted and released.

I do not think that cross-media ownership is responsible for the state of affairs in the media. There has to be a Press Commission to find out the details. But I have no doubt that the breaking of monopoly may help small newspapers and television channels to come up. The scourge of managed news will also lessen. In any case, the dispersal of ownership is essential in a parliamentary democracy.

The author is a veteran journalist renowned not only in this country but also in our neighbouring states of Pakistan and Bangladesh where his columns are widely read. His website is www.kuldipnayar.com

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