Shades of grey: The many myths of media freedom
India media can never be really free if it does not come to grips with the issue of how it is funded.
The sudden collapse of the Saradha Group in Bengal is yet another reminder of the fact that a huge chunk of Indian media is run by tainted money. The group set up several news channels and print publications in Hindi and Bengali, among other languages, and the failure of the core chit fund business means journos have been turfed out of jobs.
The Sahara Group, which has been running illegal money-raising schemes and asked by Sebi to wind up two of them, is still playing ducks and drakes with the legal system. It runs several print and TV channels. One cannot but wonder about the future of its newsroom if push comes to shove.
We can multiply such examples in every state, and we can also draw similar conclusions from the fact that many news organisations are run by political parties not known for their probity. Among them, the YSR Congress' Sakshi channels. Their boss in still in jail. Once again, Sakshi is not the exception. Every state has political parties, with dubious sources of funding, running media.
The question is this: if large parts of media, possibly even the overwhelming part by volume, are run with funny money, how can Indian journalism ever be credible? The abuse that many senior journalists get on social media - including Firstpost - is often the result of readers/viewers being unable to believe that any story is the result of honest journalism.
Can this change in the current climate of suspicion that all news media are dominated by vested interests?
The answer lies, first, in acknowledging this truth. We are in bed with powerful interests. It also lies in admitting to two shades of grey in terms of credibility and bias.
First, one has to question the presumption that there can ever be completely neutral and unbiased journalism in a situation where media has to be funded by someone. The best we can hope for is that the limited bias inherent in a media house owned by some moneyed interest or the other will be countered by opposite biases in some other media houses.
Second, we also have to doubt the assumption that somehow media can be both credible and commercially viable at the same time. Good journalism costs money; a serious investigation into wrongdoing can swallow lakhs of rupees and months of painstaking effort to bring to fruition. This can be paid for only by readers or advertisers. But how many readers are willing to pay Rs 15 daily for a Times of India? How many advertisers will be willing to pay you good money if, at some point, they are going to be targeted for their own wrongs?
This leads me to my first conclusion: Collectively media can be independent, by neutralising each other's biases, but individually we will have limitations on perfect credibility.
This is why people may watch Sakshi even though they know it is an YSR Congress channel. Ditto for Sun TV, which may have a DMK bias, and Jaya TV (AIADMK). As a society, by letting each one play out their biases, we end up getting a better approximation of the truth.
Biases emanate from multiple sources.
The first bias is the personal one. If I like Narendra Modi and you don't, our journalism will reflect our respective biases. We may couch our writing with arguments this way or that, but underlying it all will be our personal biases. Personal bias (predilection would be my preferred word) cannot be eliminated, and often we would not be human if we don't believe in anything or anyone. We have to live with it.
The second source of bias is related to how journalism is funded. In India, there are many categories of funding sources. Here are some of them.
#1: Big business with surplus cash. This is the main legitimate source of media funding. The Aditya Birla Group has a stake in TV Today, the Reliance group has funded the promoters of Network18 (publishers of Firstpost), and Kotak Mahindra has a stake in Business Standard, and so on. The inherent blind spot for these media houses is that they wouldn't be seen as being objective about the activities of their financial backers. The problem here is not the source of funding alone but perception.
#2: Politically funded newspapers. This is where the bulk of Indian journalism gets tainted, because political funding is always the result of backdoor funding - unless something is specifically designated as a party mouthpiece. Media writer Vanita Kohli-Khandekar says that "more than a third of news channels are owned by politicians or politico-affiliated builders. An estimated 60 percent of cable distribution systems are owned by local politicians." These news organisations will have clear political biases, not to speak of business biases where the business interests of their political patrons are concerned. Most Indian politicians are also aligned to business interests.
#3: Plain and simple crooked money. Given the size of India's black economy, there are not enough legitimate businesses which can use these hidden cash. Investing in media is one way to launder black money. Media investments are not only small (for crooks, that is), but also have the ability to yield big dividends in terms of political clout and respectability to owners. As Shekhar Gupta writes in The Indian Express today: "If you have a couple of news channels and newspapers, a few well known (and well connected) journalists as your employees, give them a fat pay cheque, a Merc, and they solve your problem of access and power. They also get you respect, as you get to speak to, and rub shoulders with top politicians, even intellectuals, at awards and events organised by your media group. It is the cheapest ticket to clout, protection and a competitive edge."
#4: Mainstream media houses helped by covert compromises, even blackmail. There are many legitimate media houses, both in English and in regional media, that do regular journalism unaligned to politics. But to make themselves viable, they use covert strong-arm tactics to earn revenues. The Zee-Jindal case is alleged to be one such example, but it is a well-known fact that many in the regional media play this game to stay afloat. Their message to advertisers: "If you don't advertise, we may write nasty things about you."
#5: Formal alliances of media and business interests. In order to protect their commercial interests, some media groups such as The Times of India have sections where news is paid for, and advertisers are given private treaties that more or less guarantee them some good publicity in return for advertising revenues. This model has now been taken up by many other media houses and is no longer unique to The Times. In any case, almost all publications create specific sections just for the advertiser and call them marketing supplements, or advertiser-sponsored supplements.
#6: A ready source of rentals. Some media houses that obtained cheap land in the past from government are able to stay afloat by using rental incomes from property. The Indian Express lives partly of incomes from its real estate in Mumbai, and so does the Statesman. The Free Press Journal exists as a newspaper only to legitimise the real estate interests of its owners.
The short-point is this: media is compromised in many ways, and credibility can only be a shade of grey.
The larger question that journalists need to ask themselves is this: can real journalism ever be fully viable without compromises?
My own (partial) answer is that digital journalism, by bringing down content costs dramatically (due to very low distribution costs) is one solution. Not surprisingly, powerful vested interests, including governments, want to control freedom on the net. They are not lovers of freedom.
But the long-term answer surely must lie in non-commercial funding structures that reduce dependence on big business, tainted money or dubious compromises.
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