“I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.” – Henry Luce

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Media ownership trends in India

There are many media organisations in the country that are owned and controlled by a wide variety of entities including corporate bodies, societies and trusts, and individuals.  Information about such organisations and people is scattered, incomplete, and dated.

A few salient aspects about media ownership 

The sheer number of media organisations and outlets often conceals the fact there is dominance over specific markets in other words, the markets are often oligopolistic in character.

The absence of restrictions on cross-media ownership implies that particular companies or groups or conglomerates dominate markets both vertically (that is, across different media such as print, radio, television and the internet) as well as horizontally (namely, in particular geographical regions).

Political parties and persons with political affiliation own/control increasing sections of the media in India.

The promoters and controllers of media groups have traditionally held interests in many other business interests and continue to do so, often using their media outlets to further these. 
Large industrial conglomerates are acquiring direct and indirect interest in media groups.

In the last few years there has been a growing consolidation of media organisations across the globe. In the political economy of the media the world over there is clearly an alarming absence of not-for-profit media organisations. Neither subscription- nor advertising revenue-based models of the media have been able to limit this tendency of large sections of the corporate media to align with elite interest groups.  The media is perceived as an active political collaborator as well seeking to influence voters on the basis of loyalty of owners and editors. This can, and often does, limit the free and fair exchanges of views to facilitate democratic decision-making processes.

The Indian media market differs from those of developed countries in several ways. For one, India is a developing country and all segments of the media industry are still growing unlike in developed countries. The media market in India remains highly fragmented, due to the large number of languages and the sheer size of the country.

In India  there were over 82,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers as on 31 March 2011. There are over 250 FM (frequency modulation) radio stations in the country  – curiously, India is the only democracy in the world where news on the radio is still a monopoly of the government. The Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has allowed nearly 800 television channels to uplink or downlink from the country, including over 300 which claim to be television channels broadcasting “news and current affairs”. There is an unspecified number of websites aimed at Indians.

The mass media in India is possibly dominated by less than a hundred large groups or conglomerates, which exercise considerable influence on what is read, heard, and watched. One example will illustrate this contention. Delhi is the only urban area in the world with 16 English daily newspapers; the top three publications, the Times of India, the Hindustan Times, and the Economic Times, would account for over three-fourths of the total market for all English dailies.

India’s established media conglomerates have refused to accept the need for restrictions over ownership and control, arguing that this would result in another  forms of censorship of the 1975-77 Emergency.. After all, powerful politicians need media industrialist as much as they need them .  A few randomly-chosen examples would include the Marans of the Sun group, and Chandan Mitra of The Pioneer.

Market dominance

The Hyderabad-based ASCI report pointed out that there is “ample evidence of market dominance” in specific media markets and argued in favour of an “appropriate” regulatory framework to enforce cross-media ownership restrictions,  The government seems unlikely to accept the recommendations of the report prepared by ASCI, which describes itself as an “autonomous, self-supporting, public-purpose” institution.

. It argued for restrictions on vertical integration, that is to say on media companies owning stakes in both broadcast and distribution companies within the same media. The reasoning behind this restriction is that vertical integration can result in anti-competitive behaviour, whereby a distributor can favour his/her own broadcasters’ contents over the content of a competitive broadcaster. In this scenario, large conglomerates would be able to impose their preferred content, a clearly dangerous situation.

Debates on media ownership are almost as old as the nation itself. The country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his Defence Minister V.K. Krishna Menon would criticize the “jute press” in a clear reference to BCCL which was then controlled by the Sahu-Jain group. Then came references to the “steel press”. The Tata group, which has a substantial presence in the steel industry, used to be a part-owner of the company that publishes the once-influentialThe Statesman.   What was being clearly suggested by politicians was that particular family-owned groups would use their news companies to lobby for their other business interests.

For example, the Dainik Bhaskar group, which, in 1958, ran a single edition Hindi newspaper from Bhopal, has a market capitalization of Rs 4,454 crore (as on July 30. 2010), owns seven newspapers, two magazines, 17 radio stations, and has a significant presence in the printing, textiles, oils, solvent extraction, hotels, real estate, and power-generation industries.

Media companies tend to have a variety of professionals on their boards, such as investment bankers, venture capitalists, chartered accountants, corporate lawyers, and CEOs of big companies. Professional journalists, ironically, rarely figure. As a result, those at the top of the decision-making hierarchy are those for whom the bottom-line, not the by-line, is most important.

Evil of “paid news”

media houses relying on advertisers to fund quality journalism. Advertisers and corporate units begin to rely on news outlets to further their interests. In 2003, Bennett Coleman Company Limited (publishers of the Times of India and the Economic Times, among other publications) started a “paid content” service, which enabled them to charge advertisers for coverage of product launches or celebrity-related events. In the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the more clearly illegal practice of “paid news” emerged and became widespread.

The behind-the-scenes influence of corporate and vested interests was made by the leaking of tapes recording conversations between Niira Radia, a powerful lobbyist with clients such as the Tata group and Reliance Industries, and a variety of business men, politicians, and journalists.

From a business point of view, media consolidation has undeniable advantages. It allows for economies of scale, which enable media companies to absorb the costs of content and distribution over a large volume of revenue. In a competitive market, small media companies have a very hard time surviving. 

A few recent developments point towards the growing corporatization of the India media and the growing convergence between producers of media content and those who distribute the content.

On May 19, 2012, the Aditya Birla group announced that it had acquired a 27.5 per cent stake in Living Media India Limited, a company headed by Aroon Purie. Living Media acts as a holding company and also owns 57.46 per cent in TV Today Network, the listed company that controls the group’s television channels (Aaj Tak and Headlines Today) and a host of publications (including India Today).

Key concerns

The real challenges that lie ahead for the media in India are to ensure that growing concentration of ownership in an oligopolistic market does not lead to loss of heterogeneity and plurality. In the absence of cross-media restrictions and with government policies contributing to further corporatization, especially with respect to the television medium, diversity of news flows could be adversely affected contributing to the continuing privatization and commodification of information instead of making it more of a “public good”.http://www.thehoot.org/web/storypage/6053-1-1-16-true.html


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