Murdochisation' of the Indian media

Print edition : August 12, 2011

Film actor Shah Rukh Khan announcing to the media in New Delhi in 2005 his decision to anchor the popular reality show Kaun Banega Crorepati, which was based on the British Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, on Star Plus. - SANDEEP SAXENA

Its facets include concentration of media ownership and the transformation of news into a commodity.

THE last two decades have witnessed a dramatic transformation of India's mediascape' a term first used by Arjun Appadurai, an academic of Indian origin based in the United States, to describe how visual imagery impacts the world and to describe and situate the role of the mass media in global cultural flows. While there is much that is praiseworthy about the manner in which large sections of the media have strengthened the world's largest democracy, there are also a lot of disquieting features that have come to characterise the current working of certain newspapers, television channels and Internet websites in the country including the phenomenon of paid news and other crass forms of commercialisation.

From the early 1990s, when the working of the Indian economy was liberalised, the media has expanded as never before with the advent of new communication technologies and the burgeoning of the urban middle classes, whose consumerist aspirations made them targets for advertisers.

India has the largest number of newspapers/publications in comparison with any country in the world. There are over 60,000 publications currently registered with the Registrar of Newspapers of India. According to The Economist (July 7, 2011), India is now the fastest growing and biggest newspaper market in the world, having overtaken China to become the leader in paid-for daily circulation with 110 million copies sold each day.

The growth in the number of television channels has been exponential. In 1991, there was one public broadcaster, Doordarshan. At present, over 600 TV channels have been permitted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to uplink or downlink from the country. The number of radio stations using the frequency modulation (FM) broadcasting mode, too, has zoomed and will go up further from over 250 now to around 1,200 in the next five years. And no one really has an estimate of the number of Internet websites catering to Indian users.

But quantity has not translated into quality. Defying conventional norms of capitalism, the intensification of competition in the media has been accompanied by a discernible lowering of ethical standards. The race to grab eyeballs has seen a simultaneous dumbing down' of content as TV channels have become prisoners of a highly inadequate and flawed system of ascertaining audience sizes through TRPs (television rating points). With rules getting changed to attract foreign capital, it was hardly surprising that one of the first transnational media corporations to enter India in 1991 after lasciviously eying its market potential for years was the Rupert Murdoch-controlled STAR (Satellite Television Asia Region) group.

Murdoch clearly read the writing on the wall. His Indian empire now spans TV content production and distribution to news, publishing and cinema. The STAR India group is one of the biggest (in terms of turnover) media conglomerates in the country. It claims it has the largest number of viewers (around 170 million every week) for its 32 channels in eight languages, including STAR Plus, STAR One, STAR Gold, Channel V, STAR Jalsha, STAR Pravah, STAR World, STAR Movies, STAR Utsav and joint venture channels such as Asianet, Sky News, FX, Fox Crime, STAR Vijay, STAR News, ESPN and STAR Sports, among others. The STAR group has also partnered the Tata group for its direct-to-home (DTH) TV distribution operations.

Indian operations

Murdoch himself described News Corp's Indian operation as a next generation prospect. The success of Murdoch's Indian ventures has relied on his smart blending of commercial and Western methods with a localised approach. He was one of the first to introduce a music TV channel in India (Channel [V]); a 247 news network (STAR News); and a successful adaptation of an international game show (Kaun Banega Crorepati, an Indian version of the British Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?). Daya Kishan Thussu, professor of international communication at the University of Westminster, has characterised the Murdochisation of the Indian media as a process which involves the shift of media power from the public to privately owned, transnational, multimedia corporations controlling both delivery systems and the content of global information networks.

The concentration of media ownership in the hands of large corporate groups; the increasing reliance on advertising revenue leading to a frenzied quest for ever-higher ratings; an exaggerated focus on what is often dubiously defined as breaking news, so-called exclusive stories and the use of anything goes tactics; a restriction of topics to those that will interest the affluent middle class (the most profitable targets for advertisers); a sexing-up of news content and catering to the lowest common denominator; an increasingly uncomfortable closeness between marketing and editorial departments; and the transformation of news into a commodity. These are all facets of Murdochisation that can be seen across large sections of the media in India.

James Bennett, who in the early 19th century founded The Herald, one of the first American tabloids, said that newspapers ought not to instruct, but to startle. According to Thussu and others, the channels in the STAR group led the way in developing content that is sensationalist and emphasises urban, Westernised, consumerist concerns, with a particular emphasis on sex and celebrity culture as well as the three Cs that Indians are supposed to be obsessed with: crime, cricket and cinema. Furthermore, many of India's newspapers are now openly partisan, taking on the aggressive style and tone of the Murdoch-controlled and strongly conservative Fox News and other media vehicles in the News Corp group.

The STAR News programme Sansani (meaning sensation' in Hindi) focusses on metropolitan crime, rape and murder. Similarly, the programme Red Alert, which is about police efforts to deal with crime, uses a tabloid tone and is often thin on factual information. The aim is to dramatise and sensationalise stories, often using inspired representations of crime depicted in Hollywood and Hindi films. Lamenting recent changes in journalistic practices, N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu, has stated: This is a disturbing trend. Investigative journalism has been given a bad name by the invasive spy camera.

It is not just STAR News that gives wide coverage to celebrities and their sex lives. As the media critic Sevanti Ninan has remarked: Thanks to Mr M, we watch more TV than ever before. That his product is neither elevating nor edifying is beside the point. Nobody else's is, either.

A FRAME GRAB from Star News of the scene of one of the three bomb blasts in Mumbai on July 13. In the Murdoch media, there is an exaggerated focus on what is often dubiously defined as "breaking news" and so-called "exclusive" stories and the use of "anything goes" tactics.-AFP

For example, Aaj Tak of the TV Today group launched a channel called Tez (meaning fast) with the tag line Khabarein Phataphat (snappy news). The channel will not indulge in long-winded discussions or unnecessary analysis, promised Aroon Purie, its chief executive. If the business model of a media company is solely based on ways to increase circulation/viewership, the shock value of news content indeed becomes paramount. The kind of cut-throat tactics used by sections of the media in India to be the first with the news is reminiscent of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's description of the media in the United Kingdom as a feral beast he compared journalists to an unruly pack of hungry animals, in a speech delivered in June 2007.

The coverage of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai brought to light many of these issues. In a scramble for the most startling images and sound bites, extremely insensitive methods were used, and in many cases unverified information was purveyed as fact. Another striking example of the way in which a section of the Indian media acted unethically was in the manner in which 14-year-old Aarushi Talwar's murder in May 2008 was covered and even sought to be fictionalised'. With the rising clout of advertisers in the working of media companies, one sees a breaking down of the Chinese wall that once existed between marketing and editorial departments. In 2003, Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd (BCCL, which publishes, among other newspapers, The Times of India, Economic Times and Maharashtra Times all market leaders in their categories) started a paid content service called Medianet, which sent journalists to cover product launches or celebrity-related events for a fee. Its competitors pointed out that this practice blatantly violated journalistic ethics, but the BCCL management claimed that it was acceptable given that such advertorials appeared in the city-specific colour supplement on society trivia rather than in the main newspaper itself.

Paid news

Medianet effectively institutionalised the phenomenon of paid news, which involves paying newspapers and broadcasters for positive coverage. Disguised as news, it is more effective than simple advertising, as it misleads the reader or viewer into thinking that the information or views being put out have been independently obtained by the journalist.

Even as other media companies followed in the footsteps of BCCL, this nefarious practice spread to the realm of political news and became widespread in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Rate cards' or packages' were given on plain sheets of paper that listed rates for publication of editorial content that praised a particular candidate or criticised his or her political opponents. Candidates who refused to comply with these conditions were denied coverage.

In its non-institutionalised (and illegal as opposed to purely objectionable) forms, these practices are extremely difficult to prove because the financial transactions occur without any official record. This led to some comical situations as was pointed out by P. Sainath in a series of articles published in The Hindu. Although any wrongdoing was vehemently denied, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, was unable to explain how identical articles praising his achievements and qualities were published within days of each other in separate, competing newspapers.

The Press Council of India entrusted a subcommittee (of which one of the authors of this article, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, was a member) to write a report on paid news. The report assembled circumstantial evidence and named leading newspapers that had apparently received funds for publishing information, sought to be disguised as news, in favour of particular individuals, including representatives of political parties who were contesting elections.

Owing to the influence of a powerful lobby of publishers in the Council, a highly watered-down version of the report was presented to the government after a show of hands (no formal voting was recorded) at a meeting of the Council on July 31, 2010. However, the subcommittee's full, 71-page report was leaked and is available on a number of websites. This episode was commented on recently by Vice-President Mohammed Hamid Ansari. Speaking in Indore on July 15, on the occasion of the 75th birth anniversary of the late Prabhash Joshi (who had vehemently opposed paid news), the Vice-President observed that the Press Council's inability to go public with its report on paid news is a pointer to the problems of self-regulation and the culture of silence' in the entire industry when it comes to self-criticism.

Private treaties

Another worrying trend in the media has been private treaties scheme, also pioneered by BCCL, which involves giving advertising space to corporate entities in exchange for equity shares. The success of this scheme turned BCCL into one of the largest private equity investors in India. Although BCCL spokespersons argue that editorial content is not influenced by advertisers and companies in which BCCL has investments, the potential for conflict of interest is obvious given the porous nature of the marketing-editorial wall. If favourable news is published about a client and adverse news is not reported, both the publishing company and the advertising company stand to gain.

The fall in stock-market indices in recent years and the decision of the income tax authorities to value the transactions at the old inflated' values at which transactions had taken place (instead of current prices) and shown as assessable taxable income robbed the private treaties scheme of some of its sheen. As in the case of Medianet, the private treaties scheme was started by BCCL, and others were quick to follow. On August 27, 2010, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) issued guidelines that made it mandatory for all media companies to disclose their interests in companies about whom articles were published or TV programmes broadcast, but it appears as if these guidelines are not being implemented sincerely.

Advertisers, predictably, target specific sections of the population that have purchasing power. If editorial content is determined only by what will maximise readership/viewership, the inevitable effect is a decrease in diversity. So we witness both a homogenisation of content and a bias towards content that is of relevance only to urban, affluent or middle-class consumers.

During the 2008 terror attacks in Mumbai, the media were criticised for demonstrating class bias in their reporting. Undue coverage was given to what had happened at the five-star Taj and Oberoi Trident hotels over events at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where ordinary people were killed. The problem here is more insidious than blatant cases of corruption since it has an effect of disconnecting the media from the concerns of the majority of the population, thereby resembling what Noam Chomsky has called the manufacturing of consent, which is the creation of media representations by corporate groups, press barons, and politicians to serve their interests.

Regulation

Regulation can be the answer to this problem, particularly competition regulation to prevent cartelisation and anti-competitive behaviour, especially since the Press Council's writ is confined to the print medium and the quasi-judicial body has no punitive powers.

In February 2009, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) submitted to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry a report entitled Recommendations on Media Ownership. This report, which has not yet been made public (but a copy of which is available with the writers of this article), has advocated that necessary safeguards be put in place to ensure plurality and diversity are maintained across the three media segments of print, television and radio.

The report, prepared with the help of the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, has suggested measures to restrict cross-media ownership to some extent and to maintain a distinction between the broadcaster and the distributor in order to avoid anti-competitive behaviour and media monopolies. It has also pointed out that one of the main problems with current media regulations in India is that these are based on companies, not corporate groups or conglomerates. Many large corporate groups own different companies and are, therefore, able to bypass restrictions totally. No action has been taken so far on the TRAI's recommendations.

Important individuals in all governments in the U.K., India and elsewhere like to cultivate the media even as they have a love-hate relationship with journalists and their employers. But time alone will answer the question as to whether the phone hacking scandal relating to News of the World and the manner in which the Murdochs and senior staffers once employed by companies controlled by them were publicly interrogated will have a salutary effect on the promoters and editors of Indian media organisations.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an independent journalist and an educator. Alice Seabright is a British journalist working in India.

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