Friday, February 25, 2011

Admiration at a Distance

Why the Media Believes that Transparency is only for Others

A study conducted at the five-year mark in the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI), found that the media had not been particularly keen in using the various possibilities inherent in the law. This should seem at first glance, rather curious, since the media derives its existence and social value, from its role as an institution that contributes to the quality of the public discourse by serving the public right to know. In comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, the media renders transparent that which is opaque and lets sunlight into the dark crevices where illegality and immorality may seek refuge.

It only requires a basic familiarity with the nature of the beast to dispel this seeming mystery. The basic rule of the media universe today is competition. And in the heat of competition, open sources of information where all have (putatively) equal rights of access, are of less consequence than exclusive, and jealously protected sources. Competitive advantage and advancement lie in securing privileged information, rather than in using humdrum procedures established by law to bring information into the public dialogue.

One of the messages of the Niira Radia tapes episode of 2010, which caused much public bemusement and spawned a torrent of caustic and creative commentary on the internet, was just how protective the media could be of its sources. This could indeed even be at great cost to the public right to know. Numerous politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats were discovered to have engaged in embarrassingly indiscrete conversations with the industry lobbyist whose telephones were tapped by the law enforcement agencies from about the middle of 2009, after valid suspicions arose about the legality of her activities. But for some reason, the media persons found saying things that they should not have – acting as intermediaries in the nexus between big business and politics and often tailoring their news scripts to suit powerful interests – attracted the greatest attention.

Protecting sources and pandering to corporate power
The media did its best to suppress the revelation of the Radia tapes, though with all the political drama that went before, it had all the ingredients to be the top news story of the year. The few newspapers that sought to bring the disclosures into the public discourse, were quickly dissuaded by the threat of legal action. The conspiracy of silence was remarkably successful and may indeed, have prevailed, had it not been for the vigorous conversations that began in the alternative universe of the blogosphere.

It took only one mainstream magazine to break the pact of silence, before another followed suit. Then followed another long silence. For a news media that is often, in pursuit of the lowest common denominator of audience taste, prone to suffer spasms of outrage over trivialities, this was a story that had sensation in authentic and abundant measure. And yet, with not more than a handful of exceptions, the story was consigned to a black-hole of media neglect. On November 29, a full five days since the story was first splashed across the covers of two mainstream magazines, Ratan Tata, head of the country’s largest industrial group, moved the Supreme Court pleading a grievous breach of his privacy by the publication of his conversations with Radia. The following day, the country’s two largest English broadsheets, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, devoted generous space on their front pages to Tata’s petition. In the light of their long and obstinate silence over the Radia tapes themselves, readers who relied solely on the two newspapers for their information, may have been justified in wondering what the fuss was all about.

Radia’s conversations plainly put, reveal much that is of public interest. Since the context in which they emerged was the heightened sense of public outrage over the scandal in the allocation of the radio-frequency spectrum for second-generation telecom services (the so-called “2G scam”), what the Radia tapes say about this particular matter may seem especially pertinent. India’s biggest industrial groups had vast stakes in the appointment process to the Union Cabinet after the general elections to the Lok Sabha in 2009. The Radia tapes reveal just what were the stratagems that went into determining these ministerial choices. The Tata group had a particular nominee for the Telecom Ministry, while competitors, such as Bharti-Airtel and the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, had their own. Because his nominee seemed to enjoy the favour of a political dynasty in Tamil Nadu, an indispensable ally of the ruling coalition at the Centre, Tata won that particular round. A. Raja took office as Minister for Telecom, with little indication then that he would in less than two years time, be in prison undergoing interrogation on charges of massive corruption.

Things did not go as smoothly for the Tata group as may have been then anticipated. On 11 June 2009, Radia speaks to Ratan Tata, to convey some rather grim news: that the frequency allocation process was going against the group’s interest, with the telecom minister seemingly “hellbent” on allocating 6.25 Megahertz (MHz) of spectrum space to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications (R-Com). Once that space went to the Reliance group, Radia feared, there would be very little left for the Tatas.

Buying the “greedy” media: Radia points the way
Tata betrays his innocence of the ways of Delhi’s power lobbies when he frets that Raja had been rather inattentive to Radia – and was indeed “playing games” -- despite all she had done on his behalf. Radia is more tough-minded, accepting the ways of the world she works in, where no covenant is so strong that it endures fast changing calculations of personal gain.

On 7 July 2009, while travelling in Israel, Tata receives a call from Radia indicating serious discord with Raja. Ambani’s Reliance group was absolutely insistent on getting 6.25 MHz of spectrum allocation, since that was key to them getting equity investment from the global telecom giant AT&T. Without that infusion of capital, Reliance, Radia assessed, could well crumble under its massive burden of accummulated debt.

Tata asks why these matters are not being reported in the media. Radia responds, playing the worldly wise and indulgent tutor to an ingenuous pupil: “Ratan, they’re buying up the media. They’re using their buying power with the media. … I can’t tell you the discussions I have had with the media, in particular the Times Group and Dainik Bhaskar…. They say, Niira, every time we do a negative story on them, they withdraw advertising. So, I said, fine, others can also withdraw advertising…. They leverage every dollar of their mediaspend to ensure they don’t get negative publicity. The media is very, very greedy”.

Early in January this year, a leading business daily reported that the Tata management had directed all group companies to cease cooperation with a number of media outlets. Unsurprisingly, all the outlets named had provided prominent coverage to the Radia tapes issue. The directive covered the participation of group executives in news stories by way of opinions and information. It also seemed to suggest that advertising by the group companies would be withdrawn from the concerned media outlets.

The message was clear: that the Tata group would not hesitate to play hardball with the media – taking on board the rules of engagement that rivals reportedly had adopted.

Faced with some degree of public bemusement at their antics, the journalists involved in the Radia tapes episode had a ready, almost facile answer: the profession involved using various kinds of sources and the information gathered would be filtered in accordance with a scrupulously fair and transparent editorial process. There was hence no possibility that conversations with any particular source would influence the tone and content of news put out into the public domain.

There was yet no attempt to explain why the media chose to suppress all information on the intense corporate lobbying that went into the selection of nominees for the Union Cabinet. Nor was there any mention of the corporate interests that were in play in the 2G scandal, even as some of India’s best known media persons simulated a sense of deep outrage at the magnitude of the losses it had caused to the public.

Circulation wars as a side-show
As the Radia tapes played out on the mainstage, India’s two biggest newspaper groups were enacting an interesting side-show. On 3 December 2010, the Times of India (ToI) front-paged a story celebrating the abiding strength of newspapers in India, which was in defiance of a worldwide trend of declining readership and collapsing profitability. Results announced by the Indian Readership Survey (IRS) – a quarterly exercise that has become an important guide for corporate groups in deciding where best to place their ads – had shown that the ToI had consolidated its overall market dominance in India and regained its top position in the vital Delhi market.

The same day, the Hindustan Times (HT) had a front-page story citing the same round of the IRS as source and declaring its unquestioned leadership among English language newspapers in Delhi.

For the uninitiated, both newspapers explained the bases on which they were making their respective claims, throwing out the arcane jargon of the trade, such as average issue readership (AIR), solus readership and total readership, as if they were self-explanatory terms. And if HT found great solace in the figures that the IRS returned from Mumbai, representing it as the second placed newspaper in terms of readership, the rival Daily News and Analysis (DNA) found occasion to crow about its undisputed status as the “fastest-growing newspaper” in that very affluent market.

“Readership wars” are a recurrent feature of the India media scene – in the television domain the equivalent would be the “ratings” war over the size and the demographic composition of the audiences that watch particular channels. Agreement on the procedures by which readership figures are collected has proved difficult to achieve and when achieved, brief. The National Readership Survey, which began in the early-1990s as a collaborative venture of India’s leading newspaper groups, was soon abandoned by some who branded its methodology unfair, simply because it failed to come up with figures that suited their convenience. The IRS which came later as a consortium of media groups and market research agencies, invariably draws the ire of the magazine sector, which believes itself to be a victim of deliberate bias, severely impairing its competitive status in the market for ads.

The media industry in India it is well known, depends almost entirely on advertising. A consequence of the dimunition of subscriptions as a revenue source has been the devaluation of the information function and the undermining of public institutional responsibilities. The first consequence of the pressure of ad departments on the journalism function was a shift in news content: from stories about real people and their daily anxieties to celebrity and life-style oriented coverage. These were deemed to provide the better “editorial context” for ads, since every big corporate spender would want his ad placed against a backdrop of stories that tempted the viewer or reader towards a horizon of expanding aspirations.

Cash for coverage
Further consequences followed inexorably and in logical progression: the ToI announced in 2003 that it would have space to sell for anybody seeking news coverage. This was dressed up as a valid means of expanding information gathering options, while staying current with the growing importance of public relations firms in determining news agendas. Today, as an investigative reporter found out by merely dialling Medianet, the agency that the ToI uses to sell news space, coverage of one’s choice can be bought for Rs 2,000 a column-centimetre on the front page and Rs 1,200 on any inner page of the Delhi Times, the ToI’s daily supplement.

At a later stage, the ToI, which has been quite the innovator in harvesting new revenue sources for the media, began the initiative of “private treaties”, which involved the acquisition of shares in enterprises in exchange for advertising space. When the concerned enterprise grew to a level where it could conceivably go public, the media company that had freely advertised its merits would cash in. This example was one that most media enterprises, including the broadcast companies, eagerly followed.

In August 2010, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), statutory watchdog of India’s stockmarkets, introduced new disclosure norms, requiring that media companies reveal their holdings in companies they report on. These norms were evolved in consultation with the Press Council of India (PCI), in response to growing public concern over the prevalence of news content that was paid for by corporate and political entities.

A quick survey of the media reaction to the SEBI norms tells a story in itself. Of Delhi’s four main English broadsheet newspapers, two – ToI and HT – chose to ignore the story altogether. The Hindu carried the story prominently on its business news pages and wrote an editorial welcoming the SEBI directive. The Indian Express seemingly had no space in its news columns for the story, but came out with an editorial welcoming the disclosure norms.

It became evident that “cash for coverage” or “paid news” is not a practice confined to the pages of newspaper supplements or lifestyle shows, during the extended campaign for the general elections to the Lok Sabha, between March and May 2009. Further instances of cash payments being used to secure favourable media coverage for particular candidates and parties, were recorded during the general elections to three state legislative assemblies in October 2009.

Among the first journalists’ bodies to take note of this abuse was the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ). All the evidence pointing to the existence of “paid news” was either circumstantial or based on hearsay. Typewritten sheets were circulated purporting to show the rates at which favourable news coverage could be purchased from particular newspapers. But these did not carry any marks identifying their origin. The APUWJ soon after the general elections of 2009 sought an estimate of the magnitude of the practice through a sample survey of newspapers, identifying news-reports and other published material that failed to meet basic professional standards of attribution, coherence and consistency with overall editorial policy of the newspaper. The inference was that material that failed to meet these standards could have been “paid news”.

In June 2009, the Delhi Union of Journalists wrote to the PCI, pointing to the widespread abuse and describing “paid news” as “unethical, unfair and an infringement of the journalists’ right to report fairly”.

Individual journalists of some stature began speaking out against the abuse soon afterwards. Among these were Kuldip Nayar, most senior among practising journalists today and Prabhash Joshi, a widely-read and respected Hindi writer who died in 2009. In one of his last public speeches, Joshi spoke out against newspaper managements that believed they were exempt from public scrutiny. “Some of them” he warned, also seem to “believe that readers have forfeited their rights to question the integrity of the press”.

An inquiry undermined
The PCI soon commenced a formal inquiry under a sub-committee comprising the independent journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and the General Secretary of the Indian Journalists’ Union, K. Sreenivas Reddy. A draft report of the sub-committee was discussed at a meeting of the PCI in Indore on 31 March 2010. Despite being unable to refuge the findings of the report, representatives of the newspaper industry were reluctant to see any strong recommendations that would enhance the powers of oversight or investigation available to government agencies.

Earlier, at a 13 March 2010 public meeting called by the Editors’ Guild of India, representatives of political parties had urged that since the PCI lacked the statutory powers to deal with the matter, the Election Commission of India (ECI) should be granted jurisdiction over investigating “paid news” as an electoral malpractice. There were also suggestions, much resented by the newspaper industry, that the Income-Tax Department should have powers of search and seizure where a suspicion exists of media having benefited from “paid news”.

Among the media identified in the draft PCI report as practitioners of “paid news” were the largest circulated newspapers in Hindi and Marathi. Both these belong to business houses that have diversified into other media lines. Both have ad revenues consistent with their leadership positions in respective market segments. Neither seemingly, could advance the argument that they were impelled to adopt the “paid news” practice on account of dire financial need.

Media credibility was beginning to emerge a visible casualty, as too was the integrity of the electoral process. The chief minister of Maharashtra state, for considerations yet unknown, managed to get identical stories about his achievements (real and imagined, though mostly the latter) featured in a number of Marathi language newspapers, under different author bylines. Several newspapers also carried extensive supplements within their main editions, blazoning his glories, again without the slightest suggestion that this was advertising content. After all that, the Maharashtra chief minister in his election expenditure statement submitted to the ECI, declared total expenses of Rs 700,000 and advertising expenses of Rs 12,000.

The draft PCI report covered a wide range of practices that compromised media integrity. Taking note of the “Medianet” and “private treaties” initiatives, it observed that leveraging news content as a direct revenue source, was not a new practice.

In the face of the stiff resistance of industry representatives, a 12-member “drafting committee” was tasked with evolving a consensus position for the report to adopt. After four months of inconclusive bargaining, the drafting committee stripped the 36,000-word draft report to a tenth of its original length, omitting all specific mentions of situations in which the practice of “paid news” had been detected, and eliminating language on journalists’ wages and working conditions that unions had specifically insisted on. The report had after broad consultations, recorded a finding that journalists in India – despite the protection of the Working Journalists’ Act (WJA) – were increasingly under pressure to opt for short-term contractual employment which diminished autonomy and rendered them susceptible to the pressures and demands imposed by marketing and advertising personnel.

Media finances: opaque and obscure
In introducing the WJA in Parliament – as far back as 1955 -- Information Minister B.V. Keskar had said that though small in its scope, the new law was important since it held possibilities to promote “better security of journalists”, which would necessarily promote the freedom of the press. But a key aspect of the WJA, which mandates the formation of wage boards at regular intervals to examine the entire range of journalists’ working conditions and prescribe appropriate levels of compensation, has remained a provision of ambiguous value. Hearing a petition of the newspaper industry against the first wage award made under the WJA, the Supreme Court had held that it was unlawful since it took no account of industry capacity to pay, effectively burdening the body with a task that it was unlikely ever to have the authority to perform.

Newspaper companies – then as now – remain with few exceptions, private entities with no obligation under law to reveal their financial parameters. Fast forwarding several decades to 2011, when the fifth wage board constituted under the WJA has just submitted its report, the situation remains in essence, unchanged. Justice G.R. Majithia, the chairman of the wage board which has recommended a modest rise in wages for journalists and other newspaper employees, recently spoke out in public, expressing his disappointment that newspaper industry finances remain an area of opacity. Though the wage increases he had recommended were in his perception, eminently reasonable, India’s apex industry lobby, the Indian Newspaper Society had reacted with little delay urging their rejection in totality.

In the broadcast sector, the judicial orthodoxy has been set by a 1995 judgment of the Supreme Court, in what is called the “airwaves case”. The doctrine is clearly set out: the broadcast spectrum is a public resource which should be allocated and used in accordance with a clear definition of the public interest. Yet the two decades of liberalisation since 1991 have also been the period of the corporate colonisation of the broadcast spectrum – and most of the new broadcasters that dictate the news agenda today are opaque in their shareholding pattern, successful in actively beating back any rules on financial disclosure.

Uniquely among all industries, the media is able to dictate the tone of the public discourse on its functioning. And this influence has been exerted to safeguard the private right to earn a profit, with little regard for the public right to information. It is not as if the media have had a free pass though. Recent years have seen a greater degree of public scrutiny of the media’s approach to vital issues of contemporary concern. And the overall verdict, pronounced by an increasingly vibrant debate through alternative media channels such as the internet, is that the industry is increasingly squandering the public trust.

For all its high profile and public visibility, the media is really a small part of the overall industrial landscape. Illustratively, HT Media, one of the few media companies whose financial parameters are known – because it is a public limited company with shares listed in the stockmarkets – has an annual turnover of the order of a tenth of the annual sales promotion and ad expenditure of the country’s largest consumer goods company, Hindustan Unilever Ltd. And the intensifying competition between media companies for corporate ad budgets which are not growing fast enough to accommodate them all, is driving a race to the bottom, which makes news content and integrity the first casualty.

In today’s market-obsessed environment, any alternative media philosophy would quite simply, be laughed out of court as quixotic or worse.

No comments: