Impact of Ownership on Media Independence

The previous two speakers, Shahina KK and Neha Dixit, spoke from personal experience about the way managements directly dictate how to spin content and fail to support journalists who do investigative journalism. When free speech and media’s role in democracies as the primary sources of information are debated, we must also recognise that what we experience as individual journalists is a symptom of a larger malaise that has taken over the media industry.

We have been studying the Telugu news television industry since 2012. Based on the information filed by the Telugu news channels with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs, we discovered some patterns of ownership. There were 17 news channels in March 2014 in the Telugu market before Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Of the 17 channels, three were being run by publicly listed, out of state media groups – Zee 24 Ghantalu, Raj News and Gemini news. While all the three groups are profitable and run bouquets of channels that include general entertainment, their Telugu news channels were not profitable. Zee leased the channel to a politician and later shut it and shifted it to another state. Raj News leased its Telugu news channel to a politician as well. Gemini news went through a major restructuring.

Of the remaining 14 channels, all are privately held. One channel, V6, is owned by an SC politician/entrepreneur who owns manufacturing units. Sakshi, is owned by a Reddy politician. 10TV, was launched on behalf of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) through crowd-funding. Of the rest of the 11 channels, nine are owned by the dominant Kamma caste entrepreneurs from coastal Andhra and two are held by the dominant Velama caste entrepreneurs of Telangana. Except for V6 and 10TV that are financed by resources from the real economy, all the other channels are funded by finances from the services sector of the economy, more specifically, from the speculative part of the service sector such as real estate and non-bank finance including chit funds.

None of the news channels turned in profits during the period studied (2012-14). ETV while showing over-all profit for the group, was in deep financial crisis and had to sell its non-Telugu channels to Reliance through TV18 deal. TV9 too has filed profits but its Telugu news segment is in losses.

Apart from the domination by caste and regional interests, which exacerbated the separatist sentiment before the bifurcation of the state, the direct and indirect participation of politicians in the news media industry and the perpetual losses the channels appear to operate in, indicates that the common argument to explain away sensationalised news coverage as merely a business strategy to garner TRPs, is suspect.

Media houses invested in the local political stakes routinely re-work, sell or exit the news space, but those that are heavily invested in the local political stakes remain in the market even when they incur losses year after year. The exit of the three major out-of-state channels from news space and the persistent presence of the others despite losses is a case in point. It is no longer a profit and loss issue.

Politicians and the speculative business interests have taken over the news television industry and are driving their own agendas. Many channels have been unable to pay salaries on time. There have been mass retrenchments in 2014-15 of middle and senior positions in newsrooms. There is a greater reliance on untrained and under-paid recruits who have little understanding of the larger mission of journalism in a democracy. In this general atmosphere of siege, women journalists have been finding it more difficult to work and survive. Many are compelled to join the ranks of independent journalists.

The media is under siege from two forces. One the state and its various coercive arms, which are more visible and can be challenged to an extent by invoking the extension of Constitutional guarantee of free speech to media. But when the media come under the siege of dubious financial and political forces, it is a fight against a more insidious enemy. It has to be fought at the regulatory, structural and systemic levels. Of this, there has not been much introspection in media.