(Note: I had written this article almost a year ago for Young Bhartiya (Mumbai-based think tank). Observing the current media trends, this article remains relevant even today and gives an understanding of why we see what we see in various news channels today).
Media is called the fourth pillar of Indian democracy. It plays a crucial role as a medium of communication between the government and the people. In today’s world, thanks to technology, news is available to everybody at anytime at their fingertips, and it moulds public opinion of almost everything.
Thus, it becomes important to know the source and intent of the news one reads. Different media groups provide us with diverse opinions. Media pluralism reflects an essential tenet of democracy i.e. freedom of speech. It plays a vital role in sustaining a democracy and therefore, it is essential that media itself functions in a democratic manner.
Hence, in order to serve its inherent purpose, it is vital that media channels provide to its readers true content without any biases or motives. Media is a powerful institution and under wrong influences, it can act as a threat to democracy. This article discusses the biggest challenge that the media industry is facing today: Media Ownership.
Oligarchy in any business is considered unhealthy. However, unfortunately, the current trends in media market point towards cross media ownership. Cross media ownership is a situation in which a single media producer owns different channels of communication, which include print, digital, television, radio etc. India is a lingually diverse nation, then one might wonder, how is media dominance possible?
We, however, see it spreading unregulated in the Indian scenario. One of the best-selling English newspapers in India, The Times of India, owns 40 other new media businesses. Similarly, other major groups such as Essel group (owner of Zee media) and Hindustan Times have influence over more than one media platforms.
It’s not surprising that the majority of the news channels today are either owned or controlled by political parties or corporate houses. Moreover, political parties and corporate entities have a symbiotic relationship. Corporates provide parties with funds and, in return, political parties help them grow their business. An ideal media would expose this unfair nexus, but today, it has also become one of them.
Democracy, often called as rule of majority, is designed in such a way that the ruling party can never turn itself into an autocratic power. The opposition party and the media have a huge role in ensuring that. But in reality, the Indian media, instead of being the watchdog, acts as the right hand of the ruling party.
Cobrapost, a non-profit news website, once conducted a sting operation to uncover relations between the current ruling party and certain prominent media houses. Few of these media houses are India Today, Zee News, the Times of India, Network 18, Radio One and Dainik Jagran. ‘Operation 136 ‘, as it has been termed, exposed the ill practices that these media houses engage in to favour the party by manipulating public opinion.
Political parties use media outlets for lobbying purposes as a medium to achieve their vested interests, and especially as an instrument to promote their party during elections. They own the channels either directly in their own name, through their relatives or through corporate companies. For instance, the Sun group is indirectly owned by the DMK party. The group not only owns TV channels, but also radio stations, three daily newspapers and magazines in Tamil.
All over the world today, corporate entities own most of the media platforms. For them, it is not just a source to reap profits and expand their business, but also a way towards influence and power. By investing in media groups, they pursue their economic interests. Rupert Murdoch is a well known name in the media empire. He not only owns media platforms in Australia, but also has influence over foreign media platforms including India.
In India, the Reliance group, run by the Ambani family, has major control over media channels. Media group Network 18 is owned by them; Network 18 in turn owns several television news channels. Ownership of corporate firms restricts the ease and credibility of media. In the year 2013, Akash Ambani of Reliance Industries was involved in a car crash. However, very few media houses actually reported this incident to its full length, and out of those who reported it, some had to delete their report later. Clearly, the corporate influence over media did not allow facts regarding the case to be put out in public sphere.
Such media ownership is dangerous for a democracy. It has completely altered the way media should function. The institution of media, ideally, should remain independent from any kind of fear, pressure or external interference in their affairs. Sadly, media groups today are dependent on political parties and corporate entities for investment and thus, fear to report anything against them.
All this has led to rise in commercialisation of news, paid news, sensational news stories and propaganda news. Thus, what the readers or viewers get is filtered and manipulative information. The rampant use of internet adds more to this misery. Traditional media outlets have websites in their name and own many other news websites as well. Due to common ownership, the content present is not new, thus affecting media plurality. The new media has also become a platform to spread fake news.
Another pressing issue in the media industry is of commercialisation and the growing number of advertisements in both print and new media. More than news content, newspaper columns are filled with advertisements. Instead of important news articles, advertisements occupy front pages of leading newspaper dailies. This again decreases the readers’ access to important information.
The Indian media, during its beginning in the independence days, emerged as the voice of the people and the nation. It had a mission and a purpose to serve the nation. It represented a collective voice of the people against the British oppression. Media was then strong and independent. But post independence, the sanctity and integrity of this institution started declining. Today, media is witnessing dark times where it has surrendered its powers to those with money.
This issue has not received due attention. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting referred this issue to TRAI twice, in 2008 and 2014. The TRAI, in its consultation paper, recommended measures to regulate media ownership. Apart from India, cross media ownership exists in many other countries. The US, the UK, Australia and Canada have formulated laws to limit media ownerships in their countries.
Australia and Canada have a blanket restriction on the entry of a media entity into more than one or two media segments. After studying the laws in these countries, TRAI recommended that political bodies, religious bodies, government institutions and other publicly funded bodies should not be allowed to own media groups as media plurality is necessary in building public opinion.
Except for the formulation of Press Council of India in 1978, no other action has been taken to check media ownership. No strict action has been taken on the recommendation given by the TRAI. In the current scenario, media should no more function as a self-regulated body. Regulations in media is the need of the hour.
Despite living in a democracy, citizens find it hard to get to the truth. Their rights are being violated by those who are meant to protect them. And thus they ask, ‘Can the media be trusted?’