Owning the news

Owning the news

Journalists once talked louder than money.
Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz
Illustration: Marcin Bondarowicz
When the news media becomes its own newsmaker there is reason to rejoice – or repent. Take Geo News, for instance. Pakistan's most watched news channel is holding the world transfixed by doing what the country's politicians haven't dared – locking horns with the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. The first week of June this year saw a further escalation in their battle, with the channel suing the spook agency for defamation over accusations of being 'anti-state', even as the country's electronic media regulator suspended Geo for 15 days for reporting that the ISI was behind the April shooting of Hamid Mir, one of the network's marquee journalists, and imposed a fine of PKR 10 million (around USD 100,000). We can only rejoice at a media organisation showing such courage under fire.

Mass media and the Modi 'wave' by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

Pakistan's media wars by Beena Sarwar

Violence, voices and visibility by Laxmi Murthy

Kashmir's media story by Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal

Women in the newsroom by Amrita Tripathi


The work of the Guardian, a British daily, is similarly inspiring. The globally iconic newspaper brought Rupert Murdoch's News Corp to its knees by exposing how the corporation's British tabloids had bribed the police and hacked into the phones of celebrities, politicians and even the Royal Family; faced off against British and American authorities with its WikiLeaks and Snowden revelations because, according to the paper's editor Alan Rusbridger, citizens in a democracy deserved to know; and is working towards transforming itself into a global digital newspaper aimed at engaged, anti-establishment readers, while keeping it available entirely for free – a heady experiment indeed. Cheers.

In India, it is not journalists who are grabbing the headlines but their owners.

Alternately, we could wring our hands at the less uplifting news of surveys in both the US and the UK showing that only a quarter or so of the populace in those countries believe that journalists contribute "a lot" to society's well-being, with only business executives, politicians and lawyers faring worse. (In the US, TV reporters are barely more popular than advertising salespeople, state-level politicians or car salesmen; while in Britain, print journalists take perverse pride in "being down there with the money-changers and the harlots," with only one in five members of the public trusting journalists to tell the truth – on par with bankers and below real estate agents.) The comforting theory that if everybody hates them they must be doing something right doesn't quite cut ice – the public esteem of journalists has, over the years, been going steadily downhill.
Vanity fair
In India, it is not journalists who are grabbing the headlines but their owners – and it is time to repent, and regroup. The climax was reached at the end of May with the dramatic announcement that the Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance Industries had gobbled up Network 18's sizeable bouquet of broadcast and digital media properties. The nation's richest man is now a media mogul; he will now not only grace front pages and flat screens, announcing mega projects and attending prime ministerial investiture ceremonies, but will pull the strings behind the scenes, too.
This is news not because it is the first time we are seeing a businessman investing in the media. Many of India's leading publications, including the Times of India, Hindustan Times, Malayala Manorama and Eenadu (to name just a few), owe their existence to business families. Even the roots of the Indian Express lie in a businessman who went on to become India's most colourful press magnate, the redoubtable Ramnath Goenka. Later, even the Tatas had a stake in the Statesman. In the late 80s and early 90s, many other business stalwarts such as Vijaypat Singhania (the Indian Post), L M Thapar (the Pioneer), Sanjay Dalmia (Sunday Mail) and Lalit Suri (Delhi Midday) had illusions of media grandeur. Even the Ambanis, including papa Ambani himself, tried it once (Business and Political Observer) and found it a rather sour experience. And less than two years ago, the Aditya Birla Group announced that it had bought a 27.5 percent stake in Living Media India which publishes India Today and owns TV Today. So the prospect of Indian businessman launching and acquiring media platforms is neither new nor newsmaking. Yet the Ambani's takeover of Network 18 was news, and, deservedly, had the media agog.
None of the previous media barons or industrialists, not even the Ambanis of the 80s were as gargantuan or as formidable as the Ambanis today. As former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi put it in April this year, "Reliance is a parallel state. I do not know of any country where one single firm exercises such power so brazenly over the natural resources, financial resources, professional resources and, ultimately, over human resources."
Of course, an organisation as unassailable as Reliance doesn't really need to own media outlets to influence government policy or even to build a public image. Whether through fear or favour – or both – the media cannot be said to have been miserly in giving Reliance due coverage or importance. In fact, the battle royale that Ramnath Goenka fought with Dhirubhai Ambani in the pages of the Indian Express in the 80s is said to have been sparked off by Dhirubhai (who at the time was Goenka's friend) joking that he could get any of Goenka's Express journalists to do his bidding whenever he wanted.
The fact that Reliance has little interest in helping citizens make informed choices through the dissemination of information via its news channels, websites and magazines is no secret. According to a Reliance statement issued in the wake of the Network 18 deal, the "acquisition will differentiate Reliance's 4G business by providing an amalgamation of telecom, web and digital commerce via a suite of premier digital properties". Indeed, journalism is not what Reliance's investment in media is about. However deep his pockets, Mukesh Ambani is not dreaming of giving BBC, CNN or Al-Jazeera a run for their money. Though Reliance Jio (as the company's 4G wing is called), may sound like Pakistan's Geo, and the Independent Media Trust (the holding company set up in January 2012 to channel Reliance funds to Network 18) may sound like the Independent Media Corporation, which owns Geo, the two operations are as dissimilar as the proverbial chalk and cheese.
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