• Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 05:30

The News Minute | June 6, 2014 | 12.51 pm IST

Reliance Industries Limited’ takeover of Network 18 and its subsidiaries last month was a palpable shift in Indian journalism. One that the mainstream media simply did not discuss. Strange, because it loudly discusses anything and everything under the sun.

RIL’s takeover of Network 18, raises questions about ownership of the media and its implications for free and impartial journalism. Both issues have been discussed not just by researchers, but even by journalists on various fora. It has also been the subject of books by independent journalists and researchers, but there has been next to no discussion about this in the mainstream media. 

However, perhaps because of the sheer diversity of Indian media, and also new web-based technologies, is has been possible keep discussions alive. 

On June 6, Deccan Herald published an opinion piece by senior journalist Kuldip Nayar on the silence of the mainstream television channels on even reporting the takeover of Network 18. He says he was not surprised that the television channels ignored the development, but surprised at the lack of discussion on it:

Most channels - roughly around 300 - are owned by property dealers who can afford to spend Rs 1 crore, an average monthly expenditure, through money laundering. Every one of them wants to be the Reliance one day.

“What has taken me aback is that the press has reported the deal but has preferred to keep quiet. Even though journalism has ceased to be a profession and has become an industry, I was expecting some reactions, at least from the Editors’ Guild of India. But then it is understandable when it has rejected my proposal that editors should also declare their assets public, the demand which they voice for politicians. Double standards make a mockery of the high pedestal on which the media sit.”

Nayar also talks about the necessity of journalists declaring their assets, when they make the demands of others.

He then discusses the effects of advertising – both government and private – on media houses, the necessity of a Press Commission and the demand of the Press Council of India for a revamp to incorporate electronic media as well. 

Media ownership trends

Any meaningful views expressed on media ownership in India come largely from journalists and researcher who are published by the alternative media, news websites and websites dedicated to monitoring of and commentary on reportage. 

One of the most prominent voices discussing media ownership is that of independent journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurtha, who has written extensively on the subject. In one of the many articles he has written on the subject is Media Ownership Trends in India. In this article, he says that over the years, media houses have come to be owned by both political parties and large corporations. He also discusses the ways in which adverting and the economy affect media houses’ finances.

Recently, News Laundry published a graphic - Who owns your media  - that details the ownership of large media houses such as Dainik Bhaskar, Deccan Chronicle, Hindustan Times, Information Tv Private Limited, Jagran Group, NDTV, Network 18, Sun Group, Zee News. This comes with a tag-line “more coming soon”.

An image has been created for each group, displaying the owners, share-holders, relationships of share-holders with prominent people, and the subsidiaries owned by the parent group. News Laundry also discloses the ownership of its own founders. 

Media business

Media watch website The Hoot, has a section on Media Business, in which it follows media ownership and transactions within and between media companies. Look it up here.

On The Hoot, Vivian Fernandes writes about Raghav Bahl and the channel he founded (Tv18 first, later it turned into CNN-IBN) and the trajectory of both. 

In a piece titled “Raghav Bahl: felled by his own philosophy? ”, Fernandes says: “When a start-up venture grows into one of India’s biggest news and entertainment networks within the span of a decade and a half, without the backing of a business group, it will be frequently short of cash. TV18 was always in and out of the woods. It suffered a near death blow in the mid-1990s… This led to a bloodbath in TV18. A large number of people were sacked. At that time TV18 was run like a family.”

And later, he writes: “Both Raghav and Haresh (Chawla, Group CEO) were made for each other and their ambition soared. They tied up with marquee media brands like CNBC-TV18 and CNN. Eyeing CNBC-TV18 juicy profitability (operating margin in excess of 50 percent), Prannoy Roy of NDTV launched Profit. But he was too much of a socialist to make it a success. Raghav and Haresh struck back by doing the equivalent of Prithiviraj and Samyukta; they poached Rajdeep Sardesai from NDTV and set up CNN-IBN!”

Fernandes finishes with: “That Raghav did not expect Mukesh Ambani to formalise control is evident from the Think India Foundation set up last year and his plans for it. For amplification of views he would have needed the news channels. He had also latterly invested in a large and elegant office for himself.

"This is how big fish behave. Raghav is feeling the cold edge of the philosophy he espouses.”

The Hoot also published an editorial on the RIL takeover (The owner strikes back ). Among other things, it said: “Mr Ambani has too much at stake in the system to allow the news channels the luxury of complete editorial independence… It was galling for Mukesh Ambani to see the leaders of the party (AAP) such as Prashant Bhushan being given space to air their views on CNBC TV 18 and CNN IBN, after Arvind Kejriwal had launched such a direct attack on him in the run up to the elections… He held off doing anything about until the election results were out and it became clear that AAP had not established any significant political hold.” (Emphasis added)