: The fixer-businessman's new badge of honour — and disgrace : Besides political connections, there is one equally significant common thread linking the owners of chit fund companies currently under the scanner in the east. They are all media owners as well. Many have a footprint across media and languages. Further, there are other common factors within their media businesses. For none of them, is media a major or core activity.
Most of them make losses in their media businesses. For all of them, media has also been an afterthought, after they had made their money in other businesses, mainly chit funds, mining, real estate or simply politics. They obviously saw media as a small investment relative to the size of their businesses. What is more important to the people of India, and for us, a small but expanding community of Indian journalists, they also saw media as a force multiplier. A mere adjunct to their businesses, a small hole in their balance sheets, but an investment that was monetised in other ways. It secured you political patronage, protected you from the police and regulators, helped you fix your rivals and, as in the case of the head of the media ventures owned by the Saradha group, got you a seat in Rajya Sabha. One thing it rarely made you was old-fashioned profits.
The Saradha group set up several news channels, besides newspapers in Bengali, English, Hindi and Urdu. The group in the Northeast it was looking to invest in belonged to another unconventional owner, an occasional politician, Matang Singh, who appeared from nowhere to become a minister in Narasimha Rao’s cabinet in Chandraswami’s heyday and disappeared equally mysteriously. If he and his wife Manoranjana Singh made any money running the media business, we do not know, but it seems unlikely. Rose Valley, Tower Group, Shine Group, Rahul Group, Chakra Group and G Group, all under the scanner now in Bengal, have the same basket of interests: chit funds, real estate and media. In resource-rich east-central India, where a mining lease is the ticket to status, clout and a private Cessna Citation, even an Embraer, a media appendage has now become a necessity.
THE political class was the first to understand what a tiny business the media was financially, and how out of proportion its clout. The first “non-traditional” media entrepreneurs in this current phase were thus politicians, particularly in the states. Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s Sakshi group is the most visible, but there are many others, some in almost every state. Of these two sets of new entrants in the media, entrepreneurs who work on the cusp of politics and resources (mining, real estate) and regulation (non-banking finance), and the politicians, the latter have been cleverer. If it was clout they were after, the better way, some of them figured, was to control access for others rather than go through the “jhanjhat” (messiness) of setting up channels and newspapers and paying salaries to ungrateful, insufferable journalists. Go over the map of India, state by state, and see how politicians have taken control of television channel distribution. Punjab and Tamil Nadu are two of the starkest examples where powerful political leaders or families control distribution, and anybody critical of them is routinely taken off air. You are also less likely to lose money in this business. Distribution has guaranteed incomes, and political clout ensures your monopoly anyway.
But why are we complaining? Why are we being so protective of what only we see as our turf? There is nothing in the law to stop anybody from owning media. And sure enough, the biggest business houses in India have tried their hand with the media and retreated with burnt fingers and singed balance sheets. The Ambanis (Observer Group), Vijaypat Singhania (Indian Post), L.M. Thapar (The Pioneer), Sanjay Dalmia (Sunday Mail), Lalit Suri (Delhi Midday), are like a rollcall of the captains of Indian industry who failed in the media business. They failed, you’d say, because they did not, deep down, respect the media, or journalists. Many of them saw themselves as victims of poorly paid, dimwit journalists employed by people who called themselves media barons but were barons of what was a boutique business compared to theirs.
But there is a difference between then and now, and between them and the state-level businessmen investing in the media now. They failed because they did not respect journalism. The current lot are setting up or buying up media mainly because they do not respect journalism, because they think all journalists are available, if not for sale then for hire, as lawfully paid employees. If you have a couple of news channels and newspapers, a few well known (and well connected) journalists as your employees, give them a fat pay cheque, a Merc, and they solve your problem of access and power. They also get you respect, as you get to speak to, and rub shoulders with top politicians, even intellectuals, at awards and events organised by your media group. It is the cheapest ticket to clout, protection and a competitive edge. A bit like, to steal the immortal line Shashi Kapoor spoke to his wayward “brother” Amitabh Bachchan in Yash Chopra’s Deewar (mere paas maa hai), tere paas police, SEBI, RBI, CBI, kuchch bhi ho, mere paas media hai. Remember how Gopal Kanda defied Delhi Police to arrest him rather than have him present himself grandly for surrender? The police put up scores of checkpoints to look for him, but he arrived in style, riding an OB van of STV, a channel known to be “close” to him. Which cop would dare to look inside an OB van?
Most of us, particularly senior citizens in the profession, have stories of cash-rich businessmen promising “blank cheques” to set up new media companies. My favourite is of a well known and, frankly, well respected and clean real-estate baron coming in to see me once, in evident distress, and asking if I would set up a TV channel for him, whatever the cost, Rs 300, 400 crore. I asked him why. Almost every news TV channel in India was losing money. He said he had spent all of the previous day waiting for his turn at a land allotment meeting in Noida. Nobody asked him even for a glass of water, while all those who owned some media were ushered in with respect as soon as they arrived. And of course, the deal would have cost them much less. He had walked out with the resolve to set up his own media. I did explain to him that, in that case, he had come to the wrong people, but he isn’t the only one of his kind you would come across lately.
WE are complaining, and we should be worried, because this new phenomenon destroys two things. One, it damages our markets by distorting wages and corrupting terms of engagement with advertisers, sponsors and government. Second, it wrecks the very bedrock of our profession: respect that is built over years and decades of honesty, integrity and professional competence. Journalism, in so many ways, is like medicine, a very special, even noble profession with its own equivalent of the Hippocratic oath. This new invasion has contributed to the declining respect for the journalistic class, a point I had tried to make in an earlier article (‘Noose Media’, IE, April 3, 2010, goo.gl/MwgzW), provoked to see how often journalists were being mocked or caricatured in popular culture and Hindi cinema. And that was five months before Peepli Live.
So what can we do about it? Any suggestion that gives the government, or any regulator, a say in who can own the media would be disastrous. Esoteric ideas cannot work. You’d remember how venerable Justice P.B. Sawant, as press council chairman in the ’90s (he would have hit more headlines than Justice Katju if there was much news TV then), used to say that journalists’ cooperatives should run newspapers. I had humbly pleaded with him that such a thing would never work: I was a member of a housing cooperative run by journalists and it was a disaster. You will, therefore, need entrepreneurs to run the media.
Maybe we should begin by learning to talk more about ourselves, and more openly. There is no bar on who owns media, but disclosure and discussion of conflicts of interest should be widespread and open. Print, at least, has an annual disclosure of its shareholders. This should be extended to news TV. But, more than that, we need to cover and investigate each other. How many of us knew this web of conflicting media-chit fund-real estate-political interests in Bengal before lakhs had lost their life-savings and the media hundreds of jobs and a bit of credibility?
We in the mainstream media have to get over that old-fashioned queasiness. Because we cannot escape scrutiny now, and not only should we not try avoiding it, we should become part of it. It is not the usual, silly cry for naming and shaming, but for opening ourselves up to peer review and scrutiny.