With diagnosis mixed up, solutions are off the mark
Given how private treaties and paid news have proliferated among certain sections of the media, the Press Council of India’s inability to deal with the issue, and the high-profile nature of some recent buying into media firms by top corporates, it is not surprising many feel the media is more a tool of abuse than use. That a lay person should fall into this trap is excusable, but for the telecom regulator Trai to do so is inexplicable; having got the diagnosis wrong, it is not surprising Trai has offered solutions that are at best irrelevant.
The principal problem stems from Trai believing the world of media is still confined to print and television. So, since Trai believes the internet is not a really potent force as yet—at a time when data usage is growing exponentially, Trai cites a two-year old study as saying that under 7% of users get their news from the internet—it argues that print and television are the markets to monitor. In order to preserve what Trai calls plurality of views, the regulator wants a ban on cross-holdings—so, if a firm’s newspaper and television companies have more than a 32% share of an ‘addressable’ market, the firm has to lower its stake in either the newspaper or television business. Given more people today get their news and views from aggregators like Google or social media, how is the addressable market to be measured—how do you measure the market share of a big retailer at a time when e-tail is taking away big slices of the market? It has to mean something that the prime minister’s main messages to the nation are through twitter and Facebook.
Linked to this, Trai needs to make up its mind about what the problem is. If it is paid news and private treaties like many in the media believe it is, this cannot be equated with corporate houses buying into media ones or with cross-holdings—and none are related to media owners becoming editors, another problem Trai highlights. And if it was as easy to buy influence as Trai thinks it is, surely a Reliance buying into a TV18 group would have ensured prices of natural gas were raised a long time ago? But it didn’t because there is sufficient plurality; the fact that people knew about KM Birla being named in Coalgate and Subrata Roy being arrested despite Hindustan Times not carrying the Birla news on page 1 and Sahara the Roy one on its channels is also testimony to the same point, that too much is being made of corporate ownership. Indeed, if the media was as prone to abuse as is being made out, the big 2G-type scams would never have come to light. Trai is right to stress on disclosure of ownership and of business relationships, but asking for a regulator to ensure ‘internal plurality’ is a bit much for a profession that lives only on its credibility. With full disclosure, users will factor in politicians or even governments owning newspapers/channels, just as they do with the national broadcaster, Doordarshan. Apart from anything else, as a regulator that has caused so much of the telecom mess in the past, Trai should know regulatory solutions have their own pitfalls.