April 23, 2021
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

What are the implications of the RIL-TV18-ETV deal for the media and our democracy?

Some of the comments made by the four participants in a discussion on Rajya Sabha TV, the newly launched television channel of the upper house of Parliament:

S. Nihal Singh, former editor of The Statesman: “My first reaction [on reading of the deal] was that it was time for India to have a really good anti-monopoly law for media, which is the norm in all democratic countries in the world, including the most advanced….

"It is not the first time, but now it is a question of concentration— the amount of financial interest they have in real terms

“The press council of India is totally dysfunctional because ... precisely because of the new chairman Justice Markandey Katju, who is baiting the media, who doesn’t believe in conversing with the media, or exchanging views with the media... and the suspicion among the editors' guild is that he has been put there by the government for a specific purpose.

"What you need is trust and there is total lack of trust between Justice Katju, who is a government nominee, and the media...

"We must begin with making the public aware that there is a problem - and the press council has ruled itself out. And the editors realise that they need to put their house in order.

Madhu Trehan, founder-editor of India Today and director, content, of the soon-to-be-launched media site, News Laundry: “It need not have happened if the government and other corporates (Reliance's competitors) were more alert. The government was asleep; the competitors were asleep.

"My concern is that one person owns much too much….

“Already every policy is being decided by corporates — all kinds of policy: telecom policy, industrial, everything is being decided by the corporates as has come out in the 2G (Niira Radia) tapes. It affects all of us. We have no say but the lobbyists do. I think it is very dangerous that one company will not only be owning oil but also media so that all the crucial businesses that Mukesh Ambani owns, but not only is it dangerous that Mukesh Ambani will be deciding what policy will be decided, as you know has happened in the past, but he will also decide whether we can talk about it, or criticise it or expose it….

“Basically you have to ask the question: Why? Why is Reliance interested in media? It is not for money; it is obviously for influence. Rupert Murdoch was endorsing PMs and Presidents in three continents. Now we have the richest man in the country owning the largest network. Yes, there is an independent trust, but I don’t believe that. The purpose is to control the media. 

"That is what's frightening. You are influencing policy, you are influencing how the government decides, and now you are going to decide how the people will hear about about you and the government….

 " For example, when the government speaks, when the government spokespersons speak...we know that they are putting out the party line. When a politician or a government spokesman speaks, we don’t believe them, but when somebody like Rajdeep Sardesai or Sagarika Ghose speaks, or anyone at IBN7 or TV18 comes on, we presume we should believe them. Now there is a big question mark [when RIL has indirect control over CNN-IBN]….

“In a deal of this size we are looking at very subtle plants of stories, subtle angles, subtly putting things in a certain way so that people think along in a certain way for a particular way. Regulation cannot control such subtle content. 

"Mukesh Ambani has done his homework. I don’t know if anyone can shut the door. It’s too late."

Dilip Cherian, former editor Business India, head Perfect Relations: “Globally we have seen when big capital enters media, that is exactly what we are about to replicate for ourselves.

“My anxiety is that oligopolistic tendencies are visible in global media today, whether it is Silvio Berlusconi or the name that is not mentioned —Rupert Murdoch —the fact is they exercise humongous influence not on media but politics. Are we headed down the same road? At this time, the answer seems to be yes. Is it good? The universal answer from the question is that it isn’t, not just because it affects the quality of news but because it affects the quality of politics….

“The entry of big capital is not new or news. What has happened in this case is a big distinction between foreign investment and domestic. Because of 4G, because the same business house owns the pipe, owns the content, there could also be another issue of monopoly. If I were the owner, I would say there needs to be a publicly visible ombudsmanship [to dispel the doubts]….

“There is room for concern, there is room for elements of self-regulation. As a country we are not able to legislate for two reasons. One because of the influence business houses have on policy making. And two, when you bring in legislation (on regulation) up, the other group that is affected are politicians who own media houses of their own. You are talking about now a coalition of forces which the public is incapable of handling. You won’t see Parliament doing the kind of regulation they should, in an open manner, because there are interests on all sides.”

Sevanti Ninan, media critic and founder-editor of the Hoot:

At one level there is a very basic, fundamental problem that you need a watch dog for certain sectors of society and at the same time you cannot have the same sectors owning the watchdogs

The other issue is when there are a number of news outlets that we are getting to a stage where we will see more and more self-censorship in reporting... but if corporates own these outlets, independent voices reporting on it would be hard to find

Print media does not have the same thing happening there. What you are seeing in TV is the inherent unviability in some of the channels because of excessive competition, carriage fees and lots of other problems.

In print media on the other hand, the opposite has happened: it started with corporates owning the majority of shareholdings to a stage where their share is minimum or they are not in other (competing) industries

You could just ask for each media house to declare on their website who their investors and owners are.

You need a regulator who looks at investors. And a regulator who looks at content.

(Please note the comments are not full transcription of the video above — summary transcription largely thanks to Sans Serif)

Meanwhile, today's Mint reports that the stock market regulator, SEBI, is looking into RIL’s financial statements and reports to see if RIL had divulged its holding or investment in ETV before the matter became public.

RIL revealed in 2011 in response to a petition filed by the late Andhra Pradesh chief minsiter Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy‘s widow, Y.S. Vijayalakshmi, that it had put in money into Ushodaya Enterprises, ETV’s holding company, through Nimesh Kampani‘s JM Financial in 2008.

Vijayalakshmi had alleged (page 32 of petition) that RIL’s investment in Ushodaya was a payoff to the previous TDP government of Chandrababu Naidu, for wilfully surrendering Andhra Pradesh’s right over the discovery of gas in the Krishna-Godavari basin in favour of RIL, an allegation RIL has denied in its affidavit.

Today's Mint report quotes an unnamed “senior SEBI official” as saying:

“SEBI is looking into whether RIL has disclosed in any of its financial reports about its holding or acquisition of stakes in Eenadu Group to the shareholders. It is mandatory to disclose such information to the shareholders.”

A second unnamed source is quoted as saying:

“Prima facie, information about RIL’s holding in Eenadu Group is not disclosed anywhere specifically. As per the listing agreement norms, it should have been mandatorily disclosed. This amounts to possible violations of regulations.”

S.P. Tulsian, a stock market analyst who often appears on CNBC-TV18, is quoted as saying:

“I am surprised that RIL said in the Andhra Pradesh high court that the stake acquired by JM Financial in the ETV channels was on behalf of itself. I went through the balance sheet but did not find anything of this nature.”

Niraj Mansingka, an analyst at Edelweiss Securities Ltd, is quoted as saying:

“We believe the equity investment [by RIL in Eenadu group] may have been consummated recently as the same is not a part of RIL’s FY11 annual report.”

 Also see: Labyrinth 18

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