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THE MEDIA REGULATION DEBATE : TRAI raises all the right issues. But it totally ignores the economic realities of the business. Without acknowledging those how can the Indian news media business get out of its mess,

At the heart of the whole debate about ownership in news media are three things.

One, news is a very powerful product. It is intellectual fodder that can either sharpen, dull, or twist a nation’s brains.

Two, whether news is used for information and analysis (sharpening a nation’s brains), trivialisation and tabloidisation (dulling) or deliberate mis-information (twisting) depends to a huge extent on who owns it, why and how they run it.

Three, news is an expensive and unprofitable business, globally. It takes a lot of money to run an independent news firm. Advertisers cannot fund them completely and audiences are unwilling to pay for them.

To these three factors add another one. India has never had a strong tradition of media regulation – thankfully. Unfortunately its self-regulation has failed it miserably. So a powerful product, surrounded by layers of poor regulation and no financial backbone has become the breeding ground for scores of dodgy investors. More than 60 per cent of the cable systems in India are owned by local politicians. About one third of India’s 135 news channels are owned by politicians and real estate chaps who are in it for influence and power not to become news brands. They have money to throw and unlike private equity investors are not looking for a return.

The controversial Telecom Regulatory Authority of India or TRAI paper on media ownership released last week raises all the right issues – media ownership, private treaties, cross-media restrictions, paid news etc. However it raises them only against the soft arguments of plurality and diversity. It totally ignores the economic realities of the business. Without acknowledging those how can Indian news media business get out of its mess.

Globally, news has always been subsidised by the entertainment arms of most large media corporations. But the best news brands have usually been not-for-profit. The BBC is funded by the British taxpayer. The owners of The Guardian made it into a trust precisely to because they wanted to insulate it from fear, favour or influence. Al Jazeera is funded by the ruling family of Qatar. Having at least one strong not-for-profit news brand usually does wonders for any news market – the UK is a case in point. In India, if Doordarshan was granted complete autonomy and could use the Rs 1,500 odd crore it gets in subsidies every year to become a truly independent, high-quality news brand, it would do wonders for the Indian news market. Just that one move could force a few dozen of the dodgy news channels out and force the others to push up quality.

The other thing that could work is getting the self regulatory bodies going, but giving them a  few statutory teeth with powers to levy fines.  When the News Broadcasting Standards Authority or the Press Council of India start banning, fining or suspending channels and newspapers, many of the bad firms will either slink away or clean up their act. The pressure to do the right thing – train reporters, keep editorial and advertising separate, have editors who function as editors and so on -  will force many of them to give up.

It is next to impossible in a democracy to ban companies or anyone from getting into media. But if the regulatory and business structures are strong enough, they can create a disincentive for the wrong guys to get in.

For years the news media industry has shrugged its shoulders about most of the issues it faces. By naming them, putting them down and discussing them, TRAI then has done the industry a favour. It is time then to own up and clean house.

Vanita Kohli Khandekar is the author of  The Indian Media Business,  a media columnist for Business Standard,  and a media consultant .


Related links:

Competition vs plurality

Debating TRAI's proposals

Anticipatory bail for editorial freedom

Pressure builds up for a regulator




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