When the going gets tough …

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 26/10/2008
Anchors on NDTV have been pushing viewers to invest. One is not sure if there is conflict of interest in such advice from ESOP holders in a listed media company,

It will not be an exaggeration to say that NDTV taught India how to do television news in style. The reporters and anchors of the channel remain iconic to this day and those who left have become celebrities in their own right on other channels. The channel has credibility in public perception.One watches the channel for authentic coverage of all major events. The economic melt down happens to be one such event.


As can be expected, from the first day when the events began to unravel in US and Europe, the channel carried news items, discussions on news bulletins with experts, specials after news bulletins, Big Fights and more recently an interview with the Governor of the Reserve Bank.


One is not an economist, even so one has felt unease at some of the anchoring. From the earliest moments  of the recent Indian stock market crash, two NDTV anchors, Vikram Chandra and Shivnath Thukral, kept encouraging the viewer to go and invest in the market, that it is the right time to pick up low-priced stock. One is not sure if there is conflict of interest in such reporting, considering two facts: 1. NDTV stock which was selling at Rs 511 or so a year ago now has fallen to Rs 94.50 or so; 2. NDTV has given generous employees stock options (ESOPS) over the years. One does not know if this continues to be true. If this is true, this kind of market promotion firmly in the conflict of interest zone. In the interview with the Governor of RBI too, the anchor did his best to push Dr Subba Rao into committing some policy sop for those ¿who are affected¿, repeatedly saying that the market is not satisfied with the piecemeal measures taken by the government and more ¿substantial bailout¿ is required. Dr Rao, however, was firm and clear in what the government was attempting to do.


After about a week, when the Reserve Bank has taken some measures to stabilise the economy, a new issue is picked up by the channel – the need to invest pension funds in the stock market. The big fight and interview with Farooq Zakaria, and every other opportunity was used to raise this issue. The big fight debate (25 October) reiterated ¿we don¿t want some bureaucrat to manage our money¿ while looking to the state to salvage the situation and complaining that the state is not doing enough. The debates seem to be still relentlessly fuelled by the LPG (liberalization, privatization, globalisation) framework. The token CITU man barely got a chance to put his point forth.


While once again confessing that one is not an economist, it appears quite strange that the channel pushes for a hotly contested issue that involves the hard-earned savings of poor people who have struggled to make ends meet in low-end jobs. The least they can hope for is the right to decide where and how their money is invested. The fate of pension funds in the United States is well known after the collapse of Enron and now the recent meltdown.


The present crisis is also declared at the end of the Zakaria interview, more dangerously, as ¿a crisis of democracy and not a crisis of capitalism¿. Implying wistfully, if India is armed with dictatorial powers it would find it easier to implement the ¿much needed¿ anti-people policies.


Critics say that ¿financialization¿ of the world economy is at the root of the present crisis. Greta Krippner of the University of California, Los Angeles, refers to ¿financialization¿ as a "pattern of accumulation in which profit making occurs increasingly through financial channels rather than through trade and commodity production."  (Emphasis mine.) RGerald A. Epstein discusses the narrower use of the term by some scholars as ¿the ascendancy of "shareholder value" as a mode of corporate governance; or the growing dominance of capital market financial systems over bank-based financial systems¿. At the time when US economy began to unravel, close to 80% of its economy was of this kind. The globalisation process has exported the problem to other shores.


The several debates could have perhaps focused on the neglect of productive sectors of the economy and pandering to the speculative sectors. There is complete silence on the activities of some of the major players who led the trend aggressively over the years and were instrumental in pushing for major policy shifts. None of the ¿experts¿ are held accountable for their single-minded pursuit of such policies.


The unapologetic ¿market fundamentalists¿ who appear on show after show, have been advocating the need to take the financial reforms further (euphemism for more of the same policies that caused the crisis in the first place) with better regulation. In the popular BBC comedy show "Goodness Gracious Me!", a Buddhist monk arrives on a pest control mission at a flat, takes out a bonsai bodhi tree from his sack and proceeds to meditate in front of the rat-hole to convince the mice not to be such difficult pests!


One could argue that if one did not like what was being dished out, why not just change the channel? But that would not be the solution, as our entire collective fate often seems to rest with the corporate media and their unprecedented ability to set the policy agenda of the state. The anchors are on first name terms with the central ministers. The politicians, with few exceptions, appear to defer to the media persons. The issue here does not seem to be so much as moulding public opinion as shaping policy agenda, with high power support from the experts.


If a media house is publicly listed, with all its expertise and understanding of the market mechanism, is it too much to ask that it should manage its business without jeopardising or in any way compromising public interest? Otherwise, NDTV does excellent investigative reports and outstanding documentaries on important issues. One would think, for a news organization credibility is a great asset.




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