The biggest threat to any industry is from those within - from those who operate without any ground rules; from those who are not really bothered about commercial viability because other benefits far outweigh the losses; and from those who are not bothered about healthy growth of the industry.
In the past many years, far too many media entities have been evangelized by political parties, petty politicians, governments and religious organizations. Add to that are business houses who are not really interested in running it as a commercial operation. Some of these also ended up as operations that bully and black mail for profiteering.
It is important to bring some order back into media. In a nation where many ownerships are Benami operations, the difficulty levels are high but not impossible. The success of insider trading norms of listed entities is a good example to follow. We have to separate apples from the oranges, the genuine from the ‘wannabes,’ the rational from the emotional. When a newspaper prices itself at Rs.1 with an immediate goal of influencing the electorate, when a TV channel pays a ransom to be on the prime band of a cable network, it hurts good professionally run operations and distorts the market dynamics.
While laws must be enacted to separate genuine media organizations from others, it is important to clean the house of existing media organizations.
Some agreements, arrangements and treaties have cast a shadow on the credibility and trust that come with the name. The rules of fair play should ensure that ethical operations have greater chances of success. The first condition in such a framework would be to penalize all parties – the advertiser, agency and the media outlet for any unethical practice. We should put the fear of law in the advertiser too, right to the top. We should prevent undue pressure exerted on media outlets. Make a few advertisers to pay for bullying media. The decision of the regulator must be swift and efficient. The toothless bodies like AAAI may be empowered with penal powers if needed.
This also brings the larger question of exclusion of some platforms including digital. The digital media largely gives a multiplier effect to news coming from print and electronic media. The authenticity and credibility attached to print/TV has far greater outreach and social media multiplier. However, we still need to bring the larger news organizations on digital media too within the fold.
In times when survival has become a question mark and multiple formats are threatening the lifeline of print and TV, any regressive law will hurt democracy and discourse. While we must ensure that bad elements don’t sneak in, we must realize that money supply should not be stifled. Having worked for a media organization promoted by a business house, I can safely say that
ethics and good journalism practices can only be followed by those who have the stamina and resources. World over, free media has thrived only with corporate funding. Instead of a sweeping generalization, we should distinguish between a professionally run media organization funded with corporate monies from those entities where commerce is given a go by for other benefits.
Lastly and most importantly, the unfair trade practice in media is created by the government. Right from funding non-profitable publicly owned entities, to selective inclusion in advertising plans based on coverage by news organizations, the culprit has always been the government. Take many of these powers away from the government, put them in the hands of an autonomous body, and you will anyways have much free media.
And I am happy that TRAI talks about government not regulating media whilst talking of regulation. It is time the 4th pillar of democracy operates with a set of rules that can be created by them and strictly enforced on them.
The author is Chairman at Pathfinder Publishing, India and was formerly President, Publisher & CEO, Outlook Publishing India.