TRAI is likely to come out with a new mandate in an effort to, what some may call, minimise the conflict of interest in scenarios where non-media companies own a stake in a media house. If reports are to be believed, TRAI has already recommended non-media firms to mandatorily declare their media stakes.
In its consultation paper on issues relating to media ownership, TRAI stated, “A number of corporate sector entities are entering the media sector. Corporates can use media to bias views and influence policy making in a manner so as to promote their vested interests, while generating business revenues for themselves.”
According to sources, TRAI is also planning a recommendation for content aggregators. Aggregators sell bouquets of channels to distributors such as cable companies and DTH service providers. Government officials say that content aggregators do not come under any regulation. A draft regulation on aggregators will be released by the regulator for comments shortly.
exchange4media has earlier reported that TRAI’s recommendation against cross media ownership by firms has created a debate in the industry.
Experts opine that the mandate by TRAI is to uncover private treaties undertaken by some publications with the corporate houses. A former editor of a newspaper, on condition of anonymity, said, “Under such treaties, a publication buys a stake in a corporate house or vice versa. The publication then ensures that no negative news or coverage is reported against the corporate.”
According to TRAI, firms with vested interest in a certain sector and a simultaneous stake in a media house cannot approach news with a neutral stand. The news showcased by such groups cannot be neutral and could be biased to a certain policy note by the Government, if the policy affects the business interest of the firm.
According to a rule by the Registrar of Newspapers India, every year in the fifth week of April publications have to enlist the names of corporations/individuals that have more than 1 per cent stake in the media house. Under the proposed TRAI mandate, many people/organisations from non-media that have invested in media companies, which are unlisted, will come under scanner.
In listed companies such as Network18, Mukesh Ambani, Chairman, RIL has a substantial stake. NDTV, another listed broadcast company, has Motilal Oswal, Chairman, Oswal Industries -owning 17 per cent stake.
John Thomas, Former Editor, Vijay Times said, “TRAI notification is a positive step in establishing transparency in the system. Because the media publishes news, the same may be taken as a product if a media company has an interest in any corporation. I believe in a step ahead that even journalists should declare their interest in form of equity shares in any company, so that the reader knows that the publisher or writer of that particular issue has an interest in the sector.”
On the question over timing of the notification, Thomas said, “It should have come a long time ago, but it is better late than never.”
A former senior journalist, who now handles corporate communication for a firm, said, “TRAI mandate is absolute in terms of transparency. Many listed firms don’t declare their media ownership, because that would dilute the entire purpose of buying the stake. Firms buy stake in media houses to foster clout, influence policy-making and suppress negativity. That boosts their PR effort. The TRAI mandate is absolute re-establishing of journalistic credentials.”
TRAI is also expected to issue guidelines on cable TV sector. Firms controlling distribution clout would also need to declare their stake in such companies.