Freedom has come to define different meanings to different people and freedom of press more so. In a country like ours, where freedom of press has been achieved to a relatively greater degree in traditional form of it, media now should rather be caring for freedom from sponsorships, freedom from corporate influence and freedom from the ever growing power of brands. Little have people realised how much the press has been finding independence from the state and falling into the trap of corporate communications.
Corporate powers rule the world of today for good and for bad and the press has to recognise that in an accurate manner. We are living in times where corporations are carrying cash reserves that are bigger than currency reserves of several nations put together. These power entities employ you, they build schools, they build your houses, they build roads and yet the press has to question them.
The world is a better place due to many corporations and world is more vulnerable due to them and that’s a challenge faced by media too. From Tahreer Square to Vijay Chowk, Facebook generation seems more independent than ever and what would you tell them about the influence of the state? Frankly I wouldn’t care much. I would more worry about influence of corporations or brands.
At least five of my friends from the corporate sector have asked me about prospects of owning a TV news channel in recent months. All of them expressed their choice very clearly saying they would prefer owning a news network to save their business. This was a compliment for media because these people think media only could save their dignity in case they were falsely implicated by the state; however, this also is a challenge. Do these friends of mine believe the press isn’t free and that it wouldn’t care to know the truth about you until you owned it? Do these people think that the media belongs to the owner and works for owner’s welfare alone? Does it only care about the interests of its owners? These friends didn’t share any passion or urge to operate and function in a manner an independent press does, but their concern was only about their own freedom.
The Korea example of business news papers is a great learning. During my 2006 visit, I had an opportunity to visit one of their bigger national business dailies. For a moment I believed it was their work culture or cost restrictions that they were publishing 6PM edition as their last. But the reason was not either of the two. It was actually more convenient for the sponsors to see a copy of the paper before it could reach the real reader – the impressionable public. A country that has had a law in place to restrict the presence of its larger than life corporations – known as cheablos – was actually getting to read business news that was cleared by the cheabols before it reached a common man’s doorstep.
The Sun’s example in UK is the other side of it. The arrogance that a media house acquired was easily recognisable as greed to perform as if only the circulation or viewership mattered and nothing else. When the sponsor looks at only these numbers and when the press depends on the sponsor, what better could be expected of media?
There are legal restrictions, there are national interests and then there are corporations. When we talk about the freedom of press, we must care for the third as well.
Mehraj Dube is Associate Editor with NDTV. Views expressed here are his own.