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#FutureProof: News TV prima donnas must disclose political affiliations

18-March-2014
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#FutureProof: News TV prima donnas must disclose political affiliations

Less than two decades ago, Dow Jones tossed a disclosure code on journalists in TV18, its then partner in a business news channel called Asia Business News India (ABNi).

The premise was simple – No journalist should be the judge of her own cause. So, no reporting on stocks that she holds.

I don’t know if this was followed through after ABNi came apart, its niche taken by CNBC in a subsequent tie-up with TV18.

What I do recall is that a few months later, then SEBI Chairman DR Mehta started a self-disclosure regime among television channels. But nothing came off it, except watery coffee that Mehta could organise for us at North Block.

Two of India’s most erudite anchormen-turned-media-owners in English assured SEBI on our collective behalf that they’ll draft a code. Alas, they flattered to deceive.

So has SEBI, despite the passage of so many years.

The bull has never been caught by its horns.

But disclosure of stocks in one’s portfolio isn’t good enough. It’s time to think of full-blown political disclosure.

I can understand if supporters of Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Admi Party (AAP) don’t like this idea. “Why now”, folks in the party complained to me in off-the-record discussions for this column.

I persist because our top TV editors influence via their tweets more than even appointment viewing on their channels. And their follows, in many cases, run into thousands.

One prominent editor in the Marathi news space repeatedly tweets in AAP’s favour. Kejriwal RTs him on several occasions. Both should simply ‘open it up’.

‘Neutrality’ being touted is neither here or there. The gang-up is pretty much obvious if we scratch beneath the veneer.

This gets even trickier when an editor or anchorman has follows numbering a million-plus.

Before we consume the social media of such folks, don’t we deserve to know where the Pied Piper stands? At the moment, all we have are sneaking suspicions.

A full-blown disclosure would help both sides – even the anchors won’t have to try posing that they are neutral and get trolled by over-zealous bhaktas of rival political parties.

At present, disclosure seems to apply only to the regular ‘expert’ on prime time band. Not only must they agree to back the anchorman to the hilt – they get a dekko only if they agree to be the sacrificial ‘bakra’ of the day, knowing fully well that the anchor has an unstated ‘line’.

Why live in subterfuge, imagining that the audience is a bunch of suckers? Why not disclose the anchor’s intellectual affiliation – to AAP or BJP or the Congress on a dynamic scale of 1-10?

This brings me to the related concept of ‘stringing’.

It’s a term we heard more often than before when the Niira Radia tapes tumbled into the public domain. Many anchormen, when caught on video or telephone intercepts, as was the case with the redoubtable Barkha Dutt, take refuge in stringing.

Indeed, stringing or softening an interviewee is a common manoeuver. But those like Aaj Tak’s Punya Prasun Bajpai have expanded the definition in his leaked tape with Arvind Kejriwal – the stringing continued even after their live interview was over!

Ditto for another ex-TV18 editor, who got himself an AAP ticket no sooner had he crossed the Rubicon to mainstream politics. Shouldn’t he have disclosed his affiliations while leading his channel until several months after RIL infused some funding?

A Private Members Bill, written by Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, or at least the operative part of it, must be resurrection after the heat and dust of the General Elections has settled down. One of Tewari’s precepts is disclosure of media ownership.

A regular review of ownership details and public postings of that is a useful exercise. Presently, more than a channel or two have even mortgaged their license to a new owner without any means with the government to enforce this disclosure. Large amounts of debt doesn’t amount to change of ownership, you see! Only equity by way of shares counts, which to my mind is a premise worth revisiting.

Disclosures by anchormen will be a nice way to start.

The columnist works at the intersect of media, regulation and strategy on RIL that Arvind Kejriwal has targeted. The views are personal. Follow @therohitbansal.

 

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