Guest Column: New custodians of democracy emerge

Gopinath Menon of Melon Media shares his apprehension for the fourth estate as many corporates enter the media space

e4m by Gopinath Menon
Published: May 31, 2012 6:49 PM  | 5 min read
Guest Column: New custodians of democracy emerge

I remember in the mid-eighties when I started work as a trainee at the Anandabazar Patrika Group, I used to hear many stories of the lineage and pedigree of the group. How the founders were attached to the freedom struggle for independence, how the first edition of the newspaper was printed in red ink to signify the thousands who shed their blood for their country and so on and so forth. I heard similar stories when I was at TBWA and used to handle the business of an equally august media group – The Malayala Manorama Group.

I heard stories about how the founders had a similar voyage which started more than 150 years ago. The memorable symbol was the first Letter Press Printing press which is proudly displayed at the Manorma Reception in Kottayam, Kerala. Many incidents and anecdotes have over years become part of the folklore. It is these tales of the past that help build a real strong statured media brand.

A lot has changed since then. If we look at the big media houses now, one will clearly notice that the control knobs have changed, the business models have changed, and the purpose and mind-set of the people who own and run it has changed too.

Media houses of the past have slowly changed character and the traits now are very different. Earlier the purpose was skewed towards a social objective, the freedom struggle, the voice of the down trodden, etc. This has given way to purely commercial and practical objectives. The social outlook of media houses has given way to the green dollars for the last two decades or so.

Not a bad thing I believe, as ground realities are different and success is measured in the riches and the fame you generate. The quicker the better and hence it has emerged as a business with too many twists and turns. Twist mainly because it’s the only business that makes you grow in power and fear. These two ingredients are essential to catalyse growth as they offset a lot of short comings.

Over 200 years ago the military or the army ruled territories and its people. Then the elected leaders in Parliament emerged in the form of democracy, and now it’s the turn of the business leaders and corporate groups to rule the territory, the country and finally the world.

The beginnings
We have seen emergence of this trend since the late eighties or the early nineties. The JK Group experimented with The Indian Post in Mumbai, The Sanjay Dalmia Group started the Sunday Mail out of Delhi, the Raheja Group took on the might of India Today with the Outlook, Lalit Tapar of the Thapar Group started The Pioneer and Ambanis started the Observer newspaper.

There were some more but all were in the written word domain and most of them fell by the wayside before achieving glory. The notable exception, of course, has been ‘The Outlook’ and its courageous journey. It has managed to break news, break views and give television a run for its money…thanks to a good captain. This was the sole trait missing in all the other ventures.

The new stakeholders
As we are a growing economy and the whole world is coming to either India or China, business leaders have taken a new fondness for the fourth estate. It is not the green dollars here as most media companies are bleeding and will take years before they break even. So what is the reason? The answer lies in the simple question “If you cannot be rich, can you be powerful and feared?”

With RIL investments in Network 18 and The Aditya Birla Group in TV Today, we are seeing a start of a new breed of corporate captains emerging in the fourth estate business. The significant fact to note is that all business investments have come in the news space and not in the entertainment space. So it is clear that it is not fondness for the media space but the news space that generates power and fear. This might change the media character of the written, spoken and seen words forever.

Why do we watch or read news? To be informed and enlightened. It helps us posses a viewpoint that builds our stature and standing within our peer group or society at large. The building block for this is ‘Credibility’ and ‘Truth’. I truly believe that there are no in-betweens when it comes to these traits. So you blindly rely on the information to develop a stance. What happens when this basic input is biased and misleading or planted? Everything collapses and it is tough to believe that their values will be embraced with the same intensity as before. If the same intensity prevails, its fine but is it going to be easy for a top business leader by origin to allow a huge chunk of business loss so that he comes across as principled? It is tough and maybe impractical to let it go and hence, the concern for the fourth estate.

Times have changed. We are on the threshold of a new society being weaved by the captains of industry controlling truth and credibility in the fourth estate. We certainly are going to witness interesting times.

The author is CEO, Melon Media, Crayons Communications Group

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