Manohar Seetharam
When Media Becomes A Cartel
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

The recent war of words between the newly appointed chairman of Press Council Of India (PCI), Shri Markandeya Katju and the Editor’s guild over the remarks of the chairman have brought out in open many qualities and urges of the Indian media. These attributes of the media usually become visible in more benign and dressed-up forms, however, in the present case they have come out in their true shape and colour. It seems that the Editor’s guild (which had displayed it’s brazenness on an earlier occasion by defending the journalists exposed in Radia tapes) has forgotten that the same fundamental right of – Freedom of speech, which allows the media to live and breathe also allows every other citizen to voice his or her opinions.

Katju’s own idea’s and the role he expects the media to play are indeed skewed, the examples he chose to quote and the scenarios he constructed to belittle the media reveal a lot in this regard. Hence, a view that is critical of the media’s reaction to his statements, must not be construed as a de facto support to each of Katju’s whims. Katju specifically made a pitch to bring in Television media under the purview of the proposed Media Council, which would function like the PCI – which currently overlooks only the print media. This proposal paints the PCI as a grand success story which has delivered excellent standards in the print media. The truth , unfortunately, is the opposite. The very same PCI : 1) failed to check the malaise of paid-news 2) Colluded with the media thugs to bury the original report on this issue ( made public recently after judicial intervention) and 3) Is yet to come up with any concrete measures to curb paid news. It has been demonstrated that PCI could be easily penetrated by vested interests. Moreover, the power of PCI to enforce any of it’s judgments and recommendations are virtually non-existent. PCI is intended to – ‘concern itself’ with issues like concentration of ownership of newspapers and news agencies ; to undertake studies ; to ‘promote’ responsible journalism etc. The aims of PCI are exactly like the Directive principles to our executive which cannot be enforced.

Every institution in a democracy must be subject to pressures of checks and balances. The question to be asked is – what are the checks and balances we have in place around the media ? I am not for a moment arguing for a restriction on their freedom. Instead I am only pointing out that the media houses seem to have carved out a cosy island for themselves which is beyond the reach of normal democratic and market forces. A sluggish and an ineffective judiciary is the principal contributor to this situation. It allows the media to become the judge on any issue of it’s choice for a long time and ensures that the cases against the media houses on the grounds of defamation etc have no short or medium term impact. It’s a double whammy for a healthy press and media. In a bizarre tun of events the falling TRP’s and circulations seem to have no impact on the financials of the media houses. Many news channels are thrust on the users as a part of the ‘free-package’of the cable companies.

The Eldeman trust-barometer survey for the year 2011 has pointed out that while the trust in media as an institution went up by 4% across the world, the same parameter for India fell from 58% to 50%. This downward trend has been continuing since the last 3-4 years. Is this not sufficient for our glorified editors and their guild to recognise the crisis ? But they still donot recognise this crisis of confidence. They are quiet happy to blame the vernacular media and other institutions and themselves occupy a holier than thou position. This behaviour points to one crucial fact – Crisis of public confidence HAS NOT translated to a crisis for the media business !!

The present status-quo is clearly hurting the interests of the subscribers, media – as an institution and the larger democratic framework. This sets the stage for a radical intervention to change the rules of the game. The new rules must try to forge a relationship between the public trust and the business performance of media houses. Interestingly, the concerns of SEBI about the practices of media houses find a significant place in PCI report. The new media regulator or a media watch dog will have to work closely with other regulators like SEBI to suo-motto make public all concerns and allegations related to media companies. All monopolistic practices, like bundling of select news channels within the “basic” packages of cable companies must be brought to question. PCI must start conducting periodic survey to measure the quality of journalism practiced by the media houses and rank the publications and the TV channels. This evaluation and ranking will hopefully break the prevailing market dynamics- where we really have one media cartel, and set in a healthy competition going. Other regulators like IRDA, rank Insurance companies on the basis of claims to settlement ratio, hence this is something which we can very much demand from a regulator. The other major concern related to judicial efficiency has no easy answers, I would like to know the track record of appellate tribunals set up in other sectors. If they have indeed delivered results, they can be tried in the field of media too. The eventual solution will lie in reaching an equilibrium where the media will discuss about itself, speculate about itself as freely as it does about other sections of the government and society.

In short :

The PCI has flawed origins – in terms of it’s founding rules. It has a dismal track record. Therefore , PCI is not a success story we must be trying to replicate in other spheres of media.

In the prevailing equilibrium, the media is in effect operating beyond the realm of both the judiciary and the market.

An external intervention which would disturb this equilibrium and move the sector to a new healthy equilibrium is urgently required…….Till then the subscribers ( like you and me) are screwed !!