Sunday, April 28, 2013

Can't Buy A Channel? Buy A Few Journalists..

Sometime back I wrote: “Does Reliance really expect to earn money from an investment in TV-18 group? Does it expect to earn money from any media group? With investments like 1500 or 2000 crores, which is peanuts for Reliance, what do they really aim to earn? Your guess is as good as mine”. The answer seems pretty obvious. And the answer comes from a media celeb himself. Yes, none other than Shekhar Gupta of Indian Express.

Towards the end of their careers some politicians and some journalists do wonder about the legacy they are going to leave behind. I tweeted sometime back with a generous dose of caution that Shekhar Gupta (SG) is trying to turn a new leaf, a different corner. No, I’m not doing any psycho-analysis of SG but his articles since December 2012 appear to be more of confessions than opinions. I am quite positive that apart from SG many other media celebs including Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai etc. are going through a phase of introspection. It was inevitable. But don’t count on change yet. Even the titles they are starting to use are sounding a lot like the social media. So SG writes a piece called “Mere pass media hai” after he fondly remembers the dialogue from the movie ‘Deewar’. Nice! So let’s read a bit of some key notes that SG makes:

The fixer-businessman's new badge of honour— and disgrace… Besides political connections, there is one equally significant common thread linking the owners of chit fund companies currently under the scanner in the east. They are all media owners as well… but an investment that was monetised in other ways. It secured you political patronage, protected you from the police and regulators, helped you fix your rivals and, as in the case of the head of the media ventures owned by the Saradha group, got you a seat in Rajya Sabha. One thing it rarely made you was old-fashioned profits”. Does that explain the Reliance investment in TV18? And, of course, the Saradha guys aren’t the first ones to get a Rajya Sabha seat. There’s Shobhana Bhartya of HT, but for her the media is not a hobby; it’s a full time business. SG quite sensibly avoids the issue of media celebs also getting Padma awards. That would be quite damaging to his own cause. Wouldn’t it?

Matang Singh, who appeared from nowhere to become a minister in Narasimha Rao's cabinet in Chandraswami's heyday and disappeared equally mysteriously. If he and his wife Manoranjana Singh made any money running the media business, we do not know, but it seems unlikely. Rose Valley, Tower Group, Shine Group, Rahul Group, Chakra Group and G Group, all under the scanner now in Bengal, have the same basket of interests: chit funds, real estate and media”. A man from “nowhere” as SG describes Matang Singh is now a tycoon and his wife, Manoranjana, was the one who defended Nalini Chidambaram as being “innocent” in the Saradha Chit Fund scam. Everybody is innocent in politics and media.

And sure enough, the biggest business houses in India have tried their hand with the media and retreated with burnt fingers and singed balance sheets. The Ambanis (Observer Group), Vijaypat Singhania (Indian Post), L.M. Thapar (The Pioneer), Sanjay Dalmia (Sunday Mail), Lalit Suri (Delhi Midday), are like a rollcall of the captains of Indian industry who failed in the media business… But there is a difference between then and now, and between them and the state-level businessmen investing in the media now. They failed because they did not respect journalism. The current lot are setting up or buying up media mainly because they do not respect journalism, because they think all journalists are available, if not for sale then for hire, as lawfully paid employees. If you have a couple of news channels and newspapers, a few well known (and well connected) journalists as your employees, give them a fat pay cheque, a Merc, and they solve your problem of access and power. They also get you respect, as you get to speak to, and rub shoulders with top politicians, even intellectuals, at awards and events organised by your media group”.

In short, what SG is making a confession that “paid media” as it has come to be known is an epidemic. That almost all big business houses buy journalists just like they buy their fancy cars. And some of these journalists are on your screen 24X7 or somewhere in the print media. I am not aware SG has a presence in the social media in terms of a Facebook or Twitter account. If he were, he might get to hear some very unpleasant things about his profession and perhaps about himself. Those who scream loudest about integrity and credibility are possibly the ones who have been bought long time ago and have gone through some sort of reform in the last few months. You might have heard of those too. SG is wrong in assuming business houses do not respect journalism. It’s the professional journalists who brought the disrepute upon themselves. Seriously, you can’t be soliciting on GB Road in Delhi and then lament being called a prostitute. Can you?

The Radiagate episode has shown up many “fixers” and “fixed” journalists in the profession. Who can forget that the lady divine was told that “Congress toh apni dukaan hai”? What exactly have the Editor’s Board or Guild or whatever that Union is now called done about it? Nothing! At the very least this Union should have passed a resolution condemning the actors in Radia’s theatre. They didn’t because that would have brought out the muck about them too. Take the case of CBI showing Coalgate affidavits to be submitted to the Supreme Court to Law Minister Ashwani Kumar and members from the PMO and Coal Ministry. What exactly should editors be doing in such a case? Considering this is malpractice at the highest levels every editor with a conscience should have unilaterally condemned it in their editorials and sought the resignation of both the Law Minister and the PM. What do they do instead? They hold debates! There are certain issues which are not meant to and cannot be debated. It is not a case where an editor’s job is done if two viewpoints are stated. Arnab Goswami infamously screams at people to take “positions”. It is the editor’s job to take positions on such issues on behalf of the people. The fail miserably! Read some more:

Most of us, particularly senior citizens in the profession, have stories of cash-rich businessmen promising "blank cheques" to set up new media companies. My favourite is of a well known and, frankly, well respected and clean real-estate baron coming in to see me once, in evident distress, and asking if I would set up a TV channel for him, whatever the cost, Rs 300, 400 crore. I asked him why. Almost every news TV channel in India was losing money. He said he had spent all of the previous day waiting for his turn at a land allotment meeting in Noida. Nobody asked him even for a glass of water, while all those who owned some media were ushered in with respect as soon as they arrived. And of course, the deal would have cost them much less. He had walked out with the resolve to set up his own media. I did explain to him that, in that case, he had come to the wrong people, but he isn't the only one of his kind you would come across lately”.

If one were to make an educated guess it’s not too hard to shortlist a few real estate barons from whom one met SG with the proposal. I remember a real estate guy telling SG that bribery for him meant payment for “speedy disposal” of files. SG didn’t bat an eyelid then. I would consider that real estate baron who met SG somewhat of a bimbo. Why would a guy approach the editor of a failing newspaper to set up a TV channel for him when he could very well buy a huge stake in a loss making TV channel with something like 300-400 crores? That’s not too hard to do and it saves the additional expense and energy of promoting a brand new channel. The other confirmation that SG provides is that most TV channels are loss-making businesses. Question is, how do they survive then?

As with many other businesses news channels too are likely to have a heavy dose of black money flowing through their veins. The Zee News extortion case is still on. A rival channel, NDTV, has investments from the Jindal group. CNN-IBN group has investments from Reliance. It is unlikely any channel or any major newspaper survives without politically supported funding. The investor maybe a corporate body but the investment could happen if a political big shot were to make a phone call and put in a kind word. That’s what fixers do. They make both “ends” meet.

Nothing in the media is going to change unless the editors’ union get together and pass strong rules and guidelines themselves. They are feeling the heat from the social media. And here’s trouble. So far those who couldn’t buy whole channels were buying individuals or groups of journalists. Even that glamour may pass and if they don’t change, such purchases may shift to social media. The influence SM will exert is likely to grow by leaps and bounds. The investments will flow there if the editors don’t get their act together.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Crime Pays

We have finance channels like CNBC18, CNBCAwaaz, NDTVProfit, ETNow and print media like Economic Times or Financial Express. What do these media outlets do? Especially the TV channels! The TV channels run 24X7 doing nothing but stock market scores and interviews with top guns of companies. Not once have these financial channels ever been able to expose one single fraud in any of the companies they cover. Wonder why? All the glorious reports they do on cars and bikes and financial companies are based on scripts handed out to them. During the crash of 2008 CNBC in the US was exposed as even betting on companies that were definitely looking to sink. Some anchors also worked with inside information. Famous among them was the company of Sir Allen Stanford. Remember him? He was the guy who organised the rich cricket tournaments between England and West Indies. Here he is:

During the 2008 sub-prime crash the reporter from CNBC asks Stanford how he survived the crash. Interesting, eh? And then asks him “is it fun being a billionaire”? Well, that’s what financial channels do; they suck up to the billionaires for their share of the crumbs. And yes, as Stanford tells him “Yes, it’s fun being a billionaire”. Turns out Allen Stanford ran a Ponzi scheme (named after the scamster Charles Ponzi) to the tune of $7 billion. Fortunately, the justice system in the US is a bit faster and Stanford is now cooling his heels in prison under a 110-year sentence. In contrast, what do you estimate will happen to the scamsters that ran the Saradha Chit Fund in Kolkata?

History is proof that scams and corruption don’t begin from the bottom. They begin at the top. Be it Richard Nixon, Ramalinga Raju, Sudipto Sen (MD of Saradha Chit Fund), Bear Sterns, Meryl Lynch or any other company. Take any scam in the last few years; 2G, Coalgate, Adarsh Housing to name a few. All of them involved people in the highest offices of the country. Invariably, it’s the small guy who pays the price. Prior to his arrest Sen had written a long letter to the CBI describing events that led to the crash of his chit fund company (read it on Rediff). While the media has been quick to call the Saradha scam a ‘ponzi’ scheme it is actually a lot more than that. Their fall has been driven by the ambitions of Sen and the greed of many a politician and media persons and outlets.

The opening tagline to “The Godfather” rightly says “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. It would be an apt line for politicians, businessmen and media persons who have acquired a fortune in a relatively short period. Robert Vadra has been given a clean chit in all the land scams he was accused of. Why would anyone pay a price for the Saradha scam except the ordinary poor people of Bengal? The letter by Sen to CBI even quotes Nalini Chidambaram (wife of P. Chidambaram) being paid 1Crore and mentions deals worth 42Crores. Really, is NC such a famous lawyer to command such extraordinary legal fees or deals? And while our media conveniently mentions others like Mithun Chakraborty (who hasn’t been accused of any wrong doing) and media persons like Kunal Ghosh not one single channel dared to mention the name “Chidambaram”. So on what grounds did they name the others mentioned in Sen’s later?

I have often mentioned that the media is the “first line of defence for the corrupt”. I guarantee that if the IT officials go through the bank accounts and incomes of many a media celeb with a fine tooth comb, the chances are that a lot more financial crimes will be exposed. But they won’t. And nor will the media ever expose any financial scams. After all, they are partly beneficiaries of these crimes.

The audacity of the whole episode is that not only have the poor in Bengal (and investors of other places) who invested in the Saradha Chit Fund lost all their money and some their lives too, the Bengal CM is now promising to compensate them from the state funds. Wonderful! Scamsters loot people and then the state conveniently will again use your money to compensate. So you lose both ways. Even if some compensation is paid from the state funds the first condition has to be that all the scamsters should be arrested and charge-sheeted. It is highly unlikely something like that will ever happen. The image from IndiaToday is a good example of how scams are negotiated: 1) Screaming in the media 2) Political wrangling 3) Handover case to CBI 4) DEAD END! 

People who argue that politicians are a reflection of society might want to think again. If that were indeed true then apply the ratio of corrupt politicians to the whole population. That would make for a frightening figure. There is corruption everywhere but the fountainhead is always at the top not at the bottom. The “bottle-neck” in a bottle is always at the top, that’s why impediments are known as “bottle-necks”. The message being repeatedly sent to the ordinary people is that crime pays. My bet is that nothing will happen to Sudipto Sen or anyone involved in the Saradha scam. After all, most of the money went to politicians and media.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Where Speedbumps Are 'Breaking News'

For many years now the one crime in the US that makes headlines across the world is mass shootings by crazy, gun-toting men. The one change in the approach to these crimes has definitely been a bit more sensitive reporting of these tragic events. In August 2012 six Sikhs were killed at a temple in Wisconsin. In December 2012 at a school in Connecticut 26 were killed. In fact, the chilling fact is that the US has a history of school-killings, from 1760s to the 2010s. In recent history the one incident that got most attention was the Columbine school shootings from April 1999. When the carnage was over 12 students and a teacher were dead and another 21 injured. Take a look at this clip (3.40 mins):

Each time these shootings happen they inevitably bring about another debate on gun-laws in the US. Lately, the debates are not just in the US but even on TV channels like NDTV and CNN-IBN. It seems to be simple logic that more guns in society would mean more gun-crimes. And the answer proposed is more gun-control laws. We are familiar with that road, aren’t we? Each time a rape-crime happens, the clamour for tougher laws and death to rapists grows louder. If only more laws could prevent these crimes. Considering the US has a huge population of guns Michael Moore, who made the Oscar-winning documentary “Bowling for Columbine”, travelled to Canada to find out their scene with guns and crimes. He shockingly found there was hardly any gun-crime. In a major city there was only 1 murder in 3 years, that too not by a Canadian.

When asked about this, ordinary folks in the US had the usual explanation for low crimes in Canada. They don’t watch violent movies, they don’t have poverty, they have low unemployment rates, there are less Blacks in Canada. None of this was true. On the contrary, for a population of 30 million people, Canadians had 7 million guns between them. (The documentary was made in 2004 so stats not current). Take a look at another clip, this one about Canada (8.25 mins):  

It almost looks like Canada is a terribly boring country, with boring TV. Many Canadians don’t lock their doors. Well, walk down the residential areas of South Delhi or most parts of Delhi you will find that even small bungalows and apartments have high walls and high gates. You can’t see what’s behind those walls and gates. They clearly tell you to “keep off”. After the latest incident of a 5-year old girl being kidnapped, raped, a bottle and candle shoved inside her there was naturally another outrage in Delhi. A woman on the TimesNow panel on April 22 screamed “we are a nation at war with women”. The only thing we have gotten better at is what we call them. NDTV wants them to be called “survivors” and not “victims”. The media comes up with names like Nirbhaya, Damini, Amanat, Masoom and each media outlet promotes its own “brand name” of the victim. Then again, if rapes happen in Delhi it is a problem with the whole country and not Delhi. They have now come up with a new root cause for this rape problem: “social mindset”. And they all seek and demand a change in this social mindset. What exactly is that?

There are two kinds of rape-crimes; one that happens on the streets or in public places and the other that happens in the privacy of homes. Shiney Ahuja raping his maid (or being accused of it) is certainly difficult to prevent unless homes are fitted with loud alarm bells in every room. But crimes on the streets like the December 2012 Delhi Gangrape (Jyoti Singh) can certainly be a case for prevention. In the latest case the 5-year old was kidnapped and locked up for four days. Her disappearance for more than 12 hours should have had alarm bells ringing with the police if a complaint was filed. Four days? Furthermore, there is no way a parent should be leaving a 5-year old anywhere unattended or out of sight except maybe when she’s in school under care of teachers and school authorities. Even schools don’t seem that safe anymore going by the rape and molestation cases that come up.

Asking police chiefs to resign is senseless. They are mere political tools. The real change in social mindset, if at all, has to really start with the politicians. No heads have ever rolled in Delhi for the crimes in the past few years. Not one politician has resigned or has been sacked. The most infamous cases of rape and murder have all come from politicians. There is that infamous Tandoor case, there’s Bhanwari Devi and there’s the Geethika suicide case and the list could go on and on. There is lately a PIL in the Supreme Court seeking to ban pornography on the internet citing that as a potential cause for crimes against women and children. I am not sure the criminals involved in the Delhi Gangrape, the latest case of kidnap and rape were inspired by the internet.

And if there is some mindset to be changed then the first one has to be the media. Seriously, you even have Abhishek Singhvi as a panellist on crimes against women. In other shows the media promotes criminal behaviour be it from Bollywood or from politics. They live under the principle that this is what “people want”. If you want to create revulsion against crime then don’t promote Salman Khan or Sanjay Dutt even if people want it or those who are convicted of crimes. If you want to create revulsion against crimes don’t promote those who are seeking pardon for criminals. Because the more they see bad behaviour, the more people are inspired to believe one can get away with it. People aren’t watching internet movies for inspiration for crimes, our TV shows are enough. Cleverly, the Delhi Police Commissioner is frequently being made a “bakra” for all the crimes. None of the media folks seem to want to ask any questions of Sheila Dikshit or whosoever runs Delhi. On the contrary, they create platforms for SheilaD to cry on TV and appear a victim herself. If she is helpless because police is not under her control then she should take a moral stand and quit.

Far from seeking justice or stopping crimes against women our media actually seems to love these incidents. I know that is a shocking statement to make but if they mean business they should be sending a strong message to the politicians to get out if they can’t deliver. For the media another rape incident is just another incident to splurge on and generate TRPs. If they were serious they would be putting the politicians in the dock. Every editor in the country should be seeking the dismissal of Sheila Dikshit or Sushilkumar Shinde or anyone who is in charge of security. But you know what? If they really managed to do that what would they then report on? What would their debates be? Take a look at the pic from the video clip you just saw. I guess it would be as exciting as Canadian news where new speed-bumps are “Breaking News”.