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.