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Media on Trial: Reforms for Sanctity

Simple steps, if allowed by the administration, will ensure integrity, credibility not only to News but to the establishment for bringing sanity and ensuring the people of New India are less angry.

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“Reforms” as a social conversation over coffee has been on for the last few years or so.  There have been debates  on the reforms for the Police Force, Defense, Bureaucracy ,..etc etc  but little has happened other than articles and  white papers being created. So there is no surety that the much talked about “Media Reforms” lately will ever  see the light of day

The Media furor started gained momentum about 5 months ago when a relatively unknown actor in Mumbai passed away. His death investigation by a crusading channel have made the actor a household name and with fan messages being propagated on the same channel from all over the Globe.

However, all claims made by the channel so far have yet to be proved right, but the toxicity and the one sided venom created in last over 150 days has left a very bitter taste in everybody’s mouth. 

Media, has metamorphosed in the last 2 decades or so. The plethora of options have expanded beyond reason and the controls on the delivery being unleashed continues to go unchecked. 

So a quick look at the magnitude of the Media industry.

The overall industry is estimated at $ 25.7 Billion, (INR 1.903 Trillion)

 (with Television accounting for mealy half of this pie.i.e. $ 12.93 Billion (INR 956.82 Billion)

Ever since Ted Turner and his then CNN, got the Gulf War into our bedrooms 29 years ago. The Media revolution had started. Ever since, any one wanted to be in the media business, he was welcome as the licensing process was very mechanical. This was the starting point of the erosion of credibility; as real estate developers, rice traders, exporters etc without any credible media experience became media barons. The thrill in those days was a “Press Identity Card” which allowed you access to restricted areas. The traffic Policemen also let you go for petty traffic violations when they saw the Press: sticker on the vehicle. So fun times had started.

Since the expertise in understanding and comprehending depth of stories was not there, no viewer was willing to pay for the channel. So started the FTA ( Free to Air) This I feel was the starting of the disease. Would you ever get a newspaper free ? Never. So why should you get a TV news channel free ? This clearly meant there was no value that the viewer placed on the content of the channel.

To get a perspective and scale of the TV proliferation, there are currently 912 TV channels that are functional and are constantly beaming content at you provided you want to see it.

There are 384 News channels, and 528 Current Affairs channels. There are 586 free to air channels and these are the ones that need to be questioned on their existence and journey.

332 Pay channels earn their living and these are the ones that are serious about their business, are credible and should be allowed to continue.

Dominance is a big issue ,and there are 5 broadcasters who own more than 250 channels in the current basket of 345 broadcasters.

So coming to reforms, it is imperative to get a fix on how we got here ? To answer that it will be relevant to find the purpose when there was credibility and sanity in media ; and what happened in the past few years. If you rewind close to 7-8 decades you will find the purpose then was societal good and not profit. The purpose was to get independence and credible papers like the Indian Express, The Hindu, Ananda Bazar Patrika, The Statesman , Malayala Manorma  etc played a vital role in helping the Mahatma, catalyze his non violent fight against the British.

Over the years  India progressed and was cruising as a developing economy. Over the last 3 decades or so this purpose of societal good changed to profit.. The next generation at the newspaper house, had taken over and he or she was educated abroad  to attain only green dollars in their eyes. Till the early nineties this commercialism also did not prove to be a dampener as we had very credible editors and journalists like Khushwant Singh, Kuldip Nayyar, BG Verghese, KV Kamath, Sayed Naqvi, S Nihal Singh, Arun Shourie, Prabhash Joshi, MJ Akbar, etc etc to name a few. Each one had an indepth understanding of news stories  and also had a pulse of the readers mind. This critical connect is missing now. The anchors are the editors and as well as the owners. This is the problem. 

Since the  News Television,  is where the disease has spread beyond belief, some concrete steps that could arrest and rectify the blunders, and help the fourth estate get some respect in the minds of the people.

Scrutinize each of the  the “Free to Air”  Channels 

Make it compulsory to put a price on each channel. Let it be as low as Rs 10/- per month. These days you pay close to Rs 3 per day for a newspaper. For Rs 10 you cannot get a cup of tea, so Rs 10/- a month is negligible. I know this might not even be entertained by the Establishment; as the basket of about 50 channels of  DD is currently free on all distributing platforms. The  political establishment could do a rethink on this,  as if the content is good and credible people will pay.

Red mark TV Channels losing money for over 10 years and still functional

Over 95% of the News channels are still bleeding losses. No one is bothered and the answers are evident for all to see. This needs to be stopped.

An Audit Team to Scan the Balance Sheet, the emoluments of the top journalists and marketing staff of TV channels 

All the Prime time Anchors have flamboyant life styles. They drive fancy cars, live in palatial homes,  and travel five star. No problem with that, but who pays ?. A detail audit will reveal interesting insights as the news channels they represent makes huge losses. The Balance Sheet and salaries of top executives should be available on the website.

Get Back the  Credible Editors

Where have the Editors disappeared ? They should be the ones  who decide on the stories and the way to do them. The tone and format is to be decided by the editor and not the anchor who happens to be the owner as well. The nuances are the real culprit, Phrases like “ It is learnt from our reliable sources”  should be banned.  Sentences like “ Being given to understand” should be a strict No No.  These are the prime reasons to  set up a one sided narrative. The Editor should ensure that none of his anchors editorialize the story or opinionate.  This has been happening for the last few years, and has caused damage.

Remember the “ Corrigendum in Print,”  ? that credible newspapers used to publish on the front page whenever once in a blue moon a mistake or an error would happen the previous day ?  

Get the Corrigendum  on television and it should display it on “ Prime Time, with all details of the blunder.  “  Corrigendum  thrice in a month and the concerned reporter and the sub editor should be taken to task,

Check the Pedigree of Owners, Promoters and Key Stakeholders

Eliminate the traders, petty businessmen, real estate agents who became owners of news channels

Ban the 12 Member debate”  Template on Prime time  News

One of the main cause of heartache and heartburn is six people on either side barking at each other. This “His Master’s Voice” syndrome should stop as this is when the anchor has to do nothing but moderate and drive his narrative. Each speaker in an hour roughly gets 4-5 minutes in 3-4 installments and hence nothing is said and nothing is comprehended. In between the Anchor with unique vocal chords keeps butting in with his pearls of wisdom. If this template is removed from news television, more than half of India will heave a sigh of relief and get back to watching news again.

Stop Corporate Interference by the big Corporates

Big advertisers muscle their way into content without the viewer knowing. This should be stopped and penalized at all costs. These are one of the main reasons for fake news as it always has a string agenda. This is encouraged as its easy money for the marketing team and the owner commends these efforts instead of condemning them.

Set up A Regulatory Body with Teeth

An August Body comprising of eminent journalists, editors, key people from the judiciary, technical experts, Chartered Accountants,  and social scientists. They should be responsible for screening balance sheets, evaluating content quality, and tracking fake stories . The guilty should be dealt with an iron hand within timelines.

So its not rocket science in case you really want to clean up the television screaming and toxic coverage. All you need is to stop free channels even if it is DD, Dissect in detail, the  ownership and promoters of all channels, Stop the Debate template on Prime time News, inspect their balance sheet for gaps, display the Balance sheet on the website for all to see, 

Simple steps , if allowed by the administration,  will ensure integrity, credibility not only to News but to the establishment for bringing sanity and ensuring the people of New India are less angry.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Gopinath Menon

The author is a Delhi-based business strategist

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