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The New Stakeholders Of Democracy

If we look at the big media houses now... the control knobs have changed, the business models have changed...

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The classic definition of Democracy seems to be changing. Different market forces with different business models with good reason, but beyond logic, seem to be firmly in the saddle. I remember in the mid-1980s, when I started work as a trainee at the Ananda Bazar 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, 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, handling the business of an equally august media group — The Malayala Manorama.

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 printing press which is proudly displayed at the Manorama reception in Kottayam, Kerala. Many incidents and anecdotes have over the 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 mindset of the people who own and run them 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 downtrodden, 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. This was imminent as the second generation was sent abroad for education and when they returned they understood materialism in a completely different way.

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. Twists mainly, because it’s the only business that makes you grow in power and radiate fear. These two ingredients are essential to catalyse growth as they offset a lot of shortcomings.

Over 200 years ago, the military or the army ruled territories and its people. Then came the time of the elected leaders in Parliament to emerge in the form of a democracy, and now it’s the turn of the business leaders and corporate groups to rule the territory, the country and finally the world. We have seen the emergence of this trend since the late 1980s or the early 1990s. The big corporates felt the need to be the custodian of Power, and there was no better way than owning the Fourth Estate. 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, in the mid-1990s, Lalit Tapar of the Thapar Group started The Pioneer and the Ambanis started the Observer newspaper.

There were some more, but all were in the domain of the written word and most of them fell by the wayside before achieving glory. The notable exception, of course, has been 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 to the Fourth Estate. It is not the green dollars here, as most media companies are bleeding and it will be 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?”

Then came the big move and leapfrogging in owning the written, spoken, and seen words — RIL investments in Network 18 and The Aditya Birla Group in TV Today, ADAG in Bloomberg and so on…. The recent one being The Republic, which is battling to get on air with many credible corporate captains and professionals catalysing its surge. We are seeing the 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 inculcates fear. This might change the media character of the written, spoken and seen words forever.

The working process at TV channels have changed. Gone are the days when the blue chip English anchor was royally treated. He could pick and choose his stories and had the liberty of editorialising in a subtle manner. Not anymore; as the new captains from the corporate world put in a new optimisation work process. As the grapevine suggests “the Oxford returned anchor was categorically told he needs to be filing in Hindi as well as English; secondly he cannot pick and choose his stories.” This was a shock in the news channels’ circles and all was tried to ensure that this was not put into practice; but the net result was that senior editors either resigned or fell in line, sulking with clenched teeth.

Why do we watch or read news? To be informed and enlightened. It helps us possess a viewpoint that builds our stature and standing within our peer group or society at large. The building block for this are credibility, integrity, and truth. I truly believe that there are no in-betweens when it comes to these traits. It is important to be respected before you become famous or rich. 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. As Sunrise capitalism sweeps the world slowly and steadily, the so-called honest socialists left will be bound to adapt, else they too will slowly melt into the sunset.

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.

Gopinath Menon

The author is a Delhi-based business strategist

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