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In 2018, a survey by Oxfam, reported that India’s richest 1% accumulated as much as 73% of the total wealth generated in the country in 2017 (PTI, 2018). While higher than previous estimations, such statistics fall in line with the trend following liberalization of the Indian economy. When comparing the growing inequality in countries such as France, USA, and China, it is noted that India is the country with the highest gap of income growth of the top 1%, as compared to the other 99% of the population (Piketty & Channel, 2017). This extreme distribution of wealth and the consequent purchasing power often enables the wealthy to exercise control over various sectors of the economy, one such sector being the media industry. In the media industry this control is exercised primarily through share ownership of media outlets. This article, after presenting the importance for distribution of media ownership, documents  ownership as a  means of control of the Indian media industry. Consequently, highlighting the need of  regulation to prevent further encroachment of the free pressin the country.

A Theoretical argument against the concentration of media ownership

Edwin Baker, in his book Media Concentration and Democracy, highlights the importance of distributed media ownership. Bakers primary assertions are as follows. First, he states that a society’s ability to resist demagogic manipulation may be served by a broad distribution of expressive power, especially media-based power. To substantiate this claim that media concentration may lead to biases in the media, Baker refers back to decision by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in 1975, the commission then stated that it was unrealistic to expect diversity from  commonly owned stations (Barnett, 2010).  Second, Baker believes that corporate ownership leads to an emphasis on the bottom line. This leads to a reduction in the time and costly process of investigative journalism. But investigative journalism serves as an important mechanism of revealing corruption or illegal activities in the political and economic spheres of a democracy. Finally, taking a border theoretical view, Baker states that even without the empirical and historical evidence of the negative consequences of such oligopolistic power in media houses “no democracy should risk” the evolution of such concentration. This stems from the theory that the media serves important functions in a democracy, such as its vital role in the system of checks and balances. Therefore, to ensure plurality of views, presence of investigative journalism and to prevent the manipulations of democratic institutions, a country should prevent the emergence of concentration of ownership of media.

The false perception of many choices in India

Bringing Baker’s theories to the current Indian scenario, Paranjoy Thakurta states that the growth of the internet has led to the perceived increase in diversity of opinions. Nonetheless, Thakurta goes on to state, this access has been simultaneously accompanied – paradoxically – by shrinking in the number of traditional media operations in television and print. Thakurta presents this view with the realization that India has over 82,000 publications registered with the Registrar of Newspapers and over 250 FM stations.  For he mentions that the sheer number of  media organizations and outlets, ‘often conceal the fact that few players exercise dominance over specific markets and market segments (Thakurta, 2012). Using this power, as Baker had warned about, it is stated that large groups or companies exercise considerable influence on what is read, heard and watched (Thakurta, 2012). 

Ownership as a means of control

This influence over the media by the big business houses has been achieved by deals such as the purchase made on May 19, 2012, by the Aditya Birla group; in which, they announced that they had acquired a 27.5 percent stake in Living Media India Limited, a company headed by Aroon Purie. Living Media serves as the holding company and owns 57.46 percent in TV Today Network, the listed company that controls the group’s television channels (Thakurta, 2012). Subsequently, another example is that of Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest businessman, and his diversified ownership in media institutions. Using the wealth gained from Reliance Industries, Mr. Ambani, has purchased equity stakes in news channels such as Network 18, NDTV and New Emerging World of Journalism, along with TV- media channels such as EROS. The ability to transcend messages and control what is ‘heard, read and watched’ (Thakurta, 2012). Using such media outlets is reflected in the chart and statistics presented below.

Source: Network 19 Media and Investments, Corporate presentation FY16-17                                                      

Source: Network 19 Media and Investments, Corporate presentation FY16-17                                                          

Network 18, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, in its annual report of 2017-18 states that using the various media heads Network 18 reaches 700 million Indians, with one in every 2 Indians consuming some form of their content. Moreover, the report suggests that Network 18 is the 3rd largest broadcaster in the country and the largest regional news network provider with an average monthly reach of 59.7 crore individuals. These statistics are concerning for proliferation reach of this media channel, in conjunction with its ownership by corporate entities, leads to both the reduction of diversified points of view reaching the Indian audience and reduction in the presence of investigative journalism, as highlighted by Baker. 

Other mechanisms of gaining influence over the media

Other than ownership of media entities, control is also gained through influence over the decision making process by occupying board seats. This was highlighted by Thakurta, who states that influence over media ownership is gained by representatives of large corporate entities making their way to the board of media companies. These businessmen taking up key decision making positions of a board is evident in the example of Jagran Publications. For this media house has had on their board the managing director (MD) of Pantaloon Retail, Kishore Biyani, McDonald India’s MD: Vikram Bakshi, and Anuj Puri the previous chairman of the real estate firm JLL Meghraj. Ironically, professional journalists rarely make it to the board (Thakurta, 2012).

Therefore, what is evident from the above is that in India, promoters of media companies have subsidiary business interests in sectors as varied as aviation, hotels, cement, shipping, steel, education, automobiles, textiles, cricket, information technology, and real estate. And this leads to the risk of is media owners using news outlets as tools to further their business interests, which will be compounded with the formation of oligopolies in the media industry. An example, where media may be used to further business interests, is the  example of is the Dainik Bhaskar group. This group controls seven newspapers, two magazines, 17 radio stations, and has a presence in the printing, textiles, oils, solvent extraction, hotels, real estate, and power-generation industries (Thakurta, 2012).

The impact of media concentration

The claim that media may be used to further business interests was documented by Noam Chomsky, in his book Manufacturing Consent. Chomsky said that it is achieved using the following three mechanisms, which were substantiated using historical examples by Chomsky. First, the wealthy may filter out news; whereby control what is heard and seen by the people, by influencing the presence or outcomes of investigative journalism. Second, censor dissent, whereby preventing the criticism of their companies or business interests. And finally, use the media “to get self-serving messages out to the public.”(Chomsky & Herman, 1988).This may especially be true when news has a positive or adverse effect on the valuation of publicly traded companies. Therefore, Chomsky’s view is that if we continue to allow the big business houses to use their wealth to gain influence over the media; our media will encompass limited points of view, biased news and a reduction in investigative journalism, while ensuring that business interests of the wealthy, who own the media outlets, are preserved. Similarly, the tendency to use the media for self-serving reasons was realized by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which published a report in 2009. The report stated that uncontrolled ownership of the media leads to paid news and propagation of biased analysis and forecasts, which often helps serve corporate interests. But why then, did policies and regulations that prevented the purchase of media institutions by Reliance, amongst others, after the publications of such articles and reports, not get enacted? 

A reason for limited regulation

Perhaps one answer to the above question is that wealth also gives an ability to influence policy and regulatory outcomes. In the paper titled “Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness”, Martin Gilens states that preferences of the well-off are more clearly reflected in government policies. Moreover, that there is a discrepancy in between the government responsiveness to citizens with different incomes. (Gilens, 2005) He believes that due to lobbying efforts, political donations and other mechanisms of wealth based power; the rich enjoy preferential consideration when it comes to the policies enacted by the government. Moreover, Gilens shows that when the interests of the poor and rich diverge, the government is more likely to enact policies that fall closer to the preference of the rich.  This data is reflective of America, nonetheless, the ability of the wealthy to influence the political system has been well documented for India as well. An example is the book Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree. In this book Crabtree, after presenting literature reviews and personal antidotes, comes to the conclusion that “the very rich have started buying politics” (Crabtree, 2018).

Concluding remarks

To conclude, this article points to a research paper by Anuradha Bhattacharjee titled ‘Mapping the Power of Major Media Companies in India.’ This paper shows that there are 12 major media companies in India that capture a majority of the market share and exercise significant control on what is heard, read and seen. The fear, therefore, is that India is moving towards a situation like that of the USA, where 6 companies control 90% of the media (Lutz, 2012). The creation of such oligopolies, which some like Thakurta believe already exist in India, has a negative influence on democracy, as stated by Baker. Moreover, the tendency to use media to serve private interests has also been reflected via the writings of Chomsky. Consequently, in light of such readings, this article urges the promotion and support of independent media agencies, regulation via increased scrutiny of future acquisitions and mergers, and transparency when it comes to ownership of media entities. 

References:

Baker, E. C. (2008).  Media Concentration and Democracy: Why Ownership Matters.Cambridge University Press.

Barnett, S. (2010) What’s wrong with media monopolies? A lesson from history and a new approach to media ownership policy. London School of Economics and Political Science.

Bhattacharjee, A. (2018, July 21). Mapping the Power of Major Media Companies in India. Economic and Political Weekly Journal, 53(29).48-57.

Chanel, L., & Thomas, P. (2017, July) Indian Income Inequality, 1922-2014: from British Raj to Billionaire Raj? World Inequality Lab.

Chomsky, N., & Herman, E. S. (1988). Manufacturing Consent.New York: Pantheon Books.

Cooper, M. (2003). Media Ownership and Democracy in the Digital Information Age.Center for Internet & Society, Stanford Law School.

Crabtree, J. (2018). The Billionaire Raj, A journey through India’s new gilded age. Tim Duggan Books.

Gilens, M. (2005). Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness. Oxford University Press, 69(5). 778-796.

Netwoek 18. (2018). India Watch TV18, Annual Report FY 17-18.

Lutz, A. (2012, June 14). These 6 Corporations Control 90% Of The Media In America. Business Insider. Retrieved from: https://www.businessinsider.com/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6?IR=T

PTI. (2018, January 22). India's Richest 1% Corner 73% of Wealth Generation: Survey. The Times of India, Business. Retrieved from: https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/business/india-business/indias-richest-1-corner-73-of-wealth-generation-survey/articleshow/62598222.cms

Thakurta, P. G. (2012). Media Ownership in India -An Overview. The Hoot. Retrieved from: http://asu.thehoot.org/resources/media-ownership/media-ownership-in-india-an-overview-6048

Thakurta, P. G. (2013). Curbing Media Monopolies . Economics & Political Weekly Journal,48(16).

Images : Network 19 Media and Investments, Corporate Presentation FY16-17. Images : Network 19 Media and Investments, Corporate Presentation FY16-17.

Cover Image: Waking Times

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Written By Vivan Puri

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