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Of vested interests, editorial integrity

The question of media ownership in India is a tricky one, as it is in most countries across the world.

NEW DELHI: According to the global NGO Free Press Unlimited, media ownership by individuals with vested interests has been an enabler for corporations and governments to develop a centralised information strategy. This is tantamount to a modern kind of propaganda where the media may end up presenting the same arguments in support of the leadership’s actions. The recent development involving a potential hostile takeover of a reputed media house by one of the world’s richest men has brought to the fore the growing clout of large corporations in the media industry, and the manner in which this clout risks stifling editorial independence.

The question of media ownership in India is a tricky one, as it is in most countries across the world. Maintaining press freedom is heavily dependent on the structure of media ownership. In the event of the ownership resting in the hands of a few with specific political or business affiliations, the question of conflict of interest emerges, and that by itself is a catalyst for compromised reportage. According to stakeholders in the policy space, some of the other large businesses attached to conglomerates with media units, include enterprises in regulated sectors such as energy, telecom, where the government has a point of view. And whether we like it or not, corporations often run afoul of the laws of the land on both the Central and State levels. Despite maintaining an arm’s length relationship with the media entity, corporate owners often find themselves in a situation bordering on conflict of interest.

The caveat emptor clause comes into play here as corporates are often likened to government administrations that prefer to control their narrative from A-Z. Unfortunately, such narratives may not necessarily serve the public interest. One might recall how in 2010, the Radia Tapes scandal opened up a veritable Pandora’s Box of revelations regarding an unholy alliance of the trifecta comprising the government, the media and the all-powerful business lobbies. Another factor that is ailing India’s news media at this point in time is the drastic dip in quality of discourse employed by the TV news channels where larger than life anchors are vested with the powers of an arbiter of news.

It’s essential to remember that one of the signs of a healthy democracy is the extent to which press freedom is honoured in letter and spirit. Avenues for debates, dissent, and unbiased reportage as well as criticism of people in power are the hallmarks of a functioning and fact-based media ecosystem. Maintaining editorial integrity will require media companies to curtail their dependence on revenue streams that have an in-built conflict of interest component. A cleaner alternative would be switching to a subscription revenue based model, where the content and consumer can be king.

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