How conglomerates corrupt the Indian media landscape
The Adani Group’s attempted takeover of NDTV this year sparked intense speculation about the future of the broadcaster and the effect it would have on Indian media. The multinational conglomerate, founded by the billionaire Gautam Adani, has already established a presence in media by investing in Quintillion Business Media Private Limited, which owns outlets such as BQ Prime. The speculation, though, has largely been about why Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Limited, which had control by proxy over NDTV and is one of the leading financial players in the media scene, agreed to hand over the channel to its most powerful competitor across the Indian corporate landscape.
On the face of it, Reliance’s decision seems to make little business sense, which is why much has been made of the considerations that might have prompted the group to do so. But the larger point, the one that is far more important for Indian journalism, has been glossed over, perhaps because we have come to accept that we live in a distorted world, where analysis of backroom power play is the only question of interest left. What we should really be asking is why people like Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani should have any stake in the journalistic enterprise at all.
Before we can even begin to answer this question, we must make a distinction between the terms journalism and media. Journalism refers to the core activities of newsgathering and analysis, which comes with a set of norms and ethics. In most Indian organisations today, these norms are largely observed in the breach, but this does not mean that they do not exist or are not required. In contrast, media is a value-neutral term that can refer to not just the content and medium of information—print, television, digital—but also the organisational superstructures that run them. It is an umbrella term that subsumes newspapers, television channels, Bollywood studios, network providers, entertainment, streaming shows and IPL matches. Indeed, media refers to an industry so vast that it drowns out the very idea of journalism it is often used as a substitute for.
In India, we are likely to scrutinise the qualifications of an applicant who is about to begin a career in journalism with greater care than someone who wants to run a media organisation. This is because when the Indian Republic was founded, even though the need for journalistic freedom was recognised, not enough attention was paid to the role of the press.
The Working Journalist and Other Newspaper Employees Act of 1955 reflects this. The act goes beyond the protections provided to workers across professions and specifically provides protection to all journalists—be it a reporter, sub-editor or the editor of an organisation. The vital difference is that while this recourse is not available to managerial staff in any other profession, the entire hierarchy of working journalists can access it through the labour courts.
Meanwhile, the need to demarcate norms for the larger structure within which journalists work went unrecognised from the very beginning. The role of private media, which was initially owned by jute barons such as the Jains, Birlas and Goenkas—and now increasingly by the Ambanis and Adanis—barely received Constitutional scrutiny. As is increasingly clear, the question of how the media landscape should have been structured needed as much thought as for the judiciary, legislature or the executive.
The concentration of media in the hands of business conglomerates not only restricts a diversity of views, it also tailors the priorities of media, ensuring commercial gains for the conglomerate that owns it. In effect, the media business is not just driven by the profits and losses it makes, but also the impact it could have on the other businesses owned by the conglomerate. In a country where liberalisation has not taken away the government’s ability to influence corporate fortunes, a media house critical of the government has good reason to fear policy changes that can significantly hurt the other businesses of a conglomerate.
The truth is that the so-called good days of journalism never existed in India. The cosy relationship between power and media has a long history, and the criticism of a government was often rooted in an owner’s relationship to the establishment. There was always a continuity from the government media to the largely status-quoist privately-owned print media. If anything, the perception of independence existed because previous governments did not make as much use of the structural weakness of the Indian media landscape as they could have.
This is not something the Narendra Modi government has devised. The conditions always existed. Over the years, The Caravan, in a number of reports and perspectives, has documented how the Modi government has systematically worked to ensure that mainstream media, numerous as it seems, projects just one narrative.
Against this backdrop, the media expansion of another corporate such as Adani should make little difference. But the situation in the United States is indicative of the problems in the foreseeable future. In 1983, 50 companies owned 90 percent of the US media. By 2011, the same 90 percent was controlled by just six corporations. In India, we started the era of consolidation well before we even managed to build any real diversity in the media.
The attempted acquisition of NDTV is a perfect example, since, within limits, the channel remains one of the few remaining dissonant notes in a chorus of Modi-lauding channels. Moreover, as the Adani group positions itself to grow in the media, it will line up directly against the ever-increasing presence of the Ambani group.
Reliance’s interests in the media are not restricted to Network18. The group’s impact on the life of each citizen already goes beyond the influence commanded by a stray newspaper or a channel. This is evident in the setting up of the Reliance Jio network, the conglomerate’s telecom subsidiary and already the largest mobile network operator in the country. It is only when we evaluate the full scale of the Reliance group’s ambitions that we realise it is already the foremost media player in the country. It is this dominance that Adani will eventually be contesting. The ownership of channels, or a few digital or print organisations, is only a small part of a battle that seeks to control our daily sensory input.
Unlike the political climate, ownership patterns persist for a longer period of time. The Birla’s ownership of the Hindustan Times group has lasted over ninety years, even with the British leaving, the Congress’s decline and the Bharatiya Janata Party rise. It will be easier to shed Modi or the BJP’s control over the country than it will be to arrive at a future where an Adani or an Ambani do not control the information that we consume.
Already traditional media houses such as the Times group and the Bhaskar group have been dwarfed by the size and clout of Reliance. As the Adani group increases its media presence, other groups such as the India Today Group (profiled in The Caravan’s December media issue), which anyway contribute little to journalism, will become marginal players.
In the face of this threat, we are unlikely to see the political will needed to re-examine media systems within our democracy. This distorted landscape, with us since Independence, was further aggravated by the post-liberalisation years, particularly the decade under the United Progressive Alliance—before Modi fully exploited its potential for manipulation. Any new regime that will follow the BJP years, is likely to build on his example rather than work to rectify it.
This is why there is merit in fostering journalistic diversity at scales that are too small to interest big media. Safe from their overarching competition, small organisations do not require the kind of funding that makes distortions inevitable and attract the kind of journalists who are drawn to the profession for its original promise. Of course, as our profile of Op-India, also in the special media issue shows, not all small organisations that engage with current affairs are journalistic.
The few such entities that exist need to be fostered, and new ones supported by people who search for integrity in a newsroom. Even though this alternative will remain a small counterpoint in an increasingly bleak media scene, it is still a better alternative than a future where every minute will be taken up by the corporate media offerings of the Adani and Ambani groups, with the tedium only broken by the barrage of bigotry that Op-India serves up.