At another edition of IAA Conversations, which preceded the first edition of IndIAA Awards, author and journalist Shankkar Aiyar spoke with Dr Subhash Chandra, chairman, ZEEL and Essel Group.
Asked by a member of the audience on the subject of foreign investment in news media, Chandra said he was not averse to 'even 100 per cent' ownership of Indian news media, but underlined that it must be reciprocal – that if a US company is to own 100 per cent in a news media company here, Indian companies must be allowed to do the same in the US.
The preceding conversation covered domestic news media ownership issues, separating news and opinion, and corrupt media practices, under the overarching theme of 'News Neutrality'. Here are edited excerpts.
Shankkar Aiyar (SA): Let’s set the ground in terms of what is news neutrality. As a consumer of news I look for accuracy and speed. As a journalist myself I believe everyone is entitled to their opinion, but not to their own facts. As a pioneer and media baron what is your view on what exactly is news neutrality?
Dr Subhash Chandra (DSC): I have always been telling my colleagues as a publisher that we are in the business of giving information. We are not in the business of telling people what is good or bad, or right or wrong. But invariably people do get into their own thoughts and this gets mixed up. Then it is no more neutral. First, the reporter who gathers the news has his own views in it. Then, it’s the input editor or output editor and the likes who add to it. Then, the anchor has his or her views. Then, the editor adds views too. Then if there’s anything left – the publisher comes in with views. So, the neutrality is over. Neutral means reporting as it is. You just simply report as it is and probably give the reasons for that happening; and to give the reader or viewer more information, go back to the history and stuff like that. These are value additions but won’t hurt the news neutrality.
SA: Basically you’re saying that the principle business of publications or news channels is to inform and not to reform?
DSC: Yes. The media owner or editor see themselves as the arbitrator of society – that’s when they go wrong.
SA: As a consumer of news – you watch other channels and read other newspapers. What are your observations? The general feeling is that now news is not about what happened and where it happened but about why it happened...
DSC: Well, there is the quality of news dissemination – it’s gone down in terms of quality and neutrality, both. If my 25-year-old girl gathering the news goes to somebody whose father has died and asks ‘how do you feel now’ – it’s bad. I mean if the person has lost his father – how will the person feel? So these kinds of things are happening. Today, it’s become byte journalism. Just take bytes. I have caught people who are sitting in office, seeing news on the internet, adding or subtracting something from it and taking a byline for it. So, such things are happening. Again, as I said the only way it can be done is if one keeps their objectivity.
SA: You spoke about objectivity. It’s a term that was taught to us when I started in the '80s. But different people have different views on it. Arun Shourie would always say (as an editor) he has a right to give an on opinion on how news is covered – he used to say objectivity is not giving equal space to the fireman and the one who set the fire. He said we are losing this hierarchy. Yesterday’s big news was Sudheendra Kulkarni’s blackened face. Most channels went ahead of the curve and started explaining why it happened and what is India’s relationship with Pakistan and stuff like that. Your publication has condemned it – but how does one cover this?
DSC: This is the thing for which collectively everyone in the news organisation is responsible. It’s not only from the publisher to the reporter but also the consumer as well. Our business people responsible for the revenue feel (and rightly so) that whenever there’s sensational news there are more TRPs and that sells more. So more advertising revenue comes in. Even I personally have experienced some cases – atleast two cases. Where one of you (referring to the attendees of the event) have had something wrong published about you and as a media owner I’ve got calls between 7 and 8.30 (in the morning) about the same. I’ve done this plenty of times because in the night the news channel, be it Hindi, business or a language channel, has put out some story, and I’ve got calls saying that it has published something wrong about the person. So, one large business house head stopped advertising with us. They would have budgets of Rs 30 to 40 crore and they said they wouldn’t advertise with the Zee Group.
SA: That was my next question – news is a business and it survives on viability and it has issues. How do you balance compulsions and competition? Competition drives you to break news and compulsion is for revenues?
DSC: Our solution to this is to take their version of the subject. We definitely take their point of view and say that also. Even then if they get angry, you can’t help it. That’s why I say that I have more angry people against me only thanks to my editors and news gathering people. Personally I have nothing against them and they have nothing against me. But you have to live with that or exit that business.
SA: You said that you have to take the other person’s view. The structure of news gathering is such that the junior most person goes to the field to file the report. By the time it climbs up, there’s quite a huge, maybe terabytes of footage going around. As an owner how do you ensure that basic norms are safe guarded?
DSC: This was happening a lot at our channels too. I’ve had instances of this.
For example, think of the town Hoshiarpur in Punjab. Some local businessman or builder has been caught and there’s some evidence of a wrongdoing. Nowadays, with the regulations and restrictions it is very easy to find wrongdoings. The stranglehold on the system and corruption are in such a way... A place like Hoshiarpur has a population of maybe 2,00,000 out of which maybe 50 people are in the field of administration, politics or business. Of these 50, for 90 per cent it could be easy to get a story. So, one makes a story, picturises it and goes to one of the agents in the town. They talk to the agent about it and claim that this is the story and it could be running on Zee Punjab or Haryana the next day. Then, they ask for Rs 5,000 for not running it and Rs 1,000 for running it. Outside police stations in Haryana, news media has brokers sitting. If policemen are not taking a FIR or reporting something, even a victim has to pay money to get this highlighted and reported. So, that’s why one channel has done a smart thing – appointed a stringer and charged Rs 50,000 for one. This happens across levels – even editor and sub-editor level. We haven’t been able to stop it but we have put technological engines in place, which will be used post January 2016. The moment somebody starts working on a story or any news – there is no way it won’t get recorded through the technological engine itself. And what happens with the story up to what level will be available. We feel this will help us control biases about the story by about 90 per cent.
SA: One of the basic issues about neutrality or objectivity stems from ownership. Corporate or political ownership. Recently the editor of a newspaper has written a book in which you have substantial and honorable mention. Before I get to that part, what is your view on big business owning big media?
DSC: Before we go to this question, I would like to say first we have to determine the ownership itself. Who is owner? Today, in television news media – India has the highest news television channels in all languages. They run into almost 300. I can bet that 70 per cent of them are owned by people who are not eligible to own a news channel. The law is very clear that no political party should own any news channel. No religious group should own any channel. But still they do. Also, the ownership of the channels are very, very opaque. I won’t be surprised if one or two channels are owned by Dawood Ibrahim. One will never be able to find out, because the execution of the law is very weak. A prominent channel is owned by a chartered accountant in Delhi. His practice is Rs 70 lakh a year. I’m sure he must be spending Rs 20 to 30 lakh out of that. Yet, he owns a channel. That channel loses 15 crore a year. Where does the money get funded?
SA: So his loss is profit to someone else?
DSC: Has to be. The law of economics is that both debit and credit side have to be equal. It can’t be working like this. So, firstly what we are going to suggest to the government of India, and we are working on it, and hopefully in the next 30 days after the Bihar election we get some traction: the ownership of news media must be checked out after removing the corporate veil. To reach to the ultimate source... that is important.
The second issue about corporates (owning news media) – I know one media house that has not made any money in the last 17 years. Every year they are losing money, still they are spending like there’s no tomorrow. Some corporates have given them Rs 400 to 500 crore on zero interest. Who is the owner of that company then? That’s the question I ask you.
SA: In print media one publishes this form IV where you’re supposed to reveal owner, directors and so on. News channels don’t seem to have any such format?
DSC: There is a format. But, the thing is that the government is not going behind that. Simply saying whoever is worth say Rs 5,000 to 20,000 crore, gets clearance from the ministry of home affairs, he can launch a channel. It’s like me catching my driver and launching a channel on his name. If I give him Rs 10,000 crore and ask him to launch a channel he’ll be allowed to. The ministry won’t have any issues with his security clearances. For Subhash Chandra’s security clearance, they’ll see 10 things about the history and question me, but what will they ask the driver? So, he’ll get the clearance and then anyone can run the channel.
SA: What channel Subhashji is talking about a lot of us probably know. I call this seasonal ownership. The channel was bailed out by the UPA first. Then the loans went abroad. Then (back) inside. Now they’re currently again looking for a bail out, if I’m not mistaken. I don’t remember them ever making money. The beauty is that there are channels which are listed, have high profile fronts and nobody really knows the backing?
DSC: Firstly you need clear transparency in the owners. Corporate ownership – what is wrong with it? The constitution allows it. I’m a free citizen and can do whatever. I’ve got nothing against large corporate or business houses owning the media.
SA: Even business channels?
DSC: As long as you maintain your objectivity it’s fine. It’s not illegal in my own opinion. You can call it unethical or some other word, but one can’t say that you can’t own it.
SA: Sundar (Swamy) mentioned it in his opening remarks – there’s a euphemism called paid news...
DSC: Yes and it is wrong.
We’re launching an English news channel, in which we’re certainly taking some advertisers as founding partners and we will give them good pricing and rates, but not anything else. But, in this industry it happens that if one doesn’t advertise, the channel gets on their case. I remember one case with Maruti. Zee News broke something about it. After three days, a different news media company took it to a large high that Maruti’s stock price fell by about Rs 600 and the chairman of the company was going around in circles to explain to people. Ultimately he told me personally that it happened because Maruti didn’t advertise with that media house. So such things happen.
SA: There has been in the last year – when you were covering the coal scam – an allegation about your channel’s editor meeting a corporate and asking for ads or else something would be shown. How do you explain this to a viewer?
DSC: I was doing a show at Manipal University. That has been aired also, and it can be seen on YouTube. The question was similar – how credible is news media? First and foremost, nobody blackmails anybody for money through cheques. Courts have examinated us. Supreme Court has cancelled all those (coal) blocks. So what we have been saying was correct. Whatever is alleged makes no difference then.
I can only say that the gentleman – the corporate you were talking about – is saying he wants to compromise and settle this. We are simply saying just say you were wrong and made a wrong case. And I have no hesitation in saying this that the case was completely politically driven. This corporate was also made party to it.
Zee News was the only channel that was highlighting the scams the UPA government was doing. It’s not only the coal scam. It was the UPA government leaders who colluded with this corporate and did this. This is the reason for me openly being against a political party, for the first time, in 2014. I told my people we have to be against them. Then we were labeled pro-BJP and stuff like that. Yes, I was anti-Congress.
SA: So this particular book that has come out – written by a well known editor, says that Mr Subhash Chandra, the owner of ZEEL, is openly pro-BJP. If I recall you were also friendly with Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. So, how much does your voting intention visit your newsroom?
DSC: As you have said, I have seen in the last 40 years many prime ministers and many politicians. I have more friends in other parties than the BJP. On the other hand, I do believe and admit, that the present prime minister, is the hope of the country and we need to support him, and I am supporting him. I think we have supported many other people including the Congress for 60 years. We need to give this man a chance.
There are people out in the corporate and bureaucratic world that do not want to change. One is used to as a politician or a business man to the saying ‘Paisa do, kaam karao’ (This guy wants to change that). He says I want to make a policy for you for the ease of business. After that if you’re smarter than the rest, you’ll earn more. Earn from the policy. What happened in the telecom scam was that a policy was made on first-come-first-served basis. Demand drafts and bank guarantees were made five days before the policy was announced. So tell me how could I make a bank guarantee of Rs 2,000 crore unless I knew that this policy was to be announced? So, such things were happening and this person wants to change that. Again, bureaucrats don’t want to change that. I do feel that we should support him. On the other hand, even if I say I’m pro-BJP, aren’t the other media owners (who are) pro-Congress or pro-Communist?
SA: We were talking about paid journalism, and I tell people that I was born and brought up at Ramnath Goenka’s Indian Express. I don’t hide this. So, we’ve had campaigns at times – anti-Reliance, even mandal agitations. So, there are declared campaigns. You had a campaign against coal block allocation. What about the undeclared campaigns?
DSC: We see this everyday in the media. And everyone gets to know about these undeclared campaigns.
SA: Since you run a business channel – people talk about capture of businesses by stock market analysts and traders although there is disclosure there. Then, there is Bollywood. Bollywood has fine tuned it brilliantly. The stars come to you only when there’s a release, otherwise they’re not available.
DSC: There’s a rate card for that too. And news channels take money for that too. But, the money doesn’t come to the channel. It goes to someone’s pocket. There’s a parallel rate card. That’s why one of the media houses said it’s better to have paid news rather than the money going to an individual’s pocket.
SA: A feeling one gets now when you watch particularly news on TV and news in newspapers – that political parties or leaders have become adept at gaming the media. It’s about running the TRP stories – be it Lalit Modi, Vasundhra Raje or the recent Sheena Bora murder case – and that perpetuates the news. Indians like spicy food, so you get the TRP and you’re reaping revenues. Agencies don’t see what the TRP is for. So, is that recognition there within that real issues are not getting covered? Don’t you think that political parties are gaming the media?
DSC: Absolutely. When there is a big issue or big controversy going to erupt, or has erupted, to make sure that doesn’t become big they throw something else (at the media). And because of the TRP game, the whole media runs after it.
SA: In 1992, the Harshad Mehta scam got replaced by Ayodhya, which got replaced too. Narsimha Rao used to say that every crisis is an opportunity to cover the last crisis...
DSC: Absolutely. That’s a game they have perfected, and we have fallen for that.
What we did was, we went directly to the viewers – we asked viewers directly. No one had hesitation to say that the media is sold. Everyone has said that. Then they said 'why are you putting your view in the middle. Just give the news as it is.' Thirdly, they said that the channels don’t look to report on the difficulties faced by the viewers and the common man. They claimed everyone is talking only about politics.
So, we have started taking steps towards solving this problem. This has helped us regain our leadership position. We will make sure we report stuff like Indrani, Lalit Modi etc. but it won’t be given that (kind of) weightage.