The recent acquisition of Kolkata TV by a Trinamool Congress supporter marks just another entry by political parties and their families/friends into the television business. The graphic shows 10 states where major television channels belong to political families. And these are only those that are known—there are many other television and media houses in which political parties and personalities hold stakes or are otherwise involved.
Political parties having their own media mouthpieces is not an uncommon phenomenon. We have seen how various newspapers were started and used for various missions, including for our independence, by various political leaders. Today, television is an important means of reaching out to large audiences for all our political contenders.
In the contemporary media scenario the nexus between media and politicians has been quite convenient for promoting their respective interests. This alliance has its roots in the “public service” objective that both claim to serve.
It is this pretence of public service that politicians are now using to acquire stakes in the media business.
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The obvious case is of Tamil Nadu, where the main political opponents fought their personal and political battles over their media networks (Jaya TV, Sun TV and now Kalaignar TV). There have been reported cases of a complete blackout of opposition reportage by Sumangali Cable network (owned by Sun TV). The more recent and lesser known case is of Fastway Cable, backed by Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal and the Shiromani Akali Dal trying to monopolize the television scene in Punjab.
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Media professionals have also leveraged their reputation to enter the political arena. Continuing this vicious circle, we see politicians taking over media stakes for using it to their advantage. Mamata Banerjee, leader of the Trinamool Congress, is only following this trend in taking over Kolkata TV.
But really, in this age of media abundance, does this media ownership by our politicians matter? And what does this signify to our democracy where both politicians and media play different, yet dominant roles?
In a transparent, accountable and enabling media environment, ownership by political leaders would not have been an issue. Then, whether it’s the government or a public body or a company or an NGO or even a political party, who owns media would not be so bothersome. However, in the present weak media policy framework and lack of restraint, this is an issue of concern.
In a democratic setup, ownership matters, especially when it is deliberately used to influence opinion or attempts to mislead. Also worrisome is when a few of these owners try to dominate or monopolize certain sections of the audience. As was visible in the Punjab and Tamil Nadu cases, where there have been deliberate attempts to block alternative voices and options.
Of course, audiences are no longer so naïve and are quick to switch channels (at least in a few mature segments). They can opt for information channels—whether it’s a party edition or different versions on various channels. But political affiliations and misinformation are generally not so apparent. Most of us do not know the leanings and political stakeholders of our popular media.
To ensure unbiased information sharing, many countries have even banned certain organizations such as political and religious groups from owning media.
Similarly, last year, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India also recommended that certain entities such as religious and political bodies and individuals be restricted from owning media channels and distribution platforms.
Alternatively, we can at least make it mandatory for all media to publicly disclose the names of their stakeholders and establish their leanings openly, allowing citizens to make their own informed choices.
Next fortnight, this column will delve into another current concern with media ownership—foreign investment and control.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org