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Holding the media to account

Holding the media to account

They make the news, but rarely do we get to see or hear how media companies manage themselves. The News of The World debacle gave us an opportunity to see various dimensions of the management and operations of a renowned media organization—News Corp.

It also gave us an opportunity to think about the management and culture of media companies here.

One often hears about instances of malpractice and exploitation involving media companies. Yet, few are discussed openly, and fewer are resolved. Many incidents of harassment and abuse are swept under the carpet. Across media companies, if even a fraction of the stories one hears is true, discrimination based on gender, caste, religion, language and even social status seems common.

Worse, few current and former employees have good things to say about salaries or work culture of the media companies they work for (or worked for).

Also Read | PN Vasanti’s earlier columns

Still, the power and glamour associated with the sector often obscures these inflections.

They’re still young, so the focus on work conditions in television and radio companies is low. Print has the Press Council and the wage board to address issues related to work ethics and remuneration, although the first is powerless and the second, outdated. The numerous Press Clubs across the country have become watering holes rather than institutions that can address professional interests or well-being.

Then there is corporate governance, a set of processes, customs, policies, laws, and institutions that affect the way a company is managed. This includes relationships among the various stakeholders and the goals for which the company is governed. In contemporary business organizations, the main external stakeholder groups are shareholders, financial institutions, trade creditors, suppliers, customers and communities affected by the corporation’s activities. Internal stakeholders are the board of directors, executives, and other employees.

Corporate governance is not a new phenomenon but every time there is a crisis—in the US or elsewhere, including India—it comes back into focus.

Yet, very few media organizations in our country have corporate governance initiatives or listed disclosures as required by company laws and capital market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India, Sebi. (Editor’s insertion: Mint’s code of conduct ensures that its disclosure norms are far more stringent than anything prescribed by a regulator.)

The Media CSR Forum survey 2008 maps corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues for media companies. While the survey is UK-based, it has implications for media companies across the world including India. The survey lists common issues across all sectors, such as corporate governance and customer relations. These are issues that are common across businesses, but they have unique implications for media companies, especially where ownership and information integrity are concerned. Similarly, issues unique to the media sector include transparent and responsible editorial policies; impartial and balanced output; and freedom of expression.

Executives in media companies argue that they are, after all, part of the larger corporate and business environment that is, by and large, equally negligent on corporate governance issues. Why should media organizations be more rigorous about social responsibility and corporate governance, they ask.

Journalists enjoy tremendous freedoms in democratic countries such as ours, and this is justified, in part, by the assumption that they work in the public interest. One reason why the News of the World crisis has generated as much anger as it has around the world is because of the belief that the company has used its publications to advance its own interests and not fulfil its wider responsibilities to community and society and objectively report the news.

What is the social responsibility of a media company? Surely, to tell the truth. To expose wrongs. To entertain, for sure, but also to inform. To accord people a general expectation of privacy and dignity. And to avoid conflicts of interest.

Most companies have to establish clear values, show leadership in embedding those values, and establish policies and processes for ensuring they don’t fall short of them. The media industry currently believes it is so noble by the inherent virtue of its calling that it needs to do few of these. This is certainly self defeating in the long run, as illustrated by the closure of the News of the World.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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