The Reliance effect: When is corporate ownership of media especially dangerous?

A rebuttal to R Jagannathan’s thoughts on corporate ownership of media aired on Hafta.

ByVikram Johri
The Reliance effect: When is corporate ownership of media especially dangerous?
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On last week’s Newslaundry Hafta, R Jagannathan, the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of Firstpost, tackled questions related to Reliance’s ownership of the Network18 group, of which Firstpost is a part. Jagannathan replied to queries of interference from the corporate owner as well as spoke about the infamous case when he was asked by the management to take down an article that was critical of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Jagannathan, who is due to join Swarajya magazine shortly, presented broadly two explanations for the state of affairs at Firstpost. One, corporate ownership of media houses is fine, in his view, as long as the lines are clearly drawn, so that conflict of interest does not arise.

To buttress his point, he insisted on the demarcation between go and no-go areas, but it was not entirely clear if the demarcation he referred to was for reporting or for editorial. I will tackle both below. Two, Jagannathan spoke about how in the specific case of his article, the piece amounted to a personal opinion not reflective of the website, and so he agreed to take it down and post it on his blog as a “one-off” case.

Both these arguments are deeply disingenuous. It hardly bears repeating that corporate ownership of media will, by its nature, create a conflict of interest. I wrote in Newslaundry last month about Firstpost being the only major news website not to carry a report about Reliance’s alleged theft of gas from the ONGC fields in KG-D6. During the Hafta discussion, Jagannathan spoke about how corporate ownership of media can work for a small setup such as Kotak’s ownership of Business Standard. That is precisely right, and all the more reason that Reliance should not be in the business of running media houses. With its reach and presence in almost every major sector, there are wide-ranging prospects of reports on the company causing conflicts of interest. If we were to draw up a list of no-go areas for Reliance, few, if any, topics worth reporting on would be left.

It is worth asking if Jagannathan had meant the separation of Church and state when he spoke of no-go areas, which is to say that the owner should not intrude upon editorial. Alas, Reliance’s score in this regard has been worse than the blacking out of events that show the company in a poor light.

Before the full takeover of Network 18 in 2014, Reliance had helped the group retire debt in 2012. In the interim, the company made attempts to regulate news coverage on CNN-IBN, its news channel. According to a story in Mint, people close to Mukesh Ambani reached out to Raghav Behl, the erstwhile owner of Network18, to kill coverage of Arvind Kejriwal, who had raised stinging corruption allegations against Reliance.

To be sure, corporate ownership of media is not restricted to India. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp owns media properties across Australia, the US and UK. But the debate over whether the media business ought to be profit-driven or looked upon as a social good is another matter. Murdoch’s case is comparable to Times of India’s dominance of the Indian news market. Murdoch and the Jains are businessmen of media. They do not (largely) have other business interests that they can plug through their ownership of media assets. When a Mukesh Ambani buys Network 18 or a Kalanithi Maran controls the Sun Group, that essential difference is lost.

The other issue pertains to Jagannathan’s personal piece, which he agreed to take down. A media website, or any media property, should by rights be the image of its editor, not the owner. That’s what separates journalism from PR. If an editor has to take down an article because it is his “personal opinion” then how can the website call itself a media property? When asked pointedly if taking down the piece made his blood boil, Jagannathan said: “Yes and no,” and explained, rather confusingly, that if something is part of a policy and is not arbitrary, it should not make one’s blood boil. Chillingly, he added that any employee must work under the rules decided by the employer. That may well be true but applied thusly to the media ecosystem, it is deeply troubling.

Jagannathan further said: “The problem is they [Reliance] get blamed for things they don’t do.” Analyse the statement. What he is saying is that he was okay with taking responsibility for the piece since it could otherwise seem to have come from the Reliance stable. So, the issue was not so much the piece but its appearance on a website owned by Reliance and ergo, the impression of Reliance’s tacit approval. This further bolsters the problematic nature of corporate ownership of media, especially ownership by a company that relies on regulatory approvals and deals with the government on a regular basis for most of its operations.

This brings us to a third upsetting aspect of Jagannathan’s argument. That Reliance should not be in the media business is obvious. That it should not worry what the government thinks is desirable but impossible. But was the censorship external or self-imposed? Jagannathan refused to disclose whether the pressure on the Reliance brass came from the government or if the company honchos decided to act pre-emptively. He said he didn’t know and sought to, if I may, present this aspect as if the difference does not matter. But this difference is most crucial. If Reliance was acting pre-emptively and self-censoring, that is bad enough. But if someone in the government was actively seeking to muzzle criticism, that would be outrageous and, concomitantly, highly newsworthy.

It was clear from the Hafta that Jagannathan knows no more about the motivations of Reliance to take down the Jaitley piece than the next person. But greater clarity on this issue would have offered an opportunity to understand if, and how, certain media houses have massaged their editorial policies since power changed hands at the Centre last year. All said, what this episode reiterates is that Newslaundry’s motto, “When corporations pay, corporations are served”, applies not just to advertising. Regrettably it applies to media ownership and editorial control as well.

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