There's something rotten in the state of Indian media. Public funding might help
Media

There's something rotten in the state of Indian media. Public funding might help

If transparent and accountable, public funding will work to the extent of saving jobs and deepening democracy.

By Sreyan Chatterjee

Published on :

It’s no secret that the spectre of dwindling revenues is haunting many Indian media houses. As bodies felled by Covid-19 pile up, a shock doctrine is being implemented across newsrooms.

Not long after the first lockdown was imposed, reports poured in of media houses laying off journalists or cutting their salaries and benefits. This desperate cost-cutting, in potential violation of the Industrial Disputes Act of 1947, the Working Journalists and other Newspaper Employees Conditions of Service Act of 1955, and sundry advisories from the home and labour ministries, is a hallmark of an industry in deep distress.

A writ petition, filed jointly by journalist unions, against the layoffs and pay cuts, is under review by the Supreme Court. While the court has termed the petition “a serious matter” and issued a notice for the central government to respond, it is crucial to envisage the direction of effective policy action in this sector. Serious effort must be made to understand the root causes of this meltdown, and take short- and medium-term steps to salvage what is essential.

For most observers of the news industry, this meltdown comes as no big surprise. First, the coronavirus lockdown drastically reduced the circulation revenues of the print media, that is, money made from selling newspapers. Second, and more importantly, advertising revenues from digital news content – for both the digital arms of traditional newspapers and the digital media – were dwindling before the pandemic hit and continue to be squeezed owing to the reluctance of major news aggregators to share revenues adequately.

Recent research by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Research points to an industry sentiment that by controlling distribution, some established news aggregators (such as Google News and Facebook) have been consistently reducing the ability of newspapers to control the advertising revenue coming to them in the digital space. There have been talks of a renegotiated framework of equitable revenue sharing between aggregators and newspapers and, in some cases, even a move away from advertising-supported models for the production of news.

While these are legitimate long-term moves towards sustainability that all stakeholders must push for, they are not actionable solutions for the increasingly large number of media professionals that find themselves without jobs in the middle of a pandemic. While job losses of this magnitude in any sector should set off alarm bells in the power corridors of a democratic country, the media isn’t just any sector of the economy, reducible to its contribution to the gross domestic product. In the short- to medium-term, a loss of quality journalists will have knock-on costs on our citizenry, not only in the immediate loss of critical information but also in terms of long-term loss of accountability.

There is ample empirical evidence that quality reportage of public interest issues engages citizens in democratic processes and helps keep a check on the three pillars of governance. The media’s role as the fourth pillar is even more critical at a time when the nation is facing multiple crises. As feedback channels of the state falter in the far reaches of our vast nation, the media has been at the forefront, focusing policy attention to where it is needed the most.

For example, on-ground reporting of the migrant crisis and the cyclone in West Bengal has made it possible to drum up support in order to direct relief measures to the vulnerable. Further, this sort of factual crisis reportage has increasingly come under fire with multiple journalists facing criminal sanctions in recent weeks.

It is in our national interest — and consequently, in the interest of the central and state governments — to enable the bulk of the laid off journalists to remain in jobs and continue to report. With the increasing stress on the balance sheets of media organisations, it is foolhardy to expect relief internally to the industry.

Public funding of media organisations offers a way out. There is considerable empirical evidence to show that even in a healthy, business-as-usual market, reportage on public interest issues is always underfunded. This presents an opportunity to engage in some urgent cobweb clearing of the media closet and fix a persistent gap that the market has been unable to fill. However, if recent debates around state responses to pandemics are anything to go by, public interventionist spending conjures ghosts of state capitalism. These ghosts deter the acceptance of empirically effective policy action, letting sectors to spiral out of control through inaction.

Attempts to dress up public or state funding of journalism as a dogmatic ideological proposal must not deter from the fact that this process may be the only short-term way to protect both media jobs and the public serving nature of the media industry. We posit that this is already underway in developed nations such the United Kingdom and the United States. Public funding of media, if transparent and accountable, can cut across political lines and reinvigorate public interest reporting in a way unregulated media markets have consistently failed to achieve.

For example, consider the recommendation of the Cairncross Commission (2017) set up under the conservative Theresa May government in the United Kingdom relating to the governmental response to the decline of the media industry:

“(We) give priority to interventions aimed at helping the industry to help itself. And to the extent that direct funding is needed, its focus is on interventions directly targeted at the supply of public-interest news, and only insofar as they are necessary to ensure a minimum level of provision.”

Not intervening in the market for news, particularly to protect public interest news, is a policy prescription should only feature in an authoritarian playbook. In India, the ground reality is that many media entities are already dependent on state support to survive, but the intent of this support is not to further the production of democracy-promoting reporting. Instead, government advertising rupees are directed to newspapers to incentivise favourable reporting.

An analysis of the historical expenditure of the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity, the department responsible for channelling government advertising spends, shows that the choices of recipient newspapers bear little correlation with any objective parameter (such as reach, readership, circulation) of the newspaper. In combination with a strong police state that enforces strict media compliance with government narratives, this has led to an almost complete throttling of public interest reporting.

A new policy strategy is required to save jobs and democratic reporting. The major portion of the budget of the DAVP and similar state entities can be redirected to save a large number of jobs, thus stemming both the talent and capital drain in the media industry. The strategy for recent litigation by journalist unions shows that this route of relief has not been seriously considered.

For example, Section 17 of the draft Registration of Press and Periodicals Bill, 2019, allows for the central government to provide “any benefit” to a certain newspaper. Once passed, Section 17 could become the appropriate legislative route to reform central and state government entities that are already providing financial support to media organisations. The idea of reform in government advertising to support the media industry should find bi-partisan support across political and economic lines.

This is not to say that hammering out an appropriate governance mechanism will be simple or easy, but it is an urgent discussion that should begin now. The next step should be open consultations with journalists, news industry management, and citizens to decide transparent and representative methods to disburse government advertising funds. Public funding will work, to the extent of saving jobs and deepening democracy if financial support is transparent, directed at ground-level reporting, and linked to quality public interest coverage.

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