Big business has owned media companies before. The undivided Birlas had Hindustan Times in Delhi and Searchlight in Patna; the Dalmia-Sahu Jain combine (which later split) had Bennett, Coleman (publishers of, among other titles, The Times of India and The Economic Times); and the Tatas had a connection with The Statesman in what was then Calcutta. Even The Indian Express’ Ramnath Goenka, while never in the same business league as the Big Three of the time, once owned the country’s largest jute mill (National Jute) and mounted a raid on Indian Iron and Steel. Since most of these groups also owned jute mills, Leftist critics used to refer to them as the “jute press”, or more pejoratively as the “jhoot [or lies] press”. That did not prevent journalistic reputations from being built in these publications, including the most illustrious names of the time. The “jute press” coexisted with some stand-alone media companies, like Kasturi and Sons (The Hindu) and ABP (Anandabazar Patrika), while Deccan Herald in Bangalore was tied to plantation interests, and so on. Smaller titles (Free Press Journal, Mid-Day, Indian Post, The Pioneer, etc) changed hands, and survived as also-rans or disappeared.
Over time, largely because of the flux in business families, but also for other reasons, even the publications once tied to large corporate houses became stand-alone media companies. They grew bigger as businesses and therefore became more important — politically as well as financially. Some went public in their share ownership and got listed, and their owners began figuring in lists of the country’s billionaires and Rajya Sabha members. As private news television was born and struggled to become viable, and as newspaper titles proliferated, it was inevitable that serious money would move into the struggling entities, as it already has into entertainment television (including Disney and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation).
In short, there is nothing new about big business entering the media, and certainly nothing in the law that stands in the way. What makes it a matter of concern is not the news of such acquisitions per se, but the context. India in recent years has become hostage to crony capitalism rather more than was the case in the past, and indeed is in danger of going one step further and giving birth to the desi version of Russia’s oligarchs — in whom political and economic power is fused. Simultaneously, the Chinese wall that by and large separated editorial and business operations in media companies has been all but obliterated in the vast majority of news organisations — some in an effort to maximise profits, irrespective of the means used, others in the effort to survive in a competitive world. The accumulation of media power by large business houses, which have already demonstrated their ability to swing government policies their way in sector after sector, thus becomes a matter of concern. If the media are to be watchdogs for not just governments but also business, and of the interface between the two, do the safeguards exist that will continue to allow the media to play an independent role? Is it reasonable to expect that such safeguards will operate, or just wishful thinking? Since democracies work best when there is countervailing power, does the ownership of significant media companies by large business houses vest too much power in the hands of a few businessmen? What needs to be done to ensure editorial independence, so that the media do not become lapdogs that bark at the behest of their owners? These are the questions that need to be urgently addressed, and answers found.
(Disclosure: Kotak Mahindra Bank has a substantial stake in Business Standard. The paper has a long-standing Code of Conduct for its journalists, and is proud of its widely recognised editorial independence.)