Moment of truth for the media

Journalism has a responsibility to a democratic society that goes beyond commercial considerations. | Pixabay

The takeover mattered because, well, news matters. In the landscape of commerce littered with takeovers, hostile or not, it might have been just another, but it was not. The takeover was not a simple reset of a market for commodities and services, as in the telecommunications sector, for example. It was not just about balance sheets and annual reports. Its ramifications can be felt through India’s media, its political regime, even democracy. And it would be foolish to claim that it was unanticipated, especially by those who are part of Indian media or have watched it for years.

When Adani Media Networks Limited announced that it had taken over the little-known Vishvapradhan Commercial Private Limited which, through other equally obscure companies, owned shares of New Delhi Television (NDTV), it sent ripples of excitement among those backing the power of the port-conglomerate, partly for its jaw-dropping commercial audacity and partly for its boss Gautam Adani’s closeness to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Their joy was mixed with joy at defeating an adversary.

NDTV, launched in the 1980s by the formidable psephologist and communicator Prannoy Roy, was the last standing in a host of channels that had begged the ruling party. BJP members have often rubbed it and its anchors with the pejorative “LeLi”, to mean left-liberal, not realizing that the two ideologies cannot be separated. To everyone, the takeover seemed like the final nail in the coffin of independent television news — with good reason.

The takeover mechanics make it tedious to read. Prannoy Roy and his wife Radhika had borrowed hundreds of crores in 2009 from Vishvapradhan, a subsidiary of another subsidiary whose trail leads to Reliance Industries Limited, owned by Mukesh Ambani. Essentially, Adani has bought Ambani’s share in the chain’s holding company and will bid to increase ownership and control.

To claim that NDTV was a bastion of left or centre-left political space would be laughable given that its channels were largely comfortable with the free market ethos at play since India’s economic liberalization began. in 1991. However, in the increasingly strident space of news television, its channels are distinguished by a more serene approach to information and a desire to sometimes rise up against power. Lately, it has been the only channel to offer some disapproval of the ruling party’s policies and actions. This is why the news of the takeover is important.

It would be naive to think that the Indian media has been extremely independent throughout the 75 years of independence. Urgency was perhaps the most glaring example, but it was by no means the only one. Yet there were exceptions: newspapers and chains with editors who kept their backs straight in the face of many challenges.

The emergence of a “strong” leader, the rise of nationalism as a marker in all aspects of life and the slow hollowing out of institutions in the democratic architecture can only put democracy in danger. The health and strength of a democracy is tied to the independence of its institutions, including the health and strength of its journalism. Because, in a democracy, journalism is the voice of the people, the platform for debate and dissent, and the watchdog of power.

Journalism has a responsibility to a democratic society that goes beyond commercial considerations. Large swathes of journalism have chosen to abdicate that responsibility lately – supping and pleading with the powerful. When the last channel of influence falls into the basket of a man close to the corridors of power, there is no room left even for the “i” of independent information.

A long-term view is also essential here. While this may be seen by some as the ruling party’s preparation for the 2024 general election, the consolidation did not come out of nowhere. The decades following liberalization have seen a steady consolidation of private ownership in the media despite the growing number of news platforms. The result has been a gradual decline in the social responsibility and community development aspects of journalism and an increasing emphasis on commerce. Terms such as “assets” and “markets” replaced “public interest” and “trust” in news organizations and the boardroom became more important than the newsroom.

This is reflected in the power equation between the news media and the government; the former increasingly relying on government advertisements, in addition to corporate spending, for profits. India, which is among the biggest consumers of news, has one of the lowest press freedom ratings in the world. This is no coincidence: it is the result of the consolidation of political power with economic power. When the wealthiest men who run the country’s largest conglomerates, which include news companies, ally themselves with unfettered political power, that can’t be good news. Democracy may die in darkness, but it also cowers in the blinding spotlight of power.

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