‘Self regulation of media hasn’t failed Indian news completely:’ Dr Subhash Chandra

MUMBAI: In this era of ‘byte journalism,’ where media is either accused of paid news or being sold out for advertisement revenue, how to balance compulsion and competition was the question of the hour raised at the recently held IAA Conversations.


Spearheaded by journalist and author Shankkar Aiyer, the discussion saw media mogul and Essel Group chairman Dr Subhash Chandra analyse if news neutrality is but a myth in our country or is it an achievable fete. Stating that the role of media is to inform rather than reform, Chandra emphasised that news anchors should refrain from becoming arbitrators of news.


While Chandra’s take on ‘Google’ journalism isn’t very positive, he certainly credits the digital medium for revolutionising the way news is consumed.


“Digital medium has helped us in the news business tremendously. You not only get news in 140 words, but you can also gauge what news consumers are engaging in. It is no longer just an editorial call, but the nerve of the news consumers can be gathered through various social network engagements. That is where news media comes in. We pick up those pointers, and then give them more information around it. To some extent it also safeguards the interest of the consumers as the decision to what to pick up and what not to is more on the public’s hand,” he says, adding that the follow up by print and broadcast media is very essential as digital media doesn’t have the tool of infrastructure to do such in depth elaboration of the news.


According to him, the key factors that work against news neutrality, especially in broadcast news is the lack of transparency in their ownership as well as faulty editorial regulation from within the system.


“I can bet that 70 per cent of owners of the 300 something news channels airing in our country are not eligible to do so. The country’s law is very clear that no political party or religious group should own any channel. But still they do,” says Chandra adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if two of the channels are owned by notorious criminals like Dawood Ibrahim.


The way ahead, according to him, is to suggest to the government of India to look deeper into the actual ownership and investigate the stakeholders of media organisations and ultimately have their ownership transparent to the viewers, who can then decide for themselves.


When asked about his thoughts on the allowance of 49 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in news media in India, Chandra was prompt to reply that he is all in for ‘100 per cent FDI in news media’ as long as the foreign nationals allow the same stakes for Indian investors in their media. “If a US company is to own 100 per cent in a news media company here, Indian companies must be allowed to do the same in the US,” he says.


It is interesting to note that Chandra doesn’t find it wrong that a big corporation owns a certain media organisation, as long as the corporate veil is lifted to the public. “Corporate ownership is not illegal as per our law, though it may become unethical,” he says.


Chandra explains the latter issue of self-regulation by citing an example from within his own organisation. “I am aware of the unethical practices that have seeped within Zee News as well. Recently, I was informed of a stringer from Zee News in Hoshiarpur Punjab, who would collect evidences of corruption against builders, administrators, politicians and businessmen and blackmail them for money through agents. You see, it’s very easy to find scoop against such people. They ask for Rs 5,000 for not running it and Rs 1,000 for running it,” revealed Chandra, even congratulating the media who were successful in busting the scam.


On another instance, news brokers have been heard of sitting outside police stations in Haryana, looking out for victims whose FIRs have not been filed or other discrepancies by the police. “They promise to highlight their story through media in exchange for some money,” Chandra informs. While one may think of this as a social service in favour of the victim, Chandra is of the opinion that this goes against the ethics of a journalist and is no better than paid news.


The problem doesn’t only exist at the grassroots level of a media organisation. “This happens across levels – even at editor and sub-editor level,” reflects the media honcho. There are plenty of cases when a report, filed by a reporter becomes completely different by the time it is published or aired. “Those who report and file a story are at the very base of the news chain. The same report then goes through input and output editor. Then there is the entire organisation’s editorial that gives its own colour to the story. The publishers then add the final touch on whatever is left of the story,” Chandra adds wryly.


There are countless examples of how news media manipulates the truth, or in some cases become part of it, and Chandra regretfully admits that he hasn’t been able to put a stop to it.


While Chandra recognises their evils of news media colouring the news with opinion and judgements, he still doesn’t think there is any need of an external regulatory body. As per him, self regulation hasn’t completely failed Indian journalism, and he still has faith in it.


“We have put technological engines in place, which will be used post January 2016,” Chandra says while introducing a new self monitory mechanism that Zee News will put in place. “The moment somebody starts working on a story or any news – there is no way it won’t get recorded through the technological engine itself. And what happens with the story up to what level will be available. We feel this will help us control biases about the story by about 90 per cent.”


Chandra signs off from the conversation pregnant with ideas of a news analysis program that not only reviews the headlines on newspapers every morning, but also dissects the prime time news discussions of the previous night.

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