Monday, May 31, 2010

Media regulation needs teeth

The Press Council’s hesitation about the report on paid news is a sign of the regulator’s growing redundance

PN Vasanti

The sole statutory, quasi-judicial body set up for media regulation in our country is the Press Council of India, established in 1966 to preserve the freedom of the press and to maintain and improve the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India. However, the watchdog has been rendered largely toothless as it only has the power to inquire into complaints against newspapers and journalists, and has no way of imposing punishments on those who err. It can ask a newspaper to publish details relating to an inquiry against itself, but cannot levy a penalty or enforce its directions.

While there has been debate on and off over the relevance of the Press Council in the prevailing media scenario, the debate over so-called paid content has revived the argument over the role of the agency and whether there is any point in keeping it alive.

At the core of the latest controversy is the sale of space in the print and time in the electronic media. What’s carried in that space or time isn’t labelled as advertising for the benefit of readers and viewers, but masquerades as legitimate news.

While this trend itself is not new, it has become more deeply entrenched and even institutionalized in recent times. P. Sainath broke the story in The Hindu about politicians who engaged in the practice during the Maharashtra state elections of 2009. He even gave specific prices for the various types of coverage sold by newspapers, besides showing how the same write-ups praising chief minister Ashok Chavan were carried in three different newspapers during the elections.

The concern with paid content is that it is a breach of ethics as it deceives readers and viewers. In the context of elections, such news also raises critical issues of coercion and malpractice, eroding the very basis of our democracy. The Election Commission, concerned about the undue influence on the voter, has clarified that paid news does not come under the rubric of freedom of speech, and hence should not carry the same protections. On top of that, the practice of paid news violates election spending laws and, therefore, is also illegal. For those publications that engage in this activity, it means additional revenue, while the advertisers can choose not to list the money they pay as expenditure, since it’s dressed up as news.

Parliament also raised the issue and condemned the practice. In keeping with the tenor of the public debate, the Press Council was emboldened enough to condemn the trend and, in response to the demand by lawmakers, set up a two-member committee to look into the “allegations”.

This committee completed a draft report last month that was to be released to the public. That’s now on hold after strong opposition from some media owners— who are also council members—at a meeting held on 26 April 2010. Their resistance stems from the report supposedly having named newspapers and channels engaged in paid news practices.

The findings of the draft report reveal a disturbing trend. Though some have complained that the evidence presented is weak, the report identifies several publications that are believed to have sold editorial space, and it lists instances in which the practice transpired.

Today, discerning media consumers can detect paid content not just in the regional-language media, but in the mainstream English-language media too. Add to that, it’s not just political news that is “sponsored”, but business, sports, cinema and everything else, including cultural events.

There are obvious forms of commercialization eroding the media’s credibility. One is the concept of the so-called private treaty, which offers companies a certain amount of advertising space in exchange for equity stakes in the firms. Such a barter system has nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but when the Chinese wall between advertising and editorial is breached, there can be serious conflict-of-interest implications.

Last year, even the capital market regulator, the Securities and Exchange Board of India, wrote to the chairman of the Press Council expressing concern about the practice.

Why has the Press Council not been able to ensure that the media remains free of blemish? On its website, the Press Council calls itself “one of the most important bodies that sustain democracy, as it has supreme power in regard to the media to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained”. Ideally, it should have been playing a critical role as a self-regulating body. That doesn’t seem to be the case in this key issue that threatens the foundation of our democracy.

By hesitating to make public the report on paid news, the Press Council is missing a golden opportunity to take a proactive stand. The trend may be condemned by everyone, but until those engaging in it can be pinned down, the malaise is difficult to treat.

Clearly, self-regulation is not sufficient to address complex problems that affect our media today. We need to create more adequate systems with punitive powers that can help foster a vibrant media in our country. Perhaps it’s time to give the Press Council a quiet burial.

PN Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.

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Courtesy: LiveMint

Friday, May 28, 2010

CMS Academy lecturer participated in the International Musicology Conference (IFYM, 2010) held at Yokohama, Japan

New Delhi: CMS Academy lecturer and academic coordinatior Ms Shrinkhla Sahai participated in the International Musicology Conference (IFYM, 2010) held at Yokohama, Japan recently. She was among the 57 participants who attended the Forum in addition to the 20 invited, young and promising scholars from across Asia, including Japan, Europe and America.

Ms Sahai, a Phd scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University gave a presentation on “Excavating Tradition: Classicism and Modernity in the ‘Gharana’ system of Hindustani Music. Her paper focused on the question of continuity and change within the Hindustani classical music system, the claim to authenticity as a basic premise for establishing the concept of and the breaking down of the gharana system in the post-modern world. She said, “Classical music pedagogy in India follows the oral transmission of music knowledge within a gharana. The authenticity and classicism in a musician‘s style is substantiated through his claim to the musical lineage of the gharana. In the early part of the twentieth century, when these gharanas emerged, music knowledge was passed on only within the family or to gandabandh shagirds ’ (a thread-tying ceremony in which the Guru accepted a person as his disciple). This practice effectively thrived on a politics of exclusion, operating out of the socio-cultural hierarchy and reinforcing it by allowing selective access to knowledge and prohibiting outsiders from learning a particular style (of the gharana) of music. This practice also aimed at preserving the uniqueness and distinguishing quality of a gharana.”

She further elaborated that it is significant that the concept of gharanas emerged at the turn of the twentieth century and the whole emphasis on gharana as an authentic lineage of classical music, which claims its purity by aligning itself to tradition, is itself a modern phenomena. The classical styles of Hindustani music are therefore ‗neo-classical.

International Musicology Conference (IFYM, 2010)

International Forum for Young Musicologists 2010 was organized by The Musicological Society of Japan from May 14-17, 2010, in Yokohama. It began with kind messages from Prof. Tadashi Isoyama, President of the MSJ, and Prof. Tilman Seebass, President of the IMS, who spoke over the SKYPE. 57 participants attended the Forum in addition to the 20 invited, young and promising scholars from across Asia, including Japan, Europe, and America.

CMS Academy of Communication & Convergence Studies

CMS Academy of Communication & Convergence Studies is a communication school aimed at developing communication and media leaders through excellence in education and research. The Academy is a uniquely designed, research driven, practically relevant and futuristically oriented educational institute. CMS Academy is an initiative of Centre for Media Studies (CMS), a multi-disciplinary research organization in the country. CMS Academy is associated with over 160 reputed national and international organizations through its 20 years experience of research, strategic planning and managing of over 500 projects. With campuses in NOIDA (UP) and Saket, Delhi, it provides a world class infrastructure that includes media lab, prototype lab, research library, audio visual resource centre, etc.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Telugu news channels see fierce competition

Among the southern states, Andhra Pradesh has the largest number of dedicated news channels, apart from having the highest cable TV penetration

Fine Print | PN Vasanti

India’s television businesses see fresh impetus for the industry coming from the regional languages, the key ones being Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Marathi. Given the higher literacy levels and better infrastructure, the south has always been lucrative for any marketeer. With their reach extending beyond the borders of their home states to the diaspora, regional-language television broadcasters have been growing at a faster rate than the overall television industry in India.Among the southern states, Andhra Pradesh has the largest number of dedicated news channels, apart from having the highest cable TV penetration.

Until 2008, there were only a few Telugu news channels in the state such as TV9, ETV2, NTV and TV5, alongside the entertainment ones, which were Doordarshan’s Saptagiri, ETV, Gemini TV, Teja TV, Maa TV and Zee Telugu. Some of the entertainment channels featured news bulletins with their array of serials, movies and reality shows.

Last year’s simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly elections marked a surge in news channels as film star Chiranjeevi announced his entry into active politics. These included Sakshi TV, HMTV, HYTV, Maha TV, Studio-N, Zee 24 Gantalu and ABN Andhra Jyothy. With the launch of Raj TV earlier this month, the state now has 13 news channels compared with 12 general entertainment channels. It’s intriguing to see this rush to start news channels in an already cluttered space.

Most of the news channels have been launched by politicians from different parties with low investment costs. With a news channel costing around Rs50 crore to launch, this is seen as an economical option to get “favourable coverage” and build up a public image.

However, the clutter has resulted in fierce competition and rising sensationalism. The Telugu media has been criticized for fanning the Telanagana agitation, leading to loss of life and property. The Andhra Pradesh high court had to intervene and warn TV channels in the state to refrain from airing provocative speeches and visuals.

Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Graphic: Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
Similarly, the channels were blamed for spreading rumour and disinformation when chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy died in a helicopter accident. The courts had to step in to stop the airing of speculative discussions or programmes before the release of an official report on the accident.While the rising number of such channels in Andhra Pradesh can be hailed as a step towards meeting information needs and feeding the hunger for news, it has also raised questions regarding coverage. The threads linking politics and the channels often get entangled, resulting in distorted coverage. The explosion of Telugu news channels provides further opportunity to study the role and relevance of such media in our democratic state.

It’s inevitable that what has happened in Andhra Pradesh will be replicated as the share of regional markets in the overall revenue pie (including subscription) is increasing.

A McKinsey and Co. study forecasts that the regional markets are expected to grow at 20% CAGR (compounded annual growth rate) in terms of ad revenue to at least $1 billion (Rs4,460 crore) by 2012-13. However, the emerging trends—as highlighted by the Telugu news channels—indicate that most regional players are focused on expanding their political clout and achieving their aspirations. In this process, professionalism, innovation, quality, competition and diversity of opinion take a back seat. However, for the sustainable growth of regional news media, these issues may need to be brought to the forefront.

Therefore, the future of regional television news channels lies in the hand of news leaders and not political leaders.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She also heads the CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence Studies.
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