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Many voices better than one - The Observer

Dina Nath Mishra ()
30 October 1997

Title: Many voices better than one
Author: Dina Nath Mishra
Publication: The Observer
Date: October 30, 1997

Monopolistic trends in the field of broadcasting are dangerous for any
country because they try to regulate the mass mind for their own interests,
disregarding the social and national aspirations. The establishment of a
monopoly or an oligopoly that dominates the electronic media to the extent
that it becomes the single most important player in determining even the
outcome of electoral battle has happened in countries like Italy and Brazil.

Silvo Berlesconi controlled virtually all local and national channels and
the most significant national newspapers in Italy. As a result of this
media concentration, in the early 1990s Berlesconi's television stations
were strongly criticised for their limited down market programming,
consisting of some 90 per cent of entertainment and with over 50 per cent
of total programming imported from the USA.

The laws of 1990 were introduced, and they required Mr Berlesconi to
surrender control of a national newspaper. However, the new law was
described by commentators to preserve the status quo rather than address
the media concentration difficulties. Furthermore, Berlesconi later became
the Prime Minister of Italy and was later forced to resign due to various
political scandals, including his holdings in the press and broadcasting.

Italy is the example of a country in which failure to address media
concentration rules at the outset can mean that rectifying any actual media
concentration after-the-fact can be extremely difficult. Earlier in Brazil
where the II Globo TV network succeeded in making Fernando Collor de Mello,
till then an obscure politician, into a mediagenic figure who won the
presidency in less than two years. Collor had to leave office in disgrace
after having been impeached for corruption and moral turpitude.

It may be recalled that the Supreme Court in the 'cricket' case has said
that while a decision to allow or not to allow private broadcasting is a
sovereign function, it is essential in the interest of the public that
Parliament enacts a law governing the broadcasting media, both radio and
television. Even if Parliament were to permit private broadcasting, it
would have to decide under what condition this would be permitted or what
restriction would apply. Thus, it is obvious that in the interest of the
wider cultural and national interests of the society as also of ensuring
that a wide variety of voices and interests enjoy access to it, private
broadcasting cannot be left to market forces alone. The unregulated state
of broadcasting in India is inconsistent with the Supreme Court decision.

There may be shortcomings in the proposed Broadcasting Bill. Nevertheless,
the Bill is consistent with Supreme Court decision of implementing
broadcasting regulation in India. The most important and desirable
restriction on the broadcasting front is on foreign equity holding. The
proposed law (Broadcasting Bill) seeks to cap foreign ownership at 49 per
cent. This is a high threshold by world standards. International practice
would peg this at approximately 20 per cent. This outer limit is
dangerous, for foreign investors may really take over the control with the
help of dummy investors or keeping domestic investment fragmented. During
Fera regime, many companies were managed by multi-national corporations in
this manner.

This business is not capital intensive in the sense the levels of capital
required are not huge and therefore not obtained in India. The industry
has a long gestation period. Foreign capital, up to a point, may go to meet
the hardware needs of the media. Almost all the hardware required will have
to be imported. A holding of up to 30 per cent will prevent control from
sliding into the hands of foreigners.

The proposed law recognises the difficulty of regulating cross-border
transmissions and takes a relatively light-handed regulatory approach to
foreign satellite transmission. This is by seeking to impose a licensing
regime with the objectives of preserving cultural values, protecting Indian
broadcasters and providers of programmes from monolithic and monopolistic
foreign broadcasters. At the same time, it allows Indian citizens access to
a variety of international programmes.

A more heavy handed approach is taken in other countries such as Singapore
and Malaysia. Although the United Kingdom legislation does not require
foreign broadcasters to obtain a licence, the Broadcasting Act 1990 (UK)
provides a similar framework to that which is proposed in relation to the
regulation of foreign satellite broadcasting in India under the draft
Broadcasting Bill. The secretary of state may prohibit a foreign satellite
service if the occasion arises. The Japanese government regulates foreign
satellite broadcasters in a similar way to that proposed by the draft
Broadcasting Bill. The imposition of a licensing scheme and a relatively
light-handed regulatory approach in India to foreign broadcasts is more
favourable to foreign broadcasters than the regime established in the
United Kingdom, Australia and Japan.

It is clear that governments which are lobbying for free airwaves, are from
countries like USA and UK which themselves do not allow much role for
foreign players in their own media industry by way of share-holding. Rupert
Murdoch, who owns Star TV and who is Australian by birth, had to become an
American citizen before he could buy into US media. France has restrictions
on the quantum of foreign produced programmes on French TV.

The Bill will have to guard against monopolistic trends on the home front
also. There must be restrictions on cross-media ownership. For example, if
Hindustan Times is to own a TV station in Delhi it stands to reason to
believe that it will acquire power to influence events and decisions that
may not be desirable, for it is already a dominant newspaper in the area.
Already we see that in Andhra Pradesh Eenado group owns the largest
circulation newspaper as well as largest Telugu cable TV channel. Thus, it
has become the most dominant player in the area. We have a similar
situation in Tamil Nadu, where daily Murasoli and Sun TV are owned by the
Maran family of the DMK. This group, unlike Eenado, is directly related to
the chief minister Karunanidhi, for the industry minister Murasoli Maran is
Karunanidhi's nephew. No UK or US company is allowed to own even a TV
station if it has a newspaper.

Some of the foreign players are interested in delaying this Bill. There
are powerful Indian lobbies of related industries and politics which are
engaged in scuttling the Bill. At this stage, the real motive of advancing
the discussions is to somehow establish that the Bill is inadequate in its
present form and needs postponement. It might be pertinent to remember
that while we were still discussing the regulation for cable TV, it became
fait accompli.

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