Dear Media Owners! Please Wake Up To Your Falling Credibility

Assembly elections in Odisha are still two years away. But the battle for the control of the media, especially of the electronic variety, between the two principal contenders for power is already getting uglier by the day. Neither the BJD, which is facing a challenge for the very first time from an aggressive BJP, nor the BJP, which believes it is within sniffing distance of power in 2019, wants to be left behind in the fight to get the media – or influential sections of it, at the very least – on its side.

For a number of years now, the ruling party has had large sections of the media eating out of its hands. Recalcitrant media houses or individual journalists have been browbeaten into submission through cynical use of a carrot and stick policy. Largesse in the form of generous government advertisements have been used as a highly effective tool to buy the support of newspapers/channels. When this has failed to have the desired effect, the stick has been wielded with deadly effect to force the media house to toe the line. When even this failed to deter the media house, individual journalists in key positions in the organization have been gained over – again through the use of the time tested policy of carrot and stick – to protect and promote the party’s interests. Journalists keen to write against the various acts of omission and commission of the ruling party and the government found that there were no takers for their stuff.

All that began changing after the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014. Though the party fared poorly in the state, attempts to break the stranglehold of the BJD on the media began in right earnest almost immediately after the polls. In doing this, the BJP emulated the same carrot and stick policy that the ruling party had perfected into a fine art over the years. The Directorate General of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP), the central government organization that controls ad inflow to newspapers and channels, came in handy in this exercise. DAVP registration of new entities was made contingent on the publication of publicity material extolling the virtues of the Union government doled out on a daily basis by the Press Information Bureau (PIB), another central government agency.

But of late, things have gone well beyond the use of these central agencies to buy media support for the party in power. It has got to a stage where the invisible hand of a top BJP leader is seen behind key appointments and sackings at the senior most levels in TV news channels and newspapers. One particular Editor, known for his anti-BJD crusade, was reportedly eased out of one channel, joined another and was made to resign under duress again – all within the incredible span of four months. One channel has had three Editors sacked in the last one year. And the role of politicians has been seen in each of these appointments and sackings. Things can hardly get more bizarre than this.

Not to be outdone, the BJD has initiated its own countermove to gain control of some channels. A BJD MP is said to have bought controlling stakes in a channel owned by a large industrial house with significant interests in Odisha that had fallen on bad times. A minister in the Naveen Patnaik government has reportedly invested a significant amount in another to be able to influence its editorial policy.

With both the BJP government at the Centre and the BJD government in the state vying with each other to shower full page, colour advertisements, newspapers in the state have never had it so good – at least not since chit fund companies went out of business in 2013. But those with a stake in an independent media, which is the bedrock of a democracy, cannot but be concerned at this brazen attempt to buy the silence of the press. Media credibility, already low in the public eye, dips even lower when the reader/viewer sees the stand of a newspaper/channel change overnight because its mouth has been stuffed with manna in the form of ad revenue. If the media barons don’t wake up to their fast falling credibility, the day is not far when people would stop believing anything reported by the media. Once that happens, even political parties and leaders, who now invest crores to buy media support, would stop spending the money since it won’t give them the dividends that they invest their money for. In short, it would be a lose-lose situation for all concerned.

It is time media owners woke up to this danger.