22 Nov 2017
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Relationship between media and government needs serious repair: Uday Shankar

MUMBAI: In a strongly worded keynote, Star India CEO and FICCI Media and Entertainment Committee chairman Uday Shankar said that the relationship between Indian media and the government is a broken one and that it will have dire consequences for both the parties.

Mr. Uday Shankar, Chairman of Ficci's M&E Committee and Star India CEO giving the Opening Remarks at FICCI Frames 2014“It is now a broken relationship, one that will have dire consequences for both the industry and the government. The failure to establish credibility and importance has meant the industry perennially stays on a back foot, defending itself against every new wave of regulation aimed only at further curtailing its wings,” Shankar said at the inaugural of the 15th edition of the three-day industry event FICCI Frames.

No relationship, he said, is more important than that between the government and the media. “In many ways —and not uniquely to India—this is a relationship which by the very nature of its constituents is conditioned to be adversarial. Governments and political leaders are deeply aware of the power of shaping the message. The natural instinct of the state is to control the message and, where it can, to control the messenger. The natural instinct of the media, be it the news media or the creative community, is to resist control and to question authority. There is, therefore, tension inherent in the conflicting instincts of the two constituents.”

In India this relationship has often moved from being just adversarial to flirting on the boundaries of dysfunctionality. The problem is that since they have been used to only a compliant state media, successive central governments have often used policy to limit free expression. Increasingly, state governments have crossed the boundary to actually own and run private media enterprises. “Why just run channels when you can integrate across the whole value chain, and run entire businesses from delivery to content?” Shankar asked.

“It is therefore appropriate that the weeks before the elections is the right time to call for a new contract between the government and the media. One that reaffirms both stakeholders to the theme of this year’s FICCI Frames: Transforming Lives,” he continued.

The central principle of this contract should be the recognition that this industry is a unique and powerful economic enterprise. It is capable of creating employment and wealth much faster than most other sectors and with the ability to be a force multiplier, like it is in most countries. For India, this is important because it can be an employment generator without sizeable public investments and without being hampered by the deficiencies of public infrastructure.

“Why would you not nourish an industry which has the potential to become a huge employer? Why would you not fuel an industry that can grow with more policy support than resource support?” he asked.

Shankar also lamented the fact that the regulatory agenda has now completely stalled. “Whether in accelerating the digitisation of television delivery or in creating progressive frameworks on consumer pricing, this agenda is awaiting the arrival of a transformational government,” he said.

He stressed that the next government should recognise that the agenda of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry is of paramount importance. “Do you see media as a tool for transforming lives, thereby using it in the interest of serving the population or as something so powerful that it needs to be controlled? The regulatory agenda is one of the most crucial parameters that will shape how this industry will look like in the next five, 10 and 15 years.”

He added that there are lots of unviable and unhealthy media companies that cannot survive in the current framework. “And unless all stakeholders are committed to retaining the vibrancy of the sector, the biggest victim will be free expression. No value is more important to this country than preserving the ability of free media to showcase plurality of opinion and creative expression,” he said.

Shankar noted that though the media and entertainment industry had registered an impressive growth of 12 per cent last year, the truth is that in dollar terms it has barely made a dent. “And even more importantly, we remain at a great distance from the goal of growing the sector to 100 billion dollars,” he rued.

He also observed that this is not a sector whose value is measured just by the size of its financial contribution. Media and entertainment remains central to defining the direction of India’s social and economic path; its work remains key to the imagination and inspiration of a billion Indians every day and its health will be central to the ethos and values of the society.

“And, therefore, it is hugely important that we are gathered here in the days and weeks leading up to the national elections—one which comes at a particularly important time in our post-independence history. We have run the course on exploiting the momentum of the first set of economic reforms unleashed in 1991. We have created enormous opportunities and wealth for many. And, now, we are faced with a far more complex set of economic and social choices, including on the ideal role of the government, its relationship with industry and, in fact, the relationship of the private sector with the overall society at large,” he said.

He expressed surprise that irrespective of political party or government, the expectation from the media is that they will always be flag-bearers for the party line. “So, there is no complaint when the media builds up the image of a clean, technocratic Prime Minister. Nor is there any problem when the media trumpets the idea of a youth leader or champions the development achievements of state leaders. But dare they cross the line into seeking accountability or evidence of performance, they are dubbed incompetent, or worse, corrupt,” he added.

At the same time, Shankar conceded that media has been more than just a silent victim in creating this environment. “Too often, the news media has focused on what is sensational rather than what is important. Too often, the point of news seems to be to reduce the extraordinary diversity of the country to the most banal, a contest between extremes that can only be resolved through a shouting match on live television. With singular dominant narratives, the trend seems to be of creating heroes on a particular day only to be labelled as thugs and crooks the next,” he said.

He noted the irony that today it is perhaps easier to get articles published for a fee in newspapers than to place an honest criticism of the government. Nehru’s successors, both in politics and in the media, have strayed away from that aspirational vision of the role of media in Indian society.