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Media must treasure its independence if it must remain capable of speaking truth to power of state and corporations

Govt Should Treat Media Adverts as Obligation Not Favour, Journalists Should Also Treasure Professional Autonomy

It would have to be with a measure of dismay that everybody in Manipur who believes in the independence of the media are witnessing the plight of the latter now so evident in the past few days. The Editors Guild Manipur, EGM, supported by the Manipur Hill Journalists Union, MHJU, went on a strike on Thursday, December 16, protesting the non-clearance of advertisement bills for newspapers and cable TV channels by the government for close to two years. Interestingly, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, the largest body of the media fraternity in the state, did not openly lend support to the protest. It is not difficult to guess the dynamics behind all this. In a state with a very small private advertising market, government advertisements constitute the mainstay of most media houses. The media as a business here would also belong to the MSME (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises), many or most of these started by journalists, therefore it is not uncommon to have proprietor-editors. In recent times, this feature has changed considerably especially in the far more commercialised Imphal area where most of the bigger news organisations are located. Here, the fast pace of modern life and business have caught up, and what were once small newspapers launched and owned by journalists have begun changing ownership, and are now in the hands of businessmen whose interest in the media is primarily business, and not journalism per se.

For long, one of the cardinal principles of independent journalism—that of separating the business interest of a media organisation and journalism has not always been possible, for as sketched above, most of the small media organisations were started and owned by journalists themselves for the love of the profession and the ideals it holds. However as journalists they had no trouble putting the primacy of their enterprises to journalism. The business part of it was important but these pioneers were in little doubt that it would have to be consequent upon, therefore secondary to the demands and challenges of journalism and mass communication. In this sense, the entry of businessmen in the media was seen as a good sign, for then, it was thought it would be possible to strengthen the ideal structure of a news organisation, where its business and journalism are acknowledged as interrelated but are allowed to exist in complete autonomy of each other. In this ideal set up, all business matters are to be handled by a business team while news gathering and dissemination are done by a news team. The moment these two are allowed to mix, the degeneration of journalism begins. Indeed, in big newspapers, such as The Times of India where I began my career in the mid-1980s, the friction between the two sections manifested on a daily basis. The advertisement section is the one to release the pages first, and only after it has done so, the news section were to begin work on laying out their pages on the available space and sometimes this space is not enough or to the liking of the journalist section for they are often constrained in giving the display they desire for news they consider important. The news editor then would have to negotiate for space with his counterpart in the advertisement section. Both have their compulsions and both have to adjust to each other’ needs, although in recent times, the trend has been for the advertisement section to be given excessive weightage in this essential tug of war. Even the front page, which was once considered sacrosanct and the exclusive domain of the news section, except for a quarter page space at the right hand bottom referred in newspaper lingo as the “Solus”, is now open to full page jacket advertisements. In some newspapers, again the likes of The Times of India, during the festive seasons, there are several full-page advertisements preceding the front page, so that the front page is often found on the 7th or even 9th page on a given day, sadly trivialising news to the extent of what media tycoon Rupert Murdoch is often credited with having defined “news as the stuff to fill spaces between advertisements”. Likewise, the idea of advertorials or “paid news” has also gained currency in recent times, adding another potential peril to the long list of challenges before the free media.

It is with this mixed feeling that I make this commentary. First, why has the government delayed clearance of bills for newspapers and TV channels they placed their advertisements in? Second, is it proper for editors to actually act on behalf of proprietors to push for advertisements or the recovery of advertisement bills? Should this job not have been left to the business sections of the media houses? I do acknowledge there is indeed a very fine balance to be kept, especially for small states like Manipur where many editors are also proprietors. For most of my career, I have also been a proprietor-editor, and this is also why I have consciously kept away from working journalist bodies in the state, though I have always been a journalist at heart, and the business sides of the enterprises I founded in the decades that went by, have been more of a necessary therefore inevitable baggage to take along. Now, I am back in an advisory capacity, but not as a voting member, with the AMWJU. Last month, on invitation I was also part of the Editors Guild of India’s 3-member fact finding team to Tripura during November 28 to December 1, to find out the state of journalism there in the wake of the state government’s arrest of two women journalists who went there to report a spate of communal violence. The EGI report is due to be out, but what is also interesting is the similarities of many of the findings of the EGI team of government-media relationship in Tripura with those in Manipur, in fact the entire Northeast, although Tripura’s case is much more acute.

Quite by co-incidence, a little before going to Agartala, I was also in Itanagar as a special guest at the National Press Day celebration of the Arunachal Pradesh Union of Working Journalists on November 16, giving me another vantage to yet another similar situation. Though the problem, that of government advertisements and support for the media profession is similar in these states, it is also interesting that journalists in each of these states tackle this problem differently. In some the resistance by the journalist fraternity against government’s effort to control media freedom is much stiffer than in others. But this will be another story. For now, let me touch on what I think should be the attitude of the government to this issue.

This is important for what often becomes the case is for the government of the day to treat the benefits it extends to the media, including advertisements but also schemes such as pension facilities, health insurance etc., as favours for which return favours are also expected. First, the government’s advertisements fund are from the contributions of tax payers, including the journalists themselves, and not from anybody’s private coffer. More importantly, without even going into the exalted idea of the media being the fourth pillar of democracy, purely from the logic of utilitarian and instrumental economics, in a job scarce state, where only government jobs are considered worthwhile, the media is one of the most successful job generating segment of the state economy, therefore the government extending reasonable support to make media jobs sustainable and attractive is in many ways in its own enlightened interest. From a rough calculation from the memberships of the AMWJU, MHJU and EGM, there are more than a thousand working journalists in Manipur. This would entail that together with non-journalists employees of media houses, the number of media related jobs would be anywhere between 3000 to 5000. If indirect media related jobs such as newspaper hawkers and distributors are also taken into account, this number probably would double. In other words, if the media enterprise were to fail, the unemployment burden on the government would increase by at least seven to ten thousand. For a faction of what the government would have had to spend to give employment to this number directly, it would be succeeding to keep them meaningfully employed. The media is just one promising sector, but there are others which hold similar promise as job generators. Health services, school education etc., are some more and it would be in the interest of the government to come up with suitable policies to provide support infrastructures for sustenance and growth of all these enterprises. Such policies together would make for a major stride towards resolving the mounting unemployment problem in the state.

This being so, government advertisements and schemes for media welfare should be treated as an obligation not as a favour. But this will have to follow well thought out methods so that the primary focus of the benefits extended by the government go to the journalist and non-journalist employees who together form a media house, and not simply about making media proprietors richer. Government advertisement policies for instance could be calibrated in terms of number of employees media organisations hire and the salary standards of their employees. Also factored into such an advertisement distribution formula must also be methods to ensure an equitable (not necessarily equal) share of government advertisement revenue amongst all media houses genuinely running their enterprises and not about disproportionately favouring the most popular ones. From the volume of uncleared advertisement bills made known in the course of the recent media strike, for the moment unfortunately, the latter scenario seems to hold. No, this would not amount to killing competition. For if government advertisements policy were to be designed for equitable distribution amongst all players, there would still be the private advertisement markets where competition for the lion’s share would remain open for media house managers to measure their marketing skills. Once an autonomous formula for advertisement distribution has been put in place, there should be no room for manipulation by anybody, ministers or bureaucrats. This way, journalists can remain independent as any democracy expects them to be, speaking truth to power without fearing the latter would starve them.

It is from this vantage that I would like to consider the current controversy over the non-clearance of media advertisement bills by the government. We hope the government keeps its words and pay its dues to the media houses, but also commits itself to evolving a mechanism for advertisement distribution formula which is directly linked to employees welfare as I have sketched above. From this standpoint, it is also encouraging that the AMWJU kept itself away from directly involving in the protest for this matter should have been a proprietorial affair handled by the business sections of the media houses. But as I have said earlier, there are certain other compulsions from the fact that many editors still are also proprietors of organisations they themselves founded. However, there are an increasing number of editors today who are employees only and they should, in the best possible scenario, remain as true professionals committed to their vocation as journalists only and leave business matters for their proprietors and their business teams to handle. As in the case of Tripura’s current media trouble, nobody in the state surely would want a team of the Editors Guild of India to visit the state on a fact-finding mission to study the state of media in the state and discover there are also editors who have been reduced to brokers and middlemen for their proprietors.

1 thought on “Govt Should Treat Media Adverts as Obligation Not Favour, Journalists Should Also Treasure Professional Autonomy”

  1. The bitter truth is …. you scratch I scratch your back. It is not only in Manipur ,,look at the national papers and TV channels. Those who don’t fall in line with govt are crying for support from the public, for continuation of publication…..

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