Sucheta Dalal :Why they oppose foreign money in print media
Sucheta Dalal

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Why they oppose foreign money in print media  

February 24, 2001

Most business houses believe that economic liberalisation is a great idea, so long as it does not affect them -- the print publication business is no exception.

For over 45 years the print media monopolies have been protected by a 1955 Cabinet resolution mooted by the external affairs ministry, which decreed that with the solitary exception of Reader's Digest magazine, foreign investment would not be permitted in any print publication.

In the intervening years, the media business underwent a dramatic transformation, but the 1955 resolution remained firmly in place.

Since the resolution was motivated by vested interests and had no ideological basis, the government had no qualms about permitting opening every other segment of the media business to foreigners. Satellite companies, which rained their broadcast into homes, romped in without difficulty.

The glamour magazine, Cosmopolitan, found a loophole to get in; so did magazine magnate Nari Hira who experimented with a Reader's Digest look-alike called Parade.

Amazingly enough, the 1955 resolution did not even stop the large foreign-owned news services, because their entry had the blessings of the finance ministry, which was in liberalisation mode. Reuters, Bridge News, Dow Jones and Bloomberg are not only thriving in the Indian marketplace but are also used by every major newspaper in the country.

Our policy makers seem to believe that the corrupting influence of the foreign media loses its sting when its reports are routed through Indian-owned newspapers, including those who oppose foreign investment in the print medium.

As for the vast World Wide Web and the fact that its omnipresence and influence make a mockery of restrictive policies - it is not even discussed.

The government, in its wisdom, also ignores the concept of convergence and keeps the information technology ministry separate from the information & broadcasting one. This allows the respective ministers to pursue and propound divergent policies -- Pramod Mahajan vibes with the Indian millionaires at Silicon Valley and Sushma Swaraj remains selectively stuck in the 1950s, with no apparent contradiction.

Last week, a section of the print media, which is opposed to foreign investment, demonstrated its muscle power by forcing the Reserve Bank of India into an embarrassing withdrawal of its permission to the Mid-Day Publications to seek subscriptions from Foreign Institutional Investors to its initial public offering.

The RBI had permitted this investment on the basis that it was in conformity with India's Foreign Exchange Management Act and did not contravene the 1955 Cabinet resolution.

After all, foreign portfolio investment is different from foreign direct investment. The former only aims at an appreciation in value of investment, while the latter seeks management participation.

When certain newspapers raised a stink about FII investment in the Mid-Day IPO, the RBI reiterated its position. A day later, it was forced to eat its words, when the government forced it to withdraw permission granted to seek FII investment.

The objection to foreign money is purely a business issue -- one of protecting an entrenched business. Certain media houses enjoy a comfortable dominance in certain geographical areas and are threatened by the financial muscle of foreign newspapers.

The government too prefers it that way. The quid pro quo is to adopt a soft and fairly uncritical line about the ruling government of the day.

For example, one newspaper is part of a large business conglomerate which itself is a check on critical writing.

Another is a conservative family-run business with a loyal readership and ambitious expansion plans -- its criticism to all issues is generally muted.

The third, and most profitable of all, is ruthlessly aggressive in its pursuit of new markets and believes in neutralising regional competition by crippling the profitability or the competition. The blandness of its editorial menu is made up by an excessive focus on religion, glamour, society tattle and films.

As long as these newspapers (barring the occasional exception) abstain from campaigning causes or pushing a specific agenda, the political establishment is happy to maintain status quo.

Curiously, no big international paper has bid for a share of the Indian mind-space via the printed word.

The casualty is issue-based journalism and investigative reporting. Newspapers are spending less on newsgathering; discourage travel by journalists unless it is a junket paid by friendly corporate houses or interest groups; and are cutting their regional and foreign correspondents.

In fact, the reporting is strictly urban, yuppie or at best middle class-aspiring-to-be-rich; the others are strictly outside the editorial mind space unless there is a disaster or a calamity.

Over the years, the perceived clout of the newspaper business attracted several industrialists, but they have all failed. Vijayapat Singhania with the Indian Post and Lalit Thapar with the Pioneer actually brought out excellent newspapers, but failed to build up a sustainable circulation.

In the late eighties, the Ambanis stirred up the dovecotes when they entered the business by buying up the Sunday Observer and Commerce magazine and recruiting some of the best journalists in the business.

Under the Ambanis, the Sunday Observer, which was the best and the most popular Sunday paper, sank into oblivion.

The business paper never really took off, and last month the group wound up operations and gave its staff their marching orders.

Ironically, journalists who joined the paper worried about the Ambanis's motivations, but nobody ever expected that they would be such a miserable failure.

In 1990, Srichand Hinduja held a high-profile conference in Bombay to announce his business plans in India. These included banking, financial services, the power sector, the auto industry and the media.

At the conference, Hinduja promised to set up an international newspaper with a big foreign collaboration. He named two of India's most-respected columnists and narrated how their respective newspapers would not give them a ticket to travel to London.

Hinduja said he would change the rules of the game. He promised to give journalists their dignity and free them from their dependence on corporate handouts and freebies.

The assembled journalists were thrilled and looked forward to a serious alternative -- but the Hinduja plan never materialised.

So the status quo continues. The large newspapers toe the government line in return for protection from foreign competition.

Television networks also toe the line, because it was the only way to make inroads into Doordarshan's monopoly and gain access to Parliament, to official announcements and events such as the
Union Budget.

Will this discriminatory and regressive policy ever change? After all, most smaller papers are starved of funds. Foreign investment is their only real hope. As things stand, the fate of the business hinges on the recommendations of a committee headed by Somnath Chatterjee.

-- Sucheta Dalal