Off Camera

How the absence of effective regulation has shaped Indian television broadcasting

01 December, 2018

IN THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED INDEPENDENCE, a certain kind of puritanism entered All India Radio, out of which Doordarshan was later formed. The first information minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, had already issued a diktat against providing employment in broadcasting to those whose “private life was a public scandal.” This rule, though never applied to men, banned an entire generation of talented courtesans and artists from a promising platform.

The emergence of television in the shadow of this paternalistic developmental state was one of the factors that led to the Indian government’s dominance over television media and the latter’s preoccupation with access. Besides attempts to popularise the government’s welfare programmes, there was little thought given to the enormous possibilities offered by the media. The Chanda Committee set up by Indira Gandhi, who was then the information and broadcasting minister, concluded in a 1966 report that ministers had repeatedly treated television as an “expensive luxury” intended for the entertainment of affluent sections of society. All this was miles away from the broadcasting scene in the United States and the United Kingdom, which were capitalist affairs, with regulatory authorities in place to evenly disburse its benefits.

Another factor leading to the government’s excessive control over television media was the nineteenth-century Telegraph Act, which remained consistently out of sync with evolving technology. The Act survives even today, but it has been considerably neutralised since 1995, when the Supreme Court ruled that airwaves were public property over which the government had no monopoly. Since then, the telegraph has been redefined as any instrument capable of transmitting or receiving “signs, signals, writings, images, sounds or intelligence of any nature.” Over the years, however, its very existence in the statute books has dampened the entrepreneurial spirit that burst forth in the wake of economic liberalisation. That the enforcement of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 occurred four years after CNN aired the Gulf War, and after the rise of the cable television industry in Mumbai and other metropolitan cities, is proof of this. In addition, the Act tailed the launch of NDTV—as a production house—by a good seven years.

Various governments attempted to make the state-owned Doordarshan less bureaucratic. They set up the supposedly autonomous Prasar Bharati, a broadcasting agency, to achieve this in 1997. In reality, though, Prasar Bharati’s board members are largely appointed by the government and remain tied to the priorities and concerns of the ruling party. Under the rubric of the “Functions and Power of the Corporation,” the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990 clearly states that the “provisions of this section shall be in addition to, and not in derogation of, the provisions of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.”

A second strand of policymaking has been a major concern with ensuring that vertical and horizontal monopolies are not formed in the media space. In 2009, the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad, compiled a first-of-its-kind report on cross-media ownership, which examined cross-media holdings and concluded that there was some evidence of consolidation and concentration. It also flagged the twin fears of cross-media and vertical consolidation, though it ruled out any immediate restriction on both. The report and its conclusion were in many ways premature, since the convergence of media platforms, such as telecommunications and the internet, is nowhere near complete, unlike the situation in more developed countries.

By 2014, however, at least three more consultation papers, including by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, stressed the need to arrest the growing threat of media monopolies. This debate received further traction with the takeover of TV18 by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries. A TRAI report in August 2014, examined the issue of “external” and “internal plurality”—respectively, the existence of multiple voices in the national-media market and the presentation of a range of facts and news by a single media outlet—and recommended reining in both cross-media and vertical integration between television broadcast and cable, along with a review of its impact every three years. It also called for an independent regulatory body that would regulate both print and electronic media.

But like its predecessors, the current Narendra Modi government has put the issue on the back-burner. Soon after it was elected in 2014, the government spoke about a Communications Convergence Bill that envisaged a “super-regulator” that would encompass broadcasting, the internet and telecommunications. However, the proposal, which sought to revive a similar attempt during the Vajpayee government, has not been heard of since.

In the absence of effective regulation, it is hardly a surprise that the Essel Group, which owns the pioneering Zee Media Corporation Limited, also owns the largest direct-to-home operator in the Asia-Pacific, Dish TV—a perfect instance of complete vertical integration. In addition, the group owns the daily newspaper DNA, and recently announced that it acquired the radio station BIG FM from Anil Ambani.

Mukesh Ambani’s company took over Network18 in 2014, renaming it “News18” in 2018. This acquisition poses an even bigger challenge to the diversity of platforms and ideas: News18 covers 26 states and is available in 15 languages. Besides, it has footprints in the general news space, both in English and Hindi, in bilingual business channels and in a clutch of online properties, such as Firstpost. It also has heavy stakes in leading news networks such as NDTV, India TV, News24 and News Nation. With the entry of Reliance Industries into telecommunications, through the launch of the Jio mobile network, the group now straddles several media platforms, posing a real threat to news diversity.

News networks should not be treated in the same vein as trading companies or non-media businesses, since they exist not for competition, but to provide a public service. This was a consideration that TRAI made in its 2014 recommendations as well: “Because of the special nature of their ‘publicness,’ media entities thus cannot be seen merely as run-of-the-mill business organizations seeking value maximization for their owners and shareholders.”

A lack of regulatory structures and independent oversight institutions means that every new central government prompts a change of editors, beat reporters and the predilection of news networks. This is a scenario quite unlike that in print media, which, as journalist N Ram put it, played a role in reflecting at various times on the “controversies and battles over social reform; radical and revolutionary aspirations and movements.” Private satellite television is a young, post-liberalisation media platform. Given its capital-intensive nature and its perch at the cutting edge of technology, it has been far more closely tied up with the vagaries of the market. Print has a deeper and richer history, associated as it was with a range of social issues that accompanied the national movement. In independent India, it has been inextricably associated with the concerns of building the nation—from land reforms and industrial development to five-year-plans and rural development.

News television, however, remains trapped between the market and the government of the day, a situation that hardly differs from the ecosystem available to non-media business interests. And like these, television media groups are left to deal with the state or the government of the day on terms that are purely unequal. It has to appease and please the powers that be for survival.

With the entry of Reliance Industries into telecommunications through the launch of the Jio mobile network, the group now straddles several media platforms, posing a real threat to news diversity. Shailesh Andrade/Reuters

IN PRE-LIBERALISATION INDIA, media entrepreneurs only wanted to pitch their skills and resources to Doordarshan. But audacious pioneers in media, such as Subhash Chandra—the head of the Essel Group—and even Business India Television’s Ashok Advani, aimed to start their own independent networks despite the absence of an enabling environment. Satellite broadcasting had not yet taken off, and the Telegraph Act still governed airwaves.

Chandra had heard of television broadcasting for the first time while lobbying with Dhirendra Brahmachari, Indira Gandhi’s yoga instructor and a major wheeler-dealer during her time in power. Brahmachari was helping Chandra bag a lucrative rice-export contract with the erstwhile Soviet Union. Though Chandra eventually fell out with Brahmachari, he kept in touch with the Gandhis, even contributing to the Congress’s coffers and sticking by Indira Gandhi after her 1977 defeat.

In his autobiography, The Z Factor: My Journey as the Wrong Man at the Right Time, Chandra recounts that when he ran short of money to pay Li Ka-shing—the owner of Star TV—while leasing a transponder on AsiaSat in 1991, Rajiv Gandhi helped him mobilise nearly $400,000 from an anonymous London-based benefactor. (This was just months before Rajiv was assassinated.) Chandra paid a total of $5 million to the Hong Kong billionaire for the transponder—four times the market price—at a time when few in India contemplated owning a full-fledged satellite television, let alone purchasing a transponder, despite the enormous possibilities offered by the Gulf War.

No Indian could own a private television company at the time, so Chandra had to register Zee in the British Virgin Islands. And since Indians could neither hold nor trade in the shares of organisations registered abroad, he enlisted three of his NRI friends—Ranjan Isaac, JDR Malhotra and Mohan Tolani—to do so on his behalf. Chandra later became a resident of Hong Kong to formally enter the broadcasting business.

Between 1995 and 1996, Chandra launched a news channel using the uplinking facilities granted to the news agency Asian News International. (He also used these to uplink visuals to Zee TV’s Singapore hub.) Since live telecast of news was not permitted, news content was only beamed after a certain time lag. However, a daily television news bulletin, that Chandra started in 1994 with Rajat Sharma, brought him recognition beyond his imagination. “My profile and reputation in the government changed after the news bulletin started airing on Zee TV,” he wrote in his autobiography.

In the run-up to the 1996 general election, Chandra fell out with the then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao over editorial matters. “The government feels that due to our past relations with the Gandhi family, Zee is against Narasimha Rao government,” Chandra said. Years later, Chandra’s equation with the Gandhis, particularly Sonia Gandhi, soured after two senior editors of Zee News tried to extort Rs 100 crore from the former Congress MP Naveen Jindal, to tone down their coverage of a coal scam, in which Jindal was allegedly involved. The Delhi Police filed a first information report against Zee in 2012, in which it named Chandra among the accused. Chandra wrote in his autobiography that he had reason to believe the FIR was registered in Delhi because “it had the blessings of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi,” and added that it was an “unjust act” by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. “In response, I personally supported Narendra Modi’s campaign for prime ministership.”

Chandra moved all his political contacts to scupper the media entrepreneur Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions of moving into DTH operations. But a run-in with the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s office, he wrote, stymied his plans to merge Zee and Star. Not taking kindly to this slight, Chandra ensured that the Tehelka sting on the BJP president at the time, Bangaru Laxman, where the latter is seen accepting a bribe, aired on Zee News first, half an hour before other channels.

It would be interesting to plot how Zee News played out its stories each time Chandra’s political preferences changed. Chandra’s approach as a promoter determining editorial content, especially political stories, has underpinned access journalism across networks and languages. Once the promoter takes a position on individual politicians, or even the government of the day, the reporter or even the editor has little choice but to fall in line and push that agenda. Last year, Vishwa Deepak, a mid-level news editor at Zee Media, resigned over the channel’s coverage of the JNU protests in February 2016, alleging a communalisation of the newsroom. But with Chandra’s diversification into other spheres such as infrastructure—courtesy his “friend Nitin Gadkari,” he wrote—power and water distribution, and smart cities, his business dealings continue to be reflected in Zee’s editorial content.

The trajectory followed by Business India TV—BiTV—was slightly different. Promoted by Ashok Advani, it was set up in 1992 in collaboration with TV18, which was led by the journalist and entrepreneur Raghav Bahl. BiTV’s main remit was marketing, while Bahl and his team focussed on production, aiming to generate at least two high-quality programmes for BBC and Star TV. After 1994, Advani decided to launch a news and current affairs channel, which Bahl considered impractical—according to the journalist Indira Kannan’s book Network18: The Audacious Story of a Start-up That Became a Media Empire, Bahl felt that “it was too early to step into that space, especially since there was no viable platform, unconvinced as he was about the quality and reach of the Russian satellite that Advani wanted to use.”

Around this time, the former Times of India journalists Anikendra Nath Sen (who was popularly known as Badshah), Dileep Padgaonkar and Arvind Das set up Asia-Pacific Communication Associates. They wanted to produce news content for the soon-to-be-launched DD3 and pooled in a paltry sum of Rs 44,000 by way of registration fees.

Subhash Chandra’s approach as a promoter determining editorial content, especially political stories, has underpinned access journalism across networks and languages. Vikas Khot/Hindustan Times/Getty images

NDTV and Aaj Tak had already secured their slots on the upcoming channel. “Dileep Padgaonkar and I met Narasimha Rao, who advised us to see KP Singh Deo,” Sen told me during an interview in September 2015, referring to the then information and broadcasting minister. “We realised we weren’t alone in line to meet Deo. In fact, he got agitated on hearing us out. ‘Oh God, what’s this news and all?’ he said. ‘Why don’t you produce some entertaining serials?’ ‘Sir, we are from TOI,’ I replied. ‘Have we ever given you any trouble?’ We anyway bagged a programme. There were plenty of time slots available, so it wasn’t a problem. Besides, we enjoyed a great reputation as TV journalists. There were no TV journalists back then. Even Prannoy Roy and Vinod Dua were from the production side. We were in no mad rush.”

In 1994, Malvika Singh, one of BiTV’s promoters, who had good connections with the Congress, approached APCA to help her set up the network. Badshah became the channel’s first editor-in-chief. “She had already mobilised Rs 55 crore from Arthur Andersen, the mega accounting firm later accused of fudging energy company Enron’s accounts,” Badshah said. “It was big money then. The deal with APCA was that we would set up the team of reporters, et cetera. You obviously couldn’t hire DD guys. So, the recruitment of print journalists as TV reporters was the only option. As a result, salaries on offer were huge by contemporary standards and created a major buzz in Delhi’s journalist circuit.”

But a dearth of television reporters was the least of Badshah’s problems. TVI, a channel launched by BiTV, had no satellite connection, since uplinking from India was technically illegal. The Telegraph Act still dictated the broadcasting regime. The central government exercised exclusive privilege over telegraph lines—virtually, all modern communication devices. (There were exceptions on two occasions, though. In June 1999, Indian companies with at least 80 percent Indian shareholding were allowed to uplink through the state-owned Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited. The government later permitted uplinking through the C band, a satellite-tracking frequency that requires a dish antenna, doing away with the VSNL imperative.) Until the government issued its “Guidelines for Uplinking from India” in July 2000, which allowed the uplinking of any television channel from India, television broadcast companies such as Zee were either beaming straight from Singapore or sending recorded cassettes abroad for telecast in India. TVI, for instance, would despatch mastered tapes with reporters and even production hands to the erstwhile Soviet Union, which had an uplinking arrangement with the TVI management. Downlinking guidelines came even later, in November 2005, while permission to get into the DTH business for Indian players was only notified in around 2001.

Badshah had heard of easily available Russian satellites being sold on the cheap from Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, a former union minister. After the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, individual satellites, both under production and in space, fell in the hands of various powerful generals, who hawked these in the international market. Badshah recounts that Kumaramangalam, who was known as Ranga, knew a number of the generals, thanks to his father’s close ties to Moscow as a former Communist Party of India worker. Ranga helped TVI clinch a deal with one such satellite buccaneer, who ran an office in Bangalore. But the catch was that most of these were military satellites whose lives were coming to an end.

Badshah then remembered an American official—who he speculated was perhaps a CIA agent—who connected him to Scott Bayman, a senior General Electric executive based in Delhi. At the time, GE, owner of the American television network NBC, was only selling white goods in India. When Bayman realised TVI’s deal with the Russians for their Express 6 satellite was held up because of a lack of finances, he offered to fly in his engineers from the United States to help give it a final push. He also promised to fund the purchase of the satellite and even launch the satellite. Further, he said, it would carry both TVI channels and all NBC networks.

Naturally, the prospective tie-up created market buzz. Vijay Jindal, a senior TOI executive told me that he sought out Badshah and proposed the launch of movie and entertainment channels using the satellite. “You tell your Ashok”—Advani—“and I will tell my Ashok”—Jain—“for a meeting and we can shake hands,” Jindal recalled telling Badshah. The Times Group was already running a production house—Times Television—which generated content for Doordarshan.

Raghav Bahl, who was not entirely convinced about the feasibility of a private satellite news channel, split with Malvika Singh and set up his TV18 production house, which was to morph into a full-fledged news network. Hemant Chawla/The India Today Group/Getty Images

Badshah urged Ashok Advani and Malvika Singh to immediately ink a deal with GE. But Advani seemed least interested, Badshah recalled. Singh later admitted in an interview with Business Standard that the trouble was “tying up with a Russian satellite ‘in declining orbit’ for the broadcast, but more obviously, mismanagement of funds.” She added that “Advani used the rest of the money to invest in other businesses, land, hotels… and lost all that. Then he started borrowing at huge interest rates, and so ran out of money.” Not only did Advani squander all the money, he did not even deliver the promised equity to Singh and Raghav Bahl when the project started.

Bahl, who was not entirely convinced about the feasibility of a private satellite news channel, split with Singh and set up his TV18 production house, which was to morph into a full-fledged news network. Subsequently, Bahl accepted the GE proposal, though he opted out of general news to focus on business features. In 1998, he tied up with CNBC, which had acquired ABN, a channel that was already making India-centred business programmes with TV18 for their joint venture. The pioneering network was called CNBC–TV18. For Bahl, the icing on the cake was CNBC’s vote of complete confidence in the abilities of TV18. It wound up its India bureau and delegated the job of content production to TV18. While TVI ended up shutting down its operations, TV18 continues to prosper even today.

With no enabling legislation, though, private satellite news television was still some distance away.

IRONIC AS IT MIGHT SOUND, Doordarshan has been central to the growth and development of India’s private satellite news networks. It was within Doordarshan that India’s pioneering media entrepreneurs nurtured their business impulses and honed their skills at broadcast journalism, as well as networking.

Doordarshan was hived off from All India Radio in 1976. But it was only with the accession of Rajiv Gandhi as prime minister in 1984 that the first tentative efforts were made to sell airtime to private players interested in producing news and current affairs.

Doordarshan in the 1980s and ’90s was the equivalent of a state-owned venture capital firm. It was essentially a “renter of airtime,” according to Bhaskar Ghose, who recalled often being overruled by ministers during his time as director-general of Doordarshan. Rajeev Bhatt/The Hindu

Bhaskar Ghose, a West Bengal-cadre Indian Administrative Service officer, recounted to me the telephone call from the prime minister’s office that put him in charge of Doordarshan, with the express objective of professionalising it. But Doordarshan had only been commissioning programmes to private producers—for the most part, people known to Rajiv and the Congress. As Vinod Dua claimed in an interview with me in September 2015, MJ Akbar, who was then the editor of The Telegraph, swung a deal in October 1985, to produce a news show on Doordarshan for the Anandabazar group of publications, the parent company of The Telegraph. Dua was in charge of back-end operations, while Akbar was the anchor and editorial boss. It resulted in one of Doordarshan’s first news-magazine format programmes, Newsline. Dua, like Raghav Bahl—who also worked with him in Newsline—was already a well-known face on Doordarshan. But it was following a meeting over tea with Rajiv Gandhi that Dua was able to clinch a programme for himself.

As director-general of Doordarshan, Ghose recalled often being overruled by his ministers. This level of interference drastically affected the quality of Doordarshan’s shows. Ghose said he was keen to reject the terribly made pilots of Ramayan. “‘And there’s this letter from Gill sahib’”—the then information and broadcasting secretary, SS Gill—“‘asking me to make this serial,’ Sagar would say. ‘I am only doing it because the government wanted me to.’” Ghose had no choice but to relent. On another occasion, the then I&B minister, Ajit Panja, apparently mounted an all-out effort under political pressure to “manage” an extension for an unnamed serial dumped by sponsors.

Doordarshan in the 1980s and ’90s was the equivalent of a state-owned venture capital firm. It was essentially a “renter of airtime,” according to Ghose. Private producers got sponsors to put in “hugely inflated amounts” for serials and news shows. In return, the sponsors received between three and four minutes of free commercial time for a half-hour episode. Had the sponsor bought this much airtime from Doordarshan on an à la carte basis, it would have had to pay at least thrice this amount. Additionally, the copyright stayed with the producer or sponsor, depending on the agreement, so if Doordarshan wished to air Ramayan or Mahabharat today, it would have to cough up hefty fees to the producers of the shows. The renowned filmmaker Mrinal Sen, who had made a serial for Doordarshan, once told an amused Ghose, “My cameraman has built himself a house, thanks to Doordarshan’s largesse.”

State patronage was crucial to other media bigwigs as well. Rajat Sharma, for instance, was close to Narendra Modi, as well as the current finance minister Arun Jaitley and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foster son-in-law Ranjan Bhattacharya. He was also on good terms with Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot from the Congress. Sharma and Jaitley were members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student body affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, in the 1970s. During the UPA government’s ban on foreign players in the DTH business, Sharma lobbied in Murdoch’s favour, even if it meant going against his mentor, Chandra. In 2000, data presented to the parliament showed Sharma was earning Rs 55 lakh per month from his Doordarshan show. The amount was more than what Amitabh Bachchan was getting for Kaun Banega Crorepati. (This was also the year that Jaitley helmed the I&B ministry.)

Another example is News24, a decently successful Hindi network with beginnings as a production house named BAG Films, which made programmes for Doordarshan in the 1990s. Anuradha Prasad and her husband Rajeev Shukla—the latter is a journalist-turned-Congress politician—are its founders. By 2004–05, the channel was also making programmes for other private networks, such as Sony and Star News, with an annual turnover of Rs 37 crore.

Government patronage did not necessarily translate into success stories all the time. The news network Jain TV, run by BJP member JK Jain, sank without a trace. As with BiTV, it was broadcast on a Russian satellite, with some of its programmes actually produced and anchored at a studio in Russia. But with little or no financial backing, Jain TV was always a failing proposition. It did recoup some money by loaning its broadcast vans to political parties for election campaigning. Later, it started on-the-job training for television aspirants in exchange for a hefty fee. None of these efforts could redeem its losses.

As globalisation and CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War enamoured the world with the concept of 24x7 news, a large cable network began flourishing in major Indian cities. Operators, with seed money of as little as Rs 1 lakh, began setting up shop across Mumbai from 1992. Owing to their presence in the video-cassette-distribution business, most of them, if not all, already had some sort of infrastructure in place. By the time the Cable Regulation Act was passed in 1995, big players had moved in. These included the Hinduja Group’s IN Cablenet, Rajan Raheja’s Hathway and SITI Cable, owned by Rupert Murdoch and Subhash Chandra.

In her book, Kannan quoted Bahl saying that the I&B ministry went into a tizzy in December 2005. SK Arora, who was then the I&B secretary, learned that TV18 was tying up with CNN to launch a news channel. He put his foot down on the grounds that any tie-up with an overseas network amounted to a “backdoor entry of foreign capital” into the news space. Bahl’s plea that his company already had a similar deal with CNBC fell on deaf ears. With the launch in jeopardy, Bahl realised that Rajdeep Sardesai, whom he had hired to helm the new channel, had already recorded a congratulatory message from the I&B minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi. The tape was promptly broadcast by the soon-to-be-launched channel, leaving the stumped secretary with no choice. Bahl added in the interview with Kannan that the government regulation requiring promoters to hold at least 51-percent stake in the company at all times was a disadvantage to first-generation entrepreneurs of his ilk. “If you can devise methods of minority ownership in equally strategic industries like telecoms, banking and insurance, why have you singled out the news business for this devastating oddity?”

RADHIKA AND PRANNOY ROY STARTED NDTV in 1988 as a production house, with three producers and a finance-in-charge. This was four years after Prannoy co-anchored India’s election coverage on television, and had also pulled off a pioneering live telecast of the Allahabad bypolls in 1987, along with Vinod Dua.

Prannoy anchored the show from Delhi, and made arrangements with Bombay, Madras and Calcutta to live-broadcast discussions with industry bodies, economists and others. This unprecedented level of content and presentation contrasted with Doordarshan’s staid format, and helped establish Prannoy as a brand.

His fame increased with the launch of The World This Week in 1988—a weekly current-affairs show that aired visuals of the falling Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1995, NDTV launched India’s first ever privately produced news broadcast. In the initial years, the team had to work around the ban on the live telecast of news. But in February 1995, the Supreme Court had pronounced its landmark judgment, freeing airwaves from government control and directing the establishment of a regulatory authority. Over the years, NDTV acquired a great deal of cultural capital, which helped it in its new innings as a national-level news-production house on Star.

There were hurdles along the way—for instance, the Central Bureau of Investigation charged the former Doordarshan director-general Rathikant Basu with causing a loss to the government exchequer to the tune of nearly Rs 5 crore in the course of helping Prannoy. Of this, nearly Rs 3.5 crore was on account of favours to The World This Week. The matter remains unproven. But although Prannoy may have had to put up with DD officials scrutinising his news content, it was a win-win situation for him. He had made money, and more crucially, accumulated intangibles such as a brand identity and contacts.

By January 1998, India Today reported growing speculation that Star, which was until then only airing entertainment, had picked up NDTV to do a 72-hour news analysis of the Lok Sabha poll results. Star forged a five-year $20-million deal with NDTV in March that year. In what was seen as a real victory, Prannoy managed to retain control over editorial content, and held the copyright on programming, as well as web and broadband rights for all software. NDTV was to get the payment for programming and even a share of the revenue. It did not have to worry about advertising or do its own marketing. Star also reportedly removed the exit clause at NDTV’s insistence. Iqbal Malhotra, a media analyst and former contact point for Rupert Murdoch in India, remarked on the deal in an Outlook article that Star was “like the owner of a motor car giving a free ride to NDTV.” It is clear that this deal was influenced by the equation between Prannoy and Basu, who was then the South Asia CEO of Star News. Even today, a thick fog covers the exact quid pro quo between Prannoy and Basu, but it is difficult to imagine that their relationship was one-sided.

In the early 2000s, Prannoy became an even bigger player, with NDTV planning a 24-hour channel of its own. In the run-up to the launch of his Hindi channel, NDTV India, he successfully recruited anchors, reporters and back-end production personnel from more established networks such as Zee and Aaj Tak. On 14 April 2003, a fortnight late due to a delay in governmental clearances, NDTV India and 24x7 went on air. According to media reports, NDTV reportedly spent Rs 150 crore for the launches. Yet, there was hardly any competition from other channels. Headlines Today, for instance, which was launched a week earlier, was merely a translated version of Aaj Tak. Prannoy Roy was the undisputed pioneer.

Star forged a five-year $20 million deal with NDTV in March 1998. In what was seen as a real victory, Prannoy Roy managed to retain control over editorial content and held the copyright on programming. Pradeep Gaur/Mint/Getty Images

IN 1995, THE SUPREME COURT RULED THAT “airwaves or frequencies are a public property” and their use had to be regulated by a “public authority” and “in the interests of the public.” However, no such regulatory authority has been set up till date. A group of ministers headed by the then home minister, SB Chavan, had proposed a draft law framework in 1994 for emerging private media ventures, even if on a very small scale—but it never went ahead. The group of ministers also blamed defence forces, the police and public-sector enterprises for cornering broadcast frequencies. Malvika Singh voiced her dissatisfaction: “I’m extremely sceptical of this government implementing the judgement in a hurry.”

In 1997, S Jaipal Reddy, the I&B minister at the time, introduced a broadcast bill. It provided for the licensing and control of private-sector broadcasting initiatives. It also barred print media owners from having more than 20-percent stake in TV news ventures. It is not quite clear whether it was the same bill as the one authored by the Chavan-led group of ministers during the Narasimha Rao government.

The bill proposed the formation of an independent broadcast authority, but its composition was heavily weighted in favour of the government. The National Democratic Alliance government revived the proposal in 2003. However, by then, sections within the government had started pushing for a convergence commission. No regulatory authority was set up, and through much of the last decade and a half, the issue of an independent regulatory body for the media has been buried unceremoniously.

The 1997 and 2007 versions of the broadcast bill focussed more on concerns around licensing than regulation, and these lapsed in due course. This was mainly because broadcasters were unwilling to accede to any sort of regulation. In the end, India is left with a public broadcaster that continues to do what it has always done—amplifying government policies and programmes. And our private broadcasters only cater to the market. News as public service, therefore, remains the biggest casualty.

There are two bodies through which news channels in India self-regulate their content. These are the Broadcast Editors Association and the News Broadcasters Association. The latter operates through its regulatory arm, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, which started in 2008. The BEA is an organisation of professional editors, while the NBA represents owners of news networks. (There are no prizes for guessing which of the two calls the shots.)

The BEA’s subservient position can be judged from the fact that it does not even have its own functioning website. Its members mostly comprise editors from the national Hindi- and English-language media. It was created in 2009, yet it has practically no representation from regional news networks. One of the objectives of the recently re-elected 15-member executive committee is the “inclusion of editors of regional channels.” However, there is little clarity on how productive this move would be.

The far bigger problem is that of dual membership—editors-cum-owners straddling both the BEA and the NBA. Promoters first determine the content and then self-regulate editorial excesses through the NBSA. Rajat Sharma, for instance, who runs shows and high-profile interviews for his network India TV, is serving his third term as the president of the NBA. Arnab Goswami, the founder of Republic TV, is one of the BEA’s vice presidents. He is also in line to obtain a berth on the NBA. Professional chief executives and officials on the board of the NBA are merely employees of the promoter. How exactly does one regulate news content under such an arrangement?

In 2009, the NBSA imposed a fine on India TV after a US-based policy analyst named Farhana Ali claimed that she had given an interview to Reuters, which India TV then dubbed in Hindi and telecast as an exclusive. A press release by the NBA claimed that India TV had also downloaded Ali’s photograph and used it in the story as live news. India TV’s management team rejected a charge pronounced by the former chief justice JS Verma—who headed the NBA—and refused to pay the fine. India TV then walked out of the NBA. Despite this apparent misdemeanour, Sharma was elected to the NBA’s board of directors the following year.

When the BEA expelled the Zee editor Sudhir Chaudhary, in 2012, for alleged extortion—the case still languishes in the Supreme Court—there was no adverse fallout for Zee. The network behaved as if Chaudhary was acting on his own, without the tacit concurrence of the network’s management. In fact, the Zee CEO was elected as a member of the NBA board the following year. And recently, when asked by the NBSA to apologise for branding the well-known poet and scientist Gauhar Raza as an anti-national, Zee refused. Like the television anchor, the promoter is not only the alleged culprit—they are also the judge and jury.

But the crisis extends beyond the absence of any meaningful editorial self-regulation. There is the additional issue of the likely emergence of a monopoly in the media market. What happens to the promoter’s role in such a situation?

Regulating the media market’s economic structure and establishing mechanisms to pre-empt the concentration of media ownership involves its own share of dangers. At present, the government has tasked the Competition Commission of India to enforce the Competition Act, 2002. It seeks to prevent anti-competitive agreements, such as unfair mergers and acquisitions, in all industries. This shows that successive governments see news as yet another product and media as a business entity. When Mukesh Ambani bought 14 of Eenadu TV’s regional news networks, besides Network18, the CCI ruled that “the proposed combination is not likely to have any adverse effect on competition.”

In the United States, while the Department of Justice enforces antitrust laws, the Federal Communications Commission aims to prevent cross-media holdings and mergers between major television networks. In the United Kingdom, the Office of Communications, or Ofcom, along with the newly formed Competition and Markets Authority, look at issues related to monopoly formation. In January 2018, they blocked Rupert Murdoch’s bid for a majority stake in SkyTV, lest it adversely impact media plurality. Ofcom, which received its full regulatory powers through the Communications Act of 2003, carries out the task of regulating television, internet, radio and telecommunications, and their technological, economic and content-related issues. It also looks over internal and programmatic diversity in news organisations. However, it does not have the power to regulate print media.

Through the 1950s, when television started to become a powerful medium, the FCC sought to reserve the spectrum for educational networks. There were as many as 242 channels for non-commercial education in 1952. When these started to fail, the Lyndon Johnson administration set up the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967. It had the express aim of providing “a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard.” The very same year, the US Congress passed it as the Public Broadcasting Act, which prohibited the Public Broadcasting Service from producing and distributing content. Its sole mandate was to make finance available to individual stations, as well as independent non-profit networks such as the PBS and the National Public Radio, established in 1970. Much has changed since then, but the credibility of PBS remains intact, and surveys have declared PBS to be the most trusted institution in the United States.

Apart from the public-spiritedness of the regulators, media in the United States is also protected by its constitution’s first amendment. It guarantees almost absolute freedom of speech, unlike its Indian counterpart. This has empowered the American media to a large extent. The powerful right-wing media did not shy away from sniping at Barack Obama, much like how the liberal media does not hesitate to take on Trump, despite the public threats he regularly issues.

To be fair, there is no media monopoly in India of the sort that exists in countries such as the United States. In India, the supply side is abundant, with as many as nine English-language news networks, even though they dish out nearly the same content. But we cannot rule out the possibility of a media monopoly in the future.

India’s television market is in this sense peculiar. While the non-English side—including Hindi and other regional languages—is large by any standard, the English-language market is minuscule. This, in my opinion, explains to a large extent why television networks are increasingly becoming bilingual. The Bennett Coleman group, which owns Times Now, has opted for a bilingual debating and reporting format in its latest offering, Mirror Now. The down-the-lines and pieces-to-camera by Mirror Now reporters and anchors flit between English and Hindi at any time of the day. Almost every English-language anchor can switch to Hindi on air. Even on NDTV, the blue-blooded news network where a Chinese wall stood between Hindi and English news, it is not uncommon to see Hindi reporters going live on the English network.

In both the United States and the United Kingdom, self-regulation was moored in parliamentary guarantee with bipartisan political support. So, while the regulators do their job for the entire spectrum of media platforms, they are only responsible to their respective regulators—the United States Congress and the British parliament. While the BBC’s public-interest slant is well known, the FCC has played a crucial role in foregrounding this goal in the American broadcast landscape. In India, on the other hand, any legal basis to self-regulation is even more problematic because of media entrepreneurs’ deep distrust of the political class. Prannoy Roy, for instance, argues in his commemorative volume that self-regulatory guidelines should be formulated only after consultations between editors and the judiciary. In short, there should be no government involvement. But the problem with this argument is its feasibility.

The fact of the matter is that a bipartisan parliamentary guarantee is absolutely critical, even for self-regulation. That was the nub of the proposal by the exhaustive 2012 Leveson committee report in the United Kingdom, even though it was largely about print. Is self-regulation possible without the government guaranteeing it?

Taken together, both issues—editorial self-regulation and economic regulation—are complex and have no easy solutions. The Communications Convergence bill proposed by the Vajpayee government in 2001 examined the regulation of intersecting media platforms, including telecom, television and the internet, but there has been no follow-up since. While the TRAI has repeatedly spoken of such a convergence, a reality that stares in our faces, precious little has been done in terms of ensuring an independent regulatory regime. Editorial self-regulation is a little more complicated, but it needs some form of legal basis.

In the last 25 years of television broadcast, India has had no regulatory institutions on the lines of the FCC or Ofcom. This has mainly been on account of the absence of any consensus among the various stakeholders. The TRAI itself is more geared towards regulating the telecom industry: broadcasting only became part of its remit in 2004 when the government expressly laid down that TRAI would henceforth look after licensing conditions, revenue-sharing between stakeholders and cable pricing. But the catch was that under section 25 of the TRAI Act, the government is empowered to issue directions that are binding on the TRAI. In other words, the government opted for a regulator over which it could have full power.

An entire institution with the motto of serving the public good is being held hostage to an overpowering state and a chaotic, unsustainable market. Unless the vexed issue of an independent regulator is sorted out, the current status quo will endure.

This is an edited excerpt from Sandeep Bhushan's forthcoming book, The Indian Newsroom, forthcoming from Westland India.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Mohan Kumaranmangalam, in place of his son, Rangarajan Kurumamangalam. It also incorrectly stated that SK Arora, the former I&B secretary, was slated to become the chief election commissioner.