Thursday, January 24, 2008

Commodification of integrity: Competition does not lead media to hold each other accountable

God help the fourth estate and Indian democracy
Home > Edits & Columns > People’s media? Pratap Bhanu Mehta Indian Express: Wednesday, January 23
The blunt truth is that there is a quiet crisis of credibility facing the Indian media. And the media is living in a fool’s paradise if it mistakes resisting the Left with putting its own house in order.
On the surface, there is a simple story about accountability in Indian media. On this view, there is competition; and competition, we assume, produces accountability. But competition alone does not work on many dimensions. Running a newspaper is a financially complicated business. This is particularly true in a country like India where newspaper readers are not willing to pay anything close to the costs of producing quality news. The rest will have to be subsidised by activities like advertising revenue.
Although related, competition for advertising revenues is not the same thing as competition for the needs of readers. Both have different logics. There is a sense in which intellectual ambition is a genuinely public good, but is under-supplied by the market...
Competition does not lead media to hold each other accountable.
This point has come home in a story that should be a frontline scandal in any democracy. A couple of newspapers have been reporting on an open secret of the media, the existence of private treaties. Under these, media houses invest in companies, which then receive favourable media treatment in turn, including column inches favourable to these companies...
But more importantly, economically free to choose cannot mean that there are no ethical lines to contend with. Unfortunately liberalism in India has come to be identified, not with exalted aspirations, but both these tendencies: no sense of discrimination, and total commodification of everything, including integrity.
The challenge for the media is this. It is caught between a CPM that wants the state to have more powers than it should, and a market structure that thinks literally everything should be for sale. If these are the only choices available to us, God help the fourth estate and Indian democracy. The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research

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