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Corporate Sep 10, 2012

Rise of crony journalism and tainted money in media

By R Jagannathan

A lot has been written in recent weeks about crony capitalism, but an important issue for the media to introspect over is this: can this happen without significant amounts of crony journalism?

When media companies begin to think they can run coal plants, surely this compromises them (Lokmat Group, DB Corp). When political parties think they ought to own media houses or be aligned to one (YSR Congress' Sakshi, the Nationalist Congress Party's Sakal, the BJP-leaning Pioneer, to name just a few), surely one cannot pretend an innocence about what large sections of the media are really about.

The idea of individual journalists having leanings towards one political party or the other is understandable (personal bias is natural for most humans); the fact that political parties may have their own mouthpieces (the CPM's Ganashakti or the Shiv Sena's Saamna come to mind) is also not unreasonable. They are merely using these media properties to convey the party's stand to the faithful.

Given the poor profitability of many genuine media groups, it is crooks, smugglers, politicians and money-launderers who have turned out to be the biggest owners of media houses.

However, when entire media houses start aligning themselves to political parties for survival or undeserved profit, such journalism cannot but be tainted. The product of such a misalliance can only be the loss of media objectivity and credibility, if it's not actually a public disservice.

The case of Deccan Chronicle, which is now halfway between bankruptcy and rescue by a politically-inspired rescheduling of its loans, is instructive. For a company which reported an annual turnover of just Rs 980 crore in 2011 (it is still struggling to produce its 2012 accounts), it had a reported net profit of Rs 162 crore. In other words, every sixth rupee earned went straight to the bottomline.

But today Deccan, which is a listed company, is in a compete mess - having blown up its good fortune in indulgence businesses like book shops (the Odyssey chain), racehorses, expensive cars and an IPL cricket team (Deccan Chargers, which is on the block).

According to a report in The Indian Express and The Financial Express today, the group has run up debts of over Rs 5,000 crore (on a turnover of one-fifth that amount in 2010-11), and worried lenders have petitioned the Central government to notify it of the group's "gross mismanagement" and the promoters' "wrong and dishonourable intentions."

The Express report also says that 12 of Deccan owner T Venkattram Reddy's automobile pets - including four Rolls Royce Phantoms, a Lamborghini, two Maseratis, and two Ferraris - are now languishing in a Delhi lender's farmhouse because Reddy has not been able to pay up.

The two big questions to ask are these:

One, how did a company with less than Rs 1,000 crore of turnover amass debts five times that amount so quickly? Don't bankers have any sense or understanding of this basic incongruity and the possibility of overleveraging? The company's current market value is a piffling Rs 290 crore. If lenders had to put the company on the block to recover their dues, they will be stuck with humongous losses.

Two, could all this have been done without political connivance and support? If political intervention was at work, what is the quid pro quo that Deccan may have delivered for political favours that may have been received by his media group? The same questions apply to media groups that obtained coal blocks of large chunks of land in the states where they rule the roost.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that big media houses are often in bed with political parties for mutually beneficial outcomes. The Express report puts Deccan Chronicle's political connections directly.

"Venkattram Reddy was close to late Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy, but the bond was cemented with the rise of his son YS Jaganmohan Reddy and he decided to support his party YSR Congress."

This begs a third question: assuming the Express' story is true, are Venkattram Reddy's current woes the result of his backing the wrong political horse (YSR Congress chief Jaganmohan Reddy), who is now being chased by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in various alleged cases of corruption.

While it is no one's case that Jaganmohan is pure as the driven snow, there is no gainsaying the fact that the CBI really went after Jagan only after he broke away from the Congress. Jagan's dangerous corporate liaisons happened when YSR was around, but at that time YSR was the Congress' chief vote-banker and blue-eyed satrap. So he was safe.

It is worth recalling that even Jaganmohan's media company, Jagathi Publications, which publishes the Sakshi group of newspapers and news channels, was itself dubiously funded and possibly the result of political arm-twisting and favours shown by YSR when he was alive.

As Firstpost noted in a report last year, "Thirteen companies invested Rs 844 crore in the media company even when it had not started its commercial operations. Not only this, this media company continues to get investments from these 13 companies to the tune of Rs 1,246 crore. Worse, these companies turned out to be paper companies and have no income or verifiable means to make such large investments."

Moreover, the income-tax authorities discovered that eight companies that had invested in Jagan's media company were "simply bogus". These companies were "briefcase companies" with "fictitious addresses in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore."

What is true for Jagan's companies may often be true for many other media companies with linkages to politicians. Today, given the poor profitability of many genuine media groups, it is crooks, smugglers, politicians and money-launderers who have turned out to be the biggest owners of media houses.

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, writing in Business Standard, has this to report."More than a third of news channels are owned by politicians or politico-affiliated builders. An estimated 60 percent of cable distribution systems are owned by local politicians. These have influenced and funded several local elections. There are dozens of small and big newspapers owned by politicians or their family members that influence the course of several local elections. Many newspaper chains with political affiliations also own broadcast networks. Most now have Internet portals."

The dismal conclusion: while there are legitimate media houses, the size of its illegitimate siblings is as big. Crony capitalism and political corruption are being propped up by crony media ownership. Worse, even credible media houses are open to paid news bribery - making it tough to decry the rest as illegitimate.

If significant sections of the mainstream media have lost their will be to free, and the sidestream media has become mainstream, crony journalism is a fact of life.

The poison of tainted money finding it way into mainstream media is destroying its credibility and future.

Kohli-Khandekar estimates that some 133 news channels are chasing "a stagnant Rs 1,800-crore to Rs 2,000-crore advertising pie." If this is the case, and if political channels are also after this same pie, bad money is essentially chasing good money out of journalism. Since politically-aligned channels do not expect to be commercially viable, it drives the more credible parts of the media towards bankruptcy.

The nexus between politicians, crony capitalists and crony media needs to be exposed and broken for genuinely credible media to rise once more.

Disclaimer: Firstpost is owned by media house Network18 that has presence across print, television and new media.

by R Jagannathan

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