The Politics of Tamil Televison: The Bane of Cross Media Ownership?
I have already written on the the strange political economy of media in Tamil Nadu in several of my earlier posts. Pl. read them before going through the present post.
In a state where every major political party, barring the CPI (M) and CPI, owns one or several channels, depending on their political and financial prowess, the first casualty in the short term appears to be truthful accounts of local, national and international events. The other casualty, in the long term, appears to be the very character of television as a unique medium of communication and Tamil television as one of the genuine social products of Tamil society, people and culture. Just as Tamil cinema failed the test to stand in as the genuine social product and reflector of Tamil society, people and culture during the past 75+ years, Tamil television appears to head in a similar direction.
The face of Tamil television is a much fractured one in terms of their political and unprofessional affiliations and practices. One can discern several problems along multiple axes in such a context. One major problem with media and their practitioners/owners in TN (this also applies to the media at the national level) is their abysmally poor understanding of the native characteristics of the media they work with. Anything goes for any medium. So you have anchors reading newspaper stories, and as a further kill, television reporters mouthing at their own rapid fire speed their 1000 words accounts through their cameras. Being exceedingly verbose, defines Indian/TN kind of television news. Its verbosity can only be matched by the verbosity of Indian/Tamil films. And when the going gets tough, the anchors and their team take this alien virtue of television to ridiculous levels.
The other problem relates to an important arbiter of political economy of media: who owns what in what political and economic contexts and for what? Tamil television is largely a political enterprise masquerading as a media sector. As mentioned earlier any political aspirant can also quickly double up as a media owner. The days of entering the turf with a printed propaganda sheet are over for the political biggies and their parties. Starting a television channel and adding to the clutter of Tamil channels politically and rather crudely is the name of the game new entrants and old hands in politics like to play and manipulate. There are no laws to protect the gullible Tamil television audience or the diversity and freedom of public sphere from the unprofessional journalistic practices of these political channels, their attempts in political propaganda and doctoring/censoring/blacking out of truthful accounts of events that concern public and audience. Thanks to our ill-equipped media regulatory framework, these are exciting times for the purveyors of doctored/censored news and trying times for the Tamil television audience. One can go no further than Tamil television channels’ coverage of Tamil genocide in Srilanka and the Srilankan conflict during the past four weeks. As mentioned in the earlier post, channels owned by the DMK, stopped carrying any news about Srilankan Tamil tragedies two weeks before the Parliament election date (May 13 2009) and continued to either follow the same logic or provide the last rung to news concerning Tamil genocide in Srilanka. As a consequence, what circulated in world media as major stories on Srilanka (UN Human Rights Council session’s voting on war crimes and London Times’ expose of the size of the Tamil genocide at 20000+) fail to find their due time slot and space in several of the Tamil channels. The point to ponder at this juncture concerns the absence of a media regulatory framework that would have effectively checked the proliferation of elements inimical to the interests of a free and diverse public sphere and nipped them in the bud. There is nothing wrong in politicians and political parties owning channels. The problem shoots in the face of the average viewer when there is no regulator to check their subjective coverage of events, virtual monopoly of media sectors and undemocratic attempts in silencing their opponents through their unfair trade practices (borne of some of the media organisations control over vertical integration of different media sectors under one group umbrella).
India’s media regulatory framework is a classic case of a reactive one (and that too belatedly). Media laws come into existence only after the damage to public interest has been completely done. India had the legislation for regulating cable television long after the cable operators decided the profile and rules of the cable television sector. The same goes true for the cross media ownership of media that has taken a heavy toll on the diversity of choices, content and free media space for the audience. More than a decade after the advent of satellite television and cable television and attendant media sectors, TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) started circulating a position paper on the need for cross media ownership laws only in 2009.
The damage done by the absence of cross media ownership laws is nowhere more glaring than in TN. What becomes of the free and democratic space when any one player is able to control all the facets of vertical ownership of media? The history of Sun TV is instructive about the bane of cross media ownership and the absence of laws to check the same. It is no secret that Sun TV group belongs to the family of Marans (the sons of late Murasoli Maran, who was a senior DMK leader, a well known scriptwriter of early films of DMK and Union Minister of Commerce of high standing). The family of Marans is filially an integral part of the family of ruling DMK. The channel played a crucial role through the repeated replays of the clipping showing the midnight arrest of M Karunanidhi, the present TN Chief Minister, and his moanings (when AIADMK was in power) during the campaign for the last assembly elections. DMK won the election, but soon family rivalry took Marans’ Sun TV on an anti-DMK trajectory after the attack on their newspaper’s (Dinakaran) office in Madurai. It was alleged by Marans that M.K Azhagiri, son of M Karunanidhi was behind the attacks which was denied by the later. Sun TV, which was till then seen as an integral part of the propaganda machinery of DMK took an anti DMK stance. In the transformed version of Sun TV as a propaganda vehicle, we saw AIADMK chief, among others such as Vijaykanth (DMDK) and Sarathkumar (another star politician), launching her salvos against DMK and in particular the union minister of Communications and IT, A.Raja, in the context of allegations of scandal in spectrum allocation. These events eventually resulted in the birth of DMK’s very own channel, Kalaignar TV (to take on Sun TV), Arasu Cable Corporation (to take the sheen out of the Sumangali Cable Vision (SCV), which controls cable television distribution in TN) and RCV (Royal Cable Vision), promoted by the son of DMK chief, M.K Azhagiri, in Madurai (which was accused by the Marans of blocking out Sun TV channels in Madurai district last year b). There are many more minor and major events of this nature which have come to define the political economy of media in Tamil Nadu during the recent past. But in all these events, there is a bitter lesson to be noted by TRAI, which is only now starting to notice the bane of the lack of cross media ownership laws in India, and the media audience. The lesson is we need a stronger media regulatory framework and that can become a reality only if laws such as cross media ownership laws take their place before all sorts of media licenses are auctioned to one media organisation in the same region. This is not possible in developed countries in this age and was not possible even during the early decades. For instance, Australia had its comprehensive cross media ownership laws in 1992. UK has comprehensive cross media ownership framework.
But in India, in 2009, any media group can own a slew of TV channels, FM radio frequencies, produce films, air promotion clips of the films in loop, discreetly promote the same films as the best ones through a programme such as “Best Ten Films,” control the cable distribution network, own a DTH platform and publish newspapers and magazines. In TN, the Sun TV group does most of the above. The same is nearly true of Kalaignar TV, Makkal TV, Jaya TV and others. But not on the same scale of massive vertical ownership such as the one mustered by the Sun TV conglomerate. Its rivals lack in a key sector, cable television distribution sector. In the past and now, through its SCV, the cable distribution network company, Sun TV is alleged to have blocked the signals of its rivals. In the early years of rivalry between Sun TV and Jaya TV, we heard complaints in this regard. When Kalaignar TV was floated last year, we heard the complaint of Sun TV against RCV and Kalaigner TV against SCV for blocking of television signals. The Marans, grand nephews of DMK chief, rejoined the main family after very acrimonious exchange of statements, in December 2008, providing much relief to both camps. Everyone speculated about the future of Kalaignar TV and wondered whether it would be merged with Sun TV. But, surprisingly, that did not happen. On the other hand, Kalaignar TV went ahead with its plans to launch new channels. The group now boasts a main channel, a news channel, music channel and a comedy channel. This patch up between Marans and the DMK chief’s family also heralded a formidable media arm of Sun TV and Kalaignar TV working in unison for promoting the interests of DMK.
In the process, not surprisingly, the much touted plan of Arasu Cable Corporation was put in cold storage and there has been no news on this front after the patch up. In a similar move, the AIADMK government in January 2006 wanted to clip SCV by taking over cable television distribution in Tamil Nadu. But the move fell through and could not be pursued further by the party as it lost the election. The move by the present government to start Arasu Cable Corporation had a different plan. It wanted not to take over SCV, but to provide an apprently powerful alternative to SCV , particularly to take maximum mileage from the populist scheme of free distribution of 14″ colour television sets to BPL homes.
Last week saw reports of another act of indirect ban of unfriendly television signals. Makkal TV, which has been on the forefront of breaking stories on the Tamil genocide and ignoring the handouts of SL Army, was proving to be the major troublemaker for the DMK-Congress alliance in the days before the campaign. There was an allegation from Makkal TV that its telecast of a controversial CD showing visuals of the Tamil genocide on the evening of May 12,2009, a day before election, was sabotaged by the DMK government through power blackout that lasted more than a few hours on the evening when the CD was telecast, after being cleared by the High Court of Madras.The government denied the charge even as the AIADMK chief blamed the power blackout as the reason for rigging the electronic voting machines.
The present complaint being voiced by Makkal TV against SCV relates to the blocking of its signals. It has been reported by Makkal TV that except in Chennai, Makkal TV has been blocked in other districts of TN for the past several days (since the channel started putting out its version of the last days of the war in Srilanka). PMK and its allies have protested about this indirect ban on Makkal TV and wanted a response from the state government. But there are no responses to the allegations from SCV or the government.
The party which owns Makkal TV broke its alliance with DMK in the run up to recent election and took a stand which diverged from the stand of DMK on the Srilankan conflict. The channel was widely perceived to be the purveyor of “uncomfortable yet truthful” news about the Tamil genocide in Srilanka, which other Tamil channels were not touching. The channel was also banned in Srilanka last month. Forget the political reasons for the politics of direct/indirect controls on television and television news in Tamil Nadu. Think about the implications of a skewed and unregulated model of political economy of television that has befallen the public sphere in Tamil Nadu.
Now there are several questions begging for answers in such a context. What becomes of free media and their diversity in what is touted as world’s largest democracy and what becomes of the public interest to know the truth in a conflict situation and what becomes of their right as a cable television subscriber to watch their preferred choices or ignore the channels they dislike? Can TRAI’s belated initiative take off in a political context where political parties as media owners has become an accepted norm and cross media ownership raises no heckles in the corridors of I&B ministry or in the discussions on media in parliament or state assemblies?