Making a strong case for a free press in front of a large gathering of advertisers at AAAI Subhas Ghosal Memorial Lecture in Mumbai on Friday, Media Mogul and India Today Group Chairman and Editor-in-Chief Aroon Purie said that a great responsibility lies on the advertising community to foster a free press.
“Only with financial strength can you withstand pressures from all quarters. It is not only governments that can pressurise. I am sorry to say, but advertisers too,” Purie said.
Talking about the pressure inflicted upon the press, Purie said, “We have had advertising banned to us from 2 of the biggest business houses of this country for a period of 5 years. Fortunately, not concurrently.”
“If you buy advertising disguised as editorial, you are destroying the credibility of the very vehicle you are using to promote your product,” Purie said adding that the currency of news media is credibility.
Purie held the ‘raddi economics’ responsible for the huge dependency of print media on advertising.
“The big problem in India is that the media is too cheap. The newspaper is virtually free to the consumer based on what I call ‘raddi economics’. The consumer sells to the ‘raddiwala’ the week’s newspaper for more than he pays for it,” he said.
“Also, I may add that this (print newspapers) is perhaps the only product I know the consumer stops consuming, but the supply does not stop. So, people have stopped reading newspapers, but the paper keeps arriving because it costs nothing to the household,” he added.
Therefore, the big dependence on advertising and the pliability of the media to bend to the wishes of the advertiser or the government, he remarked.
Purie pointed out that government policies are largely to be blamed for broadcast media’s dependence on advertising.
“We had a chance to set up a well-organised cable distribution system after the launch of satellite TV in the early ‘90s. The government only woke up when there were over 100,000 cable operators illegally throwing cables in colonies. They could have seen how cable systems work overseas where they are proper franchises for cities with technical standards laid out. It is only recently that it has got corporatised,” Purie said.
“But now the government through TRAI regulates the price at which channels offer to the consumer. It seems that the governments of today think that there is a constitutional right for our citizens to get a cheap cable connection. This is just political populism. Here again, the consumer is getting media cheap and the share to the broadcaster for the subscriptions is much less than the international standards. They are leading to heavy dependence on advertising and chasing TRPs, at least for news channels,” he added.
Talking about the future, Purie said that the digital revolution has opened enormous opportunities for the media to expand their audience and deliver more focused news to different segments of society.
“Technology is continuously improving our ability to tell stories more effectively with multimedia. The holy grail being the ability to deliver personalised content to an audience of ONE. After all, the media is nothing more than storytellers. Journalism is the truth well told. And good journalism is about making it memorable,” he said.
On India Today Group’s future, Purie said, “As I have many more days behind me than ahead of me, I am blessed that my daughter Kalli who has been with the company for 25 years before taking on the responsibility of Managing Director and Vice Chairperson, has the same value system and passion for the news.
“In the past few years, she has launched 21 digital-first channels, and all are doing well. And there are more in the making. Besides, she has also launched our channel Good News Today. It features aspirational and all the positive developments which are happening in India. And there are plenty of them if you look. This was to counter the criticism that news channels carry only sensational and bad news.
“I don’t believe anyone’s shoes are too big to fill. You have to forget this notion, she has to put on her own shoes, and run with it. And that’s what she is doing. I am confident that India Today Group is in very good hands,” he said.
According to Purie, the press is often a favourite whipping boy for many. “Let me say that the free press, for all its faults, is a force for the good,” he said.
“There are bad apples in any industry. But you have in India a plethora of choices. There are over 400 news channels and more in the pipeline. They are in all major languages and cover different geographical regions. The same applies to print media,” added Purie.
“India is a unique and fantastic country with its diversity and democracy, however messy and chaotic it is. India has a momentum of its own, and it is bigger than any leader. I believe the free press is essential for India to survive as a country,” Purie said. “Next time you castigate the press, think whether India would be better off without it.”