Let the state media be spared of cartels, monopolies and oligopolies

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Unknown to working journalists in the state, some months ago there was a development in the newspaper business in the state which though unlikely to have had any immediate material impact on their profession, would certainly have carried deep moral implication on the profession of journalism. It would not have made any difference if journalists were in the know of it, and probably many close to newspaper managements would have known it, for the engine behind the development were the business bosses of the newspapers they worked for. Newspaper owners in the state got together to push the issue that all newspapers in the state should unanimously agree to increase their cover prices, the ceiling proposed was Rs. 5 for those newspapers with 12 pages and Rs. 4 for those with eight pages. The reason advanced was, the price of newsprint has taken a major hike in the recent months therefore there has been resultant depletion in the returns from sale of newspapers.

There is plenty of merit in this proposal. The market price of newsprint has indeed hiked considerably in the last quarter. This being the case all newspapers will probably have to eventually increase cover prices to absorb and make the extra fiscal burden bearable. The important question however is, should this not have been left up to individual newspapers to decide what their limits and capacities of striking the balance between pain of losses and pleasures of profit were. What was unsettling in the abortive development was the tendency of an oligopoly, or to use a more sinister term, cartel, emerging in the newspaper business, in which prices of the newspapers was to be decided and fixed by this cartel and not determined by the pulls and pressures of the open market, thereby ensuring any price hike does not go beyond what the market decides was the optimum, and therefore fair to the consumer and seller.

For all one knows, the initiative may have been prompted in perfect innocence, in keeping with the diktats of what many believed was plain common sense – newsprint prices have gone up, so all should agree to a fixed raised price for newspapers, eliminating all possible fallouts of inter-industry competitions, ensuring there are no fiscal pinches on the business. But recall what Gramsci called common sense. It can often become the hegemonic push of the dominant interest made to look like the most natural and justified logic. This being so, it is the responsibility of the vigilant observer to continually interrogate these calls for the so called “common sense”.

I was away from the epicentre of action, but was immensely encouraged and proud that a good majority of the newspapers in Manipur disagreed and detracted from the proposed line of business initiative. Ultimately, the matter was left to the individual newspapers to be on their own lookout as far as price hikes were concerned. Some newspapers raised their cover prices, not to the extent initially proposed, others decided to wait a while more before deciding revise prices, if at all, according to their individual needs of the moment. An essential freedom was hence guaranteed, both for the sellers and buyers. This was, in my opinion a triumphant moment for journalism in the state.

Let me elaborate. Supposing tomorrow, all rice wholesalers and retailers also form a similar cartel, and like the newspapers almost did recently, decide to unanimously hike the price of retailed rice to a fixed rate for all, say Rs. 100 a kg, citing climbing overheads, which may in all fairness be the reality. Journalist crusaders and mercenaries alike, who would not have even made a squeak at such a cartel being formed by their employers, would have cried daylight robbery at the rice cartel. Law keepers of all hues and distinctions, some within and some without the law, of which the state is swarming with today, would probably have taken the cue from these journalist whistleblowers and perhaps some even would have gone to the extent of committing blue murder in the name of eradicating comprador reactionaries and blood sucking social parasites.

What hypocrisy journalism in Manipur would have been exposed to be in such a circumstance? What degradation its image would have undergone too? Journalists undoubtedly indeed would have been deprived of its moral teeth, arguably its most precious asset.

No harm in the same commodity being priced differently by different sellers and resellers. One seller may have added benefits like an air-conditioned shopping area, home delivery etc, therefore may well be entitled to charge a little more. But the consumer who does not need these additional services should continue to have the choice to buy it from the shops which does not have these extra services and therefore sells them without the premium for them. This condition, at least this time, was ensured as far as newspapers in the state are concerned. Journalists therefore can with pride and justification still dutifully point their fingers at those who kill this freedom.

Journalism is far from being a well paid job in the state today, but even in its relative poverty the sense of social mission the profession is associated with, gives those in the profession a sense of dignity, respect and satisfaction that money cannot buy. Surrendering this respectability would have been the profession’s last straw in the state. Thanks to those newspapers which resisted this tendency to a business cartel formation, this dignity of the profession survived. I am proud that even in my absence, the leadership of the Imphal Free Press, decided not to be part of the cartel initiative. It is also clear now the newspapers which resisted are those which puts journalism before business. Sometimes I am inclined to believe, in all spheres of life, there is much truth in the saying that the poor are the bravest. Wasn’t it Jesus who in his Sermon on the Mount, the favourite of so many, including Gandhi, said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will inherit the kingdom of Heaven.” This may be a poetic hyperbole no doubt, but a beautiful one, also much needed in guarding the moral integrity of Manipur journalism.

Journalism as a profession is still relatively nascent in the state. The media business too is far from being anywhere near the league of the Rs. 1000 crore and even Rs. 2000 crore plus turnover media corporations elsewhere the country boasts of. Many of the newspapers in the state began virtually as one-window kiosk shops and many indeed are still of this nature. Under the circumstance, it would be generally difficult and unfair to try and make very clear distinctions between newspaper owners and journalists. That many editors are also the owners of these newspapers is an indication of the nascent nature of this business. It would be much like Mahatma Gandhi or Bal Gangadhar Tilak starting their newspapers in pre-Independent India. Just as it would have been unthinkable to segregate the journalists from the newspaper owners then, it would still not be an easy task in today’s Manipur too.

It is not a surprise then the apex journalist body in the state, the All Manipur Working Journalists Union, AMWJU, still does not make adequate distinction between journalists and newspaper proprietors in enlisting membership. In the past, I used to support the view that proprietors should be kept out of the union altogether as it is unlikely interests of working journalists and those of the business owners would ever be the same, and indeed sometimes, as for instance in introducing standard pay structures for journalists, they could be radically the opposite. Many of us with managerial interests in the newspapers we belong to voluntarily keep away from the membership of the AMWJU. However, I may have to revise my opinion a little on the matter, considering that in many cases, the role of the journalist and newspaper owners are still interchangeable and intertwined. Still, without any malice to anybody, I must say though some allowance should be made in AMWJU membership for newspaper proprietors, it should at least make sure proprietors are kept out of its key offices, in particular that of its president. Unfortunately, this is still not the case.

But let those watching the journalism profession in the state, or are part of it, not be complacent. The face of journalism as well as the media business has altered considerably in the last one or two decades and is still changing. With the progress of time, the media in many ways is indeed emerging as lucrative businesses or else media houses have been overtaken by businessmen. No harm in this. But journalism and business though are necessarily should not be antagonistic to each other, let it be kept in mind that they very different animals. The tendency around the world has been, as business grows there has also been a reciprocal diminishing of the clout and prestige of journalists. There is today an increasing tendency for the news and editorials journalists write on a day to day basis, to get reduced to what a notorious media mogul who most would probably identify without even being named, called “the stuffs to fill the spaces between advertisements”.

Once upon a time, the “solus” space as it is known in newspaper circles, the quarter page space on the bottom right of the broadsheet newspaper’s front page, was thought to be a big compromise by the editorial to advertisement pressures, deserving a debate on media ethics. Today, routinely, mainstream newspapers bring out full page front page advertisements placed by corporations. The revenue earned from a single advertisement like this is imaginable, considering in some of the best known national dailies, the cost of a single full page colour advertisement in one of the inside pages is estimated at Rs. 1.2 crore by media watchers. It is anybody’s guess if newspapers which receive this kind of money from any advertiser would be too enthusiastic about writing negative reports about the advertiser.

Indeed much has been written about “advertisement contracts” many newspaper houses are now known to enter with various corporations. In these contracts, for the assurance of a certain amount of advertisement revenue, the newspapers would guarantee no negative reports of the corporation appears on its pages, and also a specified number of positive stories of the same firm would appear within the contract period. The pioneer of this phenomenon, all of us know, is the paper whose English edition claims to be the largest circulated, not only in the country but the world. Again, not so long ago, there was also the “Radia Tapes” controversy, in which many high profile journalists of various national dailies and TV channels were exposed to have been on the payroll of a certain intermediary of corporate houses.

The 1941 Oscar winning, much acclaimed, black and white American film, “Citizen Kane” supposedly based partly on real life characters, is a touching and incisive account of how power and money which a newspaper earns as its business grows, can drastically alter the equation between news and business, seriously undermining the former and journalists. Media in Manipur has not come to this stage, yet the signs are, such a situation is on the threshold, therefore the all the more need for the AMWJU and independent media practitioners to be vigilant. The AMWJU so far has also been by insurmountable compulsions, been primarily doing the job of a mediating body between morale destroying demands, of the faction ridden insurrection in the land, and those fighting it. Essential as this responsibility is, it is also high time for it to also go beyond and look for imaginative and just ways of furthering the long term welfare of the working journalists.

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