Copyright (C) 1996, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh (email@example.com)
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June 26, 1996: Last week, Rupert Murdoch visited India's new Prime Minister, H D Deve Gowda, and left a swarm of rumours in his wake. He reportedly told Mr Gowda that he would like to invest $1 billion in Karnataka - Mr Gowda's home state - and hinted that he would appreciate uplinking facilities for News Corp's STAR television network in India.
Opposition parties made angry noises, demanding why the government was considering allowing a foreigner to do what Indian companies cannot - break the state monopoly over the airwaves. The government denied everything, and pointed out that the same week had seen discussion of relaxing government control over electronic media: the effectuation of decades-old promises to make state-owned Doordarshan TV "autonomous"; and the implementation of a year-old Supreme Court verdict. The rumours would not stop, and finally, in a front-page report today, the Times of India all but asked the Communists to save the country from foreign devils.
In India's media battles though, nothing is what it seems. The Communists are quiet because they support the confused government, a coalition of parties just right of centre to well on the left. Besides, they know that the government is bound to implement the Supreme Court's verdict in favour of privatisation (about which nobody talks, hoping that it will be forgotten); and also, though this is less obligatory, an ancient proposal for a state-owned broadcaster free of governmental interference (the so-called Prasar Bharati bill, a topic of animated discussion at every change of government).
As for the foreign devils and their much predicted invasion from the skies, it has been a damp squib. The "invasion" is mostly Indian language programming, competing with Doordarshan's entertainment channels for the lowest common denominator in the country's vast and diverse audience. "Baywatch" is available - on Mr Murdoch's STAR network, in fact - but not very profitable in comparison with Hindi film songs and game shows.
According to the Times of India, "within 24 hours, all bureaucratic hurdles were reportedly cleared" for a vast $1.3 billion studio, post-production centre and uplinking facility for STAR TV in Tumkur, Karnataka, where - again according to this, the country's largest-selling newspaper - Rupert Murdoch plans to shift the network's headquarters after Hong Kong joins China next year. The newspaper goes on to flatter Mr Murdoch's political prowess - he has acquired a dominant role in American, Australian and British politics, it writes; and, quoting various (unnamed) officials, sources and reports argues that Mr Murdoch would seriously hurt India's national interest if permitted to invest in the country.
Behind the more obvious fallacies in these reports - Mr Murdoch after having negotiated a joint venture with Chinese state-owned media is unlikely to worry about the future of STAR TV in Hong Kong - is the Times' real worry. Mr Murdoch likes newspapers.
India's policy towards foreign media is strange. Foreign investment is not allowed in Indian (non-academic, periodic) publishers or broadcasters. Yet the import and distribution of print publications proceeds more-or-less unhampered, newspapers rely heavily on foreign wire service reports, and satellite and cable channels are received everywhere. As telecom companies will eventually be able to run television over their networks, their permitted 49% foreign-ownership effectively applies to the cable TV business. Foreign broadcasters already source much of their programming for India from India, and could easily have local partners invest in uplinking facilities as an when they are allowed. The real losers are the Indian readers of foreign publications, who would save a lot if they were printed locally.
Worries about "national sovereignty" have banned foreign investment in the press for decades (not soon enough to stop Reader's Digest, though, which happily prints and sells large quantities of its Indian edition). Moves by the reform-minded Congress government - and the present one, for Mr Gowda is known for favouring foreign investment in general - have been blocked by jingoistic politicians, it is true, but also by a cartel of large publishers among which Bennett Coleman & Co - Times of India - is the biggest.
The Times of India's paranoid reaction to foreign investment in the Indian press led it to effectively squash a joint venture between a smaller media group and the Financial Times, London, by swiftly registering a Financial Times of its own - protecting group publication Economic Times, whch leads the market. Bennett Coleman shouldn't be so frightened. It has been celebrating the Sunday Times of India's ABC-certified crossing of 1 million circulation. Surely quality, not simply a lack of sufficient competition, had something to do with it?
On why television and radio is officially a state monopoly in India, and how this will change thanks to a Supreme Court verdict see http://dxm.org/techonomist/regu.html#IBA
See also "Indian Parliament wants private broadcasters", April 1, at http://dxm.org/techonomist/news/01apr96.html