February 8, 2014
Seminar Hall-II, India International Centre, New Delhi
The third consultation on the Mapping the Digital Media in India report was organised by the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University, Delhi in collaboration with the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia and Maraa, a media and arts collective. The consultation was supported by the Open Society Foundation and focused on core challenges in the Indian media landscape.
The consultation was divided into two panels and comprised six speakers in all, each of whom spoke for 10-12 minutes. The first panel engaged with the different tensions involved in the regulatory framework around spectrum allocation, the impact of various ‘crises’ on the framing of such tensions, and possible solutions visualised to resolve them. The second panel discussed the ways in which journalists cover the news media, the utility of such coverage and the ways in which it could be made more useful. Each panel was followed by a moderated discussion.
Panel 1: Examining public interest in Spectrum Allocation and Usage
Ram Bhat, Vice President, Community Radio Forum
Ram Bhat discussed the frequency modulation (FM) radio space, which consists of commercial and community radio, and he focused on how the two affect each other in the context of spectrum allocation. He noted that he would restrict his discussion to spectrum allocation and that he would not not discuss news broadcasting or All India Radio FM services. He began by providing an overview of the FM radio landscape which he explained comprises of 245 operational commercial stations, located mainly in urban areas; and 160 operational community radio stations, of which 100 are on campuses, and about 250 more which have already obtained an administrative licence but are waiting for Wireless Operating License from DoT. While several big players in commercial radio including Reliance, Bennett Coleman and the Sun Group have multiple stations, community radio is a 1:1 setup with one person operating one station. Next year, under FM-III, 839 new FM stations will be up for bidding, and it is expected that there will be close to 1500 channels outside of AIR after Phase-III of the process is completed.
Ram pointed to copyright rates for music as being one of the major problems faced by commercial radio outside non-A+cities. Copyright litigation can cause the cost of business to rise, making it difficult to sustain operations. This means that A+ markets will need to subsidise smaller cities. Ram then went on to describe the pressure on channel spacing, citing a TRAI report that proposed more frequencies in A+ cities by reducing spacing from 800 to 400 KHz. The result of this is that some of the existing commercial stations are interested in deepening their presence in top radio markets (A+ cities) rather than diversifying into newer and potentially less profitable markets.There is a general lack of awareness about community radio in remote areas, and the Government has not made any systematic or targeted efforts to organize awareness workshops in such areas, although this is slowly changing.Ram also pointed out that community radio license (administrative) is allocated on a first come first serve basis (as long as eligibility criteria is satisfied). This could lead to elite players obtaining frequencies before others and perhaps more deserving candidates.
Shifting focus to the 2G scam, Ram explained how while this represented a crisis of transparency in procedure, the emerging solution has focused solely on revenue maximisation, as a result of which revenue has become the only interpretation of public interest to the exclusion of all others. He pointed out that public interest can mean other things like diversity, community access and suchlike, and these other elements have been ignored. For example, in 2003, telecom spectrum was given cheap and led to an increase in coverage. However, after the 2G scandal, wireless licenses for community radio have new conditions that spectrum may be withdrawn and put up for auction at any time.
Ram flagged the main tension as being between different values – of revenue maximisation versus other considerations. He cited problems with different ministries allocating spectrum and defining public interest, and in the auctioning process itself, resulting in a confused field. For example, it is the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that defines public interest but the Wireless Planning and Co-ordination Wing (which has little connection with the framing of what constitutes public interest) that actually allocates the spectrum.
The FM Radio as a sector needs more careful thought – the urban areas are quickly getting saturated with AIR FM stations, commercial FM stations and community radio stations, while many rural areas have no FM stations, or a solitary AIR or community FM station. The distribution of FM stations across the country is increasingly getting lopsided. When the community radio revised policy guidelines were announced in 2006, there were six frequencies reserved for community radio. However, after the second round of bidding, i.e. FM-Phase II of commercial FM, there are only three frequencies reserved for community radio. It reveals how one tier of broadcasting impacts the other. It is also an illustrative example of why an ecology approach to the FM sector is much needed. It is also necessary to define public interest clearly, in terms of balancing competing notions of public interest such as revenue maximization, universalizing access, community participation and so on. An independent regulator for the FM sector who can engage with administrative issues (including licensing) would help in resolving many of the above mentioned issues.
Virat Bhatia, President – External Affairs, South Asia for AT&T
Virat Bhatia provided an overview of spectrum allocation in the telecom sector from an industry perspective. He began by discussing the history of telecom spectrum allocation from 1992 till date, drawing a clear link between court litigation and the lack of transparency in allocation: he noted with examples that historically, every time the allocation process has been transparent, there has been no litigation; and every time the conditions for spectrum allocations were opaque or changed, the allocation process had been challenged in courts.
He pointed out that operators value spectrum based on its potential and this value has been reflected in the pricing and bidding for spectrum over the years. Government shifted to a revenue sharing model as a result of NTP 1999. At that time the government had no idea how fast the mobile market would grow – in fact a tender condition in 1995 permitting invited operators to charge up to Rs. 16.80 per minute for peak hours. In the first eight years, between 1993 and 2001, there were only 2 million mobile subscribers, which grew to 249 million subscribers in 2008 during the next six years, and then to 600 million subscribers in the next four years (which may actually be 500 million if you consider that some people have more than one subscription/SIM card). By 2009, the prices were rock bottom. Till 2012, the market had been primary for voice services but the data market began to grow from this period. Up to 183 million subscribers, out of the 240 million by mid-2014, are expected to access the Internet through mobile devices, blurring the distinction between mobile companies and Internet Service Providers. Mobile operators are the new ISPs. It is possible that the market will remain overheated for now.
Virat then explored how one can characterise public interest, pointing out that it could be defined both as “affordable telecommunication services” and also as “revenue to the Government” (which could then translate into better public healthcare, education and other welfare benefits); he suggested that from an overall national interest it can be argued that the latter is seen to be better. In the final analysis, public interest is about balancing revenue, transparency in process and consumer pricing.
Lack of procedural transparency leads to litigation (every time), as well as a substantive hit to India’s reputation as an investment destination. In addition, the delay in roll-out resulting from litigation also affects public interest due to delay in service offerings. Virat argued that auctions are the best way, combining revenue with transparent selection processes. The question then would be how to ensure affordable pricing, to which he suggested that affordability could be achieved by ensuring that there is fair and sufficient competition in the market. It could be argued that in a hypercompetitive market like India, smaller operators would be disadvantaged in an auction situation and hence auctions would be against introducing new entrants, but nevertheless in the overall analysis, auctions were at present, the best available process.
Virat highlighted the importance of an active sectoral regulator, noting that while the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had absolute powers to fix prices under section 11 of the TRAI Act, this power has been used sparingly. Instead a policy of forbearance has been followed due to market conditions prevailing in the competitive environment. Unlike in radio, the rural-urban divide is not a concern in the telecom sector, from spectrum allocation point-of-view since spectrum is allocated for an entire circle (including urban and rural areas). He spoke of the need for a strong independent spectrum regulator, pointing out that this was being discussed but subsequently withdrawn since different government departments may be unsure of what such a move would entail, or mean for them. He suggested that information on the quantum and quality of spectrum available and future roadmap could make spectrum bids in telecom sector more rational. Transparency will certainly help. Ironically, fresh spectrum is of little value to a new operator with no subscribers, and simultaneously of tremendous value to operators with multiple subscribers. In effect a large market does not necessarily draw more bidders, especially new ones. Operators’ participation in spectrum auctions depends on who owns subscribers and the future roadmap of mergers and acquisitions.
In conclusion, Virat pointed out that spectrum bids are linked to operators’ ability to grow the market. In a near saturated subscriber market of 850 million such as India, new entrants are unlikely to participate in bidding, and hence traditional market rules valid until 2008, would not apply where new bidders are concerned.
Dr. Mahesh Uppal, Director, Com First (India) Pvt Ltd
Dr. Uppal began by highlighting the importance of spectrum in India, given that unlike developed countries, it has no serious fixed line networks to begin with and telephone/broadband access at the user end is almost entirely wireless.
The fact that wireless access is the primary form of access makes spectrum very important. Spectrum, unlike other resources like coal or oil, is inexhaustible, and therefore keeping spectrum idle is as problematic as abusing it. it is important to have a shrewd approach to spectrum, striking the right balance in allocation and pricing. He illustrated this with the failure of the previous administrative approach to allocating spectrum, where semi-competitive processes resulted in allocation at administrative prices rather than market rates. As per this policy, spectrum allocation was linked to subscribers, who were measured on SIM cards rather than actual users. This had perverse incentives for companies – to increase users rather than usage – which managers of any scarce natural resource would want to avoid.
Dr. Uppal stated that spectrum was central to how the internet market was going to expand. He illustrated the ill-effects of the policy in the 3G auction, where the arbitrary allocation of spectrum to speculating companies led to a perceived shortage of spectrum and high bids. However, the perverse incentive to develop voice markets at the cost of data resulted in low productivity on 3G investments and hence, despite huge bids, 3G services are still not available everywhere. He opined that this was likely to happen in the 2014 auctions as well, and that high bids are good for the exchequer but bad for customers since less money is available to operators to expand networks where they are needed. Thus, these auctions have created a situation where operators have no incentive to invest in people without access.
He agreed that the demand for spectrum was far in excess of supply, and that there was no agreeable process other than an auction. However, he pointed out the developments post the 2G scam have created a situation of policy and decision paralysis in telecom as well as broadcasting, and suggested that one of the major problems facing telecom policy today is that it has been inextricably linked with exchequer revenues – to the point where even TRAI ended up pursuing revenue as a goal in their recommendations although it was not part of their mandate. He raised concerns about the regulator being concerned with issues of policy.
Dr. Uppal also suggested that spectrum allocation was throwing up serious consequences for competition, and that large players would edge smaller players out, driving up prices. At present, almost 90% of the sector’s revenues belong to the top 3-4 players and problems with auctions are leading to forced consolidations between them. He proposed a solution in the manner of designing auctions with strict conditions on rollout, which would impact bids without compromising the transparency of the process; with other options including developing data markets, linking traffic on networks, and imposing a commercial cost on unutilised spectrum.
Dr. Uppal said that issues of whether revenue should be invested in the sector or outside has to be decided by policy makers, observing that rural services were worst hit by the present model of auction. Since frequency of spectrum is inversely proportional to its reach, auctioning off the lower (and more expensive) bands prematurely would have an adverse effect on infrastructure as well as competition. He concluded by expressing the possibility of reconciling the benefits of auction with a larger distributive fairness, emphasising the importance of scrutinising spectrum usage, particularly by non-commercial players including defence and community radio.
The discussion began with Dr. Uppal addressing questions on balancing revenue and access, suggesting that both extreme views were incorrect. He pointed out that while spectrum is a commercially valuable resource, the CAG had also erred in calculating the presumptive loss because the applications for 2008 spectrum did not reflect actual demand. Similarly, the point on cheap access was not relevant because the Indian telecom market is intensely competitive, and pricing was not related to bids.
During the discussion, the panelists discussed the impacts of the number of players in the radio and telecom markets and their impact on the ecology of the sectors, including possible cartelisation. Dr. Uppal rejected the possibility of cartelisation in the telecom sector due to the market having four mutually hostile camps, and the auction was being open globally and delinked from license. Ram suggested that the impact on the radio sector was debatable, as the bigger players were opposed to channel spacing reduction because of impact on advertising revenue. From a consumer perspective, the radio market is highly polarised with commercial FM stations are playing film music and community radio stuck to developmental content, and therefore unless there was a policy to diversify content, there is no scope of any competition and the sector is likely to collapse. Dr. Uppal pointed out that this is where broadcasting and telecom were different since in broadcast, diversity is essential while in telecom, infrastructure multiplicity is a waste and it is possible to have diversity without multiplying infrastructure.
The final part of the discussion focused on regulatory issues in the telecom and radio sectors with telecom and radio companies investing in the media. Mahesh suggested that part of the problem lay in the bundling of carriage and content, and suggested that a clear regulatory separation was long overdue. The discussion then concluded, with the issue being flagged to be taken up in detail by the second panel.
Panel 2: Journalism about the media
Sevanti Ninan, Founder & Editor, The Hoot
Sevanti Ninan opened the panel by stating that in India, journalism on the media was a very small space, and proposed three reasons for the absence of media critique: firstly, media houses being owned by business families with informal arrangements not to report on each other; secondly, the absence of traditional media research in social science institutions and the lack of funding for media research; and thirdly, the absence of effective media regulation as the existing print regulator (Press Council) was not effective while in the broadcast sector, self regulatory bodies cover only a fraction of the total number of channels and lack effective sanctions.
Sevanti cautioned that while technology enables proliferation of media, it also leads to the increase in unregulated space. She raised issue with ineffective “pipe regulation” (carriage regulation) and pointed out that TRAI had been given cross-regulation functions which it was not suited for. There were issues with all prevalent ownership models – whether it was corporate ownership, political ownership or listing, the bottom line was not on reporting. She cited her own media watch organisation, The Hoot, as being one of very few such spaces, besides isolated examples of individual journalists or magazines covering the media – such as Caravan.
Sandeep Bhushan, Tracking Access Under Digitalisation Project, Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia
Sandeep Bhushan began by describing how proprietorial control over editorial content had become more stringent and invasive over the years, to the point where it was at present happening on a 24×7 basis. Drawing from his own decade-long experience at NDTV, he narrated how, after the meltdown, budgets cuts resulted in bureaus being disbanded and reporters being fired, directly affecting news gathering and coverage, as a result of which the quality of reportage declined.
He pointed out that the rising power of news television as an institution was forcing promoters to clamp down heavily on content. Sandeep then outlined the problems with a promoter taking over content, relying on a TRAI report from February 2013 which also highlighted the crumbling institution of the editor. He stated that today’s campaign form of journalism, covering only politically safe issues, has been influenced by this, and consequently a lot of the “serious” issues which impact promoters’ interests are not taken up. He cited examples of managements scuttling stories involving powerful corporate interests and preferring to play it safe. These included a story on the nexus between the Minister for Civil Aviation, Praful Patel and Jet Airways being shot down by the editorial office despite the reporter in question having put in substantial effort into obtaining the facts; and other exposes involving Sahara and the Ambanis meeting a similar fate. The net effect is that the editor’s interest in a news channel becomes ensuring that the promoters are not affected.
Sandeep critically examined the reduced focus on reportage in television media, citing the practices of sacking senior reporters and transferring work to juniors; absence of editorial meetings; and the concept of “news bulletins” replaced by “shows” as a result of studio-driven coverage. He identified four factors for the decline in television news: firstly, that news has become a subjective fact created by the promote, privileging the studio over journalism; secondly, news is becoming standardised due to excessive reliance on news agencies and stringers; thirdly, the undue importance accorded to political statements made social media networks which are accepted as news inputs without question; and fourthly, the emphasis on sensational footage. He concluded that in this entire mess, there was no scope to criticise the electronic media, and regulation in television journalism is quite a long way off.
Hartosh Singh Bal, Consulting Editor, Firstpost
Hartosh Singh Bal provided a perspective from the print media, explaining that an understanding of the importance of looking at the media comes from working in it. He cited instances of institutionalisation of editorial bias, including those of the Indian Express stalling stories about the rehabilitation for the Narmada dam project because of its editor’s strong stance in favour of big dams, stating that this was very common in the media and needed to be dealt with. He also explained how legal threats have been used by the media in an attempt to suppress stories about itself, citing an example of a story in Open magazine that was severely critical of a report in the Indian Express on troop movements, that resulted in the Indian Express serving a legal notice to Open. Similarly, dependence on companies, advertisers and channels tends to compromise coverage of stories in the print media.
Hartosh cited instances from his days at Tehelka, on how a story on developing news media and TRPs was killed because coverage of Tehelka‘s events was required by the channels being examined, and how subsequent stories on Tehelka‘s funding were blocked by advertisers. He stated that civil society had colluded in this entire mess, and that the problem was one of mutual blackmail because everyone was dirty and has the same problems. Hartosh mentioned how a Mail Today story on Antilla being built on illegally regularised land was killed, and likewise a more recent car crash story involving a Reliance car never made it to mainstream news, because of Reliance’s pervasive influence. He used these instances to illustrate how big industrialists and politicians have a very close and mutually beneficial relationship, and that their big ownership stakes in the media and closeness to media owners affects reportage. He pointed out the difficulty of reporting in this scenario, stating that while it was very necessary to monitor the media, it was also the most difficult thing to do.
Chinmayi opened the panel discussion by asking whether coverage of the media could be carried on outside the media, for instance in academic institutions. Sevanti agreed that there was a need for media watch spaces, and funding to carry them out. Hartosh pointed out that most information about the media comes from working journalists, who cannot write within mainstream media, suggesting that the need to restructure the mainstream media. The Guardian model of a trust, as well as online and social media models, were discussed, along with the disadvantages of each. Anonymity as an option was discarded because of issues with credibility.
In response to a question, the panel also discussed the issue of trivialisation of news in the mainstream media. Hartosh stated that this was a necessary evil in India since the mainstream media also served as a vehicle for communication between the political class and the general populace, because of its wide reach. Sandeep added that in the electronic media, visuals have become the most important aspect and that today, one effectively looks for drama in a story, so trivialisation has to result. He lamented that the concept of a ‘story’ itself has been destroyed as television news has become studio-driven and anchor-focused.
In response to another question, the panel discussed the way forward and the role of the online space. Hartosh explained that Open as a media house survived because of only because of its online presence. However, he added that there are still serious problems with the online space, citing the example of the political class giving too much importance to social media as a result of which it is difficult to get traction for stories which the online media does not deem important.
In continuation of interventions made by members of the audience, the problems of ideologically driven and funded people in the online space were also discussed. Hartosh explained that the social media was reflecting a hitherto unseen kind of partisan divide seen in the country, whereby the motive of media criticism ends up being shooting the messenger. Sandeep pointed out that the perceived lack of trust in the media had increased after the Radia tapes expose, suggesting that the media had failed to play its role as an interface between the people and the polity. Hartosh concluded by mentioning that, with social media, overkill was preferable to underkill since the issue at least got reported this way.