TRAI chief calls for regulation of Cross-Media Ownership, questions self-regulation

Cross-media ownership and control needed to be regulated for the survival of democracy and plurality of views in the Indian context, according to Chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India Dr. Rahul Khullar said at an ASSOCHAM event held here in New Delhi.

TRAI would soon be coming out with a consultation paper on the issue; Dr. Kullar Dr. Khullar while seeking the views, opinions and suggestions of the industry at a roundtable conference on ‘Cross Media Ownership’ organised by The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM).

Questioning the Media insistence on only self-regulation Dr. Khullar in his first public speech in his new assignment said there were serious issues of monopoly both horizontal and vertical in ownership, what constituted limits of market dominance and how mergers and acquisitions impacted the free market of ideas that needed a wide range of public discussion before the TRAI formulated its recommendations. He clarified that he was not speaking of content regulation in this context.

“If one newspaper controls all contents of opinion through cross-media ownership, if one TV group owns both channels and cable distribution, it could pose grave danger.  No democracy can survive if you do not have plurality and diversity of opinion.” In the Indian context there were also lingual barriers to plurality creating non-competitive markets in South India that needed to be considered.

Drawing on his experience in his previous assignment as Commerce Secretary of Central Government Dr. Khullar said the very reasons that denied banking license for industrial establishments also worked in the case of cross-media ownership. Freedom to form one’s own opinion is denied is such monopoly, he pointed out quoting from the serious threat  UK Parliament saw in the monopoly ownership of media in UK by newspaper baron Murdoch of the News of the World.

Underlining that monopoly in media was “completely different” in its impact from monopoly in products and services, the TRAI chairman said in the former  the attempt was to influence opinion and ideas while in the latter it was only in getting market leadership. What Media put out was not the same as ice-cream, shoes or bed linen in their impact.   “Media products are competing to influence you. So both horizontal and vertical integration in media have a different context”, he cautioned.

“Should a broadcaster here swallow the distributor?” Dr. Khullar asked.  “Surely it needed to be regulated” as self-regulation in such a context was not the right way “when such monopoly affected the plurality of sources of information and ideas that constituted the bedrock of democracy”.

Talking about the global scenario the chairman said there are three areas in which most international experiences can be clubbed where regulations are being imposed – entry, M&As and growth in size. “We are also viewing the international experience, where there are certain embargoes vis-à-vis cross media ownership – restrictions if you are a foreigner, restrictions on ownership across platforms and restrictions imposed on ownership arising from mergers and acquisitions,” said Dr. Khullar.

Dr. Paramita Dasgupta, professor at the Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) also addressed the ASSOCHAM conference and said that cross media ownership becomes an issue if there is concentration. “If the market share is getting concentrated in a few hands that’s when people start becoming worried as to whether it is affecting the view point plurality.”

Amid others who spoke during the ASSOCHAM conference included – Mr T.V. Ramachandran, chairman of the ASSOCHAM National Council on Communications Convergence and secretary general, Mr D.S. Rawat.

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