The Indian Newspaper Society's recently-elected chairman M P Veerendrakumar is openly skeptical about the recent deals struck by some Indian media houses with foreign media powerhouses like the Star group and the Financial Times of London.
Commenting on the recent deals made by Aveek Sarkar of ABP Group acquiring 74 per cent in Star News and by the sale of a 14 per cent stake in Business Standard to FT, the INS boss said these would ultimately end up in disaster as the Indian groups would not be able to withstand the financial clout of the foreign partners. In the case of ABP-Star deal, where the Indian group has the majority stake, Mr Veerendrakumar felt this situation of seeming advantage to the Indian party in the deal would eventually change as the Indian Government would be forced to accept more foreign capital, eroding the Indian control. "They are now excited," he said about his colleagues in the media business who wax eloquent about their new deals in the international scene, but felt, "these are the first rays of globalization process in the media, but soon it would be scorching sun for us."
Veerendrakumar, chairman and managing director of Mathrubhumi, a 75-year-old newspaper group in Kerala which came into being as part of the freedom movement, is a well known campaigner against the foreign entry into the country's economy and he has written extensively on the harmful effects of the new trade regimes opened up by the World Trade Organization. Veerendrakumar, who held the labour portfolio in the V P Singh government at the Centre, is also the current chairman of the Press Trust of India.
In an interview to this correspondent at his office in Kozhikode, Veerendrakumar said FDI in news media would not remain restricted to the 26 per cent cap now stipulated by the Government, but it would soon result in the floodgates being opened and the entire media would be under foreign control. The immediate result of this would be the destruction of most of the Indian small and medium newspapers as only a few major national newspaper chains would have the muscle to face up to the competition. Even they would take the route of compromise and cooperation, seriously hampering the national interests. The interview:
Do you think a newspaper based in our country can actually work against our national interests?
Just take the scenario of an India-Pakistan conflict in the eyes of a foreign newspaper with interests in both countries. How would they view the developments? For them, this conflict would be a godsend as it would boost their business. For them it is nothing but a commodity to sell. For us, it is something else, a national disaster.
So you think the media has a political role to play?
Yes, indeed. When Burke said it is the fourth estate, he meant this crucial role the media has to play in national life. If we could accept foreigners in our fourth estate, then why can't we do the same in the first three too? Why not foreigners in our legislatures, in our bureaucracy and in our judiciary? We can't. It is the same with our media too.
One argument in favour of FDI is that it would enhance our capital availability, bring in better technology, better know-how, etc. Do you agree?
This is hogwash. You tell me a single technology that we don't have access to in the world today? We have everything. There is a free flow of technology and our editors and technicians are perhaps among the best in the world. Go to any newspaper office in the West and you can see it for yourselves. But the problem here is, these arguments are always one-sided. Why can't they allow our units in New York? They will not allow it because the United States has its own laws that prevent foreigners entering their media market. Then why we should allow them here?
So you think there is no level-playing field in the media business?
There is no question of a level-playing field in media business. What they are after, I tell you, is global domination. The domination of the West on everything else. This is a new kind of colonialism and we can accept it only at our own peril.
But is the world so hopelessly unipolar? Don't you think the non-western societies are throwing up powerful challenges to their domination these days?
Just look at Iraq coverage in the western media. There is a pattern in their attitude to the developments in Iraq. The only challenge came from Al-Jazeera but it still remains an exception. Actually, there is no effective eastern voice even now. It would be harmful to allow them free access to our media.
Well, why not accept competition here? It would boost our media market and push up salaries and perks for those who work in the media?
Nothing of the sort would happen. What will happen is the consolidation of media industry in the hands of a few monopolies, edging out much of our small and medium newspapers. You know, majority of our employees in media work in these sectors. I think the newspaper employees unions should realize the real threats facing them today. Some of them seem to think that the entry of foreigners would bring in better benefits. Instead, it would only bring in more miseries, more job losses, more uncertainty. With the kind of money they possess, they will under cut all our national newspapers and will buy out most of them.
Why are you so resistant to the idea of globalization?
How can I accept it? I have been writing about it for a long time, I wrote about the strings in the GATT agreement and I tell you the situation would grow worse with the new rules under the WTO. But there is a realization now. Why Arun Jaitley opposed the agricultural terms proposed by the northern countries at Cancun? Why do most of the southern countries resist them? Because it would mean destruction of our villages, where most of our people still live. There is a growing awareness now, that the globalization process is going against the interests of the majority of people living in the poorer parts of the world. This domination must be opposed and there can be no compromise on it. Neither in media nor in any other areas.