The column ‘Hindu’ didn’t have the guts to carry

Nearly two-dozen staffers of The Hindu have written in to Churumuri in response to the story Under N. Ram, the Hindu becomes a 'Sorry' paper, providing more chilling evidence of life under the great red warrior, a hyphenated champion of free expression.

But nothing quite captures what we are talking about—the quiet acquiescence to corporate interests—than the paper's mysterious decision to axe this column on Kalanidhi Maran of the Sun TV empire by its media critic Sevanti Ninan three Sundays ago.

The piece, in its entirety, appears on the media website The Hoot (www.thehoot.org). Asked if The Hindu had proffered a reason for not carrying the column, Sevanti says she was merely told that it would be "legally risky", which is another way of saying "due to technical reasons". 

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Sun-shine in Tamil Nadu

As he gets set to conquer the rest of the country, Kalanidhi Maran is a man to both admire and fear.

By SEVANTI NINAN 

When people spoke of Sun TV in a media-saturated city like Delhi they thought of it as that clever company down South, headed by a politician’s son whose name did not quite roll off the tongue. Kalanidhi Maran means little to the average Northerner whose idea of a media star is Barkha Dutt or Prabhu Chawla. But some of that is about to change.

Maran has not become sought after on the Delhi party circuit or a regular on the prime minister’s media entourage like other rising regional media barons. He has merely become the richest listed Indian media owner, personally worth more than Subhash Chandra of Zee, because he owns 90 per cent of his company while Chandra owns much less of his. Sun TV, recently listed, had a stock market valuation last week of Rs 9,150 crore, equal to HT Media, Deccan Chronicle, NDTV, TV Today, Balaji Telefilms and TV 18 put together. India has a new billionaire.

But that’s only part of the story. As a broadcasting conglomerate the clever Southern company which has emerged only second to Star India, the Indian operation of Rupert Murdoch, is not about to remain Southern. A group company, South Asia FM has just acquired nine FM licenses in UP, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. 

Jagran Prakashan, may own the country’s most read newspaper, but the licenses for Kanpur and Lucknow have  gone to the Southerner with financial muscle, while Jagran has had to settle for lesser UP towns. South Asia FM has also garnered  frequencies in the North East. For now it's just radio, since Sun's Calcutta foray into cable did not work out last year. But with the Rs 600 crore acquired last month when Maran offloaded a ten per cent stake in his company, it is not about to remain that way.

That, too, is only part of the story! In Tamil Nadu, Sun TV’s current major claim to fame is that in the closely fought state election which begins tomorrow, the network has become an election issue. This isn’t exactly new, with its partisan clout, it manages to do so every election year. Despite all the talk of media owners and editors in the Rajya Sabha, no media house in the country has anywhere near the kind of solid political clout Sun TV has, as a media company virtually spawned in the headquarters of the DMK in Tamil Nadu.

Over the last decade, Kalanidhi Maran has managed to have first a father (Murasoli Maran) and then a brother (Dayanidhi Maran) in the Cabinets of two successive central governments, formed by two opposing political formations! And a grand uncle (M. Karunanidhi) who has been chief minister in his home base Tamil Nadu for at least seven years of the company’s existence.

All of that clout is used to protect an extraordinary monopoly: a cable network, Sumangali Cable Vision, that has sewn up the entire state and has been known to pull out the plug when it does not want the State watch something that is not complimentary to the DMK. And a monopoly on TV news.

Sun TV has the only statewide news channel in Tamil Nadu. Thanks to the nature of Kalanidhi Maran’s clout Jayalalithaa’s Jaya TV  has not succeeded in getting clearance for a proposed news channel, applied for in May 2004. Brother Dayanidhi’s Communication Ministry has to give a clearance even if Information and Broadcasting is the nodal ministry for permitting new news channels. And other channels with news ambitions, Star Vijay and Raj TV, have given up.

Together the two monopolies come in handy. Brother Dayanidhi’s alleged attempt to arm twist the Tatas and Star into parting with a controlling stake of their DTH venture, has become an election issue. He is fighting the allegations, and has slapped a defamation suit on the newspaper which broke the story.

Last fortnight, Sumangali simply blacked out all channels for fifteen minutes or more because Jaya TV had announced a discussion on this topic! Not to be outdone, Jaya TV then featured the black out as a news item later in the evening. Meanwhile, Jayalalithaa’s government has tried to take over SVC, but without success.

In addition to fourteen TV channels in four States, the Sun Network has cable assets, four magazines, two newspapers and FM stations. This election the newspapers were used to the hilt to promote the DMK. India does have some fledgling  cross media controls in place. But they do not, for instance, stipulate that a media owner should not have a blood relative in the Union Cabinet with a portfolio which governs the industry.

As he gets set to conquer the rest of the country, Kalanidhi Maran is a man to both admire and fear.