The quality of Indian journalism has been under question for as long as Indian journalism has been around, especially by those who found the news and views contrary to their own closely-held beliefs, assumptions and ideologies.
Quibbles like the agendas of publishers and editors; the bias and prejudice of journalists; the unethical trade and professional practices; the growth of monopolies, have been around for ages. In recent times they have been joined by complaints of corruption, commodification, dumbing down, trivialisation, and celebrity culture. At the end of the day, though, there was little that the reader/viewer/listener lost in material terms from such news and views.
But what when she does?
As the stock market culture has taken root, the business channels on television have become the primary source of information, advice and guidance for investors. But how much of what they put out as “expert opinion” is the result of adequate inhouse research, and how much of it is hype and advertising? And how can we be sure that the channels, anchors and reporters are not susceptible to “market pressures”, to put it mildly?
The outgoing chairman of the Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) M. Damodaran has spoken with characteristic candour in an interview with Shekhar Gupta of the Indian Express for NDTV’s Walk the Talk. Presumably referring to the debacle of the Anil Ambani-promoted Reliance Power IPO, Damodaran said he had received a copy of a letter from an aggrieved investor on his penultimate day in office:
“In a letter sent to a TV person along with a few media houses and a copy endorsed to me, the investor asked, ‘I saw you guys saying everything was good about a particular issue till it listed below the issue price. And now I find you saying everything is wrong and talking it down. What happened to you guys?’
“I think there’s considerable merit in it (the letter)…. How is it that suddenly on listing, all the virtues that you thought resided in some particular issue disappeared? I think the media has a very large role to play and I am afraid that that role is not being played to the best of its ability�”
Business channels, anchors and reporters can go wrong with stocks, shares and companies, just like news channels, anchors and reporters can go wrong with elections, opinion polls, exit polls. It cannot be the rule, of course, but it is a occupational hazard. But with business journalism, the news consumer puts his hard-earned money on the line. Surely, he is entitled to receive news and views unsullied by corporate or personal motives and motivations?
Rumours of business channels having conflicts of interest, and rumours of business anchors and “experts” playing the market with insider information, and “talking up” or “talking down” the market, have been in the air for nearly five years now. On the overcrowded business TV screens, the distinction between news and advertising has all but disappeared. But Damodaran is the first to point this all out in so many words.
“When we heard the term anchor-investors first, I thought an anchor investor was the guy that brings in a lot of money initially into a project around whose reputation others invest. I am beginning to believe at the end of my three-year tenure that an anchor investor is one who is an anchor and an investor put together. I am worried that (they are) those who are responsible… who take the message to a billion plus people who will hopefully, one day be interested in the market. If that message gets distorted, what happens?
“There are people who make statements that are very clear indications of talking up or talking down stocks. And what do we have by way of investor protection? A disclosure that says, is this person having a position in that stock? Earlier, we had statements like “not really”, “maybe”, “it’s likely that my clients have”. Today, you get a broad spectrum such as “It is entirely possible that I have this.”
“Is this disclosure? It is clearly not. I would want to know before someone gives me advice whether you are giving me that advice because you will benefit. Current disclosures are far too routine. In fact, people have been saying things like “We are running out of time, can you make the disclosure to us. Disclosure is complete if you make it to the right audience, not to a television anchor. It is to the investor who is going to put his money. Filing disclosures is not good enough.”
Obviously, with million making decisions on the basis of the business channels, there is a need for a code of conduct. Damodaran says both his predecessors made moves in that direction. The first time, SEBI was told that the channels would draft one themselves, but there was no motion. The second time, SEBI said it would come up with a code, but there were no takers. Damodaran says SEBI has also tried to individually engage people, but he says a lot more needs to be done.
Cross-posted on sans serif