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Is a free press also a good business?

June 21, 2017 10:18 IST

A simple look at the prices of 10 media stocks during the tenure of the current government tells an interesting tale, says N Sundaresha Subramanian.

Over the past week or so, NDTV and its founders have become mascots of press freedom.

After the Central Bureau of Investigation raids on the houses and offices of founder Prannoy Roy, and particularly after the agency's clarification that showed not much work had been done on the case, the who's who of the capital's media have come out in support.

This is not new for both the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the media.

Writing in Lokmat Times, senior Mumbai journalist Sujatha Anandan has described the sharp difference between the Congress approach to journalists and that of the BJP.

She recalls how the late Pramod Mahajan threatened her with "breaking of arms and legs" on a story describing BJP cadres' visit to Kamathipura (the red-light locality of Mumbai), while on a trip to the city for a party conference in 1995. She compares it with a more docile response from Congress city head Murli Deora when a similar story was done a decade earlier.

An ordeal closer, perhaps more severe, to last week's raids was the one experienced by the Rahejas, promoters of Outlook magazine, during the tenure of the previous National Democratic Alliance government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In his autobiographical account, Lucknow Boy, the magazine's founding editor, the late Vinod Mehta, talks of how 700-odd income tax officials swooped on Raheja offices in 12 cities, including Outlook's Mumbai office.

The raids came a few weeks after the magazine had done an expose on the prime minister's foster son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, and his influence in the prime minister's office, Mehta writes.

As now, the media community at the time, including the Editors Guild and journalist unions, called it an attack on press freedom.

Explaining that though the investigation and official leaks, sometimes exaggerated, did not bother promoter Rajan Raheja, Mehta writes that the harassment was getting to him.

"He would be summoned to the damp, piss-stinking offices of the Enforcement Directorate and made to wait from 10 am to 6 pm. He would then be told to come again next day. There were also other tricks, such as asking for a 20-year old file, giving it back after a few days and so on. It was clear that interrogation and examination was not the real purpose; hounding and hassling was." Mehta goes on to write how it ended after meetings with the finance minister and Brajesh Mishra, the PM's Man Friday.

While the Roys can learn from that experience, a third-party complainant and the straps of being a listed entity are additional complications that stand in the way of an early closure. That brings us to two difficult questions. Is a free press a good business? Second, is raising funds from the market good for freedom of the press?

A simple look at the prices of 10 media stocks during the tenure of the current government tells an interesting tale.

Zee Media, which has the Subash Chandra-led group's news business, leads the returns race. It has gained 177 per cent from May 15, 2014, till the date of the NDTV raids.

Entertainment Network India of Bennett, Coleman & Company and the TV Today network come next. Both have doubled their value during the Narendra Modi regime.

Hindustan Media (which publishes Hindustan), Jagran and DB Corp have gained 35-85 per cent.

The Network18 twins, now controlled by Reliance, gained around 30 per cent.

The only stock that performed worse than NDTV (minus 5.6 per cent) was HT Media (minus 16.6 per cent).

If you are a regular browser of some of these channels, those questions shouldn't trouble you too much.

N Sundaresha Subramanian
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