I remember meeting Craig Mundie, Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft a few months ago and he kept on harpring about trust, and how important it is to make computer users trust what they were using. All of this was contrasted against a rash of 'identity thefts' in the US. In fact, according to some numbers I read recently in The Economist, 'identy theft' was a $50 billion business in the US alone. However, this is not about computers and computing and e-commerce. Its about the news media in India.
For example, for a newspaper whose business section used to harp about how overvalued certain scrips were at their listing, a notorious case being the rash of stories they carried on the Maruti Udyog IPO (overvalued, hah!), when their own IPO had a ridculously massive price-band, the stories were all singing praise of the market. HT Media's IPO was priced at a massive Rs 550, some quadrillion-times future earnings (OK, so I'm exaggerating by a factor of, say 100), the stories dried up. Despite the number of IPO's in the market which are desperately optimistic, I've not exactly seen that newspaper do a single story on the state of the primary market. Maybe, because they are the worst example of an inherently overpriced IPO. Please note, when I last checked (as I write this) HT Media was priced at Rs 486, above the Rs 350 levels it was trading at a month or so ago, but still below the offer price by a substantial margin in a market that is, well, lets just skip the superlatives here shall we?
But, HT is only the tip of the iceberg. The iceberg is dominated by a company we all know and love - Bennett and Coleman Company Limited. At a recent press meet, I met up with a few Venture Capitalists and one of them accompanied me back to Nariman Point, and he suddenly asked me, "What do you think of the way Bennett and Coleman has been investing in certain companies?" Hmmmm.... Well, I said I don't like it, and let me elucidate why.
I don't know which blog I read about this, I read too many blogs for my own good, but I will harp on this a bit more. I don't like it. Even though, as an avowed believer in the principles of capitalism I do believe a person should invest wherever he sees a good return - media houses, by their very nature should be a bit more circumspect.
Now, look at it this way - can I, a reader, trust any story about companies like Kinetic Engineering, Pantaloon Retail or Paramount Airways if they appear in any Bennett publication (or proposed TV Channel like Times Never). Nope, Nyet, Nein, Nahin. OK, so I'm a reader who knows that the company has invested in these companies. But, a casual reader, who doesn't know that very important fact maybe fooled into believeing the fluff they read in ET's CFM page. And then s/he might invest in those companies. It is almost as bad as the the people on a prominent business channel who talk about companies they have (either direct or benami) investments in. Whoops, I shouldn't have said that - but a glass of wine in the afternoon has strange effects.
Now, I'm not, and will never be a person who believes that the media should be reined in. India has a free and vibrant media, though a lot of it is marred by vested interests. Hey, just look at the way both The Hindu and The Hindustan Times defended oily Natwar - they both owe their alligience to a particular party (rather a particular lady) that dominates the national ruling coalition (the former is also driven by its pure hatred of a certain lady who rules a southern state - the two ladies hate each other y'see). But, I'm not saying that the front/edit pages of both papers should carry disclaimers saying that higher-ups in both organisations are gunning for Rajya Sabha seats.
However, with money things are a tad different. I really admire the way that the hardest hitting stories on the Time-Warner group are done by Fortune magazine, which is incidentally owned by Time-Warner, but at the start of every article they make abundantly clear of this ownership. Similarly, if the Times of India puts a little line in font size 0.5 at the end of every article done during a junket, a practice I'm surprised The Economic Times hasn't followed, I believe that they should put a small disclaimer at the end of every single article that mentions any of the companies that their promoters are investors of. This doesn't only apply to Bennett, I believe that DNA should put a similar disclosure whenever they do stories of Subhash Chandra group companies and so on and so forth.
And I also believe that all journalists or promoters of media companies (OK, maybe only those in top-level publications which can shape business decisions), business, political, features or sports should make disclosures about their investments (or lack of, thereof which would be my case - I barely save enough to pay off my car loan) every year and like the Election Commission keeps databases of each candidates holdings, a electronic online database should be kept on all journalists holdings, ideally by SEBI.
Am I being too um, what do you say, cynical or panicky. Nope, I think I'm rational and pragmatic. The media, for better or for worse, performs a public function
and the public has a right to know where vested interests lie. Until they do, the name of this blog can never change!
I hope this clears up what I think on the issue.
PS : Bonatellis points me to this absolutely hilarious blog - I mean only if you're Bong that is.
EDIT : A little birdie (or rather senior little birdie) tells me that BusinessWeek magazine is winding down their Asian operations. Which is very surprising. But, if true, this means that BusinessWeek Indian Edition bullcrap we've been hearing for some time (which would have been a monthly or fortnightly depending on which of the three-year old rumors you believed) might finally die down.