News7Tamil, a "global" Tamil news channel will be launched on October 19. It adds to the babble of 135-odd news channels (the largest such number in the world) that India has. In the normal course, this column would have ignored it. But News7Tamil claims to be "India's first editorial board driven news channel." A seven-member editorial board will act as a "Firewall between editors and owners," says R Bhagwan Singh, executive editor, Deccan Chronicle. "There have been serious breaches in edit policy (generally)," says Nick Walshe, a former Al Jazeera and BBC man and launch consultant to news broadcasters. Walshe and Singh are part of the board that includes editor Rajesh Sundaram and activist and poetess Meena Kandaswamy among others.
The Chennai-based, family-owned V V Minerals group, estimated at Rs 1,000 crore, is behind News7Tamil. Why did it choose the unprofitable news television business instead of the booming entertainment one? "It was a joint family decision to get into news. The thinking is that the group would get recognition and respectability through two areas - media and education," says V Subramanian, director and member of the promoter family. The group has already set up an engineering college. "There is a lot of news on TV, but 90 per cent of it is politically affiliated, there is space for a neutral channel," says Subramanian.
The deja vu is strong. In 2011, Puthiya Thalaimurai TV, a Tamil news channel that promised to tell the "Truth As it Happens" was launched by the Chennai-based SRM University. It came as a breath of fresh air in Tamil Nadu, where all media, television, newspapers, radio, cable and film firms are owned by some political party or its affiliates. The channel did a credible job in the first few years, bringing objective reportage that actually talked to all the protagonists in a debate. Later, the founder of SRM University formed a political party that allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Though the channel is still seen as independent, it looks lost, say insiders. It has also lost a lot of its original staff as the owners have taken charge.
What then stops the owners of News7Tamil from ignoring the editorial board or disbanding it when it is convenient? "We don't have political ambitions. While we expect to break-even on the channel [Rs 60-crore investment], we are thinking of it more as a corporate social responsibility or CSR thing than a profit thing," says Subramanian. The firewall benefits the group's reputation positively, too, he adds. Maybe. But the fact is that mining is full of intrigue and having a news channel in a business like this comes handy.
News7Tamil may go the Puthiya Thalaimurai way or it may just become one of the best channels there is. Either way, the attempt says two things.
One, the idea of independent news channels run by professionals has taken root. In Tamil Nadu, in 2012, soon after Puthiya Thalaimurai came Thanthi TV, the news channel from the Dina Thanthi Group, with a reputation for objective coverage. If it can work in a state like Tamil Nadu, where politics and media is such a potent mix, it can work in Hindi, English or other markets where owners are becoming uncomfortably active.
Two, it gives hope to the thousands of professional journalists, editors and designers who do not want news media to be regulated by the government, but also wish owners would stop treating their media businesses as tools of extortion or influence. The government has been itching to regulate the news media for some time. A recent paper from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recommends caps on corporate ownership and other controls over news media. The Law Commission of India recently debated self-regulation versus state-regulation of media.
Much of this is the news media's own doing. But if we go with the axiom that democracy and free media are intertwined, then the solutions have to come from within - however slowly or imperfectly they work out. And that is why the News7Tamil experiment is worth watching.