Conflict of interest in media
Of the plethora of ethical issues that news and information and strategic communication media encounters in their day to day operation, conflict of interest is largely important. With Media outlets increasingly owned by conglomerates, the issue of conflict of interest: a media outlet can bias its coverage to benefit companies in the same group, gains predominance over other ethical decisions that impacts hundreds and thousands of lives of people who watch, read, listen and click on a media source.
What is conflict of Interest?
Conflict of interest is an example of an “open concept.” While it’s possible to give some textbook examples, there is no single definition that adequately covers all cases. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called it “family resemblance” among the various situations in which the concept is appropriately used. There are three broad areas which are associated with conflicts of interest in media, namely the conflicting relationships, the conflicting public participation and the vested interests and hidden agendas.
As mentioned in BBC Editorial Guidelines, “A conflict of interest may arise when the external activities of anyone involved in making our content affects the BBC’s reputation for integrity, independence and high standards, or may be reasonably perceived to do so. Our audiences must be able to trust the BBC and be confident that our editorial decisions are not influenced by outside interests, political or commercial pressures, or any personal interests.”
Why is it drawing so much attention in recent times?
With the rapid growth and spread of media worldwide due to technological advancements, the possibility of concocted, adulterated and news with vested interests are becoming imminent. It is progressively becoming difficult to trust the news and information that are available freely over electronic media. The best way journalists or media houses can maintain trust with their audiences is by declaring conflicts of interest. That is why the BBC Editorial Guidelines states that “All BBC staff are required formally to declare any personal interest which may affect their work with the BBC. Freelance presenters, reporters, producers and researchers and most other freelances will also be required to declare personal interests which may affect their work with the BBC.”
A few relevant and recent case studies
Case 1: AT&T and Time Warner Inc Merger
Time Warner is one of the largest media and entertainment companies in the world, controlling several popular brands including TNT, TBS, CNN, and HBO, as well as the Warner Bros. line of enterprises.
With AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, the telecommunications titan would be able to market Time Warner’s massive pool of content to other cable companies and consumers. It would also aim to collect usage data regarding viewership of the content, with the goal being to construct a digital advertising arm to compete with major rivals like Facebook and Google.
Because of the size of the two companies and their broad reach across many different areas of business and culture, the merger would have a profound effect across the U.S. According to a report by the Washington Post, detractors argue that it could lead to higher prices and harm to competition in the industry.
AT&T could coerce other cable companies to pay more for the rights to carry popular television shows and channels. This would likely mean an increase in cost to the consumer. The Justice Department believes that this process might add $436 million in extra fees to cable subscribers each year.
For its part, AT&T argues that prices for cable services would decrease because of newly generated economic efficiencies. AT&T claims that even if there were increases for the reasons the Justice Department has argued, those would be capped at 45 cents per month per customer.
The consolidation was the subject of harsh questioning from consumer advocates, members of Congress and regulatory authorities, echoing worries that combining content production with media distribution could lead to perverse conflicts of interest. While AT&T’s gambit to purchase its direct competitor, T-Mobile was foiled by regulators in 2011, ownership of a media powerhouse like Time Warner Cable can also result in an unsettling confluence of roles that have traditionally remained separate. When a massive telecommunications company like AT&T controls media outlets such as CNN—which is under the umbrella of Time Warner Cable, what’s to stop the telecom colossus from filtering stories and reports that are unfavourable to its broader business interests?
Case 2: Indian media
Unlike many democracies, where political and corporate entities are ostensibly supposed to be prohibited from holding news media broadcasting and publishing rights, media outlets in India are openly owned and controlled by political and business conglomerates, which are using the media to undermine the relevance of their opponents with scant regard for overall national interest.
The main casualty has been the ability of the citizen to find out the objective truth, as different media outlets divide into camps on any major issue, polarizing the reporting and their readerships resulting in severe conflict of interest. This has become so evident that in a report to the government, India’s regulatory body, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), recommended legislation to empower journalists for free and fair expression.
India’s biggest TV network, CNN-IBN and the Eenadu group of regional language channels, is directly controlled by one of the world’s richest business tycoons, Mukesh Ambani. Ambani is the chairman, managing director and largest shareholder of Reliance Industries Limited (RIL), a US $100 billion asset and Fortune Global 500 company with interests in energy, petrochemicals, textiles, natural resources, retail and telecommunications. RIL, which owns businesses across India, also has stakes in several other media entities. Ambani’s brother Anil runs Reliance Big Broadcasting and has stakes in numerous publications and TV channels, including American film production label DreamWorks. Other prominent media houses also have corporate investments, which are significantly influenced by political preferences.
Similarly, Sun TV is led by former TeleCommunications Minister Dayanidhi Maran. Shobhna Bhartia, Chairperson and Editorial Director of the Hindustan Times, was a Congress Party Parliamentary member. A popular national TV news channel is owned by editor Rajat Sharma, who is open about his lobbying interests and support for the ruling political party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Chandan Mitra, the editor of Pioneer newspaper in Delhi, and veteran Indian journalist and author M. J. Akbar, are members of BJP. Arun Shourie, former editor of the Indian Express newspaper, is a public BJP sympathizer.
It is quite evident that the Indian media is plagued with the issue of conflict of interest which is the root cause of distortion of truth and suppression thereof. The involvement of media persons in politics and stake holding of corporate sector in media houses are working against the Constitutionally guaranteed fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. They are the prime predicament in process of revealing the truth in its truest form and can be considered highly anti-democratic.
Case 3: Al-Jazeera
Al Jazeera, owned by the government of Qatar, is currently one of the largest news organizations in the world, with 80 bureaus around the globe, which produce extensive news coverage online and via TV channels in several languages, including Arabic and English. Al Jazeera also produces in-depth documentaries on current issues around the world. While Al Jazeera has a large audience around the world and especially in the Middle East, the organization and the original Arabic channel have sometimes been criticized and have been involved in several controversies.
Al Jazeera has been criticized for being state media owned by Qatar. In 2010, United States Department of State internal communications, released by WikiLeaks as part of the 2010 diplomatic cables leak, claim that the Qatar government manipulates Al Jazeera coverage to suit political interests.
Al Jazeera’s Shia Beirut correspondent Ali Hashem resigned from Al Jazeera after leaked e-mails shows his discontent over the outlet’s “unprofessional” and biased coverage of the Syrian civil war considering the Bahraini protests of 2011, which was not given the prominence of the Syrian conflict on the network, one side of the conflict which was partly funded by the state of Qatar, who also fund Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera has also been accused of spreading Hindu phobia and dropping neutrality in favour of an anti-India stance in reports relating to India.
Al Jazeera’s long-time Berlin correspondent Aktham Suliman left in late 2012 “It wasn’t just because the broadcaster seemed less interested in reports from Europe. Rather, Suliman had the feeling that he was no longer being allowed to work as an independent journalist. “Before the beginning of the Arab Spring, we were a voice for change,” he says, “a platform for critics and political activists throughout the region. Now, Al-Jazeera has become a propaganda broadcaster.” “Al-Jazeera takes a clear position in every country from which it reports — not based on journalistic priorities, but rather on the interests of the Foreign Ministry of Qatar,” he says. “In order to maintain my integrity as a reporter, I had to quit.”” He writes, “The news channel Al Jazeera was committed to the truth. Now it is bent. It’s about politics, not journalism. For the reporter that means: time to go. […] The decline 2004-2011 was insidious, subliminal and very slow, but with a disastrous end.”
Walid Phares indicated that the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera television network became the “primary ideological and communication network” for the Muslim Brotherhood during the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria in 2011. He noted that after democratic forces had initiated the rebellions, Al Jazeera played a “tremendous role” in supporting the Islamist elements of the revolution.
Al Jazeera has lost former staff members over a few reasons. Reporters and anchors, particularly in cities like London, Paris, Moscow, Beirut and Cairo have left Al-Jazeera. Among the largest walk-offs, was that of 22 members of Al Jazeera’s Egyptian bureau. The group announced their resignation on July 8, 2013, citing biased coverage of the ongoing Egyptian power redistribution in favour of the Muslim Brotherhood.
During the visit of the official Qatari delegation to the 2017 UN General Assembly, anonymous critics purchased US social media ad space that pointed to articles labelling Al Jazeera as a “state-run propaganda arm,” ostensibly in relation to the broader 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis.
Conflict of interest is a burning issue in the new age of technology and communication. Controlling and manipulating news in favour of vested intertest of any political organization or corporate body or for that matter any government or religious group are biggest threat that challenge the fight for the objective truth and reality. Public opinion is being tampered, people are made to believe adulterated truth, media is used as a tool to gain leverage either in the field of political battle or in the fight for market share. It is high time to take note of these issues distorting the reality to gain advantage at the cost of general people who are led to confusion, distrust and in the state of mayhem.
The merger proposal of AT&T and Time Warner Inc that was initiated in 2016 has come under scrutiny by the Department of Justice, which has marked it as anti-competition. It is believed that the merger of the biggest telecom company in the country AT&T with one of the nation’s top news and entertainment producers Time Warner is about to reshape the news and entertainment scenario of the USA.
Apprehensions are rife that the likely merger of the two business entities will exert negative influence on the consumers and the market. Post-merger, AT&T may block the programming of channels such as CNN, TNT, and TBS by competing companies like Comcast Corp to curtail competition thereby compelling consumers to choose AT&T instead of other service providers. This is how it will gain greater monopoly power and larger market share. By restricting the consumers’ choice, it can manipulate the pricing of channels to extract more consumer surplus and earn supernormal profits.
Another argument against the move is that through this deal AT&T is going to have access to the huge subscription and advertisement database of Time Warner which will put it in an advantageous position not only to widen its advertisement base but also to target accurate advertising to consumers. This will help them revise their advertisement rates upwards and earn higher income from that. Finally, the move will further enable AT&T to compete effectively with monopoly-like companies such as Google and Facebook.
Although AT&T has expressed that it has no intention to hold Time Warner programs exclusively, rather it will distribute them to other pay-TV providers, the Department of Justice is reluctant to allow this deal to take place in its original form in the interest of the consumers and market competition. The result may be a litigation and subsequent appeals that will decide the fate of the ambitious venture.
TAGSOf the plethora of ethical issues that news and information and strategic communication media encounters in their day to day operation, conflict of interest is largely important. With Media outlets increasingly owned by conglomerates, the issue of conflict of interest