Thursday, January 31, 2008

Scrutiny of private treaties builds up

The Times Group pioneered this trend, and others are eager to follow. But The HOOT is glad that some in media are taking note of the potential for conflict of interest.

Posted Wednesday, Jan 23 20:27:07, 2008
The more competitive the media business gets, the more inventive media houses become. And it becomes more of a headache to track the ethical dimensions and conflict of interest possibilities that emerge. Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, the market leader in brazen inventiveness, began some time ago to invest in companies which would then advertise in their group publications. In return for equity it offered what it termed " advertising support, branding support" and what it euphemistically called "corporate image development". The corporate world saw it as a welcome innovation and the media world slowly woke up to the new trend.

This is the same corporate group that began Medianet, a plan through which you can buy coverage in the group's supplements. First it declared which items had come through Medianet, then it dropped the disclosure, but continued the practice. Private treaties is its latest brainwave. It builds an investment portfolio by picking up 1 to 15 per cent stake in companies that are planning to be listed, and builds their brands for them. Just a barter arrangement for advertising? Not really. As a posting on V C Circle, a web publication for venture capitalists confirms, "We were offered a deal from Times PE… We were told in passing that we'll get "favorable" press coverage."

Actually Times Treaties is not shy of revealing the coverage benefits that go with giving it equity: here's a sample of the gush from one of the endorsements on its private treaties website: "Times treaties supported us to the hilt in all our strategic brand building activities – Consumer Product Launches, Corporate Results, Brand Coverage in Brand Equity and Manufacturing product launch in page 3 etc. Simply awesome." This from the MD of a company called Zicom Electronic Security Systems Ltd. He adds, "Our relationship rocks."

And what do such rocking relationships mean for the journalists who work with the company which offer such brand building services? Sucheta Dalal gave one example when she cited an email from Economic Times editor Rahul Joshi spelling out the kind of editorial support system that the paper was putting in place for Private Treaties clients, in a story earlier this month in MoneyLIFE.

The scrutiny that private treaties in the media are getting is now growing. Last week saw two articles and an editorial on the subject in two business dailies, both flagging the trend and raising the conflict of interest issue. After Business Standard reported that other newspaper groups such as HT Media Ltd, Dainik Bhaskar and Dainik Jagran were getting ready to follow the trend set by Times Private Treaties, Mint from the Hindustan Times stable published a more exhaustive story on a controversial trend whose potential its parent group is also exploring. (We're happy to note the absence of self censorship.) Television groups had followed BCCL's lead even earlier— Network 18 which owns CNBC TV 18 has a private treaties division. Anyone who follows CNBC's company coverage knows that its corporate gush would give ET strong competition. Nevertheless, promoting companies with which it has private treaties amounts to more than friendly coverage.

Asked about private treaties earlier this month in an interview with exchange4media, Network Eighteen managing director Raghav Bahl talked stoutly of credibility. "Treaties for us is monetisation of our inventory through investment in other persons' business. Whether you buy something in cash or via inventory, you are exchanging one asset for another. We promote them by way of giving them advertising spots. There is no editorial influence. And for those spots, they could well have paid cash for…I am an editor. I know that the only thing you sell as a news media company is credibility. The minute there is a question mark on your credibility, you have actually bartered away your entire asset."

Well, with a little civic activism channels and newspapers which have private treaties divisions can be tracked in respect of their coverage of companies that they have such agreements with. Mint and Business Standard put the number of private treaty deals BCCL has at around 140-150. Neither gives a figure for just how enterprising CNBC has been, because it does not list its deals as openly as BCCL does. But it is worth investigating.

With no effective media regulator in place, and a civil society that is remarkably active in other sectors but simply not that charged up about media conduct, India's media businesses can continue to innovate, untrammeled by ethical constraints. Unless the profession keeps up the pressure on its own as it has begun to do. BCCL has shown in the past that it has absolutely no problems in ignoring such pressure. We can only hope that others will have thinner skins.

Related links

Welcome To Times Private Treaties

Private treaties portfolio

News for Sale, MoneyLIFE

HT, Bhaskar, Jagran eye shares-for-ad divisions Business Standard

Should private treaties be made public to newspaper readers? Mint

Publishing directions, Business Standard

More Media Companies Follow BCCL With Private Treaty Divisions VC Circle

Apollo arm in pact with Times Private Treaties Economic Times

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Traffic triples on highway that threatens Jarawa tribe

© Salomé">A Jarawa man and boy by the side of the Andamans Trunk Road
A Jarawa man and boy by the side of the Andamans Trunk Road
© Salomé

The Andaman Trunk Road, which the Indian Supreme Court ruled must be closed six years ago because it threatens the Jarawa tribe, has seen a threefold increase in traffic since 2001.

The highway runs through the land of the 300-strong Jarawa, who have only had contact with outsiders since 1998. The Supreme Court ordered the local authorities on the Andaman Islands to close the road in 2002, but they have kept it open in violation of the order, and have tried to get the order revoked.

According to the local authorities, the figure for vehicular traffic on the road was 17,315 in 2001, and rose to 37,505 in 2006. There were 27,674 vehicles travelling the road in only the first seven months of 2007.

Survival and local organisations have campaigned for many years for the closure of the road, warning that it brings settlers and poachers who steal the tribe’s game, introduce alcohol, and expose them to disease. Last year, the UN urged the Indian government to implement the Supreme Court order and close the road.

Survival’s director Stephen Corry said today, ‘As more and more people travel through the heart of the Jarawa’s land, the threat to their survival becomes ever more severe. If the Indian government is serious about preventing the extinction of yet another tribe, it must close the road.’

For further information contact Miriam Ross on (+44) (0)20 7687 8734 or email

Thursday, January 17, 2008

A visit and the aftermath

A visit and the aftermath
President Pratibha Patil’s recent visit to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came with a rich picking of embarrassments. PANKAJ SEKHSARIA

A grove no more: Denuded beaches in the islands.

When the President, Pratibha Patil decided to visit the Andaman and Nicobar Islands on the third anniversary of the tsunami, it could only have been considered an extremely welcome gesture. For the people of a place ravaged by one of the biggest disasters in living memory, the interest and concern of the first citizen of the country could have been and certainly was a very important statement. Her handing over of 200 permanent houses to citizens in Car Nicobar on December 26 could have and should have made front page news for all the right reasons.

For all the potential and the “could haves”, that is not how it turned out in the end.

The President’s visit to the islands did make front page news, but it was for all the wrong reasons with the responsibility lying mainly at the door of the local administration.

Large scale tree felling

The one issue that perhaps got the maximum attention was the large scale cutting of trees. Some media reports indicated that nearly 400 trees had been chopped down across the islands for the visit. While this was not finally and fully confirmed, the administration found itself in a tight corner on account of what happened at Wandoor, near Port Blair. At least 60 full grown trees that included casuarinas and other local species were chopped down in just this one place, to facilitate the President’s visit here by helicopter. Wandoor is one of the most visited tourist spots around Port Blair and as a result there was significant photographic evidence of what had happened there.

A huge amount of money was also spent for increasing the size of the helipad that already existed there, for the construction of a special VVIP room and the widening and relaying of the road in the vicinity.

Other decisions taken by the local administration affected local people and the tourism industry in different, but equally unreasonable and hard hitting ways. All advanced bookings for Christmas and New Year’s eve in the administration-run Dolphin Resort on Havelock Island, for instance, were arbitrarily cancelled. Similar cancellations were forced in a number of other government-run accommodation places. Shipping services were disrupted, preventing tourists from accessing islands where they had planned a holiday many months ago and local fishermen were prohibited from going fishing in areas that the President was supposed to visit (see box).

There were also concerns over the huge expenses incurred on account of relaying a number of roads and refurbishing guest houses for the visit. The speed at which some of the works were executed has also given rise to fears regarding their quality and therefore of how long these will last.

Govind Raju, editor of the local weekly, The Light of Andamans, captured the mood and the reaction in his December 31 story titled “President’s 3-day avalanche”.

“President Pratibha Patil’s 3-day excursions in the South Andaman Islands,” he pointed out, “left a trail of misery for the people of Port Blair and adjacent areas. They were put to all kinds of harassments and discomfiture in the name of security of the first citizen of the country.”

Spate of clarifications

That the focus had been sustained and the issues raised were serious is obvious from the fact that the administration came out with an immediate clarification that the actions had to be taken for security purposes. Their initial explanation that only pruning was done and that only a few trees had been cut stood immediately exposed. The local Department of Environment and Forests also pointed out that the cutting of the trees would not create an environmental problem as the casuarinas were planted only to beautify the beach and that, in fact, the felling did not attract the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act.

Conservationists who have been working in the islands, however, point out that a large part of the beach at Wandoor has been destroyed in the last couple of decades on account of sand mining to feed the construction boom of Port Blair. Old uprooted trees that still dot the shoreline here are a grim reminder of that past. They further argue that the cut trees, even if they were a plantation of casuarinas, played an important role as a wind break and also as a protection for the coastal land.

The developments appeared to have even taken Rashtrapati Bhavan by surprise. In statements issued even as the President was still in the islands, it was clarified that neither the President nor her family was spending the new year in the islands and that Rashtrapati Bhavan had not sought cancellation of any room bookings of tourists in view of the President’s visit. A clarification has also been sought from the local administration regarding the tree cutting and instructions have been reportedly issued to undertake compensatory afforestation for the damage caused.

In a move that was clearly aimed at damage control, a symbolic tree plantation by the President was also organised. Photographs released by the Press Information Bureau showed her planting a casuarina sapling at the very site where the 60 trees had been cut at Wandoor. While this too can be considered a welcome gesture, it was clearly the classic case of too little, too late.

A researcher following the developments related to the Presidents’ visit to the islands had this to say following reports of the symbolic tree plantation — “ I visited Wandoor immediately after the President’s visit, but could not find the sapling she planted anywhere.”

Maybe he was looking in the wrong place or maybe it was just a tongue in cheek comment. Either way, the irony and the contradictions cannot be missed!

* * *
In the name of the President

Havelock off limit for tourists on December 26 and 27.

Fishermen of Wandoor, Guptapara and Port Blair not to venture out into the sea on December 28.

Wandoor out of bounds on December 28.

Fishermen of Neil and Havelock Islands prohibited from fishing on December 27.

Sound and Light Show closed for tourists on Deceber 25 and 26.

National Memorial Cellular Jail closed for visitors on December 26.

Private Harbour Cruise not to berth at Aberdeen Jetty on December 26.

All the sailings to Havelock and Neil Island cancelled on December 27.

Directorate of shipping services office closed on December 27.

Restricted holiday on December 24 cancelled.

Hotel bookings in Hornbill Nest and Dolphin Resort cancelled and advance returned.

Source: The Light of Andamans, Port Blair, December 31, 2007.