Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Satyam Fraud: A simpleguide to the continuing Irrelevancy of Indian Media

At last, we proved that India indeed is the best. The Satyam Computer fudging of Rs.8000 crores on account books, amounting to $1.6 billion, is almost three times the fudge work done by the 'McKinsey-advised' wise guys/erstwhile media poster boys at Enron 6.5 years ago, which was small change, $600 million only (Rs2400 crores, at dollar rates for that period).

The Enron scandal caused Andersen Consulting to go down for a while and reincarnate itself as Accenture, the IT solutions provider.

Does a similar fate await PriceWaterHouse Coopers, one of the top 4 accounting firms in the world? Only time will tell.

But, you ask yourself, "How come the Indian media did not spot Satyam fraud in time?'

Looking at these key numbers for the Indian media, you expected better things:

- We have the second largest newspaper market in the world, having read 99 million newspaper copies in 2007 and we publish the largest number of paid-for titles in the world.

- There are more than 372 TV channels in India.

- By 2006, India had more than fifty 24-hour news networks, operating in eleven different languages, including 14 major Hindi News channels, 4 English News channels [NDTV, CNN-IBN, Times NOW, Headlines Today] and three Business News Channels in English [NDTV Profit, CNBC, UTVi] and One Hindi Business Channel [CNBC India].

- The government network, Doordarshan has a vast footprint of its own.

- We have three big business magazines [Business Today, Business World, and Business India], three big business newspapers [Mint, Business Standard, Financial Express and Economic Times] and two major business newspapers in Hindi [Business Standard, Economic Times].

- We have four major News magazines [India Today, Outlook, Frontline, and The Week].
Does anyone read news magazines in the age of the web?

I am not counting those preparing and roting for government job exams.

- By 2008, there were at least 60,000,000 Internet users in India; almost 6.0% of the country's population was online one time or another.

Impressive numbers for a country on the make.
But, a depressing track record.

What makes the Indian Business Media, along with the News Media, so ineffective?
Is it all all noise and no signal?

You can bet a major of these usage numbers arise from the IT workers and many of them will have blogs.
How many are blogging about the operational side of the business?

Many of my friends in these IT firms blog but mostly you get the same old photos from their latest trips, the music they listen to and so on. It is just 'vanity personal blogging'.

MINT, the business newspaper had done a 'day in the life' of a benched IT worker.
We need more such first-person life experience stories.

Why was no business journalist able to expose the fraud?
Why was there no insider at Satyam willing to break ranks and tell the truth?
In case of Enron, it took an insider, Sherron Watkins to blow the whistle.

Instead of 'Investigate Raju', there was some 'Support Raju' group at Orkut. [Ironically, this item got much traction on the TV news channels]

You can say the media is lazy.
You can say there are vested interests at work and thus PR-puff pieces and PR-rewriting is rife on most media outlets.
You can say the media has huge up-front costs and so making money from advertisers at all costs comes from everything else.

And you are right in all the above cases.

1. The Media is greedy for ads from real estate firms.
No one is asking how long Indians will continue to afford to pay huge installments on hugely inflated salaries for ultra-expensive houses.

For long, there has been a housing shortage in India and so far, we have seen few affordable housing projects.
Pretty soon, the easy money for the real estate firms will dry out, if it is not already. And, so will the ads.

No journalist bothers to ask whether she/he can indeed afford the expensive homes on sale.

2. The Media is greedy for ads from education companies - Business College, IIT tutorials...
I have written about the IIPM scandal, and how few among the big media outlets cared to investigate whether the claims made by the said business school were true.

How could they? After all, IIPM was the seventh largest print advertiser.

The burgeoning private education business in India warrants a better attention.

3. The media has so far stayed away from probing the IT-services business, it being the champion for the country and all.
We need more stories about life inside these firms - business practices, hiring and firing practices, tax benefits enjoyed, cost of land acquired through the government and so on.

We need more stories about the India 2.0.
Is it that indeed shining? If yes, what are the implications for the huge gap between the two Indias we are creating?

Questions, questions.
The rule is: If there is any doubt, there is no doubt.

I could go on and on and you might say, "Well, the U.S. media did no better in warning the people about the sub prime crisis."

And, you would be right.

The U.S, media is paying a big price for its failures.
The power is shifting from the print and TV to online brands.
The decline of news brands in America and the West has more to do with changes in technology.

It is also about people's need for more views, more reports.
It is about more analysis.

Above everything else, it is about the need for truth.

And, you wonder how long the shining India news story is going to last.

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