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The scourge of 'paid news'

indian-security“Paid news” has drawn its first blood. A sitting legislator, Umlesh Yadav, of Uttar Pradesh assembly has been disqualified by the Election Commission of India (EC) from contesting any election for three years as she did not include in her election expenses the amounts spent by her on advertisements which were published as news items in two Hindi papers.

The EC received a reference from the Press Council of India (PCI) which had held the two newspapers guilty of ethical violation. The PCI, apparently, had appointed an inquiry committee to investigate the complaint against the two dailies for having published “paid news” in favour of Ms. Yadav a day before the polling in her constituency in the 2007 Assembly elections. Eventually, the PCI forwarded the case papers of the adjudication to the EC for such action as it deemed proper. The order disqualifying the legislator was issued as a consequence.

In another case, the Election Commission is hearing allegations against Madhu Koda, the former chief minister of Bihar, who is alleged to have failed to file proper returns of his election expenses. The Income Tax department in a report is supposed to have stated that he paid Rs. 1.25 crore (Rs. 1.25 billion) to a TV channel for telecasting news favourable to him during the 2009 general elections. The “paid news” allegation cropped up against Koda when the Enforcement Directorate of Ministry of Finance and Income Tax (IT) authorities raided his residence and came across diary entries regarding payments made to media houses for reporting/telecasting reports in his favour. According to the IT department, against the permissible expenditure of Rs.25 lakh (Rs 2.5 million) Koda allegedly spent Rs.9.00 crore (Rs.9 billion).

Another politician of note, Ashok Chavan, the former chief minister of Maharashtra, has just lost his case against the EC in Delhi High Court. He had challenged the EC’s powers to investigate expenses incurred by him during the 2009 assembly elections. As the prestigious newspaper Hindu reported, his was a case that “embarrassed major newspapers that had run scores of hagiographic full pages of ‘news’ on Mr. Chavan during the poll campaign...pages without a single advertisement on them...and so much as a mention of his rivals in his Bhokar constituency...” While dismissing the petition as “devoid of merit” the court directed the PCI to put on the internet its own report on “paid news” which it had had to suppress under pressure from the media houses that were seen to have indulged in unethical practices. Chavan has since gone in appeal to the apex court.

The PCI has since received a fresh case of “paid news”, this time from Goa. A sting operation conducted by one Mayabhushan Nagvenkar has put Goa’s OHeraldO in the dock. Armed with transcripts of his audios and telephonic talks with the marketing manager of the newspaper Nagvenkar has approached the PCI.

The PCI defines paid news as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”. According to senior journalist, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, who headed its sub-committee to investigate the evil phenomenon of paid news, substantial sections of the media have become participants and players in practices that contribute to this growing use of money-power in politics. “The entire clandestine operation has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and TV channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country. Worse, these illegal operations have become organised involving ad agencies and PR firms besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies. (The) So called ‘rate cards’ or ‘packages’ are distributed that often include rates for publication of ‘news items’ that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents.”

He says, numerous favourable or complimentary paid ‘news’ reports on certain candidates appeared in newspapers (and were broadcast on TV channels) across the country in the run-up to the last general as well as state assembly elections without disclosing the fact that these were transactional news items. The deception by the media houses, according to Guha Thakurta, assumed three facets. The reader was led into believing that it was independent news content and not an advertisement, the candidates concerned did not include the expenditure on the “ad” in their election expenses and the media houses, having received the moneys in cash, did not include them in their balance sheets.

Samir Lal, a former senior journalist who left the profession having got fed up with commercialisation of the newspaper industry, is more scathing about the goings-on in it. He says, “Indian media industry has unapologetic clarity about the nature of its business: it sells media platform to commercial clients, not news to readers.” With proprietors not interested in selling what good journalists produce, the crisis in India is not one of the media industry but of the profession of journalism. “News today is sleight of hand: paid news by politicians, private treaties with advertisers, celebrity coverage for a fee, PR feed masquerading as reportage, the business story slanted to serve the stock market, the deserving story not done”. With the marketing departments of media houses setting the agenda for the editors, India’s media barons are not really in news business. And yet, Lal says, news is unavoidable – to fill the gaps between the ads.

“News holes”, that’s what Noam Chomsky, the American philosopher and activist, calls them which are filled up by news after the advertising layout is decided. This happens even in as prestigious a newspaper as the New York Times which has been accused of “distorting, censoring and suppressing truth” – influenced as it is by the American establishment and the great US corporations. Stephen Lendman, a renowned American researcher and author, says that the US media delivers “a daily diet of ‘managed news’, infotainment and ‘junk food news’...” keeping people uninformed about what matters most.

The description above snugly fits the Indian media too. News today serves various commercial interests or those of the establishment in accordance with predilections of the owners, who hardly bother about the interests of the readers.  Chomsky found Indian media, barring the singular exception of The Hindu, “pretty restricted, very narrow and provincial and not very informative, leaving out lots of things.” While most of the national dailies have their respective patrons and/or benefactors whose agenda they necessarily have to push, the regional and sub-regional press are generally out for sale. Though it is the second biggest market for newspapers with around 40-odd thousand newspapers published in the country and the reading public consuming 99 million copies (in 2007), its independence is something which one cannot vouch for. No wonder, the country was placed in 2010 at 122nd out of 178 on assessment of press freedom made by the Reporters Without Borders – For Press Freedom, a non-profit that works for freedom of information. The claims that are frequently made of the Indian media being independent, unbiased and pillars of our vibrant democracy have, therefore, to be taken with fistfuls of salt.

It is a pity that the report of the Paranjoy Guha Thakurta sub-committee was somehow buried by none other than the PCI which is statutorily charged with the responsibility of governing the conduct of the Indian print (and broadcast) media. Flexing their muscles the large media houses, who would have otherwise been in the dock, successfully foiled the attempt to bring out the truth. The new PCI chief, Justice Markandey Katju, has already condemned his own institution as “ineffective” but has also asked for more teeth and enlargement of its scope to include even the electronic media. It would perhaps be more desirable for him, for the present, to have the Council reconstituted, if necessary by amendment of the Press Council Act 1978, and reduce the overwhelming representation of the media organisations (almost 66%) in it to enable it to be more objective in dealing with the aberrations like those of “paid news”.

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