‘Paid news’ culture and Indian media

Indian people, election commission, parliamentarians, media watchdog and even the media persons have finally woken up to the menace of ‘paid news’ culture in the mainstream media. The practice that involves money in acquiring unethically media space by the beneficiaries remained an important issue in India for many years. But lately a number of influential media persons’ organisations have shown their concern with the ill practice of journalism in the country. Then it was picked up by the Press Council of India, the Election Commision of India and the upper house of Indian parliament.

The practice of offering envelopes to reporters remained visible across Asian media and especially India and China for decades. But lately the practice appears to be becoming institutionalised, not by poverty-stricken reporters but by the publishers themselves.

It is alleged that many media houses in India irrespective of their volume of business have started selling news space after some understandings with the politicians and corporate people without disguising those items as advertisements.

First it was a meet of South Asia Free Media Association (India chapter) in Mumbai during the first week of December, where the issue of paid news was officially discussed with serious concern.

Then came the annual general meeting of the Editors’ Guild of India during the fourth week of December, where most of the members expressed concern at the growing tendency of a section of media groups (both print and visual) to receive money for some ‘non-advertorial’ items in their media space.

The editors’ guild sent a letter to each of its member-editors throughout the country asking for pledges that his/her ‘publication/TV channel will not carry any paid news’ as the practice ‘violates and undermines the principles of free and fair journalism’.

The letter, signed by Rajdeep Sardesai and Coomi Kapoor, president and secretary general of the Guild respectively, expressed hope that ‘the entire journalist fraternity would come together on this issue’ and defend their credibility with public declarations on the subject in order to restore public trust.

Indian media has been recognised as sensitive, patriotic and very much influential tool in the socio-political sphere since the days of freedom movement. The father of Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi initiated his movement with the moral power of active journalism. Today, India with its billion population supports nearly 70,000 registered newspapers and over 450 Television channels (including some 24×7 news channels). The Indian media, as a whole, often plays the role of constructive opposition in the Parliament as well as in various Legislative Assemblies of the State. Journalists are, by and large, honoured and accepted as the moral guide in the Indian society. While the newspapers in Europe and America are losing their readership annually, the Indian print media is still going stronger with huge circulation figure and market avenues. For the democratic India, the media continues to be acclaimed as the fourth important pillar after judiciary, parliament and bureaucratic set-up.

But unfortunately a cancer in the form of paid news has been diagnosed with the Indian media in the recent past. Millions of rupees have been reportedly been paid to media houses.

Some veteran editor-journalists like Prabhash Joshi, the founding editor of the Hindi daily Jansatta, who died in November, and BG Verghese, previously the editor of both the Hindustan Times and Indian Express, warned the Press Council of India that paid news has already turned into a full-blown scandal.

It is worth mentioning that the Mumbai SAFMA meeting had serious discussion and concern on the recent trend of commercialisation of mainstream media, and degradation of media ethics and practices in the country. All the speakers in the meeting of SAFMA (which is recognized by the SAARC), were unanimous that media in the entire region must come forward in a transparent way with maintaining public trust.

Addressing the audience, eminent journalist and the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, P Sainath disclosed that that the corporatisation of the media world had simply threatened the existence of free media.

"Newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout," P Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, warned another media group. It was Sainath who raised the issue of paid news through his regular columns in The Hindu, urging the press council and election commission to take appropriate action.

"The proprietors now grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of their ‘friendly politicians’ in the newspapers," Sainath warned in his speech. "Furthermore, to entertain their growing demands, many media groups have even gone for arranging extra space (during election periods). Let’s finish the culture of paid news, otherwise it will finish us in the coming days."

An official statement of the SAFMA meet, which was attended by many distinguished editor-journalists of India including K K Katyal, Satich Jacob, Kumar Ketkar (editor of Loksatta), Om Thanvi (editor of Jansatta), Vinod Sharma (political editor of Hindustan Times) etc, expressed serious concern at the growing trend of selling news space.

"Recent assembly elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere revealed the spread of the pernicious practice of accepting money for giving editorial space to contestants. In fact, this evil had been perpetrated by institutionalising it," according to a statement by the South Asian Free Media Association.

Meanwhile, the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body, has decided to investigate, establishing a separate committee to examine violations of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting. The press council Chairman GN Ray, a retired justice, acknowledged that a section of Indian media had ‘indulged in monetary deals with some politicians and candidates by publishing their views as news items and bringing out negative news items against rival candidates’ during the last elections.’

The committee has already discussed the issue with the representatives from Indian Newspapers Society, Indian Language Newspapers Association with other stakeholders.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an eminent media critic and also the member of the press council investigative team said in an interview that the committee had received many complains from the journalists that a large number of newspapers and television channels (in various languages) had been receiving money to provide news space (and even editorials) for the benefit of politicians.

Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, Guha Thakurta claims that the paid news culture has finally violated the guidelines of the Election Commission (of India), which makes restriction in the expenditure of a candidate (for any Legislative Assembly or Parliamentary elections).

"Amazingly, we have found that some newspapers even prepared rate cards for the candidates in the last few elections. There are different rates for positive news coverage, interviews, editorials and also putting out damaging reports against the opponents," Guha Thakurta asserted.

The Indian Election Commission recently asked the Press Council of India ‘to define what constitutes paid political news’, so it can adopt appropriate guidelines. During a December meeting, the elections body also directed the press council to ‘formulate guidelines to the media house’ to require that the money involved be incorporated in the political party and candidate expenditures.

Lately, the Guild had submitted a memorandum to the election commission expressing its grave concern over the paid news phenomenon. A delegation from the Guild, led by its president Rajdeep Sardesai met the election commission on January 22 and urged the chief election commissioner Navin Chawla to ‘take strong action against both candidates and media persons who violate the disclosure norms of election expenditure in regard to media publicity.’

Rajdeep Sardesai, the editor’s guild president and also the chief editor of the CNN-IBN television news channel, speaking to this writer, said that the Guild was ‘deeply shocked and seriously concerned at the increasing number of reports detailing the pernicious practice of publishing paid news by some newspapers and television channels, especially during the recent elections’.

"We strongly believe that the practice of putting out advertising as news is a grave journalistic malpractice. Moreover the trend threatens the foundation of journalism by eroding public faith in the credibility and impartiality of news reporting. It also vitiated the poll process and prevented a fair election, since richer candidates who could pay for their publicity had a clear advantage," Sardesai added.

While admitting the right of news media to go for advertisements in various occasions, Sardesai insisted that the ‘media houses should distinguish the advertisements with full and proper disclosure norms, so that no reader and viewer is tricked by any subterfuge of advertisements published and broadcast in the same format, language and style of news’.

Lately, the Rajya Sabha witnessed a debate on the culture of paid news. Responding the questions of MPs, India’s Information & Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni admitted that the practice is ‘a serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press’.

She argued that if the ‘paid information is presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion’.

“Thus, there is no denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect public’s right to correct and unbiased information,” Ms Soni added.

With the same notion, a Guwahati-based media observer H. Mahanta claims that many regional newspapers in Northeast India in effect sell favourable reporting for extra income.

"You can find a number of examples in Guwahati, where the proprietors of the media houses had misused the media space for their individual benefits. It is amazing how some newspapers change their point of views towards a politician or party suddenly after getting money (in cash or kinds)," Mahanta said.

There are specific allegations that many journalists in Guwahati, who are among the lowest paid in India with starting salaries as little as US$50 a month, enjoy regular payments like monthly lump sum compensation from politicians in power. Licenses for wine shops are offered to reporters (and accepted happily by many) with the inherent understanding that they only write positive stories and if possible, kill negative reports against their politician-financers.

However, the newspapers of Assam still maintain ethical values in respect of editorial space, as those are not being utilized visibly for earning extra hard cash till now, observers say. But how long it will continue that remains a bigger question.