Paid news culture and Indian media

By Nava Thakuria
India has 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 this unhealthy development in the media practice of journalism.

The practice of offering material incentives 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 reaching some understandings with the politicians and corporate people disguising advertisements as news or features.

First it was a meet of South Asian 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 24x7 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 the corporatisation of the media world had simply threatened the existence of free media. “Newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout,” 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), Sevanti Ninan (editor of 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, a quasi-judicial body, has decided to investigate, establishing a 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 for publishing their views as news items and bringing out negative news items against rival candidates during the last elections.

Even a documentary titled ‘Advertorial: Selling News or Products?’ was produced by an eminent media critic and academic Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for India’s national broadcaster, Doordarshan. It was telecast last November.

Guha Thakurta, a member of the Press Council investigative team said in an interview that the committee had received many complaints 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 for 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.”

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-28 February 2010 on page no. 12

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