The year 2010 saw Indian journalists, their associations and unions hold more conferences and seminars on one professional issue than any other. And it wasn’t the Wage Board or the Radia tapes. Hundreds of journalists across the country attended these meetings. Dozens stood up and spoke of their own experiences of the subject. Of how it demoralized them and ruined their profession. Yet, the main topic of their discussion found no mention the next day in the very newspapers, magazines or channels they work for.
Sometimes, the fact of the meeting being held, perhaps as an event attended by a High Court judge, was reported. But the subject discussed was not. In newspapers and channels choking with stories on corruption, this is the one you’re least likely to see. The media are their own worst censors when it comes to reporting on ‘Paid News.’
Just before the 2009 assembly elections in Maharashtra, a large newspaper group in the state (of which Mumbai is the capital) brought its editors together for a meeting in Pune. A lively discussion ensued on who would win and the extent to which money power would play a role. Generally, it was agreed, winning a seat in the state legislature would cost between Rs. 30 – 50 million. (ie US$660,000 – US$1,095,000, a huge underestimate, given the expenditures that actually followed.) With 288 seats in the Maharashtra legislature, a party had to win at least 145 in order to rule. This meant an expenditure of between Rs. 4.35 and Rs. 7.25 billion by the party or front that triumphed. On just the winning candidates.
The editors discussed a few famous names who had that kind of money power. At this point, the daily’s financial managers spoke up. If there’s that kind of money being spent, said the cash-box boys, we should get a decent share of it. What, after all, is election expenditure but campaign and propaganda expenses? Detailed plans for ‘pay-to-print’ were soon underway in one of the biggest groups in the state.
Other groups were already ahead of them. A couple had already gained on this front at the time of the parliamentary polls. The taste of success in that round had whetted their appetites. Maharashtra, after all, sees more money spent on worse things than any other state. Some media groups set themselves targets of 20-30 per cent of what they perceived would be the money splurged by major candidates. Some even assigned cash targets to their different branches. This did not mean foregoing money from defeated contestants or even the ‘other side’ or front. It simply meant that you targeted a lower recovery from them. Losing candidates, alas, don’t pay up. Paid news comes in many packages: pre-paid, post-paid and yet-to-be-paid, for instance. There are also deluxe tariffs and aam aadmi (ordinary man) tariffs, the former in mnany millions, the latter in hundreds of thousands of rupees. Sadly, these media groups met and even exceeded their targets.
But it’s not just during elections that paid news or its Euclidian variants occur. The crazy saturation coverage of Davos in some channels wasn’t caused by breathless public interest or media curiosity. It had a lot to do with ‘partnerships’ and corporate subsidies the public can’t and won’t be allowed to see. Some channels sent out ‘rules’ to their journalists of things that just had to be done. Rules with no particular journalistic rationale at all.
Now we have yet another Group of Ministers, yes, one more, to deal with Paid News. Has the Prime Minister reviewed its composition? It could end up hugely embarrassing to have a member of the GoM whose family owns a major newspaper that could be affected by any inquiry. Or another who, it might turn out, has represented corporate media groups in the past as a lawyer.
“Any news or writing appearing in a media (print or electronic} for a price in cash or kind in consideration.” That’s how the Press Council defined ‘paid news’ last year. A lot of this, of course, boils down to advertising disguised as news coverage. In the 2009 elections, powerful media groups connived at the violation of spending limits in the polls by rich candidates and parties. Paid news did more damage to the media’s coverage of those polls than any other factor. (Meanwhile, the odium the media earned themselves in the 2009 polls and after, saw this year’s Padma awards giving journalism a wide berth. Less Padma, More Lakshmi?)
It’s a scam worth more millions than anyone can accurately estimate. Most other institutions of Indian democracy and of regulatory structures have tried doing something about it. But in the free media, a costly silence. Consider: the Election Commission of India has tried hard to curb the menace with a strong crackdown that actually saw candidates in the recent Bihar polls pulled up over 87 instances of ‘paid news.’ The ECI has also drawn up new guidelines and rules to help its officers spot and stamp out what is essentially a media management-driven racket. It now has a special division dealing with money power and paid news. And it has taken up the most major case this issue has seen: that of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s huge media blitz during the 2009 poll campaign.
Almost nothing of this has been reported in the media, barring The Hindu and a couple of other publications. The hearings in the Chavan case have been fascinating too — with near zero coverage. The ECI, normally treated with great respect by the media, has seen many of its initiatives on the ‘paid news’ front simply blanked out. So the public get to know very little about how alive the ‘paid news’ issue is. Will the case get bogged down in challenges of jurisdiction and in the courts, or will we see a decisive result, given the firmness of this ECI? As news, or as an issue, it ought to fascinate the media. But there’s silence because, while Mr. Chavan stands accused, it is the media who are on trial.
Or take Parliament. It saw an astonishing consensus on this subject. The issue came up through a vital “calling attention” motion moved by Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M), a clinical dissection of the problem by Arun Jaitley of the BJP, and with members from all parties in total agreement that ‘paid news’ was disastrous for democracy. Across the spectrum, MPs demanded an end to the practice. Not a word on this parliament debate appeared across most of the media. Much earlier, the country’s Vice President had detailed the ‘double jeopardy’ that paid news placed Indian democracy in. One, it wrecked the concept of a fair and free press. Two, it undermined the democratic electoral process of the nation. Later, even President Pratibha Patil voiced her concern over the damage this was doing to a free media.
Or look at the Securities and Exchange Board of India. SEBI was disturbed by what ‘private treaties’ between media and private corporations were doing to news. (These ‘treaties’ opened the floodgates for paid news.) It felt that such backdoor deals where corporates pay media companies in shares for advertising plus other favourable coverage could mislead investors. They “may give rise to conflicts of interest and may, therefore, result in dilution of the independence of the press vis-a-vis the nature and content of the news/editorials in the media…” SEBI therefore got the Press Council of India to make mandatory the disclosure of any such links. It sought that such disclosure would have to be made in any “news report/article/editorial in newspapers/television relating to the company in which the media group holds such stake.” Following this, one of our largest dailies carried a tiny line below a piece linked to the Lavasa private city project in which it admitted to having a minor stake in the project. In the kind of font size that had Sherlock Holmes reading newspapers with a magnifying glass.
The Press Council of India set up a two-member subcommittee which produced a devastating 71-page report on Paid News (The Hindu, April 22 and August 05, 2010). The PCI, buckling under pressure from powerful media owners, then betrayed its own ideals and the public by suppressing its own report. However, that report is freely available online, even if banished from the PCI’s website.
So the ECI, the Parliament, SEBI, top political leaders have all then contributed something to the fight against the slaughter of honest journalism. Even the spineless PCI did, before deserting ship. But in the media there is near-total silence. True, there are the exceptions. And the fact that all those journalists went public at those meetings shows how deep their resentment runs. But institutionally, the media’s failure is huge and, if not reversed, will extract a terrible price. The corporate media have censored the Paid News story, browbeaten their own journalists and cheated the public of information it has every right and need to know.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts. He can be reached at: email@example.com.