The year 2010 saw journalists, their associations and unions hold more conferences and seminars on one professional issue than any other. And it wasn’t on 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 demoralised them and ruined their profession.
Yet, the main topic of their discussion found no mention in the very newspapers, magazines or television 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 TV channels, choking with stories on corruption, this is the one story you are the 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 brought its editors together for a meeting in Pune. A lively discussion ensued on who would win the elections and the extent to which money power would play a role. Generally, it was agreed, winning a seat in the State legislature would cost Rs. 3 crore to Rs. 5 crore. (That was 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. 435 crore and Rs. 725 crore by the party or front that triumphed. On just the winning candidates.
The editors discussed a few known names of those 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 under way in one of the biggest media groups in the State.
Other groups were already ahead of them. A couple of them had already gained on this front during the parliamentary polls. The taste of success in that round had whetted their appetites.
Maharashtra, after all, sees more money than any other State being spent on worse things. Some media groups set themselves targets of 20 to 30 per cent of what they perceived would be the money splurged by the major candidates. Some even assigned cash targets to their different branches. This did not mean forgoing money from the defeated contestants or even the ‘other side’ or front. It simply meant that you targeted a lower level of 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 tariffs, the former in crores, the latter in lakhs. Sadly, these media groups met, 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 was not caused by breathless public interest or media curiosity. It had a lot to do with ‘partnerships’ and corporate subsidies the public can’t see, 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 is how the Press Council of India (PCI) 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 is a scam worth more millions than anyone can accurately estimate. Most other institutions of Indian democracy and regulatory structures have tried doing something about it. But in the free media, there was a costly silence. Consider this: the Election Commission of India (ECI) has tried hard to curb the menace with a strong crackdown that actually saw candidates in the recent Bihar elections pulled up in 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 a major case: of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s huge media blitz during the 2009 election 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 being blanked out. So the public gets 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 is 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 in 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, President Pratibha Patil voiced her concern over the damage this was doing to free media.
Or look at the Securities and Exchange Board of India. SEBI was disturbed by what ‘private treaties’ between the 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-à-vis the nature and content of the news/editorials in the media …” SEBI, therefore, got the PCI to make mandatory the disclosure of any such links. It sought to ensure 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 kind of font size that had Sherlock Holmes reading newspapers with a magnifying glass.
The PCI set up a two-member sub-committee, which produced a devastating 71-page report on Paid News (see The Hindu, April 22 and August 5, 2020). Buckling under pressure from powerful media owners, the PCI then betrayed its own ideals and the public by suppressing its report. However, that report is freely available online, even if banished from the PCI’s website.
So the ECI, Parliament, SEBI and top political leaders have all contributed to the fight against the slaughter of honest journalism. Even the spineless PCI did so, 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.