Interview in Sadhana (Marathi) on the cash for news scandal

Bhau Chaskar interviews P. Sainath on the print-to-pay or cash for news scandal rocking the world of India media. The interview appeared in the Marathi journal Sadhana on December 18. 1) Package culture’ is playing havoc with the media in recent times. How and when did it start? Corruption in journalism is an old thing, but "packages" are relatively new. Earlier, it was about the petty corruption of individual journalists. Now it is an organised industry controlled by their employers, mostly corporate-controlled newspapers and television channels. At least in the earlier stage, individual journalists had the choice of being corrupt or not being corrupt. Now they have little choice. They either do what they're told to do, or they are out of a job. Understand that the selling of editorial space is also not a new phenomenon. The whole "Media Net" and "Private Treaty Client" strategies of the Times of India, in my opinion, fall into that category (whatever they may now say to deny it). However, there is this difference: when applied to elections, a serious danger becomes even more deadly serious. In elections you are playing not only with people's money but with democracy itself.

P. Sainath on paid media during polls

The present phenomenon during polls may have started a few years ago but showed up clearly around the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. Instances of individual newspapers doing this might date back even earlier. However, large, dominant sections of the media began doing this around 2004. What is new about 2009 is

a) The scale is gigantic. In Andhra Pradesh, the union of journalists estimated it was worth around Rs. 400 crore.  My sense is that it was even bigger in rich Maharashtra. The scale is definitely new and unprecedented.

b) Secondly: it is now an organised, structured industry, corporate-controlled, with the full participation of  some of the largest media groups in the country.

c) The individual journalist is far less important in this game

d) The widespread participation and integration of the leading political parties into this racket is also new.

2) In the past local and district level newspapers were infected by this culture, but now big media-houses/groups have entered this arena in a big and organized way.  What do you feel about this rot ?

The small groups will be overwhelmed. At some point, many titled might be bought out by the big groups. The big groups in fact took over a cottage-industry racket and converted into a giant enterprise worth thousands of crores across the whole country.

What I feel is that this is far more than a threat than the earlier cheating. Here you don’t just rob people of money, but of democracy. You rob India of one of the really great things she could be proud of: vibrant, healthy elections.

3) Do you think that the district level editions are responsible for the spread of this culture?

No. I think the spread of the corporate culture is responsible. The spread of the idea of profit by any means, profits at any cost. This is part of the process of hyper-commercialisation of every sector of our society these past 18 years under the neo-liberal economic reforms. Be it health or education or cricket, which sector have we not commercialised to an extreme?  Look at IPL and its cheerleaders and the false coverage. With leading ex.-cricketers (some great players) standing and telling television audiences: “This is a great game, there is a buzz of excitement in the stadium”  -  and behind this man the stands are empty (as during the recent event). However, the stands have been far fuller during the one-day internationals and Tests (which they claimed were “dying”).  But why does IPL get such positive and false coverage. why is there not an iota of criticism? Because of the gigantic advertising revenues involved. The media want their share of that. Ex-players, journalists and others have been co-opted. The state helps this process. In 2008, they got countless crores of rupees in entertainment tax exemptions in Maharashtra alone.

This process of hyper commercialisation has been generated by the Indian state  -  which is led and driven forward by the corporate sector. If you want to locate the commercialisation process somewhere, that is the corporate sector. Not district-level editions of newspapers which are simply practice this culture in a more direct, ugly way.


4) It is not the case that those who ‘paid’ won the election and those who did not lost it? What exactly  is the relationship/ equation  between ‘paid news’ and the election results ? what is your opinion about this.

It is not just a question of who won and who lost.  But even there, it can now have a bearing, The main thing though, is that if you do not pay  -  you will not be covered. The issues do not matter. The public are simply told what a wonderful person the candidate is. Not a single critical or analytical line/. Not a single negative or critical judgement. And the smaller parties, voices and candidates simply get blacked out.

Chief Minister Ashok Chavan  -  I have more than 50 full pages on him alone. Most of them in colour. How much do you think this would have cost if it were advertising? And how do we justify over 100 pages of “news” on a man who has held office for 11 months? Even Barack Obama, the historic first Black candidate to win the US Presidency —  you will not find any newspaper giving him five full pages, let alone 50. Mind you, he spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising  -  but it was carried as advertising.

In the scores of pages on Chavan, you do not find any other “news.” You do not even find the name of his rival candidate mentioned. What sort of “news” is that? See the harm this does the electoral process and indeed the democratic process.

5) The reputation of the media is tarnished because of the ‘package culture’ The reputation and credibility that the media had acquired over the last 100 to 150 years seems to be lost now. Just a few crores finished that credibility.  How do you look at this scenario ?

The credibility of the media has declined as newspapers have moved from being community instruments  -  a good newspaper is a society talking to itself, in discussion and debate about itself  —  to being merely adjuncts of corporate power. One more money-making department of one moneybags or the other. But also importantly, the press has become the propaganda arm of  the entire corporate system, culture and the corporate-led state.

How can you then retain credibility? This reflects in the media and in politics. The last session of parliament  -  one whole session of our supreme body went in discussing nothing else but the battle between Mukesh and Anil Ambani. Is this what the people of India elected their representatives for? To discuss who should get a greater share of public resources and public money  -  Anil or Mukesh?

6) Media is supposed to play the role of opposition in a democracy if the opposition parties are weak.  It is supposed to keep a close watch on the ruling party as well as the bureaucracy. This work ethic seems to be lost now and the media seems to have dissociated itself from the common man.

No less a person than India’s vice-president Hamid Ansari has warned against the trends that are emerging. In a speech to correspondents who cover parliament on November 4 this year, the vice-president pointed out that of the four estates of Indian democracy, only the media are a self-declared For-Profit institution. The judiciary and executive, for instance, are not. Not by definition anyway. The media are. So it comes ever more important to keep that in mind and follow a set of principles of ethics that do not allow the for-profit greed of the media to override truth and democracy.

Quoting guidelines of the Press Council, the vice-president pointed out that if the present trend of “paid news” remained unchecked,  Indian democracy  would face a “double jeopardy.” Through a damaging influence on press functioning. And  through undermining  a free and fair election process.

Do not disconnect media from what is happening in the rest of society. The rise of corporate power and commercialisation also speeds up the rise of money power. Speeds up the process of accumulation of wealth by a few. Consider that elections in some states can now only be contested  -  let alone won  -  by crorepatis. And that this trend is spreading across the country. To understand what I mean by the rise of money power this level, see the data collected by the National Election Watch showed an increase of 338 per cent in the average asset growth of re-contesting candidates for the recent Maharashtra polls. The average value of an MLA was around Rs. 4 crore, that of a re-elected MLA 4.6 crore and of a re-elected Minister Rs. 4.9 crore. Of the 288 current MLAs, 184 were crorepatis.  Between the 2004 and 2009 elections, there was a 70 per cent increase in the number of crorepati candidates. An average MP was worth Rs. 5.1 crore, a Union Cabinet Minister Rs. 7.6 crore and the combined, declared wealth of 543 MPs was in excess of Rs. 2,800 crore.

If the ruling party or leading opposition party (who have been rulers in the recent past) are the ones with the most money and resources, then where is the question of the media keeping a check on them? The most powerful bureaucrats  -  all of them linked to the World Bank or IMF or beloved of the corporate sector in this country  -  get coverage that would make anyone else envious. So where’s the question of keeping a check on them. The media have moved from a role of checks and balances to Cheques and Imbalances.

As for the media and the common man, as you put it: I’ve said this a thousand times. The fundamental feature of the media of our times is the growing disconnect between mass media and mass reality.

7) The conduct and character of media has often been questioned in our country.  What was the role of media during the past elections ? Did the ‘downward slide’ begin in the past or is it a recent phenomenon ?

The Indian press was the child of the freedom struggle. Every great nationalist leader in the 20th century, maybe even a little earlier, male or female, also doubled up as a journalist. Or was a journalist. Tilak, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Vijayalakshmi Pandit and many more. Even in their time, there were different streams. The imperialist stream, the communal stream and the nationalist mainstream which triumphed over the other two. Post-independence, the values of that press of the freedom struggle began to erode.

Many little papers that were founded by heroes of the freedom movement (and even papers formerly owned by Imperialist rulers) were taken over by business houses. By the 1970s, the trend began to set it strongly.  India saw Two Press Commissions in 1954 and in 1980. Both saw hearings which brought out the warning that the linkage of Big Business houses to the Press was going to emerge a major threat to the freedom of the press. Time has proved that right.

In the 1980s, the corporatisation process, led by the Times of India is in full swing. The independence of journalists took a body blow as journalist unions were crippled, then demolished. The coming of the Contract System in journalism ensured that. A journalist on an eleven-month contract is worrying about renewal of that contract by the eighth month. What independence can there be with him or her or so dependent on that employer’s whim and fancies. In such a situation, how easy is it for the journalist to contradict anything coming from his or her bosses even when those things handed down to them are patently false.

8) Is the fourth pillar of democracy on the verge of a collapse ?

Your question is based on the assumption of the media as the Fourth Estate. But in the last 15 years it has got harder and harder to tell the difference between Fourth Estate and Real Estate. The media are linked to corporates, factories, builders, politicians (many of whom are builders, contractors or industrialists or their front men).

Please also note the seamless integration of the corporate sector and the media. Especially, the big media. An assistant editor of a leading economic newspaper in Mumbai leaves the paper to go as deputy chief public relations officer of a major corporate. Then a year or two later, return to the paper as senior associate editor. A year later, he joins a major multinational as chief public relations officer. Two years down the line, he’s back as resident editor of the daily, perhaps. Neither he, nor the paper’s owners see any conflict of interest, any ethical problem in this.

9) The sales of Marathi newspaper is increasing but they are losing their impact The decision-makers-in particular-don’t read its relevance ?

I am not competent to comment on how exactly the Marathi press is shaping up or its trends. My own feeling is that there is great potential. I know from my own experience that my reports on the farm crisis in Vidharbha gained enormous exposure once they were translated from English into Marathi and this had a far greater impact.

But remember that increasingly the newspaper and television groups, whether English, Hindi, Marathi, or whatever, are increasingly coming under the control of the same owners, or the same type of owners. The same class of owners for sure. As this homogenisation takes place, the decision-makers won’t draw from what the press says  -  they simply tell the press what to say.

10) How will you compare the role of Marathi media with the regional media in other languages - particularly in the context of elections ?

I think the trends are broadly the same nationally. There may be some exceptions everywhere, here in Maharashtra and in other states.

11)  Owner of the press have started asserting their authority in recent times.  Is this the end of the institution of an editor ? Is this resulting in the spread of the culture of ‘paid news’ ?

The Editor died in the 1980s. Yes, the assertion of power by the corporate owners will deepen the paid news culture.

12) There are many editors and journalists who do not agree  with this paid culture.  They are greatly agitated by this development.  What will you advise them ?

Fight monopoly in every sphere, not just in media. Re-build journalists unions and associations. Fight for the freedom of expression and integrity of the journalists. Fight for the right of the Indian public to be rightly informed. Press for greater self-regulation and strengthening of regulatory bodies. Fight for legislation that limits monopoly and extensive cross-ownership.

13)  A very senior journalist, Govind Talwalkar has demanded a CBI inquiry of the mal-practices of the press during the recent assembly elections in Maharashtra, Are these any practical solutions to this problem ?

Talwalkarji is one of the most important figures of journalism and when he says something, you have to take it seriously. I think what he’s referring to is that apart from the fooling of the public  -  there is also great financial wrongdoing involved. Cash transactions in crores, no billing for the paid news. Huge evasion of taxes that happens as a result. He points out that they are unlikely to come out with the truth themselves. Hence his demand.

14)Can we really stem the rot and regain the sanctity and the glory of the press ? How ?

It is linked to how we build our society and regain the sanctity of some of the values of the freedom struggle. How, for instance, we observe and entrench the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution. Ultimately, a conscious public, an enlightened citizenry are the best guarantees of a free media. How journalists relate to the great processes of our time; how we relate and respond to daily lives, struggles, hopes and aspirations of ordinary Indians  -  these too will play a great role in deciding whether we regain our freedoms or end up as a propaganda arm of the corporate ruling elite.

15) Are our laws enough to halt the spread of this paid news culture? Is the election commission overlooking all this? Do their out-of-state observers do enough?

There are already laws about, for instance, exceeding the expenditure limit in the election. The question is whether we will enforce them. Most of the election accounts submitted by candidates are a bad joke. Many who have spent crores claim to have spent much less than the Rs. 10 lakh limit.

The Election Commission of India is, as you say, charged with the actual conduct of free and fair elections. And it must be said that it has often done that creditably in the past. For instance, it has reduced booth capturing and ballot stuffing etc. However, I think the performance of the ECI on over-expenditure has been quite dismal. Also, it seems to me to be discriminatory. The ECI is so strict when it comes to the communication technologies of the poor  -  and completely blind to those of the rich and super-rich.

A poor candidate anywhere in the country has to supply the details of the printer and publisher and the printer’s address on even a one-page pathrak or pamphlet. They are strict about this. Wall writing is cracked down on  -  even where the owner of the wall has no problem with it! Graffiti gets tough treatment.

But you can place a hundred pages of paid news worth crores of rupees in a leading newspaper without being questioned. You can run advertisements as news on top television channels spending crores in the process, no questions asked. It does raise the question of what the EC’s observers do when they go to states or constituencies. You’d have to be blind not to notice the huge amounts being spent, many times the Rs. 10 lakh limit.

This is wrong, discriminatory and anti-poor. The ECI has to address this issue and show again that all are equal before the law.

So the first step is honest, impartial enforcement of the existing laws.

Then, as technologies and means of communication have evolved or changed, there might be a need for a second look at the laws themselves. But we certainly need new laws to halt the march of monopolies whether in the media or in other sectors of society