‘Yes, we spent money on paid news advertisements’

The political class is more honest than the media when it comes to ‘paid news’ during elections, judging by the fact that several poll candidates have owned up to this corrupt practice. At least, after the Election Commission and the Press Council of India shot off notices to them and held inquiries into the matter. They have acknowledged guilt by belatedly adding their “news” buying expenses to their election statement of accounts. Some candidates have accepted in writing that they bought what are now called, somewhat oxymoronically, “Paid News Advertisements.” But not a single one of the newspapers they say they gave their money to has accepted any wrongdoing. These are not just any papers. In readership terms, they include three top-ranked dailies.

In some cases, the battles are still on, involving both the politicians and newspapers concerned. On January 15, the EC found that Madhya Pradesh Cabinet Minister Narottam Mishra “failed to lodge his accounts of his election expenses in the manner prescribed by law.” He faces possible disqualification. The EC’s notice to Dr. Mishra concerns 42 news items on him during the November 2008 state elections. These, it pointed out, “read more like election advertisement(s) in favour of you alone rather than (as) news reports.” The EC names four newspapers in its notice: Dainik Bhaskar , Nai Duniya , Aacharan and Dainik Datia Prakash . Dainik Bhaskar is the second most-read daily in the country.

Less than a month earlier, the Press Council of India held quite a few dailies guilty of doing much the same thing during the 2010 Bihar assembly polls. These include Dainik Jagran , the newspaper with the highest readership in the country. The others are Dainik Hindustan , Hindustan Times , Dainik Aaj and Purvanchal Ki Raahi . Also, Rashtriya Sahara , Udyog Vyapar Times and Prabhat Khabhar .

In many cases, the route to exposure followed the pattern set in the classic case of the former Congress Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan. His 2009 poll campaign for the State legislature drew scores of full pages of “news.” Not a single one of those pages ever mentioned the name of Madhav Kinhalkar, his rival for the Bhokar seat. In a 2009-10 investigation into paid news,The Hindu found a hagiographical article on Mr. Chavan appear word for word in three major rival publications. In two of them, on the same day, in all of them under different by-lines ( The Hindu , Nov. 30, 2009 ).

The 2010 Bihar polls saw a similar pattern. This time, though, one paper came up with a truly novel defence. Same story in different papers? That’s not paid news, argues Udyog Vyapar Times . It submits that other newspapers “hack their computer site and publish the same news.” So what might  look like paid news, contends Udyog Vyapar Times , is merely the outcome of desperate rivals hacking into the internal network of this Aligarh-based daily to steal their national exclusives.

How did the candidates issued ‘Paid News’ notices for the Bihar polls by the EC react? All but one seem to have accepted their guilt. According to the EC, they did so by simply adding “the expenditure included by them on account of these ‘news’ in their accounts of election expenses.” In fact, the District Election Officer of Muzaffarpur in Bihar stated flatly that the dailies had carried “news for payment.” He even had letters from the candidates owning up to buying “news.”

The Press Council of India, acting on the matter referred to it by the EC, issued show cause notices to Dainik Jagran , Dainik Hindustan , Hindustan Times et al, between July and September 2011. On December 21, 2012, the PCI, on the basis of its own inquiry committee’s report, got tough. Of the high-profile line-up, only Prabhat Khabhar escaped “the highest penalty” of the Press Council — censure — under Section 14 (1) of the Press Council Act of 1978. This was the only case where the paper and the candidate both firmly denied the charge. (In all the other cases, the candidates accepted they had purchased “news”.) And Prabhat Khabar ’s own record — it has strongly campaigned against paid news — added weight to its defence. The paper offered to apologise if the EC produced proof of any such aberration. It was “cautioned for the future.”

All the other dailies denied the charges, too. But, as the PCI’s inquiry committee puts it, “in all these cases, the candidate in question admitted before the Election Commission of India that he paid for the impugned material.” These dailies were found “guilty of having carried news reports that were in fact self-promotion material provided by the candidate in the fray,” and so faced the highest penalty of censure.

So quite a few politicians seem willing to confess to their paid news sins. They face penalties, too. Just 16 months ago, the EC disqualified Umlesh Yadav, then sitting MLA from Bisauli in Uttar Pradesh, for a period of three years for failing to provide a “true and correct account” of her election expenses. She had skipped any mention of her spending on advertisements dressed up as news during her 2007 poll campaign. She was the first legislator ever to bite the dust on grounds of excessive expenditure (and paid news). Dr. Mishra, Health Minister in the BJP government of Madhya Pradesh, now faces charges of the kind that got her disqualified.

Ashok Chavan case

Oddly enough, the Ashok Chavan case, which triggered off a spate of such cases, is itself bogged down in both the EC and the Supreme Court. The case of former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda is likewise held up in the courts. Judicial delays could have a serious and possibly adverse impact in the fight against Paid News in the 2014 general election.

But what action do habitual offenders in the media face? The Paid News Committee constituted by the Election Commission has concluded that those 42 “news items” involving Dr. Mishra “appear to be advertisements in the garb of news” and fall “within the definition of ‘Paid News’.” The Press Council defines Paid News as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.” A Press Council team appointed by PCI Chairperson Justice Katju found last month that Paid News had been rampant in Gujarat during the State polls there in December 2012.

So what happens where media outlets concerned are found guilty? Where the “highest penalty” is censure and that draws not even an apology? Of course, Paid News is not only about elections, though that’s where it does greatest damage to the greatest number. It is an everyday activity in much of the media. The cloying coverage that powerful corporations get routinely reeks of it. You can see it in some completely corporate “sporting” events or “partnerships.” Governments, too, buy “news” sometimes. You can see it at work in Davos, too. Who funds journalists and channels from India at that World Economic Forum event each year is worth looking at. But that’s another story. Watch this space.

Courtesy: The Hindu

Update:  On April 12, 2013, an Enquiry  Committee of the Press Council of India cleared The Hindustan Times of charges of ‘paid news’ and recommended to the full Council that the matter be treated as closed. It found that the particular stories listed in the original complaint were not, in fact, ‘paid news.’ And it is only right, in that case, to drop the charges and clear the HT. It would have been good, though, if the clearance report had also mentioned that the original censure of multiple publications was arrived at on the basis of confessions from the candidates in the election themselves. Or that those confessions were made to the ECI, not to the Press Council. As the original Enquiry report said: “…in all these cases, the candidate in question admitted before the Election Commission of India that he paid for the impugned material.” The story above, as the very headline shows, was based on candidate confessions, not on the stories cleared.