‘The media simply cannot afford to tell the truth'

With news media groups becoming corporate players in their own right, they need to be held to the same standards as any other corporate entity, according to P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, who wrote a series of articles on paid news for this newspaper. The first step in fighting paid news is to bring in anti-monopoly legislation that would prevent media companies from making investments that would cause a conflict of interest, he said at a lecture organised by the Delhi Union of Journalists on Friday.

To make his point that paid news — which is news paid for in cash or kind by interested parties — is essentially a fallout of unethical business practices, Mr. Sainath cited a series of statistics.

Indian media companies today are invested in at least 200 different sectors, including aviation, hotels, cement, shipping, steel, education, automobiles, textiles, education, cricket, information technology and real estate, to name just a few.

In fact, one of India's largest newspaper groups has 240 “private treaties” with various corporates. And, as a guarantee for advertisements and against negative coverage, newspapers pick up a 7 to 10 per cent stake in every company they sign such a treaty with.

All of which leaves the journalists in these newspapers unable to honestly write about India Inc. “There is a structural compulsion to lie in a media so invested in stock markets and corporates themselves,” said Mr. Sainath. “They simply cannot afford to tell the truth.”

He recalls how, during the height of the economic recession in 2009, the editorial desks of at least two major English newspapers were given a strict fatwa against any use of the “R” word. It could be called a “slowdown,” but not a “recession,” simply because the economic future of these media groups depended on talking up the market, and increasing the value of the shares they had purchased through private treaties.

Mr. Sainath's series of articles in The Hindu mostly focussed on paid news in electoral politics. However, he points out that with politics becoming ever more entwined with business interests, it was inevitable that the corporatisation of news would soon extend to the electoral space as well.

“In fact, the very same politician whose initial complaint led to my first story on paid news later avoided voting in the Press Council of India [on the issue of suppressing the Council's own report naming and shaming the perpetrators of paid news],” said Mr. Sainath. “What does that say about the power of these media barons?”

The commercialisation of the media shows itself in the phenomenon of paid news, but it also results in a growing disconnect with reality, and a structural neglect of the poor. This means that today's mainstream media misses out on covering the major issues of our times — growing hunger, an agrarian crisis, mass displacement, and the highest inequality ever, he said.

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