The phenomenon of paid news in the media has become entrenched as an institutional malpractice, especially evident in the coverage of the recent Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Can something be done to restore lost ethics in an environment where commercial interests are increasingly driving and degrading journalism?

Distinguished mediapersons presented various aspects of the problem and likely solutions at a panel discussion on “Journalism for Commerce,” organised by the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) here on Saturday.

“Indian journalism is at a crossroads. When we shirk our basic duty of being the purveyors of facts in order to empower public opinion towards a more robust democracy, we commit the same crime as a parliamentarian who sells his or her right to ask questions for money,” said Vinod Sharma, Political Editor, Hindustan Times.

“Powerful sections within the media are offering covering packages to political parties. The enormity of this problem has not sunk in the media completely,” said SAFMA president K.K. Katyal.

Driving home the need for drastic steps to rein in the practice of paid news, P. Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu, warned: “Either we finish it or it finishes us. There will be no space, no scope for legitimate journalism if this process expands any further.” He put his finger on hyper commercialisation pervading every sector, including the media, over the past 20 years as the root of the problem. “It goes hand in hand with the rise of corporate and money power in politics.”

Mr. Sainath said statistics from 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 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 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.

With respect to the media, Mr. Sainath cautioned: “The fact that there is no distinction made between the corporate sector and the media is extremely serious.”

Some of the characteristics of the paid news pages he highlighted were the absence of any negative line against a candidate covered and the blacking out of rivals, small parties and candidates. “Even big candidates are blacked out if the opposing one has paid a fabulous sum,” he said.

“The scale of the malpractice is a new trend. So is the multimedia nature of media packages and a shift from individual corruption to a structured industry. With copies worded by ad agencies, it has become a coordinated and integrated exercise.”

Looking for a possible solution, he said: “Either we self-regulate or somebody else will. And that kind of intervention will be most unwelcome to those who fulfil their legitimate function as a free press.”

Strengthen Press Council

Mr. Sainath advocated strengthening the existing regulatory bodies such as the Press Council of India. The Election Commission had a stronger role to play in curbing misuse of the press and money power in politics. “As a society, we have to move towards greater restraints and regulation of monopolies in general. There are risks involved, but it is the duty of the rest of the press to shame [the perpetrators],” he said.

The only political viewpoint came from panellist Ravi Shankar Prasad, BJP Rajya Sabha member. Given the “eyeball catching” news on television, which affected the quality of content, he asked for a transparent system of TV ratings. Stripped of its utilitarian value, news would become a product, editors would become brand managers and journalists salespeople, he said.

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