Armed with recordings, transcripts, emails and cuttings, Mayabhushan Nagvenkar has taken the matter of what he calls “an open and shut case” of ‘paid news' against OHeraldO of Goa to the Press Council of India.

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.” Mr. Nagvenkar backs his complaint with audios and transcripts of four telephonic conversations with the Herald's marketing manager, Tulshidas Desai, recorded between October 20 and 22. The conversations, he charges, indicate that the newspaper regularly indulges in such paid political news. He also alleges that Mr. Desai could not have pushed a deal like this without the consent, “tacit or otherwise,” of the editorial leadership.

Asked for his response, Mr. Desai flatly rejected the charges and asserted he had only been talking of an “advertorial concept.” He denied ever interfering in “the editorial area.” In a statement responding to the complaint to the PCI, Herald editor Sujay Gupta emphatically denied that “any editorial content which has appeared in the Herald, without the “advertorial” tag line has been paid for.” And even said that such suggestions were “hugely defamatory.” He warns that the “Herald will respond to these allegations urgently and appropriately in a proper forum.”

Meanwhile, the Goa Union of Journalists has come out with a strong statement against ‘paid news,' noting it was “rampant in the 2007 Assembly elections.” The GUJ also “accepted Mr. Nagvenkar's contention that the sting was undertaken in the public interest and in the interest of the professional ethics.”

One point of convergence — so far, anyway: Nobody has denied the conversations or questioned the authenticity of the telephone recordings. Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Gupta described Mr. Desai's statements as “absolutely incorrect” and stated that “he has overreached himself.” He described the manager's words as “highly irresponsible” and made in a sales and marketing conversation and said the entire management and editor disassociated themselves from these. “Even if he has said it, they may claim anything, it has to ultimately pass through the editor. I will never allow any such thing to happen. It is eventually the editorial decision, where I put my foot down,” he said.

Mr. Nagvenkar, though, is combative. “Desai told me, [as Bernard Costa], that I could get a political campaign interview [15 inches by eight news columns, to be exact] in the newspaper for Rs. 86,400, and for an additional Rs. 50,000, I could be interviewed on the Herald Cable Network [HCN], the local cable news channel operated by the same media group. And assured me that none of the paid content will carry an ‘advertorial' tag.” He also points to Mr. Desai's acknowledging that Raymond D'Sa of Cortalim had paid Rs. 2 lakh for his ‘interview.'

Mr. Gupta denied any financial transaction occurred, saying: “I would rather resign than permit something like this.” He told The Hindu, however, that the decision to carry interviews of first- time candidates “where it looks like you are promoting a person” was an editorial error of judgment which The Herald would rectify immediately. But insisted that this was done in absolute honesty.

In his public statement, he also asserts that: “As Editor, my stated position both within and outside the organisation has been that paid content cannot be disguised as news.” Politicians' messages, claims of achievements and any other such information through a paid route, “we have prominently stated that they are advertorials,” said Mr. Gupta and went on to reiterate that “Editorial was not in the know of any such negotiations or discussions…”

“If the Herald has a system to channel paid content as ‘advertorials' then why does the marketing manager agree to shed the ‘advertorial' tag?” counters Mr. Nagvenkar.

In the recording, Mr. Nagvenkar can be heard telling Mr. Desai he needs some kind of written estimate or quotation to clinch the deal.

“Something yaar...so that I also have to show that somewhere no?

“Ok I'll do that,” says Mr. Desai.

An email from Mr. Desai follows. He confirms the sums of Rs. 86,400 and Rs. 50,000 for an interview in the Herald and the HCN channel respectively. Mr. Nagvenkar, posing as Bernard Costa, writes back asking for confirmation that the interview will be published in such a way that readers believe it is a news item and not an advertisement. “Once we meet in our office, we will discuss on this,” the Herald marketing manager replies, evidently wary of leaving a paper trail. Costa's answer: “Ok, ok, I will come with the cash Monday or Tuesday.”

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