Noting that the “DNA” of Indian media organisations has changed after liberalisation, Vice-President Hamid Ansari on Thursday warned that the phenomenon of paid news and coverage packages have a potential to tarnish the polity and destabilise the country’s economy.

“The recent practices of leveraging political and economic content in our media for overt and covert revenue generation have the malevolent potential to tarnish our polity and even destabilise the economy,” Mr. Ansari said.

Speaking at the inauguration of M.C. Varghese Memorial Lecture series here, he said this has led the Editors Guild and the Press Council to investigate “the phenomenon of electoral malpractices of paid news and coverage packages.”

Mr. Ansari, who was speaking on the topic ‘Indian Media in the New Century’, said that while by the 1990s, the tradition of a free press had been firmly established, “the winds of economic liberalisation brought with them the elements of the market economy that have changed the DNA of our media organisations.”

The Vice-President expressed concern that with media organisations turning into large business entities with thousands of employees and huge financial assets, “their primary professional duty to their readership has been diluted by the commercial logic of catering to the interests of the shareholders of the holding companies.”

Echoing similar views, Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan called for “introspection” as in recent years the increasing commercialisation of the mass media had some adverse effects on journalistic practices.

Mr. Balakrishnan said when media establishments become preoccupied with the size of their readership or viewer ship, there is a greater likelihood of journalists resorting to intrusive news-gathering methods and editors approving content without verifying the relevant facts or explaining their proper background.

The CJI felt while “sting operations” and high-decibel reporting may be justified in exceptional circumstances, “they should not be resorted to as a matter of routine.”

“Especially with regard to the legal system, there has been a raging debate about how unrestrained reporting often dilutes the right to fair trial for accused in high-profile cases,” he said.

Referring to suggestions to identify clear thresholds for restricting reporting on sub-judice matters, he said “these restrictions will carry meaning only if the journalists themselves are willing to exercise restraint.”

The Vice-President said the pursuit of profit has altered the profile of the media entrepreneur. “Today, a media enterprise is seen as a necessary subsidiary for a growing business enterprise, a political party and even individuals seeking to leverage public influence for private gain.

“On the other hand deception, opaque flow of political information, or slanted economic data prevents political and economic actors from exercising rational and well considered choices. They impede the democratic process and could lead to public disenchantment,” he said.

Former Union minister M.P. Veerendrakumar said India was one of the few countries where newspapers were available at a very low price.

He said since newspapers are unable to earn profit out of circulation, they publish advertisements. This, he said, forces them write what the corporates wish.

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