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Updated: October 4, 2010 01:48 IST

Ending ‘paid news’: it’s time to act

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The Hindu

It's been nearly a year since the ‘paid news' syndrome — an appalling industry-wide violation of media ethics and a media-related electoral malpractice — was brought to people's attention by a section of the media. The issue still remains in the public domain, drawing critical comment and protest every now and then. The large-scale practice of paid news, particularly during the run-up to elections, has the potential of misleading the electorate in judging the relative merits and demerits of the contestants and, as a consequence, influencing the verdict by corrupt and underhand means.

The report of a sub-committee formed by the Press Council of India (PCI), which enquired into the scandal in some depth, is awaiting clearance. PCI Chairman G.N. Ray, a retired Supreme Court Judge, hints at some bottlenecks in legislating on the subject. He attributes the emergence of paid news to the corporatisation and monopolisation of the media. With Assembly elections fast approaching in several States, the need for no-nonsense action on the report in order to ensure free and fair elections is urgently felt.

Justice Ray has offered no clue as to when the report will be made public. He has, however, denied the charge that PCI has suppressed the findings of the sub-committee. He has claimed that the sub-committee's report is not that of the PCI and that the decision not to incorporate the full report in the final recommendations (for ‘want of clinching evidence') was made by the drafting committee's majority. However a member of the PCI, K. Kesava Rao, who is also a member of the Congress Working Committee, has said that though the Supreme Court, Parliament, jurists, writers, and eminent persons have come out in support of action against paid news, “we are yet to come to a compromise on how to handle it.”

A paradigm shift

In a hard-hitting speech at a recent Coimbatore seminar, Justice Ray accused the media of losing focus during the last few decades. In fact, he saw a paradigm shift in the functioning of the media at the cost of values that it had been following all along. Describing the media as a valiant partner in democracy that ought to guide civil society, political parties, and the state on the path of good and responsible governance, the PCI chief has registered angst over the media sidelining this mission, with professional commitment undermined by hyper-commercialism. The PCI chairman also cited recent concerns expressed by the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) over the ‘private treaties' entered into by some media houses with corporate bodies. In consequence, the Press Council had issued guidelines for the media on the subject.

The private treaties system has been characterised as a (business arena) counterpart of, and a precursor to, the paid news phenomenon (in the political sphere), even if the same actors might not be involved in the two cases. In a letter to the PCI Chairman, SEBI stated that private treaties might lead to commercialisation of news reports since they would be based on the subscription and advertising agreement entered into between the media group and the company. Any biased or imbalanced reporting may lead to inaccurate perceptions of the companies, which are the beneficiaries of such private treaties. Media houses entered into private treaties with companies that were listed or were coming out with public offers “for a stake in the company and in return providing media coverage through advertisements, news reports, editorials, etc.” (“Private Treaties harm fair, unbiased news: SEBI, report in The Hindu, June 19, 2010.) SEBI rightly intervened to protect the interests of other stakeholders, companies and investors in this exercise, by ensuring that the corporate bodies as well as the media groups that have deals with them to be transparent in their operations by declaring their relevant, mutual financial commitments at their websites.

A noteworthy difference

One significant difference of course is that neither SEBI nor the PCI has demanded a ban on the private treaty system while virtually everyone — from the President of India and the Vice President to political leaders across the spectrum and social activists — has publicly condemned the paid news racket and demanded an end to it. The Editors Guild of India has recorded its commitment to keep the media as much as the electoral system corruption-free. It has even promised to make the war on paid news its ‘one point' programme in the coming year. The PCI Chairman and working journalists associations and federations have all extended their support to efforts to end the menace. Several newspapers and their readers have also taken the right stand on the issue.

But paradoxically, no tough and effective measures have been proposed, let alone set in motion, by the Press Council or the Election Commission of India to stamp out the paid news racket.

To be fair to the ECI, it has expressed its opposition to the reprehensible practice in no uncertain terms. It has, not surprisingly, rejected the PCI proposal to depute journalists/senior citizens as observers during elections. The constitutionally sanctioned Commission did not agree with the PCI's contention that its recommendations on paid news were binding on the Commission. The reason was that the Election Commission would have to work within the constitutional provisions, the relevant Acts, and electoral laws. Chief Election Commissioner S.Y. Quraishi explained, in a letter to Justice Ray, that while the EC “is doing its best in the matter and assures further cooperation, you would appreciate that the Council has to facilitate more of self-regulation by media and also develop and share with the EC a more exact prescription to adjudge paid news.” The Commission, however, said that it would take “due cognisance of the recommendations of the PCI in alleged incidents of paid news.”

Break the nexus

If in spite of huge support across society and across the polity nothing much seems to have been done about ending the menace of paid news, the reasons need to be seen in the mindset of the vested interests — the media beneficiaries of the racket and the political players in the electoral field who place a high value on propagandistic support in India's burgeoning mass media. This nexus needs to be broken. At the same time, it must be realised that government intervention is likely to do more harm than good in respect of media functioning. Pushing for effective self-regulation and publicly shaming the corrupt elements is the way to go — without losing more time.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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