Reader responses to last week’s column on media-related malpractices during elections throw further light on this serious issue, which is now before the Press Council of India. Some of them contend that the alleged malpractices were neither new nor confined to Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. No less shocking than the “coverage package” of Maharashtra or the “cash transfer scheme” of Andhra Pradesh is the “power of extraction” that allegedly played a role during the 2009 Lok Sabha election in Tamil Nadu’s Coimbatore constituency.

K. Ramasubramanian, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate in the Coimbatore Lok Sabha constituency, stated the following in an email to the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu that has been forwarded to the Election Commission of India (ECI) for its information. Traditionally, money power and muscle power had been “two inseparable and fearful factors of Indian elections.” However in the recent parliamentary elections the media unleashed the “power of extraction” on a “selective basis” against “a few underprivileged candidates like me.” Mr. Ramasubramanian contended that the media, considered the fourth estate and a watchdog of democracy, were “partial in covering the elections” by giving “good news coverage” only to parties that “favoured” them. A section of the media, particularly some influential Tamil dailies he named, published election-related news “according to their whims and fancies without giving a fair chance to candidates from smaller parties.”

“Strange scheme”

He alleged that when he took up the problem with the relevant newspapers, he was assured of “due publicity” provided he shelled out about Rs.4,00,000 to Rs 5,00,000 over a period of 15 to 20 days under a “special scheme” of the managements of these newspapers. He was also “enlightened” by the management of one of these papers that if he released advertisements soliciting votes in newspapers, he would be accountable to the ECI, which was monitoring the election expenses of candidates. If, on the other hand, the message appeared as an editorial piece, it would help the candidate conceal the expense incurred.

This “strange scheme”, Mr. Ramasubramanian asserted, offered immunity to candidates who made a lump-sum payment and also ensured good publicity for them. If the candidate insisted on a receipt, it would be made out to a third party and not necessarily to the contestant. “This was an obnoxious and strongly objectionable scheme and was totally opposed to democratic principles and media ethics,” he said. Apart from encouraging unfair means, the “scheme”, also shook the very foundation of democracy and made it a mockery. “Obviously, as I was against the principle of buying editorial space by availing myself of ‘special packages’ offered by most of the regional newspapers, I failed in garnering adequate visibility in the mass media,”

Mr. Ramasubramanian wants the Election Commission and the Press Council to take a serious view of this corrupt practice and initiate stringent measures to stem the rot before it was too late. “Only then the right thinking and educated people would repose their trust in true democracy.” His appeal to these two bodies certainly deserves the support of the champions of true democracy and fair media.

Not restricted to election time

Pisipati Sriram of Hyderabad, also in an e-mail, said media greed was not restricted to election time. As one with long experience in journalism, his letter dealt with the circumstances under which journalism had reached such a low. The rot had set in much earlier, he felt. “To be precise, ever since editorial departments were taken over by market-men, editorial staffers, generally perceived as knowledgeable and scholarly persons, were reduced to cut-and-paste page-makers drawing wages that are peanuts in many news organisations.” In Mr. Sriram’s opinion, “standards of journalism have never been as low as I find them these days.”

The reader wondered what kind of professional standards and ethics one could expect when journalists in many Indian and English language dailies scrambled for favours from the establishment. He added cuttingly that a journalist who obtained benefits from the government such as a house site would only serve the establishment needs and at best was “only a dictation clerk to the powers of the day.” Such journalists would only file reports that show their benefactors in a good light. “Managements, for their own reasons, would seem to prefer such sycophants, drummers and trumpeters.”

The conclusion drawn by Mr. Sriram is that under such circumstances, “professional, impartial, dispassionate journalism gives way to narrow-minded, self-serving destructive journalism.”

A highly competitive media industry cannot afford to underrate the role of hyper-commercialisation driven by the conditions created by a fast-growing market-driven economy. Vice-President and chairman of the Rajya Sabha Hamid M. Ansari called attention to this challenge, which is actually a dilemma, in his inaugural speech at a recent New Delhi workshop on Parliament and Media: “the explosive growth in the media industry has highlighted the fact that the Fourth Estate is the only one among the pillars of democracy that has an identifiable professional, commercial and explicitly for-profit persona. While the primary duty of media organisations is to their readership for keeping them informed and appraised with news, views and ideas, the commercial logic brings in a new set of stakeholders …” Now more than ever before in India, there is a great need for checks and balances to ensure the primacy of editorial values and functions in the news media. This in clearly in the larger interest of protecting their integrity, independence, and fairness.

I can say that based on my journalistic experience, I am cautiously optimistic that maintaining a balance in order to “resurrect the professional and ethnical dimension of journalism” (to use the Vice-President’s words) is possible.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in