That the autonomous Press Council of India (PCI) established by the Union Government under a 1978 Act has been demanding more powers to tackle what has come to be known as the “paid news syndrome” and its fresh proposals are under the government's consideration is good news indeed. This shows that the people's anger over this shocking form of media impropriety and electoral malpractice, deeply damaging to democracy, has at last reached the corridors of power. The series of articles, published by The Hindu and several other newspapers, and the heartening response from readers (this newspaper has so far published some 20 letters on the subject) have created awareness across the country about the adverse impact of this pernicious practice on democracy.
Informing the Rajya Sabha of this development recently, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni stated that the PCI has long been asking for more powers. This year, however, the demand has a special significance, because of the complaints from leading media houses and other stakeholders about the practice of “paid news.” The PCI has constituted a sub-committee to consider this issue. Several respected journalists have brought to the PCI's attention the widespread prevalence of “paid news” in Andhra Pradesh during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It has met several stakeholders and organisations, which included the Indian Newspapers Society (INS) and the Indian Language Newspapers Association (ILNA). The PCI had also met the Election Commission of India in the process. The subcommittee is expected to present its report by the end of this month.
Noting that there was strong circumstantial evidence of malpractices, the Minister observed: “The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct and true information to the people” and, if paid information was presented as news content, it could mislead the public and hamper its judgment. She wanted media barons to uphold the primacy of the editor and appreciated the efforts of some media houses and individuals for vigorously raising the issue. In this context, she pointed out that the Editors Guild of India condemned this unethical practice and called upon all editors to desist from publishing any form of advertisement that masqueraded as news.
“It is important,” Ms Soni emphasised, “that all sections should introspect on this issue, as it has wide-ranging implications for our democratic structure.” This is a significant statement. Regulatory bodies have a role to play in resolving issues such as this. But the time-tested self-regulatory measures of the news media must also come into active play, if an enduring solution is to be found. In fact, the introspection suggested by the Minister seems to have already been set in motion, notably by the Editors Guild.
Taking a strong stand against paid news in all its forms, the Editors Guild resolved at its Annual General Meeting on December 22, 2009 that the practice “whittles the foundation of Indian journalism and called upon all editors in the country to desist from publishing any form of advertisement which masquerades as news.” It decried the “unsavory and unacceptable practice of some political parties and candidates offering payment for “news packages” to news media and its representatives to publish and telecast eulogising and misleading news reports on the political parties.”
Is practical and holds promise
The Guild warned in no uncertain terms: “Both the media organisations and editors who indulge in it, and the customers who offer payment for such ‘paid news' are guilty of undermining the free and fair press, for which every citizen of India is entitled to.” It called upon publishers, editors and journalists of media organisations “to unitedly fight this creeping menace of commercialisation and bartering of self respect of the media.” But it was not just words; the Guild has formed an ethics committee, a practical arrangement that holds real promise.
Following up, a delegation of the Guild headed by its president Rajdeep Sardesai, who made out a strong case for dedicating the year 2010 to a campaign against “paid news,” met Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla. It urged the Commission to take strong action against election candidates as well as mediapersons who violated the disclosure norms of election expenditure on media publicity. Mr. Sardesai told the Commission that the dangerous trend threatened the foundation of journalism by eroding public faith in the credibility and impartiality of news reporting. It also vitiated the poll process and prevented a fair election, since richer candidates had a clear advantage.
Mr. Chawla pointed out that the Election Commission did not have the mechanism to monitor elections in all the constituencies; some random samples could be examined closely. Election Commissioner S. Y. Qureshi hinted that the way the Commission dealt with complaints against Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan would be taken as a test case. Another Commissioner, V.S. Sampath, welcomed suggestions on how best the Commission could handle the case and asked for some “concrete” suggestions.
Interestingly, organisations representing working journalists have been in the forefront in taking up corrective action. The Press Academy of Andhra Pradesh and the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, based at Hyderabad, brought to light “the cash transfer scheme” that was widely in operation during the May 2009 Lok Sabha elections. Led by veteran journalists Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjee, and Harivansh, the functionaries of the two organisations met the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice G.N. Ray, and sought his intervention.
It must be noted that conscientious senior journalists brought the “paid news syndrome” to light. P. Sainath, who exposed the large-scale prevalence of the malpractice in Maharashtra involving millions of rupees, wrote two more articles on the same issue, bringing to light several aspects of the issue. Professional organisations representing working journalists held seminars at various places. Special mention must be made of the early efforts of veteran journalist Prabash Joshi, who began campaigning vigorously against the menace as soon as he learned about it during the Lok Sabha elections. Apart from writing articles in newspapers he addressed scores of meetings in northern States before his death on November 5, 2009.
A lasting solution lies in a combination of strict, transparent in-house preventive steps and firm action under the law of the land by the Press Council and the Election Commission.