The Delhi High Court's dismissal of Ashok Chavan's petition and, separately, the Press Council being told to put up its full report on ‘paid news' on its website by today promise many blushes for Big Media and platinum-tier politicians.

The Delhi High Court has handed both the political circuit and the media a ticking parcel with its judgment in the Ashok Chavan case. It shouldn't be long before we learn what's ticking. (What's not ticking is the media. Subdued quiet seems the norm.) The former Maharashtra Chief Minister had challenged the power of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to go into the truth or falsity of his 2009 poll expenses. Those proceedings in the ECI had gained infamy as the ‘paid news' case. A case which embarrassed major newspapers that had run scores of hagiographic full pages of ‘ news' on Mr. Chavan during his poll campaign. Pages without a single advertisement on them (The Hindu, November 30, 2009). And without so much as a mention of his rival in Bhokar constituency in Nanded.

Chief Justice Dipak Misra (since elevated to the Supreme Court) and Justice Sanjiv Khanna of the Delhi High Court dismissed Chavan's petition as being ‘devoid of merit.' In doing so, they upheld the jurisdiction of the ECI to probe the truth or falseness of poll accounts. This is crucial for the future (and for Mr. Chavan, right away). It should really worry the wealthy political elite who spend untold sums to win elections. No elected legislator or MP has ever been disqualified on grounds of excess expenditure. If such a precedent does emerge, the next elections could be riveting for entirely novel reasons. The more so with a galvanised ECI that won't roll over meekly in deference to power.

It's a double whammy. Not long before this judgment, the Central Information Commission (CIC) had ordered the Press Council of India (PCI) to unwrap its own ticking parcel. That is: the PCI's ‘paid news' report which it had suppressed under pressure from media bosses. After the ‘paid news' scandal surfaced, the Press Council under Justice G.N. Ray rightly set up a subcommittee to inquire into the racket. The committee comprising Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Sreenivas Reddy produced an explosive 71-page report naming names, pointing fingers. Yet, it did this within all the norms and ethics that such an exercise demands.

The big guns of the media establishment struck back in a panic. The PCI buckled, burying its own report. It had a larger committee draft a 12-page version that dropped all references to the offenders. The final report reduced the original to a single footnote. It did not even include the real one as an annexure. Nor did it permit the authors to record a note of dissent. And the PCI never allowed the genuine report to be placed on its own website, though it paid lip service to the work of its authors. It stonewalled an RTI application from journalist Manu Moudgil seeking the full report. It was seeking legal opinion, it pleaded. Now the CIC, acting on Mr. Moudgil's complaint, has told the Press Council to put the full report up on its website by October 10.

Together, these two developments promise many blushes for Big Media. In the Delhi case, of course, Mr. Chavan could appeal to the Supreme Court on the matter. Unless that happens, the ECI can proceed with its probe and render a verdict. Others in Mr. Chavan's boat include former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda. His accounts were in question, too. So we're not talking about just anyone, but two former chief ministers who won their elections. The platinum-tier political world has worries ahead. Money can't buy you everything, but it has bought a few elections.

Mr. Chavan's accounts are a delight. A kind of Gandhian manual on poll austerity. Read them and you know that Bhokar, Nanded is where you want to settle post-retirement. Things are so cheap. Mr. Chavan wrapped up his newspaper advertising within a frugal Rs.5,379. His entire poll campaign cost less than Rs.7 lakh. (The limit for an assembly constituency in Maharashtra that year was Rs.10 lakh). This included two public meetings where he brought down Bollywood megastar Salman Khan as the main attraction, drawing thousands of people. The first meeting cost a piffling Rs.4,440 and the second even less, only Rs.4,300. In both cases the main cost, more than a third of the total, was on the public address system. (But even Steve Jobs could not have got the audio done in Rs.1,500). The pandal top cost just Rs.200, hired sofas cost the same and Mr. Chavan spent no more than Rs.1,000 on setting up the stage. (See: The Hindu, November 10, 2010).

On December 2, 2009, Dr. Madhav Kinhalkar, Mr. Chavan's rival in the Bhokar poll, complained to the Election Commission. That is, two days after The Hindu's story on the amazing press coverage Mr. Chavan got during the polls. (“Is the Era of Ashok a new era for ‘ news'?” November 30, 2009). Dr. Kinhalkar's complaint focused on the latter's poll expenses and the huge number of full pages (many in colour) eulogising Mr. Chavan in large and powerful newspapers. Four dailies, asked by the ECI whether what had appeared on Mr. Chavan was news or paid-for, scorned all notions of paid news. It was all news, and balanced and fair at that, they said. The mere suggestion of payment was insulting. Their actions flowed from lofty journalistic values. Their letters to the ECI are clear and edifying.

Two Marathi papers pleaded proximity to the Congress. As the daily Pudhari argued in a five-page letter: “….every newspaper has its inclination towards a political party and Pudhari is no exception to that.” Yet, Pudhari is known not only for “its frank and candid views.” It is also known for “rising above political affiliation.” At election time, the daily stated, newspapers cover all events and give “due publicity.” The “only difference being the degree and extent of coverage depending on (the) Newspaper's political inclination as explained above.” Such publication “is at the behest of the readers on their demand to satisfy their curiosity.”

Lokmat candidly shared its aim in bringing out so many pages on Mr. Chavan. This was “to acquaint the people of Maharashtra about the achievements and developments of the Congress-led government in Maharashtra during its tenure under the present Chief Minister.” (Who had held that post for all of 11 months at the time). “The other factor that motivated us…is the alignment of our group's ideology with that of the Congress Party.” Mr. Chavan, for his part, contended that what had appeared in the press were “mere news items and are not advertisements.” The glowing articles on him were the outcome of the media's own assessments. He had neither control over, nor any role in that.

The Times Group (for Maharashtra Times) also trashed any notion of ‘paid news.' We are “a balanced and responsible corporate,” their letter asserted. “The said articles are neither sponsored nor paid articles.” They were “not published at the instance of any political party or advertising agency.” And “no monetary consideration” was involved. It was, then, just good old news all the way.

The shortest reply is a two-paragraph missive from the editor of Deshonnati. The key line: “the said publications were neither sponsored articles nor paid articles. It was a reflection of my individual perception.”

Their individual perceptions are at odds with the whole media scene portrayed in the suppressed PCI report. The Election Commission's own experience of poll coverage also seems to have been different. The Commission saw ‘ paid news' as a real threat and ordered creation of “district-level committees for scrutiny of paid news during election periods” after the 2009 polls. It even set up an Expenditure Monitoring Division within the ECI to deal with the challenge of abuse of money power (including ‘paid news') in elections. The Commission responded to complaints by Dr. Kinhalkar and others and wrestled with the complex issues thrown up by the paid news syndrome.

In April this year, Mr. Chavan went to the Delhi High Court, challenging the ECI's jurisdiction. The High Court judgment dismissing his petition has set the poll cat amongst the political pigeons. The CIC's order puts major sections of the media in a bind. Earlier, the ECI had to make do with the truncated 12-page report from the Press Council on paid news. Now it is entitled to receive the full 71-page version. And also, quite separately, to carry on from where it was interrupted in its proceedings. How does that phrase (perhaps wrongly attributed to the Chinese) go? “May you live in interesting times?” We sure will, fairly soon.

The Press Council of India (PCI) put up the full 71-page report on 'Paid News' on its website on Monday.

This is how you get there:

Go to http://presscouncil.nic.in/home.htm Click on "Report on Paid News" in the left side menu. Click on "Sub-Committee Report" (i.e. full 71-page version)

You can alternatively read the report from here. - Editor

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