Well-known PR firms, professional designers, and ad agencies served the richer parties and candidates. They made up “news” items in the standard fonts and sizes of the desired newspapers and even “customised” the items to make them seem exclusive in different publications.
So you thought you’d had enough of Page 3? Newspapers in Maharashtra think otherwise. Some of them had more than one, on several days during the recent state elections. They even had supplements within supplements. So you had page 3 in the main paper. Then the main supplement with its own page 3. Then a further supplement within that, marked as Page III with Roman numerals (rarely, if ever, used in the Marathi press).
This happened mostly during the last days before voting as desperate candidates poured in money to buy “news.” As one senior journalist explained it: “On television, the number of bulletins shot up. In print, the number of pages. The demand had to be met. Often the extra package stuff came in at the last minute and had to be accommodated. Why turn them away?”
In Marathi, Hindi, English, and Urdu newspapers across the State, you can find many fascinating things during the election period that were not turned away. Sometimes the same puff item appeared as ‘news’ in one newspaper and as an advertisement in another. “It is shameful to misguide people,” reads the headline of an item paid for by Umakant (Babloo) Deotale, an independent candidate from Nagpur South West. This appears in Lokmat (Oct. 6) with a tiny ‘ADVT’ (advertisement) at the bottom. It appears the same day in The Hitavada (Nagpur’s leading English language daily) with no mention at all of its being an advertisement. Mr. Deotale got one thing right: it is shameful to misguide people.
Interestingly, a spate of genuine advertisements hit the pages on August 30. This was 24 hours before the election code of conduct — under which party and government expenditures come under scrutiny — came into force. After that, the word “advertisement” disappeared, and with it even the fig leaf of “response feature.” The items became “news.” There was a second surge of real ads just before candidates began filing nominations from September 18. This is because individual expenses come under scrutiny from the day the candidate files his or her nomination. Both these devices enabled the government, big parties, and rich candidates to spend huge sums of money that would not figure in poll expenditure accounts. Yet another device, widely used during the actual campaign, is absent in almost all candidate expenditure accounts: the massive use of SMS and voice mail messages. Also, the setting up of campaign-related websites. The amounts involved were significant. Their reflection in candidate accounts is nil.
“News” reports after August 30 and September 18 were fascinating in many ways. For one thing, there is not a single critical or negative line in any of them. Across hundreds of pages, the “news” consists solely of how wonderful particular candidates were, their achievements, and the progress of their campaigns. Nothing about the issues. Their rivals, people of fewer resources, did not exist in these newspaper pages except, perhaps, as fall guys.
Further, if you struck the right deal, the same “news” could appear in print, on television, and online. This was “package journalism” at its most advanced, that was truly multi-media. The shift to this kind of “news” was so large that real advertising at election time — when it should have been highest — actually fell in some influential newspapers.
Sadly, a few senior journalists had their bylines on some of the paid stuff. Some of them had the rank of chief reporter or even chief of bureau. A few may have done so willingly. But there were those who told me: “In the days when this was about petty corruption of individual journalists, we had a choice. To be or not to be corrupt. Now when this is an organised industry run by our employers, what choice do we have?”
Several newspapers published in Maharashtra between October 1 and 10, 2009 make fun reading. Sometimes, you find a page of mysteriously fixed item sizes, say 125-150 words plus a double column photo. The “fixed size” items are curious. News seldom unfolds in such rigid terms. (Advertisements do.) Elsewhere, you can see multiple fonts and drop case styles in the same page of a single newspaper. This was so because everything — layouts, fonts, and printouts came from the candidate seeking a slot. Even the bad pictures sullying the pages of organised papers came from candidates. There was no way a daily with two or three photographers could cope with the frenzy and demand of the first ten days of October.
Sometimes you got a more organised page or two — on which every single “news item” was on one political party only. No one else was found newsworthy on those pages. Page 3 of Pudhari (Oct. 6) worked for the Congress this way. Pages 3 and 4 of Sakaal’s Ranadhumali (“Tumult of the Battlefield”) supplement (Oct. 10) found only MNS-related items relevant. Other major parties too, those with ample resources, got such treatment elsewhere. There were pages where only the NCP made “news” ( Deshonnati Oct.11). Deshonnati’s Sept. 15 edition had four pages on Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. Nothing else appeared in those pages. There were similarly 12 pages of Mr. Chavan in the Hindi daily Nav Bharat between Sept. 30 and Oct. 13 (which brings our tally of Chavan-centric full pages to 89). On the other hand, as D-day approached, you got crowded pages, some with as many as 12 items and 15 photographs.
Since candidates or their political parties mostly delivered the “news” in the poll-period, most papers did not edit or change a thing. How do we explain otherwise why the items and their “bylines” violate the papers’ own style or practice? At the very least, this raises troubling questions.
For instance, Sakaal normally credits reports from its own staffers as “Batmidar” (reporter). Or else as being from Sakaal Vruttaseva (News Service) or from the Sakaal News Network. Or it uses the reporter’s name in the story. But what are obviously Congress handouts (masquerading as news) come signed as “Pratinidhi” (correspondent). So you found the newspaper carrying items marked “Pratinidhi” against its own run of professional play. One of these party plugs signed “Pratinidhi” ( Sakaal, Oct. 4) bears the headline “State’s leadership will return to Congress!” Sakaal places “Batmidar” at the top of its stories, the Congress handouts place “Pratinidhi” at the bottom. The two make odd bedfellows in the issues of October 4 and 9. Was this news? Was it advertising? Was it a bird or a plane?
Well-known PR firms, professional designers, and ad agencies served the richer parties and candidates, making up their items in the standard fonts and sizes of the concerned newspapers. They also “customised” the “news” to make it seem exclusive in different publications.
A handful of candidates, many of them builders, made more “news” than others. Conversely, smaller parties and less well-endowed candidates tended to get blacked out of any coverage in several newspapers across the State. Some of them have written to me, telling their stories. One, Shakil Ahmed, a lawyer and independent candidate in Sion-Koliwada in Mumbai, said the very newspapers that had earlier given him space as a social activist “demanded money to write about me as a candidate. Since I refused to pay, nobody wrote about me.” Mr. Ahmed is eager to depose before the Election Commission of India as well as the Press Council of India.
Journalists and activists from the districts sent us over a hundred issues of 21 different newspapers in the State. These ranged from high-circulation big names to small local dailies. All had their pages crowded with such “news.” In television channels, the same items making the rounds sometimes arrived as news on one channel and as advertisements on another. One such item appeared on two channels with the voice of a reporter from a third. And with the boom mike of the third channel showing up on rival screens.
As polling day approached, some journalists were besieged by desperate candidates with limited resources who risked being drowned in the flood. They needed professionals, they pleaded, to write their “paid news” items and were willing to shell out the modest amounts they could afford. The last days of the campaign actually saw some of these tiny items —reflecting the candidate’s financial status — find their way on to newspapers pages.
And these were elections, the news media told us, that had “no issues” at all.