On the face of it, paid news may seem no more than advertising camouflaged as reports or editorials. Naveen Jindal’s shocking ‘reverse sting’ — aimed at exposing how two editors of the Zee network attempted to cut a shady deal with his company — shows that it can be much worse than this. It is a reminder of how easily the culture of paid news can lead, ineluctably, towards extortion. There is only one word for promising to back off on an investigation in exchange for lucrative advertising revenue: blackmail. And that is the essence of Mr. Jindal’s allegation against Zee. Of course, the hidden camera recordings, which seem to show the two editors making such an assurance, need to be assessed on many counts, including authenticity and the context in which the conversations took place. The Zee editors have denied all wrongdoing, claiming they were victims of an attempt to bribe them, implying they played along because their channels were conducting their own sting operation. But it boggles the mind why the two should have been discussing an advertising contract with executives of Jindal Steel and Power Ltd at a time when their channels were running a series of investigations on the company’s coal block allocations.
While it is for the police and courts to probe, and decide on, the facts of this case — a case of extortion has already been filed against Zee — Mr. Jindal has thrown a spotlight on an issue which has begun to darken the Indian mediascape: the increasing number of deals between corporate houses and media outlets, whether in the form of paid news or private treaties, to guarantee favourable press and, whenever required, to black out unfavourable news. If his so-called reverse sting creates a ripple of fear among those in the media industry who think nothing of cutting such extortionary deals, then there will be a positive takeaway from the sordid revelation. Such illegal and unethical practices only serve to strengthen the voices that would like some control over the media in the form of external regulation. It was only this May that a private member’s bill seeking to regulate the working of the press and the electronic media was introduced in Parliament. The media itself must refrain from conducting itself in a manner that harms its own argument that any regulatory mechanism must come only from within. One should remember that the ongoing Leveson Inquiry in the U.K. was a result of the phone hacking scandal and the increasing public disenchantment with the ethical standards in the British press. While there is no reason for external control, the Indian media should refrain from giving those who want this, the handle to push in that direction.