The same exclusive report, with different bylines, in three rival dailies. Swathes of advertising dolled up as news stories. Is ‘paid news’ getting institutionalised?

“Young dynamic leadership: Ashokrao Chavan,” read the headline of a prominent news item in the Marathi daily Lokmat (October 10). That was 72 hours before the people of Maharashtra went to vote in the State Assembly polls. The item was attributed to the newspaper’s "Special Correspondent," making it clear this was a news story. The story showered praise on the Chief Minister of Maharashtra for having achieved so much for so many in so few months. The same story also appeared word for word the same day in the Maharashtra Times, a leading and rival Marathi daily. Two minds with but a single thought? Two hearts that beat as one?

A cute and comforting thought. Except that the very same story (again word for word, only with a different headline) had appeared three days earlier in the Marathi daily Pudhari (October 7). In that case, with a reporter’s name at the bottom of the item.

In the Maharashtra Times, the piece ran without a byline. But again, as a news story. There is no mention of the word advertisement or sponsored feature next to the item in any of the newspapers. And unless the bylined reporter of Pudhari moonlights as” Special Correspondent" for Lokmat, while also being a ghost-writer for the Maharashtra Times, the appearance of the same piece verbatim in the three rival newspapers does seem odd. But maybe not so odd? Mr. Chavan seems to have gained greatly from what is now called ‘package journalism’ or ‘coverage packages.’

A limited check by The Hindu turned up around 47 full pages of ‘news’ (quite a few of them in colour) centred on Mr. Chavan and his fine qualities as a leader. These mostly appeared between October 1 and 12 in more than one paper but mainly in multiple editions of Lokmat. (These 47 pages are barely a third of those actually published in that period.) The pattern seems to have been set with a launch on September 12 of a four-page colour supplement titled Ashok parv (The Era of Ashok). And then followed up with a full page almost every day in October till voting day (October 13) titled “ Vikas parv” or The Era of Development. The Vikas parv pages, too, are centred on Mr. Chavan. And, of course, the achievements of Maharashtra under the Congress.

This flood of ‘news’ did not harm Mr. Chavan’s prospects. He won the Bhokar Assembly seat of Maharashtra’s Nanded district by defeating independent candidate Madhavrao Kinhalkar by a margin of over one lakh (120,849 against 13,346) votes.

In strict terms, the unprecedented coverage the Chief Minister received during the poll campaign cannot be called advertising. None of those full pages bears that word. And his “day to day accounts of election expenditures” do not reflect any real spending on ads. All candidates are required by law to submit their campaign expenses accounts to the district election officer within 30 days of the declaration of results. Mr. Chavan’s accounts, which are in The Hindu’s possession thanks to an RTI application to which the appropriate authorities responded with commendable speed, claim a total expenditure of just Rs. 11,379 on advertising. Indeed, he had a mere six advertisements in print and these cost a trifling Rs. 5,379. (The rest was spent on slots on cable television.) Moreover, all his print ads went to a single newspaper, Satyaprabha. That is a small daily in the district of Nanded. Yet Mr. Chavan was the focus of scores of full pages in very major dailies. If those had been ads, they would have cost crores of rupees. More so given the large newspapers they featured in.

Lokmat is a very popular Marathi daily newspaper. It ranks as the 4th largest circulated daily in India while being numero uno in Maharashtra, with more than ten million readers (NRS 2006). The Maharashtra Times is no small-town sheet either. It too has millions of readers and is part of India’s largest newspaper group. (Our limited check turned up ‘news’ of this kind in many other dailies. However, in some we were able to get through most of the issues between Oct. 1 and 12. Piles of the rest, from 18 other newspapers across the state, lie with us for scrutiny.) If Indian-language papers ran most of such ‘news,’ that was mainly because they were the preferred platform to reach voters during election time.

At market rates, say industry insiders, placing a four-page colour supplement in all 13 editions of a newspaper like Lokmat could cost an advertiser between Rs. 1.5 crore and 2 crore. “Also,” says an executive who has worked in this field, “this was election time. It comes once in five years. Forget about discounts, the rates climb higher in a seller’s market.” But never mind the supplements. The pages titled Vikas parv ran very frequently in Lokmat in October till almost voting day. (We have 35 such pages that ran between Oct. 1 and 12).

The cost of these alone, if they were advertising, would have been hugely above the election expenditure limit. Of course there could have been, as the executive concedes, special deals struck between the advertiser and the newspaper. (Incidentally, a member of the family owning Lokmat, Congress MLA Rajendra Darda, has joined the Ashok Chavan Ministry with full cabinet rank. He was a Minister of State in the earlier government. His website describes him as Vice Chairman & Joint Managing Director. It also calls him “a driving force behind Lokmat’s success for the last 35 years.”)

Two enterprising dailies handled their ‘paid news’ differently. They required each ‘advertiser’ to buy thousands of copies of the paper. That way, they made their money, while showing higher sale numbers. Crucially, not a single newspaper carrying this kind of material runs the word advertisement with such ‘news’ items. The post-poll period has seen some debate in the State over what is now called the ‘paid news’ industry. Many believe that this time the news media went further than ever before in passing off advertising as news. And that the practice has moved from petty corruption of a few journalists to a media-run game worth hundreds of millions of rupees.

Govind Talwalkar, a distinguished leader of Marathi journalism, now retired, is amongst those deeply upset. He wrote in anguish from the United States to The Hindu saying “this is a perfect case for a CBI inquiry...Never in such a long career have I found journalism reduced to such a degrading and reprehensible state.” Mr. Talwalkar was active in the profession for over 50 years. For 27 of those, he served as editor of the Maharashtra Times.

Many others are disturbed. “But will those running the new ‘industry’ give it a name upfront?” asks one editor. How do we calculate in ad rates the value of what is nowhere marked as advertising? Even if a 30-40 per cent premium was tagged on for elections? When countless other ‘news stories’ like these often appear besides genuine news reports? This reporter, aided by journalists from different parts of Maharashtra, has acquired an impressive collection of such ‘news items.’ Besides, poll-time ‘coverage packages’ now include multiple exposure in print, on television — and online.

What can be done about this fairly new trend in electoral campaigning and media coverage of candidates?

The constitutional jurisdiction of the Election Commission, which has been elaborated in several judicial decisions, is the “superintendence, direction and control” of elections. This means its authority to act directly on the rights and wrongs of an election ceases once the results are declared. However, during the election process, it could do much more than it has done so far. It can be at least as tough on big time overspending, which makes a mockery of legal spending limits, as it is on relatively minor things, for instance wall writing, graffiti, and pamphlets. The ECI knows better than anyone else that the overwhelming majority of submitted expense accounts are false.

The ECI can of course conduct a study of, or hold a workshop on, the misuse of media in various States during the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. So can the Press Council of India.

But under the electoral law, an election can be “called in question” only by an election petition filed by a candidate or elector in a High Court within 45 days of the election of the returned candidate. Section 123(6) of The Representation of the People Act, 1951 makes it clear that “the incurring or authorising of expenditure in contravention of section 77” is a corrupt practice, which can form the matter of an election petition. If that happens, with the necessary evidence on the alleged corrupt practice, things could get rough. Mr. Chavan and several newspaper and television groups could find themselves between a rock and a very hard place. No matter which way you cut it.

If it was advertising, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra is in a spot. Pleas of ‘well-wishers’ fêting their hero in print won’t wash. The Rs. 10-lakh-expenditure limit stands breached. If the defence were that the party did this on the Chief Minister’s behalf, it would mean the Congress party in the State would have to own up to faking advertising as news to mislead voters. If the ‘coverage packages’ were sponsored, it would still leave open the question of who paid how much to whom. Was it ‘news,’ then? If it was ‘news,’ the reports we have compiled must rank amongst the most remarkable ‘news’ judgments ever. With different papers publishing the same stuff with differing bylines. With the content reeking of sycophancy.

If this was advertising, many candidates — not only Mr. Chavan — would be found way beyond the election expense limit. If it was not advertising, then it was ‘paid news,’ a term now firmly embedded in the media lexicon. If it was advertising, why was it not clearly marked as such? That’s a question media owners and journalists would have to answer. For dressing it up it as news was to bring wrongful and undue influence to bear on the voters. If it was advertising, were the ‘advertisers’ properly billed for their ads? If not, we could be looking at illegal cash transactions and tax evasion that runs to millions of rupees. If it was ’paid news,’ then both media outlets and politicians are guilty of much more than financial wrongdoing. They would have to answer for the profound damage done to the democratic process.