Instances of gangsters placing full-page goodwill advertisements in some newspapers point to fault lines and fissures that have developed on the media scene over time.

On the eve of Independence Day 2010, readers of a major Hindi daily in Varanasi were in for a surprise. The day's newspaper carried a full-page colour advertisement carrying Independence Day greetings to all fellow-Indians — from one of the most dreaded dons of Uttar Pradesh. This gangster, who according to police sources has had close links with criminals from Dubai to Nepal, carried a reward of Rs. 12 lakh on his head. He was wanted in connection with 18 criminal cases by the police from four States, and was ultimately nabbed by the Delhi Police from a hideout in Mumbai last year.

This man, charged with the murder of at least two MLAs and suspected of having ordered the killing of a Delhi Police ‘encounter specialist', among many others, also wished to insert another full-page advertisement carrying greetings for the Raksha Bandhan festival a week later. The second advertisement had to be held back after readers raised a hue and cry over the first one. The newspaper's hapless advertisement manager for the region, who had already accepted a payment of Rs. 1.4 lakh for the two advertisements from the don's public relations man, was threatened with dire consequences; he is said to have resigned and gone into hiding.

Another message

Readers in Varanasi were not the sole recipients of good wishes from a loving area godfather. Around the same time, the Patna edition of another multi-edition Hindi daily carried a message of love and cheer for the citizens on Independence Day, from a noted criminal of the area who has been on the run from the police for three years and carries a hefty reward on his head.

What is happening? How is it that daily newspapers that had earlier demanded that any candidate with a criminal record be barred from contesting parliamentary elections, and urged readers through passionate editorials not to vote for tainted candidates, have suddenly taken to featuring full-page goodwill messages from gangsters? What kind of future can a media funded by gangsters and Bollywood producers (some of them are alleged to have a similar orientation) expect?

Let us see. When geologists want to probe earthquakes and predict future ones, they will first go to the geological past. They assume, correctly, that ancient processes operating for a long time beneath the surface of the earth do not stop or reverse themselves overnight, but are the real reasons behind sudden eruptions and earthquakes.

It is no different in the media world. A jolting phenomenon such as ‘paid news' may seem to have emerged suddenly, but it is actually the result of fault lines that have developed on the media scene since the last century. Much before that scandal burst out in the open, a deep and unseen fissure had existed between the economy and the polity that supported and drove one of the world's fastest expanding media scenes. Information about the exact composition of the subterranean area where the critical faults were exerting deadly pressures has, as usual, been a little slow in reaching us. Meanwhile, the aftershocks continue to jolt readers and media professionals who are at the epicentre.

In the last century, India's free media had proved itself to both the state and citizens by becoming a voice of the people and protector of the constitutional rights of common folk. But in the past three decades, changes in political and economic processes have shrunk the state and made the media increasingly dependent on unpredictable market forces.

The Press Council report

It is a pity that a detailed report of the Press Council of India (PCI), painstakingly prepared by the Paronjoy Guha Thakurta Committee, ended up only as reference material and only a pared and sanitised version has been made available at the PCI website.

The detailed report establishes clearly how the actual genesis of ‘paid news' lay along a deeper and older fault line that runs through the entire country and builds huge tensions between two major tectonic plates: the globalised and consolidated markets on the one hand, and the raw politics of groups constantly mutating to form and reform coalitions, on the other.

Today, the Central government seems even less capable of containing the dislocations triggered by the decisions made in order to boost the economy of States such as Orissa and Jharkhand. But mighty corporations today can base themselves anywhere. Capital is allowed to cross boundaries as easily as migratory birds do. And communication moves at the speed of thought at almost no cost. All this has created a volatility in which the media establishment has suddenly been forced to live and cope with invisible hands. The old formulae will no longer yield an adequate quantum of advertisements distributed through the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP) by the government, when even the regional parties are being rocked and drained by centrifugal demands for new States.

Sensing an advantage

But the problem is that, while state-sponsored advertising for the media dries up, the market has sensed an advantage. Its appetite whetted by virtual trade treaties from a cash-strapped media, it now blatantly demands and gets lengthy, prime-time interviews with chief executive officers endorsing a particular brand, film stars ‘doing the news' on the eve of their film launches, even signed editorials rooting for certain initial public offers and heckling rivals. This is generating dangerous tensions between the market managers and editorial cadres within at least some media houses. The first round went to the market-savvy managers who managed to hock prime editorial turf to the highest political bidder while the editorial department was not looking. Then the editorial whistle-blowers activated and alerted the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and the PCI, and the rest is history.

Now, while the media establishment, under orders from the PCI and SEBI, reinforces some breaches and posts internal notes to the editorial department declaring the good intentions and high moral values of the media house, a surreptitious search is on for new revenue sources. This is where your friendly neighbourhood godfathers and godmen have stepped in. They seem to have figured out that human affinity for political violence cuts across party lines in India and in the post-9/11 world old-style, candle-burning secularism is clearly declining. So why not offer staggeringly new templates to solicit votes and funds as elections in some of the most populous and politically volatile States draw close?

Of course, the above view is somewhat dark, and one must not accept it uncritically. There may still be ways to preserve some semblance of honest professionalism and rationality in the media. The setting up of a media commission is one possibility. But the question is whether because of defective leadership or pressures brought by a new breed of owner-editors, various organisations that were created to monitor and guide the media have failed to control large-scale undercutting of journalistic norms and practices to ensure checks and balances. Regional media bodies may appear to be more perceptive about the need for reforms, but come elections, their priorities turn narrow and begin to be driven by the chief ministers' media managers.

If the institutional approach seems unpromising, how about the opposite end of the spectrum: a change in the behaviour of media practitioners? The idea is not as far-fetched as it may seem. We are, after all, creatures of evolution, driven by strong instincts for survival that have so far helped moderate self-destructive practices before it is too late. Political behaviour, too, may be changing. The political animal is a quick learner and will soon realise that none among them will emerge strong enough to get a majority victory for his or her party in the coming elections even after the media have been ‘influenced', and that even the weakest among candidates can report transgressions by rivals to the Election Commission and get the election countermanded. If that happens, one tectonic force, as the geologists say, could counter another.

True, we are no more likely than the scientists from the Geological Survey of India to predict the exact future here. But we can at least do what we are so good at — expand the debate and our own dreams to accommodate more of democracy.

(Mrinal Pande is a senior Hindi journalist and writer.)

Keywords: paid news

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