In a comprehensive 100-page report covering issues across the print and electronic media landscape, a parliamentary standing committee has documented the trend of ‘paid news’ in its various forms and recommended content regulation by an empowered mechanism. It has also strongly criticised the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (I&B) for “failing to discharge its responsibility”.
The Standing Committee on Information Technology (IT) began examining the issue of ‘paid news’ in 2010. Three years later, it has concluded that the “dangerous trend of presenting [paid-for] information as news content” has spread at a remarkable pace in sections of the media. ‘Paid news’ has had a “serious and damaging impact” on innocent audiences; undermines democratic practices; affects markets, industry and health; is a tax fraud; and a question of ethics.
First noticed in the 2004 general elections, the practice of ‘paid news’ became more widespread in 2009. During the 2012 Gujarat elections, a Press Council of India sub-committee found 444 suspected cases of ‘paid news’, with 61 candidates admitting they had paid up. The committee said it was not merely an “election-time phenomenon”, but “everyday and prolific”, and went beyond the corruption of individual journalists.
The practice, according to the committee, assumed different forms — gifts, sponsored travels, direct or indirect payment of money, indirect blackmailing by media houses and, increasingly, award ceremonies by media houses where regular advertisers are awarded. The parliamentary panel warned that this would assume “gigantic proportions” if not tackled immediately.
In a strong indictment of the I&B Ministry, the panel said it was “disconcerting” that the Ministry had not done “anything substantial” to check the “menace” of paid news, and demanded action in the next six months.
The Ministry should take steps to ensure there was a “clear demarcation” between what constituted advertisements and what, news. While accepting that it was difficult to establish violations because of clandestine transactions, the committee urged the Ministry to put forward innovative solutions to consider and establish “circumstantial evidence”. It also recommended that a team of experts be set up to track the coverage pattern and that the regulatory body swing into action in case of any “unusualness”.
The committee also noted the “pathetic working conditions” of significant sections in the media, disapproved of the media’s tendency to “hire and fire”, and noted that the contract employment should not be used for “attraction and allurement”.
On the ‘Jindal versus Zee’ case, the committee deplored the Ministry’s “indecisiveness” and urged it to take immediate action based on the recommendations of the Inter-Ministerial Committee.
But in its most controversial remarks, the committee has dismissed self-regulation as “an eyewash”, and recommended that a statutory body such as the Media Council be set up to look at “media contents in both print and electronic media” with powers to take “strong actions”. Alternatively, the Press Council could be revamped in case of print journalism and a separate statutory body be set for the electronic media. It called for strengthening election laws and empowering the Election Commission and asked the I&B Ministry to act swiftly on issues of cross-media ownership.
Responding to the criticism, I&B Minister Manish Tewari told The Hindu : “I have not seen the report yet, but we hold the observations of the Standing Committee in high esteem. We will peruse it closely, identify what is actionable, and build a broad-based consensus to implement the actionable points.”