Cut-Rate Democracy

Two years ago, when I told some of my more cynical fellow-tribals from the journalistic fraternity that I was about to complete a textbook on media ethics, they smirked. Media ethics? That’s an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, they said glibly. What became apparent to me then was that the image of the journalist in India has taken quite a battering. There are many among the aam admi who still trust the journo more than the hawaldar, the patwari or the magistrate and believe that he or she could articulate (if not redress) their grievances. But these days are disappearing fast.

It is not as if journalists were always glorified as crusaders and those who exposed corruption in high places. In 1981, Ashwini Sarin of the Indian Express broke the law to expose how poor women were being trafficked. He actually ‘purchased’ Kamala. A character based on Sarin was portrayed by Vijay Tendulkar as grasping and ambitious in a play called Kamala, subsequently made into a film. When sued for defamation and breach of copyright, the Marathi litterateur claimed that he had not read the Express articles before writing the play. But before and after Kamala, most journalists in popular cinema were the ‘good’ guys, fighting against the rich and the powerful and for the rights of the downtrodden. However, recently more and more films have taken to showing journalists as stupid and insensitive, in perpetual search of an ‘exclusive’ story that would ‘sell’ well. In A Wednesday, a PYT aka TV reporter is sarcastically told by a man who has just escaped being electrocuted how happy he feels now that he is being watched on millions of small screens.

Corruption in the media has been fictionalised across the world for many years. In 1941, Orson Welles scripted and directed the classic Citizen Kane about the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon. The film was a thinly disguised biography of William Randolph Hearst, the US newspaper publisher whose introduction of screaming headlines and sensational reporting changed American journalism forever. On its release, Hearst banned his newspapers from reviewing the film. Citizen Kane traced the life of a man whose career in publishing was first motivated by ideals of public service but who eventually became a ruthless businessman willing to go to any length—including organising a murder—to be the first to report the ‘news’. In Ram Gopal Verma’s recent film Rann, a media tycoon (Amitabh Bachchan) committed to the principles of ethical journalism fights against his own son to bring out the truth. Peepli [Live] graphically highlights the venality of the media and how journalists use and abuse not just the underprivileged but their own comrades as well.

Indeed, corruption in the mass media in India and elsewhere is as old as the media itself. If there is corruption in society, it would be unrealistic to expect the media to be free of this affliction. In recent times, however, corruption in the Indian media has gone way beyond individuals and specific media organisations—from ‘planting’ information and spinning views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind—to institutionalised and organised forms of corruption wherein newspapers and TV channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information that is sought to be disguised as ‘news’—but are actually designed to favour particular individuals, corporate entities, representatives of political parties or cash-rich candidates contesting elections.

News is meant to be objective, fair, unbiased and neutral—this is what sets apart such information and opinion from advertisements that are paid for. In recent years in India, the distinction between news and advertisements has been sought to be deliberately blurred if not obliterated altogether. The rot really set in with the ‘Medianet’ initiative of Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL), which publishes The Times of India, The Economic Times and so on. BCCL charges film producers, fashion designers, actors, celebrities, sportspersons, corporate captains and socialites for featuring them in some of its newspaper supplements—the so-called Page 3 phenomenon.

Later, the BCCL group initiated a ‘private treaties’ scheme whereby it entered into financial or shareholding arrangements with various companies. Simply put, instead of receiving money for advertising, bccl would receive unknown quantities of equity shares in companies that were existing advertisers or potential advertisers. In return, these firms were to receive advertising space in BCCL-owned media ventures. The scheme’s success turned BCCL into one of the largest private equity investors in India.

By 2008, BCCL had nearly 200 companies as its private treaty clients. If favourable news is published about a client and adverse news is not reported, both the publishing company and the advertising company stand to gain—the conflict of interest was clear even if company spokespersons sought to defend the move as a pure marketing initiative. The fall in stockmarket indices in 2008-09 and the decision of the income tax authorities to value the transactions at old ‘inflated’ valuations (that is, at the share prices prevailing at the time a company entered into a private treaty agreement with BCCL), which had to be shown as assessable taxable income, robbed the scheme of some of its sheen.

As in the case of Medianet, while the private treaties scheme was started by BCCL, others were quick to follow. On August 27, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) issued guidelines that made it ‘mandatory’ for all media companies to disclose their interests in companies about whom articles were published or TV programmes broadcast. Time will tell whether these guidelines are properly implemented.

Over the last few years and since 2009 in particular, the phenomenon of ‘paid news’ has acquired an even more pernicious dimension by entering the political sphere or in reporting on candidates contesting elections. Numerous favourable or complimentary ‘news’ reports on candidates appeared in newspapers and were broadcast on TV channels across the country in the run-up to the Lok Sabha as well as state legislative assembly elections in Maharashtra and Haryana that year, obviously without disclosing the fact that monetary transactions had taken place between media houses and the candidates concerned.

The entire clandestine operation has become widespread and now cuts across newspapers and TV channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country. Worse, these illegal operations have become organised, involving ad agencies and PR firms besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies. Marketing executives use the services of journalists—willingly or otherwise—to gain access to political personalities. So-called ‘rate cards’ or ‘packages’ are distributed that often include rates for publication of ‘news’ items that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticise their political opponents. Candidates who do not go along with such extortionist practices are denied coverage. To use BJP leader Arun Jaitley’s words, it became a relationship between the blackmailer and the blackmailed.

The deception or fraud takes place at three distinct levels. The reader or the viewer is deceived into believing that what is essentially an advertisement is, in fact, independently produced news content. Then, candidates contesting elections do not disclose the true expenditure incurred on campaigning, thereby violating the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, which have been framed and are meant to be enforced by the Election Commission under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The newspapers and TV channels concerned typically receive funds in cash and do not disclose such earnings in their company balance-sheets or official statements of accounts. Thus, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the media company concerned or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956, as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.

Substantial sections of the media have become participants and players in practices that contribute to this growing use of money power in politics. This in turn undermines democratic processes and norms while hypocritically pretending to occupy a high moral ground. It has also tarnished the country’s reputation as foreign newspapers have started writing about, and commenting adversely on, such malpractices. Media companies that put out ‘paid news’ damage—if not destroy—their own credibility. Whereas such malpractices were confined to individual transgressions and to a few newspapers and TV channels till the recent past, the sheer scale of what is taking place now is alarming and frightening. Indeed, it strikes at the very core of democracy, turning the media from being the fourth estate and a watchdog of society into a ‘first estate’ of sorts by influencing democratic processes.

In July 2009, a two-member subcommittee of the Press Council of India, comprising K. Sreenivas Reddy and myself, was constituted to examine the phenomenon of paid news. The subcommittee, after meeting people in different parts of the country and receiving written and oral representations, submitted a detailed report running to over 36,000-words to the Council in April. A 12-member drafting committee of the PCI was thereafter constituted. On July 31, the Council decided by a narrow majority (by a show of hands as no formal voting was recorded nor dissenting notes allowed) not to annex the full report of the subcommittee to the 3,600-word report of the drafting committee before submitting it to the government. The subcommittee’s detailed report was consigned to a mere footnote. The publishers’ lobby eventually won. But, in the process, the sub-committee’s 71-page report became ‘forbidden fruit’ attracting more readers than it otherwise may have.

I was deeply disappointed at the Council’s decision. Some of my colleagues too were keen on the subcommittee’s report being made official as we believed it may have shamed some of those named. The full report of the subcommittee has been leaked and finds place on a number of websites (including The curious situation that currently prevails is that the detailed report of the PCI subcommittee on how corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy is not official but is nevertheless in the public domain.

Each and every allegation in the subcommittee’s report was attributed. Every effort was made to get back to those against whom allegations had been levelled. P. Sainath, rural affairs editor of the i, reported extensively on the widespread practice of paid news in the run-up to the assembly elections in Maharashtra—for instance, 15 editions of three competing newspapers (Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times) carried an identical article showering praises on incumbent chief minister Ashok Chavan. Though the articles matched one another word for word, each paper carried a different byline. The CM dismissed the allegations saying he or his associates had not paid any money to any publication and suggested that a few “lazy” journalists may have been responsible for reproducing press releases verbatim. Sainath pointed out that on polling day, Vidarbha Plus (a supplement of The Times of India) carried an advertisement disguised as news on the Congress candidate, Raosaheb Shekhawat, son of President Pratibha Patil, from Amravati assembly constituency.

During the course of our investigations, we received representations from around 100 people from across India. There were many complaints against Hindi daily Dainik Jagran, the largest circulated daily newspaper in India and among the five most widely circulated dailies in the world. We also received complaints against Dainik Bhaskar, the second highest circulated daily; Lokmat, the most widely circulated Marathi daily; Hindustan, Punjab Kesari, Eenadu, Sakshi and also against the largest circulated English daily in the country, The Times of India, among others. It used to be claimed that the ‘leader guards the reader’ but in this instance, the leaders themselves took the lead in cheating the reader and lowering ethical standards.

Two examples are noteworthy. On April 30, 2009, election day, the Varanasi edition of Hindustan carried a story that deceptively looked like a news item on top of its front page with a headline that suggested that there was a “wave in favour of the Congress”. The following day, the newspaper apologised to its readers for the mistake. The representatives of Hindustan told the PCI that when they realised their mistake they were ‘quick’ to point this out to readers—by when polling was, of course, over. This was the only instance of a publication acknowledging that it had made an error. The rest chose to brazen it out.

The PCI was given a letter that had been published in Outlook (January 18, 2010) in which Rajiv Verma, CEO, HT Media Limited wrote: “We do not pass off sponsored news in the garb of editorial content. To the specific instance related to the Varanasi edition of Hindustan..., the articles were published under the advertiser-sponsored content tag. Owing to a mistake by an overzealous advertising manager, the style and look turned out to be similar to the main paper. To remove any confusion among our readers, a clarification was issued the very next day on the front page of Hindustan’s Varanasi edition. The erring manager was also suitably reprimanded. We have had no instance of any editorial transgression other than the unfortunate incident stated above....”

Parcha Kodanda Rama Rao of the Loksatta Party was the only candidate who admitted that he had paid a sum of Rs 50,000 to a representative of Eenadu for favourable coverage. He received no receipt and his complaint to the returning officer is currently pending in an election petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh. Predictably denying that any money had been accepted, Ramoji Rao, who heads the Eenadu group, claimed to the PCI that the problem of paid news was part of a larger malaise. He wrote: “...favourable coverage in the press and the capacity to spend big money in poll campaigns became the sole eligibility on the basis of which political parties chose their candidates.... The so-called paid favourable coverage by the press is one of the off-shoots of this tendency.”

Dr K. Nageshwar, member of the Andhra Pradesh legislative council, told the PCI how he had been maligned. “On February 6, 2009, the day elections to the Andhra Pradesh legislative council took place, Sakshi quoted the Mahboobnagar district president of the BJP virtually describing me as a traitor. What was worse, the newspaper defamed me by claiming that I was visually challenged because I had ignored the advice given by scientists and stared at a solar eclipse. This was a complete cock-and-bull story. I wrote to the newspaper and also represented to the Election Commission but nothing happened thereafter.”

Obviously, the entire media fraternity cannot be painted with the same brush. The very fact that this malaise is being widely reported in sections of the media proves that there are many upright journalists left in India who are unhappy about the corruption they see in their profession. If journalists arrogate to themselves the right to criticise all sections of society, they should not shy away when the microscope is turned on them.

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