Stampede of Paid News

The sudden spurt in the instances of paid news, particularly during elections, is a blot on free press and democracy. Can Press Council and Parliament take measures to curb such dangerous tendencies?

"Today, the demands of professional journalists are carefully balanced with the interests of owners and stakeholders of media companies and their cross media interests. The interplay of these conflicting demands is evident and subject of public debate."
- Mohammad Hamid Ansari, Vice President of India
Fourth Estate has an identifiable commercial and explicitly for-profit persona. Participation of corporations and mafia in politics has been an open secret from the outset. Now there is emerging evidence that they are participants in media as well, making it difficult to define the journalism in the era of Paid News.

No sane citizen wants foreign interests impacting democratic elections through paid news; this applies equally to national businesses and even individuals. All the political parties, Indian parliament and the community of journalists need to discuss the definition of journalism once again in the face of its failure to separate blatantly partisan and merely for profit media outlets from those outlets that are striving for unbiased reporting beyond the thin veneer of neutral content?

The report of sub-committee of the Press Council of India on the Paid News Scandal dated 1st April, 2010 is an important and historical report which is to be discussed by all the members of the Council on 26th April, 2010. The report is as significant as Barack Obama’s statement dated 21st January, 2010 criticizing US Supreme Court’s ruling that "has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics." The phenomenon of paid news does the same by drowning out the voices of common Indians. If the current trend is allowed corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money in the elections.

So far unregulated and indiscriminate increase in the income of the mainstream media through paid news has remained off the radar of Press Council. The issue raises compelling and serious questions about its purposeful existence if it cannot ensure ‘conflict-of-interest’ free news reporting that is being undermined for good.

To paraphrase Obama in Indian context, "paid news gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power" while undermining the influence of average citizens. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less." Indian parliament also needs to act in a similar way.

The 71 page report of the sub-committee of the Press Council confirms and establishes the phenomenon of widespread practice of "paid news vindicated by politicians and campaign managers of political parties".

But "the rate cards that had been formulated by media houses and had been passing around during elections were just typed sheets of paper which carried nothing on it to attribute it to a particular newspaper/television news channel that had put it together nor anything that could be attributed to a journalist/advertisement agent." The report notes that the pernicious practice of "paid news" has become widespread in both print and electronic, English and non-English languages all over the country.

It recommends for Press Council guidelines to the effect that news should be clearly demarcated from advertisements by printing disclaimers and reiterates that as far as news is concerned, it must always carry a credit line and should be set in a typeface that would distinguish it from advertisements. It calls on media organizations to refrain from the practice of engaging stringers and correspondents who double up as agents collecting advertisements for their organizations.

The report seeks mandatory provision for "all candidates/political parties to fully disclose their equity stakes and/or financial interests in newspapers/television channels on which news about their candidates/parties as well as interviews with candidates and/or representatives of the political parties are published or broadcast. If a candidate is being interviewed or given positive publicity on a particular newspaper/television channel, the association (financial or otherwise) of the candidate with the newspaper/television channel if any must be disclosed to the reader/viewer." It seeks amendment by the Parliament in the Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 to make the practice of paying for news coverage in newspapers and television channels an "electoral malpractice" or an act of corruption and made a punishable offence.

The sub-committee recommends that the Election Commission of India should nominate independent journalists and/or public figures as observers in consultation with the Press Council of India who would accompany the election observers deputed by it. It seeks establishment of a body of media professionals to investigate instances of "paid news" with mechanism to make its recommendations enforceable. It recommends that the mandate of the Press Council be widened to receive complaints and grievances about the working of television channels, radio stations or pass strictures but also impose penalties against errant individuals and organizations. The long pending proposal to amend Section 15(4) of the Press Council Act, 1978, to make the directions of the Council binding must be acted upon.

Earlier, the 5-4 decision of US Supreme Court on January 21, 2010 held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. The US Court struck down a provision that prohibited all corporations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and unions from broadcasting "electioneering communications." An "electioneering communication" was defined as a broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of a general election or thirty days of a primary. Some journalists and politicians in US reacted to this decision strongly saying, "within ten years every politician in this country will be a prostitute".

If the trend of paid news in India is not reversed, the same would hold true for journalists and politicians as media houses without exception would soon become brothels with fixed rates for every act or omission.

While the Vice-President is right about the difficult task of providing remedy against the incestuous interests of professional journalists, owners and stakeholders of media companies and their cross media interests, the same holds true for the interlinked relationship between the political parties and corporations of all ilk.

The question of corporate sponsorship of political parties and its candidates also merits legislative action. For nothing short of state funding for elections as recommended by Parliamentary Committee under the chairmanship of Indrajit Gupta can insulate political parties and private contributors of funds who seek favorable government decisions later. The committee had said that the Government and Parliament should decide whether there should be any ban on donations by companies and corporate bodies for political purposes.

If the parliament can act on the report of sub-committee of the Press Council and the recommendations of the parliamentary committee on state funding with the urgency that it merits, it can stop such malpractices in the Indian media that makes all
political parties and citizens feeble victims with no remedy in sight.

By Gopal Krishna
24 Apr 2010



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