RESPONSIBLE media persons are waking up. There is an increasing awareness over the manner in which some press lords are selling newspaper space to social and political, predators, which, to say the least, is sickening. On January 17, The Indian Express noted that The Editors Guild of India, as part of its campaign against the practice of publishing “paid news” has reportedly written to all editors and senior journalists urging them to pledge that they will act against any attempt to put out advertising as news, without proper disclosure. The Guild apparently took up the issue at its annual general meeting held in December 2009 with members strongly asserting that the practice of putting our advertising as news amounted to grave journalistic malpractice and also threatened the very foundation of the media and of the profession by eroding public faith in the credibility and impartiality of news reporting.
It would appear that members of the Guild felt that editors and “other journalists” should stand up and defend their credibility and make public’s declaration on the subject, in order to restore the reading and viewing public’s faith in the media by undoing the damage that has already been done. It would be interesting to know how many editors and senior journalist would risk their necks and handsome emoluments to dare to challenge their bosses. Would the Editors Guild kindly let us know who have so far signed up?
It is not just the Editors Guild that has shown its distress. Hitavada (January 23) reported that Election Commissioner SY Quraishi has expressed concern over the phenomenon of “paid news” and that the poll panel is in touch with media regulatory bodies like The Press Council to curb the malpractice. Quraishi is reported as saying that paid news is “disturbing”. Sure it is and should be. According to Deccan Herald (January 23) the Election Commission has “reportedly” served a notice on Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan demanding an explanation to allegations against him that he had paid newspapers for publishing stories in his favour before the Assembly polls. A complaint had been made by the BJP in this matter. Chief Election Commissioner Navin Chawla is quoted as saying: “We are concerned with this phenomenon of paid news in the run-up to elections. We are not the Press Council. What happens before the elections or after the elections is not in our jurisdiction.” Chawla said it worried him “because what would happen then if the printed word is doubted by the readers” considering that paid news could “compromise an important pillar of democracy”.
The matter has now obviously reached a higher level of the administrative structure. The Hindu ( January 29) reported that Vice President Hamid Ansari has warned the commercialisation of news content for revenue generation could damage the country’s polity and economy. Inaugurating the MC Varghese Memorial Lecture series in New Delhi, Shri Ansari said: “The present practice of leveraging political and economic content in our media for overt and covert revenue generation has the malevolent potential to tarnish our polity and even destabilise the economy.” That is a serious charge. It is necessary to quote Shri Ansari at length. He said: “It is now clear that amongst the pillars of democracy, it is only the Fourth Estate that has an identifiable business and commercial persona. The pursuit of profit has altered the profile of the media entrepreneur. Today, a media enterprise is seen as a necessary subsidiary for a growing business enterprise, a political party and even individuals seeking to leverage public influence for private gain.”
Shri Ansari pointed out commercial success of media organisations had become a function of advertising revenues, rather than subscription and circulation figures. The advertisers had thus replaced the recipients of media products. By the same logic, circulation figures meant to attract advertising became more important than content. As Shri Ansari put it, “deception, opaque flow of political information, or slanted economic data” prevented political and economic actors from exercising rational and well-considered choices. Due to rampant media growth and the phenomenon of convergence of news media, entertainment and telecom, the demarcation among journalism, public relations and advertising and entertainment is rapidly eroding. Added Shri Ansari: “Vibrant journalism monitors the exercise of power in the State and stands for the rights and freedom of citizens. It informs and empowers citizens rather than entertains and titillates them. Vibrant journalism is based on professional ethics and should be the rule rather than the exception it has come to be.” Shri Ansari made yet another point that journalists at every level would do well to remember. He said that when media establishment became pre-occupied with the size of their readership or viewership there was a greater likelihood of journalists resorting to intrusive newsgathering methods and editors approving content without verifying the relevant facts or explaining their proper background. While practices such as “sting operations” and high decibel reporting might be justified in exceptional circumstances, they should not be resorted to as a matter of routine.
This must be about the first time that some one at the level of a Vice President has spoken out so freely and meaningfully. Except The Hindu not many newspapers gave Shri Ansari’s speech much coverage. Obviously the media does not like to be told off or its weaknesses exposed by someone so high up as the Vice President of India.
The Hindu to its credit has had the courage to report Shri Ansari at considerable length. It is again The Hindu’s Managing Director and President of the Music Academy, N Murali ( January 17) who sharply condemned the media for driving out music from the pages of the Indian press. Addressing the ITC Sangeet Research Academy in Mumbai, Shri Murali said: “Unless the print media takes up the coverage of classical fine arts in a big way, the awareness is not created.” About that on another occasion. What is relevant is that Shri Murali made it a point to note that “serious newspapers which pursue serious journalism also have a role not to be led by the market”. He is talking to the deaf. Who, in the media, cares for the fine arts, whether it is music, theatre, art, dance or drama?