THE issue of “paid news” is still very much alive in the media domain though it is The Hindu which has been giving it necessary publicity. The Editors Guild of India has asked the Election Commissioner to take strong action against both politicians and media persons who violate the disclosure norms of election expenditure with regard to media publicity and Election Commissioner SY Qureshi is hopeful of making the complaints against Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan as a “test case” to demonstrate the Commission’s commitment to tackle the growing malaise. But Shri Chavan has denied that he spent money for publication of reports in his favour in local newspapers in the run-up to the assembly elections during September-October 2009.
According to The Hindu (January 31), Shri Chavan, in his reply to the Election Commissioner, said that he had no role in the news stories relating to him and that, in any event, the stories made no mention of an appeal for votes. Shri Chavan is further reported to have said that it is natural for those who lost the elections to make allegations against the winning candidate. Besides, according to The Hindu, the Chief Minister in his letter has quoted a Supreme Court verdict that once the election expenditure accounts are submitted by a candidate and accepted, the same could not be re-examined. However, The Hindu added, according to sources, the argument might not hold water as the verdict was given before the provision on election expenditure was amended in 2003 in the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
This presages a major battle between the Chief Minister and Election Commission, if, that is, the latter takes up the matter seriously. That apart, there is another issue involved, which was recently raised by Shri MP Veerendra Kumar, Managing Director of Mathrubhoomi Publications Group. At a meeting in Delhi, Shri Veerendra Kumar hit out at some big corporate media houses for initiating a price war and commercialising news which was affecting small and medium newspapers. Media groups, according to him, should “function like a community and should not try to destroy each other”. That, according to him, is unethical and a danger to democracy.
In the matter of paid news, some questions naturally arise. Shri Chavan says that he has not paid for the articles written about him which appeared in the same form in many newspapers. But one might very well ask: What makes for payment? Is it only hard cash? Are there any other ways in which ‘payment’ can be made? Should an article have to say in so many words that one should vote for Shri Chavan in order to come within the purview of law? Doesn’t the way a candidate is euologised make that evident? As Dr N Bhaskar Rao, founder Chairman of CMS Academy of Communication and Convergence, said in an article in The Hindu (January 20): “It is difficult to define paid news.” It may have become blatantly evident in the last assembly elections, but, as Rao put it, “it could also be described as quid pro quo news or it may even be better described as unfair or camouflaged news or advertising.
Shri Chavan has claimed, according to Deccan Herald (January 25), that he has spent only Rs 5,379 on newspaper advertisements, which sounds ridiculous. A four-line advertisement in the “Situation Vacant” column of a national newspaper costs as much as Rs 3,000! Who is Shri Chavan fooling? The articles written in his favour in a number of newspapers run into columns. What should we call them: “Camouflaged advertisements” as Deccan Herald gently suggested? The paper pointedly noted that commercialisation of editorial functions of the media had started much earlier “with some newspaper entering into financial arrangements with companies”. So, said the paper, “paid news phenomenon is a natural culmination of that trend”, adding “by eliminating the dividing line between advertisements and news it violates the basic principles of journalism” and “the trust of the reader is violated and the credibility of the media suffers”.
In his article Shri Rao has called for protective measures and corrective initiatives by news media themselves. Among the measures he has suggested are the following:
* News media must state any conflict of interests in the course of news coverage and presentation. The media should also disclose their own ethical code of standards. They should indicate the responsible person for such disclosures periodically like the readers’ editor, editor, ombudsman or a panel of internal and external experts. The disclosure should also be of revenues, linkages with other industries and corporates and shareholding in other media. The news media should report on their own how much space and time they have devoted to commercials in the previous quarter or six months. Editors, too, could disclose their assets voluntarily and periodically in their own interests.
There should be some provision for readers and viewers to ‘write back’ or ‘talk back’ and for an explanation in turn by the person responsible in the news media.
Academic bodies, independent research agencies and civil society groups should be encouraged to monitor media contents and articulate their views from time to time.
Professional bodies engaged or associated with news media in various capacities like the Editors Guild, the Advertising Standards Council of India etc should take the initiative towards a more responsible and accountable news media.
The media should be brought under the Right to Information Act (RTI) so that some accountability comes into media operations and managements.
Real-time counselling services should be provided to individual journalists, political leaders and candidates in specific situations on how they should go about their tasks in a given context etc.
Shri Rao may be asking for too much, but it only indicates the sense of disgust that responsible citizens are suffering from either when they view certain television channels or read certain newspapers. How much, one wonders, certain people who throw parties pay to certain newspapers for getting the pictures of those attending published. Or are those pictures published free of charge because they constitute ‘news’? Can one kindly explain what ‘news’ these effete ladies and gentlemen make?