Dragging their feet on paid news?
P Sainath of The Hindu is at it again. According to him (October 10) Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice Sanjiv Khanna of the Delhi High Court have dismissed former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan’s petition challenging the power of the Election Commission of India (ECI) to go into the truth of falsity of his 2009 election expenses account. The Court apparently upheld the jurisdiction of the ECI to probe into the ‘paid news’ charges made against Chavan. It may be remembered that several Marathi newspapers had carried praiseful of articles about Chavan. Were they paid for?
First, the Central Information Council (CIC) had ordered the Press Council of India (PCI) to inquire into the matter. The Press Council in turn set up a sub-committee comprising of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Srinivasa Reddy to do some investigation. Reportedly the sub-committee produced “an explosive” 71-page report, which, according to Sainath named names “pointing fingers”. Sainath reports that the sub-committee “did this within all the norms and ethics that such an exercise demands”. Then what happened? Sainath says that “the big guns of the media establishment struck back in panic”. The PCI reportedly “buckled, burying its own report” and “a larger committee drafted a 12-page version that dropped all references to the offenders”. The final report reduced the original to a single footnote”. One understands that the CIC has told the Press Council to put the full report up on its website. Has it done so? That is not clear. But importantly, who were the “big guns of the media” who originally demanded that the 71-page report be kept out of the public eye? Aren’t the readers entitled to know who they are and what was the nature of the pressure they put on the Press Council? Shouldn’t they be named?
What is even more surprising is the response of some of the Marathi papers which published articles favouring Chavan. Two points arise here: Let us say that all the Marathi papers named, published the same article, even under different names. If a paper published the article because it genuinely supported Chavan’s candidature, can one blame it? But Sainath says that “their individual perceptions are at odds with the whole media scene portrayed in the suppressed PCI report”. Isn’t it imperative then that the PCI publishes the full text of the report, firstly in its own journal, even while making it available to whosoever demands it? What one should remember is that as a sequence to the ‘paid news’ syndrome, the average reader is left wondering whether any editorial – for or against a person or a party – published in any paper may have been paid for. And not just an editorial, but even news damning or praising an individual or an organisation. Are all those stories damning Narendra Modi, for instance, paid for? We have reached a stage where even an honest comment – say, in a column – may raise doubts about the columnist’s credibility. What are we coming to?
Presently, two of Anna Hazare’s team mates are under strong attack. Kiran Bedi and Arvind Kejriwal have wild charges made against them. The charges are obviously Congress-inspired. If a paper publishes them – and gives them front page prominence – it may raise doubts about the paper’s veracity. If it doesn’t publish them, then again the same doubts can be entertained. For a paper a stage has been reached that it is damned if a certain news item is published and damned just as well if it doesn’t. A news editor must be in a frightful dilemma.
The Hindu (October 22) thus carried a news item that said that the Election Commission adjourned till November 11 the hearing of a complaint against former Jharkhand Chief Minister Madhu Koda alleging that he “encouraged” paid news during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls and that one TV channel was paid Rs. 1.25 crore to telecast news in his favour.
The ‘paid news’ allegation reportedly surfaced when Enforcement Directorate and Income Tax authorities who raided his office and residence found diaries with details of the amount he spent towards payment to newspapers and other media organisations for writings /telecasting reports in his favour. Koda allegedly paid Rs 25.76 lakh to three organisations in April 2009 and against the limit of Rs 25 lakh for the Lok Sabha poll he allegedly spent Rs 9 crore. One doesn’t remember seeing that report the same day on some other papers. What are we to surmise? Again The Hindu (October 23) carried a report from Ahmedabad, obviously written by its own correspondent that said that “digging up more old cases against the suspended Gujarat cadre IPS officer, Sanjiv Bhatt, the State CID (crime) is believed to have ‘unearthed’ financial irregularities to the tune of over Rs 20 crore by him and a retired IPS officer RMS Brar”. To the best of one’ knowledge, The Hindu is the only paper that published this news. What are we supposed to derive from this incident? That other Ahmedabad-based reporters are not good at their job? Or can it be that they did report the news, but their bosses back home decided to cut it out? Earlier another paper published some damning information about Bhatt which has gone unnoticed in many English language newspapers.
Again, The Hindu (October 23) published another news item that said that “the reporter of Raju Ramachandran, the amicus curae in the Zakia Jafri case has laid the ground for Narendra Modi to be charge-sheeted for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat progrom.” Obviously. The Hindu in its reporting, does not take sides. Indeed, it was recently highly praised by a retired columnist as being better than any paper in the world. Meanwhile, may one make an observation concerning accuracies in the Bible challenged by an Islamic evangelist in his Peace Channel? The comments were not called for and should not have been aired. Naik, who made those charges, should be sharply pulled up. this is a secular state and no one has the right to challenge a Holy Book publicly under any circumstances, whether it is the Bible, the Koran of the Bhagavad Geeta. Naik in the past has been seen making silly remarks on Hinduism. The channel in which he appears needs to be warned. His criticism of the Bible appeared on Saturday night (October 22.)?