Paid News, Treaties and the Indian Media: The Cause Is the Corporation

Just when you thought you'd seen it all, more dirt surfaces. Dirt that's quite old actually -- about how the news corporation swallowed the free press -- common knowledge for years, front page news material, but just not reported much, because it was about newsmakers. This article is based on an innocuous looking report (read it here) that has surfaced on the Internet. It contains a detailed documentation of 'paid news' (publicity disguised to look like news) based on a multi-city, six-month, multiple-stakeholder interview inquiry, authorized by the Press Council of India (PCI), paid for by the citizens of India, and then censored from the public domain by the PCI, allegedly the country's media watchdog. It tells a sordid tale, and I cite from it with a deep sense of shame for the media, and only because of an even deeper faith in the democracy that is India. According to this report, the decline in the Indian media began in the 1980s, when publishers of the Times of India group (the largest news corporation with profits equal to the rest of the market combined) invented 'paid news' and introduced this marketing genie into the sanctum of editorial space. This offered to send journalists, for a price, to cover commercial events and write about them in 'advertorials'. Very soon the genie became a monster. Journalists were incentivized against unbiased reportage, and towards the manufacturing of biased publicity. Editors were pressurized to forgo press ethics, and chase profitability. The line between reportage and 'advertorials' blurred. Revenues skyrocketed and the news corporation grew. This fuelled more greed and the news corporation then invented 'treaties' -- agreements with other corporations, exchanging guaranteed publicity for company equity (a practice that was reported to the PCI by the Securities and Exchange Board of India). The old lady of Boribunder, as the flagship publication of the Times group was fondly known as for over a century of stellar journalism, had been compromised.

In the meantime the rest of the country's media mutely witnessed the growth of the Mumbai-based news corporation. Lacking access to the corporate funds of the country's commercial capital, they introduced 'paid news' to the political sphere. By 2009, State Assembly elections across the country were the new killing fields. Publishers, through their marketing departments, dictated revenue goals. These were distributed by editors to their teams. Journalists approached competing political candidates offering coverage for a price. Political candidates who refused to pay were denied coverage. Not wishing to be left out, TV channels offered a more organized menu -- neatly printed rate cards with prices based on airtime and quality of coverage. The media that allegedly indulged in one or more of these practices have been named in the inquiry report and include Dainik Jagran, Prabhat Khabar, Hindustan, Dainik Bhaskar, Aaj, Umar Ujala, Lokmat, Pudhari, Maharashtra Times, Punjab Kesari, Eenadu, Andhra Jyothi, Sakshi, Varthaand, Andhra Bhoomi, Gujarat Samachar, TV9, ETV-2, TV-5, HMTV News. However, if the systematic suppression of the inquiry report and the later leaked Radia tapes is any indicator, there are possibly many more big media players in the 'paid news' game whom no one will speak about.

While researching the PCI inquiry report, clarifications were sought from all the named media. Most have either denied their involvement or claimed to be victims in a vicious system. Monetary stakes are estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, unaccounted money that derives from all manner of political parties, feeds all manner of media. In fact, the scale and universality of 'paid news' seriously calls into question the role of ideology. One begins to wonder why academics would waste their breath debating identity politics of the nation state when money is what it takes to be seen, heard, and elected.

Corruption is a common enough challenge to democratic governance all over the world. What matters is the capacity to expose it to the clear light of public scrutiny - the pivotal role of an unfettered media backed by an effective media watchdog. It is only a free press, and not a news corporation, that can effectively check publicity and lobbying - whether by corporates or politicians. However, most in the Indian media either joined the money game or demonstrated tribal loyalty with their silence. Only a few had the courage and vision to speak out against ' paid news'- most notably, Prabhas Joshi, Mrinal Pande, P. Sainath and the PCI report researchers. Their perspectives were reported sporadically, only Outlook offered comprehensive coverage, and it took years for 'paid news' and 'treaties' to be discussed at the PCI, Editor's Guild and a few public fora. Even today, after the Radia tapes laid bare the Machiavellian mechanics of lobbying between the media, politicians and corporates, one finds less than 30 reports on 'paid news' in Google News, out of nearly 35,000 on current India related issues.

If there is danger to democracy, there is also the opportunity for great leadership. Let it begin with an acknowledgment of common interest - this issue ensnares politicians, just as it betrays the public. It is not about ideologies and parties, it is about democracy and governance. Indian legislators need to make 'paid news' a punishable electoral practice and specifically prohibit 'treaties'. In the meantime, the PCI has to speak up and act. Speak up about which of its thirty members voted to deny facts about 'paid news' and 'treaties' to the Indian public. And act by censuring the still unapologetic 'star journalists' named in the Radia tapes, as well as all purveyors of 'paid news' and 'treaties'. These are persons who have abused their positions of leadership and influence, and compromised the journalistic profession. And the sooner this is done, the better for Indian democracy.

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