Mr. Jagannathan, This Is Why Your Thesis On Paid-News Is Nonsense

Posted on November 27, 2013 in Specials

By Control Freak:

Dear Mr. Jagannathan,

I read, your remarkably flawed article on The Press and Registration of Books and Publication Bill, 2013 (PRBPB) published in Firstpost recently. The egregious foundation of shoddy research, transparent sophistry and unabashed obfuscation on which the piece majestically stood, was simply outstanding. Moreover, the specious line of reasoning that you proffer appeared to be singularly directed at preserving the status quo and keeping the lid on the unholy ways of sections of the media.

firstpost articleThe high-water mark of your thesis and plausibly the cradle of other glaringly insane arguments is the following astounding claim:

False reporting can be litigated against, but biases and favourable reporting – whether paid or unpaid – are hardly crimes when any political party or organisation can set up a publication directly to peddle its views.

Similar sophistries steal the thunder in the beautifully crafted piece which, when the gloss wears off, stuns the reader with its ugliness. I have, therefore, been compelled to pen a fact-based rebuttal, all the while this thought traversing my mind, in Sir Peter Medawar words “Yet the greater part of it, I shall show, is nonsense, tricked out…and its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.”

In doing so, I will substantiate my argument on the basis of three key reports : (a) PRBPB (b) Parliamentary Report on paid news (PR) (c) PCI sub-committee report (PCIR); presumably none of these, retrieved from the necropolis, are an anathema.

First. “The plain meaning of this … the Press Council can suspend the publication after a hearing.”
The “plain meaning” is that if PCI or any judicial/quasi-judicial authority establishes bartering of news for benefits in cash or kind, the authorities empowered by the Act shall have the power to cancel the license. [Sec 19 (e)]

Second. “By this definition, every newspaper owned by a political party or government should be banned – since the nexus is obvious….Isn’t this “paid news”?
This is not paid news as defined by the PCI’s/ Ministry [Sec 2 (n)] which rather succinctly dwells on the vanishing line between news/editorials and advertisements/advertorials. A clever attempt to obfuscate facts, nonetheless!

Third. “The intent of … seems holy, but does any advertiser put … impossible to prove a connection.”
Fortunately, nailing a paid news transaction is not as impossible as you think. Digital as well as financial trails, among other things, can ingeniously establish a paid news deal, should the intention to do so exist. A cursory glance at these reports – PCIR, 1, 2 , 3 and 4 – as well as exposes from the Hindu in Ashok Chavan’s case should bury any doubt that it is a tedious job after all. For if it was, Chavan along with Madhu Koda and Narottam Mishra would not be spending precious time entrapped in legal cases for resorting to this insidious malpractice, the only breather for them being the unholy tug of war between the government and the EC. If you find it difficult to believe still, the fact that a sitting MLA Umlesh Yadav was disqualified on grounds of failure to account for paid news should offer you some comfort.

paidmedia

A progressive step here has been proposed in the PRPB, which mandates publications to disclose advertisement revenues transparently as and when asked for [Sec 31(c)], which could go a long way in keeping a vigil on paid news.

Laws, Mr. Jagannathan, are enacted in a society to correct abnormalities. Refraining from enacting laws because crimes are difficult to detect is a silly argument at the least and preposterous at worst.

Fourth.And what constitutes payment in “kind”? Advertising support? ….
I urge you to read the PR which neatly establishes that payment in kind ranges from ‘from accepting gifts on various occasions, going on a sponsored foreign and domestic tour, to other benefits and direct payment of money… award ceremonies being sponsored by some media houses” It also shines a light on the unholy “nexus between media and other corporates in the form of ‘Private Treaties’.”

The problem is the subversion of the entire democratic process, advertisements masquerading as news being one manifestation!

Fifth.It is worth recalling why “paid news” ….”
“Paid news” is a term coined by Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ) in 2009… While low salaries have been a pertinent reason, there are others such as contractual employment, crushing the unions and weaknesses of the Working Journalists Act that fails to provide security to journalists working on a contractual basis. Not to mention the hire and fire strategy that seems to be the zeitgeist these days, beginning with Forbes sacking four editors, which you would be familiar with, to the latest one where Hartosh Singh Bal was sacrificed at the altar of political expediency.

Sixth.Some newspaper proprietors…. it should come to the newspaper…This is how smalltime
“corruption” got “corporatized” into paid news.”

What you dismiss as “small-time corruption” is in reality, a well- entrenched operation. The PCIR documents describe the entire operation thus:

”Marketing executives use the services of journalists … to gain access to political personalities. So-called “rate cards” or “packages” are distributed that often include “rates” for publication of “news” items that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticize their political opponents. Candidates who do not go along with such “extortionist” practices … are denied coverage.”

And if you thought that paid news is an exclusively election time phenomenon, then P Sainath wipes away any doubt when he observes “Non-election transactions include the suppression of major scams in sections of the media that have access to the facts. A practice that entrenches extortion, bribery and blackmail, or even media-corporate-political collusion. These sometimes burst out in the open – as in the Coalgate scam.’

In fact, in the last 4 years, EC has detected 1400+ cases of just election-time paid news. It sounds abominable that sections of media continue to live in denial, even when the politicians themselves have admitted to involvement in paid news deals!

Seventh.If readers were unhappy with this, they did not make a fuss about it, for it did not cost them anything… entirely free.” —

And that is because these advertisements were cleverly disguised as news or editorials to the unsuspecting readers. P. Sainath observes, “In the non-metro editions the paid news content is used directly, dispensing with even the fig leaf of a disclaimer. Even in the metros, the practice is hardly known or understood by readers.”

Putting the onus on the readers is a clever attempt to shrug off media’s ethical responsibility, but one that does not cut the mustard, unfortunately!

Eighth. The Parliamentary committee and paid news crusaders have argued that regulation and control/arbitrary censorship are two entirely different things. Note that even US has FCC, UK has Ofcom as regulatory bodies as do Sweden and Australia.

Moreover, “self-regulation” – the usual incantation when the media is put in the dock – has proved to be quality eyewash. The PR notes, “The Press Council of India and Editors Guild of India have been candid in their admission that with their existing powers and mandate they can only exert moral pressure and cannot penalize media and not authorised to do so. They have repeatedly expressed their helplessness of being a body/organisation without teeth.”

As things stand, none of the existing quasi-regulatory bodies are vested with sufficient powers to tackle the menace in any meaningful manner.

The haplessness of the Editor’s Guild can be gauged from the fact that journalists like Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi who violated both the professional as well as the moral code of journalistic ethics as we saw in the Niira Radia tapes, flourish in their careers, while a Vardarajan (who was penning an unsavoury story on Ambani) or more recently Hartosh Singh Bal who wrote a scathing account of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi were shown the door, even as the Guild watched the macabre with unruffled silence.

Ninth. Myth busting – a dissection of the rest of your treatise on legality and ethics:

(i) Suspension is not an answer to the problem of restoration of ethics – Correct, but hardly relevant. No law ever is supposed to be an answer to that problem. Law can only be a deterrent. Ethics can be brought back to journalism only when they are seen as the absolute cornerstone of independent media, one that cannot be compromised at any cost.

(ii) “biased reporting” and “paid news” are hardly crimes – Nothing could be farther from truth! As has been noted by the PCIR, paid news kills the very essence of democracy by defrauding at three levels – (a) deceiving the reader into believing that the advt. is news (b) Violation of RPA, 1951 (c) Violation of Companies Act, 1956 and the IT Act, 1961.

Your defence of “biased reporting” is simultaneously laughable and deplorable. Paid news and “biased reporting” are, by definition, the very scourge of ethical journalism! Wonder what happened to fairness, objectivity and public interest? Is this the lowest denominator of media ethics that biased reporting is now considered holy?

One could always debate the role of regulators, transparency clauses, punitive measures, independent ombudsman and other constructive ways to streamline the bill. Your lame defence, though, of “biased reporting” and “paid news” appears shockingly repellent!

Tenth. Shockers!
Crusaders have been relentlessly raising their voice against this menace. Paranjoy Guha in his article Cut-Rate Democracy says, “Indeed, it [paid news] strikes at the very core of democracy, turning the media from being the fourth estate and a watchdog of society into a ‘first estate’ of sorts by influencing democratic processes.

Former CEC, V. S. Sampath lamented about paid news being “a moral turpitude“.

The EC, you see, is worried and is trying to push for reforms to enumerate paid news as an electoral offense under RPA, 1951. It has also been appointing committees to keep a vigil on election-time paid news — while you, on the merit of your thesis, seem to be arguing for undoing any progressive measures.

It is a wonder in itself, sir, that, as an editor, you could pen such a hilarious piece laden with immense nonsense. The greatest non-scintillating rhetoric, however, which deserves full applause for shredding all tenets of logic and dispatching the shreds to the nethermost regions of hell, is hither:

“…This faustian bargain between news providers and news readers or viewers is what lies at the heart of “paid news”, not the “corruption” that drives this debasement of journalist ethics.”

“Paid news” is not for the government to fight against. It is between the reader and the publisher.”

No Mr. Jagannathan! The fight against paid news is the fight between democracy and the ones trying to subvert it.

Which side are you on?

About the author: Control Freak, when not demolishing such elegant sophistry, fiddles with equations and inequations, wondering all the while at the enigma that the seemingly limitless, incredibly diverse and amazingly complex universe has to offer.

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