“….to repudiate morality while laying claim to it…..to forget whatever it was necessary to forget…..” ~George Orwell
The Sounds of Silence:
The Standing Committee on Information Technology selected the subject [Issues related to Paid News] for detailed examination in 2010-11. In this enterprise of great pith and moment – spread across nearly 30 months – it sought views, evidence and suggestions from the Election Commission of India, former CECs, Media self-regulatory bodies, Prasar Bharti, I&B Ministry, News Broadcasters Association, former members of the PCI, President of Editor’s Guild of India, President-Indian Journalist Union, Centre for Media Studies as well as some journalists of repute.
The 47th Parliamentary Standing Committee Report [PSCR] on Paid News was finally tabled in the Parliament in May 2013. However, between then and now, sordid met morbid, even as our aural senses were annihilated by the resounding sounds of a deathly silence.
Conspicuous by their absence were the numerous archetypal Op-eds that sometimes wax ineloquent when not waxing indignant, the dozens of long-winded columns by those who have an opinion on everything but conviction in nothing and the trollumns by stray trollumnists who perfunctorily study the first, reflexively shred the second and grow in stature feeding off other people’s commentaries.
Writing commentaries on commentaries, Richard Feynman once noted, is a disease of the intellect. Strangely, the MSM was not afflicted with this disease, save for the stray news report, when it came to writing commentaries on its own follies and shortcomings. Missing also were the-nation-wants-to-know holler-hoot-and-scoot sessions on television [aka debates].
The Menace of Paid News:
“Freedom of the Press must not be allowed to degenerate to Freedom of the Purse. It already has happened.” ~ P. Sainath
The grisly details of this Freedom of the Purse aka Paid News covered in the PSCR firmly fix the spotlight on the seedy underbelly of the MSM that has been slyly wreaking havoc on our democracy. The report observes that “the dangerous trend of presenting [paid-for] information as news content” has spread at a remarkable pace in sections of the media. Paid news, it goes on to note, has had a “serious and damaging impact” on innocent audiences [besides undermining democratic practices, affecting markets, industry and health] and raises serious questions of ethics.
The Press Council of India [PCI] broadly defines Paid News as “any news or analysis appearing in any media [print and Electronic] for a price in cash or kind as consideration“. It reared its ugly head in 2004 before spreading its tentacles during the 2009 general elections.
The largesse for the media companies includes, among other things, lip-smacking goodies like sponsored foreign tours, awards from media-houses to their sponsors, exchange of news space for equity stakes between media and corporate houses. The script of this seedy underbelly is straight out of a mafia thriller, involving a complex web of wheeling-dealing, playing out in real life.
In this alternate moral universe, the centre of which is a gigantic black hole, news has a price, complete with ‘rate cards’. Here, encomiums and column inches for electoral candidates can be bought for fat wads of cash, without any disclosure mandates.
Can’t cough up enough cash to meet these extortionist demands? Tch tch, be prepared to be blacked out of media coverage!
How organised this syndicate is can be gauged from its membership list which includes illustrious professionals such as journalists, proprietors, corporates, PR agencies and politicians. The staggering size of the market for Paid News, which stands at 400-500 crores, should give us an insight into why this business is more lucrative than wasting precious sweat in the countryside reporting farmers’ suicides.
Perennial revenue streams in return for suppressing truth about scams; fixer-media-political-business nexus for fixing oil and gas prices and even prejudiced product reviews makes this a lucrative non-election trade. Quite tellingly, increasing corporate control and concentration of ownership has strangled editorial and journalistic freedom, a truth that has been lamented both by the PSCR as well as conscientious media-watchers.
In a world where introspection and concomitant corrective action was still a virtue, the media would go into a collective huddle, debate its transgressions and atone for such abominable perfidy. Yet, what followed in the face of muckraking was a stony silence by the MSM – the very entity that rarely spares its audience from unsolicited harangues and selective fomentation on issues that don’t concern its own well-being.
We stand in consternation – what dangers are in store for us as the world’s largest democracy whose Fourth Pillar is seemingly turning into the fifth column?!
Shine some light on this, Oh media Gods:
Reading the PSCR and the PCI’s Sub-Committee Report on Paid News will certainly stir, delight and torment you — the trenchant observations, the occasional subterranean, under-stated humour and the sheer brazenness with which certain sections of the MSM have cocked a snook at this entire lofty notion of a fourth pillar of democracy.
The report examines some of the reasons for Paid News in great detail- concentration of media ownership, loss of editorial autonomy, pathetic working conditions in sections of media and rise in contractual employment. It also points out to the toothless regulators like PCI and EMMC, which can only censure but cannot impose stricter punitive measures as reasons why the menace cannot be curbed.
In yet another crucial observation, the PSC expatiates on the distinction between control and regulation while noting that the two are markedly different styles of oversight. It dubs NBA’s and I&B Ministry’s arguments for self-regulation as specious and pure eye-wash before proceeding to excoriate the Ministry thus:
“The Committee is of the view that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting with all policy framework/statutory resources at its disposal has failed to discharge its responsibility“.
It then goes on to advocateÂ (i) the formation of a Media Council with statutory powers to punish offenders, or (ii) revamping of press council with powers to take care of print media and a similar body for electronic media.
Over the years, the Indian MSM has done some remarkable work, but the inability and/or unwillingness to set its own house in order is impacting its own credibility way more than it is prepared to acknowledge. As a repository of public trust, and one whose edifice is supposedly built on facts, social responsibility, neutrality and objective reportage and presentation, it is time the MSM calls a halt to any further poppycock on the issue of Paid News and shines some light on itself
After all, “…ridiculous journalism monopolising the seat of judgment when it should have been apologising in the dock” [Oscar Wilde] is an odious little reality that is becoming increasingly visible to media-watchers as well as citizens.
In his piece titled The growing crisis of credibility of the Indian media [April 2011], Praful Bidwai had summed up the entire issue rather well:
“Editors are now appointed less for their journalistic talent, erudition or news sense than for their “contacts” in high places and ability to fix deals… Robbed of authenticity, reliability and credibility, the media will cease to matter to large numbers of people except as a source of cheap entertainment and titillation. Journalism will then cease to be all that makes it worthy and socially relevant: an honest, investigative, analytical, public-oriented and ethical pursuit”.
It is also ironic that a few weeks before the report on Paid News was tabled in Parliament, Mr. V.S.Sampath [CEC] had termed Paid News as a “moral turpitude” before going on to add that “Paid News is an area we can ignore only at our peril. But there is no law to define it”. The Commission is also seeking an amendment to the Representation of People Act to make Paid News a punishable offence.
Later this week, we will publish a follow-up piece wherein we will delve into why certain sections of the MSM “should have been apologising in the dock”….poised precariously, as they are, on the mound of scanty ethics.
About the authors: Shining Path [@ShiningPath1] is a regular blogger on FirstPost while Bhanupriya [@bhanupriyarao] is an Open Data & Transparency campaigner and works with The Web Foundation. They can be reached on email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org respectively.