The Shocking Reality About Paid News And How The Media Is Silently Letting It Run [Part 2]

By ShiningPath and Bhanupriya Rao:

Last week, we endeavoured to shine some light on the 47th-PSCR and how it brilliantly captures the ridiculous descent of sections of the MSM from the lofty 4th pillaresque splendour to the venal 5th columnesque opprobrium. A careful reading of the PSCR leads one to infer that that some sections of the media have prostrated themselves at the altar of Mammon and have busied themselves fabricating layers of alternate realities while sipping on some philtre of distorted truth a.k.a Paid News.

Unfortunately – though not entirely unsurprisingly – the release of that report in May 2013 turned out to be a perfect non-issue for the imperturbable media gods as they displayed chicanery laden sang-froid wrapped inside a near-impregnable silence in the aftermath of this ruthless indictment.

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How Paid News and the resounding silence surrounding it, mocks at democracy

Nevertheless, if one reads between the lines of the PSCR [and the PCI Sub-Committee Report], the ensuing deathly silence was an incontestable evidence of the ghost which, guffawing sardonically at an already emasculated democratic set-up, appears to have asphyxiated and corrupted the very soul of journalism. Furthermore, the term Paid News itself subverts the very notion of democracy, mocks at the idea of independence and objectivity of news reporting and belittles our sensibilities as consumers of news.

As if the silence surrounding this issue and the subsequent inaction by the I&B Ministry weren’t pointers to the ignoble intricacies of guilt-soaked hearts, an obnoxious miasma had already befouled the air somewhat two months prior to the release of the report when Law Ministry filed a counter affidavit in the Ashok Chavan vs. Madhav Kinhalkar case asserting that “the power of the Election Commission to disqualify a person arises only in the event of failure to lodge an account of expenses and not for any other reason, including the correctness or otherwise of such accounts.”

The Ashok Chavan case — now notorious as the Paid News scandal – refers to the alleged incorrect filing of election expenses by the former Maharashtra CM, wherein he came up with the magical figure of Rs. 11,379 as the expenditure incurred by him on his [2009] election advertising campaign. The Hindu, in a series of diligent exposes, went on to note that ‘Chavan’s achievements’ had received some extraordinarily dedicated coverage of at least 47 pages in the run-up to elections, including 4 full-page coloured supplements titled as ‘Ashok Parva’ and Vikas Parva. These paeans were swathed as ‘news’, understandably because the actual advertising cost would have run into a few crores. Curiously, many of these appeared in Lokmat, the fourth largest circulated daily [owned by the Dardas – Congress politicians; more on this later].

The opposition candidate Madhav Kinhalkar, on the other hand, faced a total black-out — an instance that corroborates the celebrated exclusionary tactics of media outlets as described in the PSCR as well as the PCI sub-committee report.

While Chavan may have been the poster boy of Paid News, his is by no means an isolated incidence. Ex-CM of Jharkhand, Madhu Koda is likewise trapped in a similar case. Sitting MLA Umlesh Yadav ultimately got disqualified on exactly the same grounds. The pandemic nature of this malpractice can be assessed from the fact that EC has identified 1400+ instances of Paid News in 17 assembly elections over the last 4 years.

In the entire ugly episode, however, the most discomfiting feature was that The Hindu’s meticulous expose of paid-news transactions hopelessly failed to elicit a faint murmur of guilt, let alone an apology from the media. In fact, what followed was an amusingly contradictory series of admissions of involvement by politicians and categorical refutations of the charges by newspapers. Hindustan Times, one of those named in The Hindu report, even went to the extent of exonerating itself as it took the elevator to the moral high ground and published a front page editorial titled ‘HT brings you real news not paid news’.

A sliver of hope for checking the menace comes from the EC which has set up an Election Expenses Monitoring Committee for the 2014 General elections. The Government has drafted an amendment to the Press and registration of Books Act, 1867 to check the Paid News menace in the upcoming winter session of Parliament. The draft of the Bill is open for public comment for the next 7 days. However, considering that there has been many a slip between the Draft and the Act, as the Lok Pal Bill farce for the last 40 years tells us, watching this one go further will be an amusing exercise.

Journalism that does not matter anymore
“Journalism can never be silent: that is its greatest virtue and its greatest fault. It must speak, and speak immediately, while the echoes of wonder, the claims of triumph and the signs of horror are still in the air.” ~Henry Anatole Grunwald

Certainly not in these times, when mal-governance has pervaded into every aspect of the polity, thereby attaining the exalted status of a surreal art form. Paid News is one tiny speck of what ails journalism and media today. The lofty ideals and ethics of journalism that are meant to seek truth, shape public opinion and fix accountability have been dutifully dumped into the trashcans in the newsrooms. Instead, newscasters hyperventilate on issues that the ‘Nation certainly does not want to know’ ad infinitum and the ‘Buck stops’ at entirely the wrong places, fixing fleeting accountability on the minions when those in high offices slither away scot-free.

Silence on issues that matter is both deafening and deliberate. Sounds of silence linger on where a cache of tapes, those of the ‘ii’ Radia fame, that expose nefarious deal-making in the governance of the country are so deeply buried in the necropolis, never to rise again, were it not for the honourable Supreme Court.

As Manu Joseph noted in his piece recently:

“It is possible to argue that everyone whom Niira Radia called from her phones was just stringing her along, the way an “innocent and gullible” television journalist and a sweet-talking” columnist claimed they did in the way of defending the substance of their conversations with a woman who was until recently a seemingly efficient lobbyist for Mukesh Ambani, Ratan Tata and others…Also, a lesson from the revealed fraction of the Radia Tapes is that the media is not necessarily an ally of the citizen anymore. In fact, those conversations were with the media for months… It was when the larger tranche of recordings carrying her conversations with prominent journalists was revealed that the story caught the nation’s attention. The media complicity was the entertaining prelude that brought home the deeper story of Radia’s dealings.

For days after Open and Outlook ran the transcripts and recordings, the mainstream media was so resolute in its pact of silence that Open taunted them in its print edition, at the risk of appearing a bit sanctimonious, by carrying two blank pages with a headline that said “this was how the Indian media had covered the Radia Tapes”.

Ironically, the silence and the closing of ranks by the media on Radiagate is in sharp contrast to the non-truths that are peddled with gusto where farmers’ suicides owing to Bt.Cotton in Maharashtra are airbrushed as ‘reaping rich gold by a national newspaper, helpfully sponsored by the Mahyco Mosanto Biotech [India] Ltd.

Issues such as the agrarian crisis, malnutrition, female infanticide and foeticide etc. that affect nearly 75% of the population do not find more than a passing mention. News is about entertainment, sleaze, outrage, titillation and ephemeral indignation [it lasts the duration of a TV News debate] — so much so that certain sections of the media have presumably taken it upon themselves to add some colour to what they possibly think is the dull grey sameness of ennui-infested lives being led by the audience.

Who sets the agenda? Newsrooms or Boardrooms?

“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising. The power is to set the agenda. What we print and what we don’t print matter a lot”. ~Katherine Graham

When Soni Sori’s brutal rape by Chhattisgarh police, the hounding of Ashok Khemka for exposing nefarious land deals of those in high non-offices or government high-handedness in amending the sunshine RTI Act don’t shake the citadels of power enough, the media has failed to set the agenda. When almost the entire news-making and corporate universe conspires to keep the Radia tapes out of public domain, we know that public interest is nowhere close to being the centre of the agenda.

How could it be when boardrooms and not newsrooms set the agenda? A relationship that has killed the autonomy of the editor and blurred the lines between ownership and editorial roles as envisaged by the mighty Murdoch.

As Justice P.B.Sawant [former Chairman, PCI] noted recently:

“The corporate-owned and dominated media-houses have their journalists on the leash, and many times appoint them only to fill the post…many do not mind being the call-boys of the management. It is common knowledge that the views injurious to the interests of the owners, their friends, political patrons, the advertiser and co-businessmen are not allowed to be published, and the editors have to submit to the management policy from time to time.”

The slaying of Sidharth Vardarajan of The Hindu at the altar of ownership tussle suggests how unprofessionally run the editorial aspect of news production is, even while propounding the values of editorial autonomy. One is left in no doubt when Sameer Jain, the proprietor of the TOI declares that newspapers are mere commodities, perhaps, a reason why the daily has dispensed with the role of an overall editor. Why bother when, as Elbert Hubbart noted “An editor’s job is to separate wheat from the chaff and see that the chaff is printed.” Anyone could do that job.

Media’s moral universe has been painted with the Murdoch brush where politics meets business meets media in what appears to be a steamy ménage a trois. The entry of large corporate groups like Reliance [Network 18, Eenadu], AV Birla group [Living Media], Future Group [Deccan Chronicle], Oswal group [NDTV] etc., bailing out ailing media companies with the much needed cash injection and acquiring huge stakes has blurred the already obfuscated lines between content providers, distributors and advertisers resulting in loss of media plurality.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta observes the phenomena of ‘cartelisation of media’ whereby these conglomerates are creating oligopolies and as large advertisers themselves, increasing the clout of advertisers. All forms of registered media put together, i.e. newspapers [82,000], TV [800 of which 300 are news channels] and FM [250] are owned by less than 100 conglomerates that set the agenda for news in the country.

Throw in the political class, a la Shobhana Bhartiya of HT, Chandan Mitra of Pioneer, the Dardas of Lokmat, Sun TV of DMK, Sakshi TV of Jagan Reddy and the cocktail gets even heady. A media outlet is not just aspirational but almost instrumental to the propaganda and business models of politicians if the ownership patterns are any indication.

Who controls Media?

Earlier this year, Newslaundry had done an infographic titled “Who own your media” depicting the complex yet telling maze of ownership involving corporate and political interests. Whilst ownership patterns by themselves can’t be taken as irrefutable signs of rot in the media, it is a worrisome factor nonetheless.

On a similar note, here are a few Media Outlets with political links:

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For a more comprehensive list, click here [The Hoot].

TRAI notes with particular concern “political parties either directly or indirectly through surrogates control newspapers, TV and distribution systems.” It also points out that the “inherent conflict of interest which arises from uncontrolled ownership in the media sector gives rise to manifestations of (i) paid news (ii) corporate and political lobbying (iii) propagation of biased analyses in the political arena as well as corporate sector (iv) irresponsible reporting leading to sensationalism.”

One only has to hear transcripts from the eminently entertaining Radia tapes to understand how political, media and corporate interests collide. In one recording, Mr.N.K Singh, an esteemed MP tells Ms Radia of the fire fighting he is doing on behalf of Mr. Mukesh Ambani to ensure a tax concession the finance minister had announced in the 2009 budget for gas production is made applicable retrospectively.

The corporatisation of the media takes it up a notch from deciding policy to determining how and what we see and hear, and more importantly, what gets exposed.

The most recent TRAI consultation paper, the third such in the last 4 years, makes strong recommendations for the structural safeguards like restrictions on cross-media ownerships, along the lines of the two-out-of three principle’ for conglomerates both vertically [content providers and distributors] and horizontally [all forms of media in a geography]. It recommends that a broadcaster should not have control over distribution and vice versa and calls for Merger and Acquisition guidelines to be put in place to prevent media concentration of significant market power.

These constructive suggestions have been dumped into the deepest oblivion where all other progressive recommendations reside presently. Media noise in the form of regular updates, meaningful analysis and well intentioned debates can serve as trigger that propels the I&B ministry to take cognizance of the same. Unfortunately, the silence of the watchdog is creating an existential crisis for the spirit of journalism, strengthening the shackles of corporate slavery and endangering freedom of press.

However, we do believe that acknowledging the evils extant in the hallowed portals of the Fourth Estate would be the first step towards reinstating some idealism back into this noble profession.

Furthermore, the troika of corporate Czar, Media God(dess) and Elected Repress-entative would do the nation a huge service by reflecting on why India is slipping abysmally on Press Freedom rankings, as briefly touched upon in the concluding section below.

World Press Freedom Index
The Press Freedom Index is arrived at by tabulating responses collected along 6 broad areas:
– Human Rights violations against journalists and media organisations
– Media Legal Status
– Legal Status of Journalists
– Pluralism and Editorial independence (1)
– Legal doctrine and practice
– The internet and technical resources

(1) [Readers can click here to see the aspects that have been covered under each of the 6 broad areas listed above; we urge you to pay close attention to the 18 questions under the section ‘Pluralism and Editorial Independence’].

India, which had been ranked 120th on Press Freedom globally [2004], has slipped further to 140th position in 2013 — it keeps company with nations like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Congo, Cambodia, Libya, Oman and Palestine.

A quick overview of how India has fared over the years:

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To make matters worse, the scores on the 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer [Media] are equally worrying. And we quote:

“This year’s study shows a sharp drop over the past two years in trust in TV news from 61% to 36%, business magazines from 72% to 47%, newspapers from 61% to 40%”

In similar vein, the PCI’s Sub-committee Report [2010] had noted:

“In another survey conducted by the Readers’ Digest in March 2010, called the Trust Survey, 750 Indians were asked to rank the short-listed individuals belonging to different professions. Journalists were ranked 30 out of the 40 professionals listed and were placed next only to barbers and bus drivers”.

The situation appears to have improved marginally since then [Edelman Trust Barometer Report, 2013] but the stakeholders who are responsible for the credibility of a vibrant media have miles to go before what increasingly looks like the 5th column is suitably restored to its original avatar — that of the 4th pillar.

In the words of P. Sainath, what we need is journalism of dissent – fuelled by some idealism – that refuses to be reduced to ‘stenography of the powerful’. But for that to happen, it is imperative that the MSM first egresses out of its comfort zone and initiates the uncomfortable debate on the pestilence that certain sections of the media are plagued with — not an impossible task, is it? All it needs is a pinch of intent, a dash of resolve, courage to acknowledge the fact that structural flaws exist …….and truck-loads of some good old thumos.

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 shining.path.notperu@gmail.com andbhanupriyak@gmail.com respectively.

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