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The Background

News reports that are printed in publications or broadcast on television channels are meant to provide information that is not only of interest to the public at large but information that is supposed to be truthful or factually correct and at the same time, balanced, objective, fair and neutral. This is what clearly sets apart such information described as news from either opinions expressed in editorial articles or, more importantly, advertisements or commercials that are paid for by corporate entities, governments, organizations or individuals. When the distinction between news and advertisements start blurring, when advertisements double up as news that have been paid for, or when “news” is published or broadcast in favour of a particular politician or a political party by selling editorial space, the reader or the viewer is misled or duped into believing that an advertisement or sponsored feature is a “news” story that is truthful, fair and objective.

This report on “paid news” prepared by a Sub-Committee of two members of the Press Council of India tracks the blurring boundaries between news and advertisements or “advertorials” and highlights the efforts made by certain individuals and representatives of organizations who have painstakingly chronicled the selling of editorial space for money, especially during the April-May 2009 general elections in the country and also during the September-October 2009 elections to the state assemblies of Maharashtra and Haryana.

This report also documents the denials that have been issued by representatives of media organizations and political personalities against whom specific allegations of corruption and malpractice have been levelled and against whom a considerable volume of circumstantial evidence has been acquired, collated, documented and presented before the Press Council of India. Moreover, this report summarizes the depositions that were made by over 50 individuals and representatives of various organizations (including media organizations, journalists’ unions and political parties) before the members of the Press Council in New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad and through written letters and representations and also through electronic mail.

The media industry in India and elsewhere has become increasingly difficult to regulate due to several reasons: technological developments, the globalisation of media conglomerates and the trend of certain suppliers and creators of news (public relations practitioners, advertisers and interest groups) getting closely involved with the working of media organisations. The dynamics of the media industry aside, the sheer extent of influence exercised by the media over the public at large is reason enough for subjecting the ethical practices and business activities of media organisations to critical scrutiny.

The concepts of democracy and of the market are both built on the principle of individual choice, but there is a danger that those who have accumulated wealth in the market will use it to exert influence over decisions that should be governed by democratic principles. Media institutions face particular dilemmas because these organisations represent a key element of an effective democracy while being, for the most part, commercial entities seeking success in the market by maximising profits. The commercial activities and market interests of media institutions might distort the role they play in the formation of public opinion and consequently in upholding principles and norms of democracy. Favourable coverage for those in positions of power and authority by the media, for commercial reasons, might influence the decisions made by these people.

A widespread problem is the attempt to influence public debate through the purchase of advertising space and the purchase of favourable editorial comment. Although some owners and editors of media companies try to erect a firewall – or a “Chinese Wall” – between journalists or content creators/producers, on the one hand, and buyers and sellers of advertising space, on the other, in some newspapers, magazines and television channels, this wall has too many convenient access doors. Most journalists are employees, increasingly, of large companies or organisations whose primary aim is to maximise profits and returns to shareholders. Insofar as journalists’ duties are in part defined by their role in corporate organisations, most of the ethical dilemmas they face begin with the inherent conflict between the individual’s role as a journalist providing independent information to the public and his or her employer’s quest for profit.

Corruption in the mass media in India and in other countries of the world is as old as the media itself. If there is corruption in society, it would be unrealistic to expect the media to be free of corruption. India is the world’s largest democracy. A vibrant and diverse mass media is an important pillar of democracy in this country. The independence of the media facilitates adherence to democratic norms. Article 19 of the Constitution of India confers the right to freedom of speech and expression to all citizens of the country and to the media as well. In recent years, corruption in the Indian media has gone way beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media organizations: from “planting” information and views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind, to more institutionalized and organized forms of corruption wherein publishers of newspapers and owners of television channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information in favour of particular individuals or corporate entities that is disguised as “news”.

What follows is first, an outline, and then, detailed accounts of such corrupt practices in sections of the media in India.

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 12, 2018Total views: 0