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Shri P. Sainath's findings on "paid news"

One journalist of a mainstream newspaper who has written a number of articles highlighting this pernicious trend of “paid news” is the Rural Affairs Editor of The Hindu Shri Palagummi Sainath. In his deposition before the Press Council of India on December 13, 2009, and again on January 27, 2010, Shri Sainath made the following observations:

“Throughout my journalistic career, I have witnessed how money power and corrupt journalism have always been major factors influencing the outcome of any election – this is not a phenomenon that has appeared overnight. Yet, the last two general elections – of 2004 and 2009 – were exceptional even by past standards in the manner in which huge amounts of money were spent by candidates in their election campaigns. The no-holds-barred expenditure by candidates in the 2004 elections was shocking by any standards, but the amounts of money spent by candidates in the 2009 general elections far exceeded the amounts that were spent by candidates in 2004. The general elections of 2009 were the seventh covered by me and never before in my career had I witnessed such large sums of money being spent on election campaigns. Though I was aware that candidates were spending large amounts, I did not have evidence that would help me expose the fact that candidates were incurring expenditures that were far higher than what is officially permitted by the Election Commission of India. It was visible to the naked eye. Proving it with documentary evidence was another matter.”

Shri Sainath observed that the general elections of 2009 witnessed a paradigm shift in the manner in which candidates and political parties worked hand in glove with the press and media houses in masquerading advertisements of candidates and parties as political “news”. He stated:

  1. The size of the market for “paid news” is very big. In Andhra Pradesh, unions of journalists have estimated the size of the “paid news” market to be somewhere between Rs 300 crore and Rs 1,000 crore.
  2. In Uttar Pradesh, politicians complained about how leading newspapers sold various “packages” or “rate cards” for publishing news in their favour and/or completely blacking out news about their opponents.
  3. In Punjab and Haryana, complaints from politicians showed how it was the newspapers that set the agenda much before the elections were announced. While the language papers claimed that it was the national dailies with their local editions and political supplements that were forcing them to offer their editorial space for a price, the national dailies denied resorting to such practices. Even media houses in the national capital of New Delhi were not immune to the malaise.
  4. “Paid news” has become an organized and properly structured “industry”. It is corporate-controlled and functions with the full patronage and participation of some of the largest media groups in the country. The individual journalist has no importance in this “industry” because what is published as “news” has not been independently gathered and reported by reporters and journalists but written and published as per the wishes of the political party or the candidate who has paid money to the concerned publisher or media organisation. Indeed, in some cases the reporter was not even required as the public relations (PR) machinery behind the politician got down to work. In some newspapers in Gujarat, reporters complained that they were ordered not to file political reports.
  5. This “industry” has become so organized that large PR firms, professional designers and advertising agencies handled contracts worth many crore rupees – not just to position advertisements but to create “news”. Propaganda put out as “news” was customised by these image-creation agencies to appear as “exclusive” news articles in the publications these appeared in. But the scale of the operation was so large that confusion and overlap were inevitable and many giveaway mistakes occurred (for instance, the same “exclusive” story appeared under different bylines in rival newspapers – word for word). The use of these large corporate PR firms gave resource-rich parties an unfair edge over their electoral rivals (about whom, news was blacked out because they could not pay) and this malpractice has sullied India’s proud electoral democracy.
  6. The new aspect of this phenomenon of “paid news” in 2009 is that there was widespread participation by political parties in this process. The integration and assimilation of leading political parties and corporate public relations bodies in this racket is also unique to the elections of 2009.

Shri Sainath spoke on how the ruling party in Maharashtra exploited the situation to the hilt. “In Maharashtra, it is definitely the Congress-NCP (Nationalist Congress Party) that occupies the top slot because other political parties in the state are really strapped for resources. The reason for this is not embedded in the character of any particular party: it is simply that one coalition has been in power in the state for ten years and thus has far more money. In another state, it could be another ruling party.

“For example, a news item headlined, ‘Young, dynamic leadership’, eulogising the Maharashtra Chief Minister Shri Ashok Chavan appeared using exactly similar words from beginning to end in three competing Marathi newspapers – Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times. If a question were posed to these three newspapers as to how the exactly same articles appeared in their pages, their reply would be customised. They would say that accidentally one of the press releases of the Congress party went directly to the press without passing through the copy desk and therefore the same news appeared in a similar manner in all three newspapers. But, had it been a press release, it should have been circulated to all newspapers and not just three. The question, therefore, arises as to how the press release found its way only to three newspapers. The news was published by Pudhari on October 7, 2009, whereas, the other two newspapers had carried it on October 10. Is there a practice among these newspapers to carry three-day-old press releases?”

In the general elections of 2009, the head offices of newspapers and television news channels, said Shri Sainath, set “targets” and “quotas” for their regional centres. These targets were then worked into individual quotas for reporters, correspondents and special correspondents, depending on the rank of the employee in question. In April 2009, during the fifteenth general elections, the Hindu carried a story on individual journalists from several small towns in Maharashtra, like Nagpur and Amravati, complaining that they were being forced to write news stories that were paid for being published.

Shri Shakil Ahmad, a lawyer and an independent candidate from Sion-Koliwada in Mumbai, said the very newspapers that had earlier given him space as a social activist “demanded money to write about me as a candidate”. “Since I refused to pay, nobody wrote about me,” said Shri Ahmed, who added that he was eager to depose before the Election Commission of India and has filed a legal affidavit/undertaking in this regard wherein naming newspapers like …. that tried to extort money from him. Shri Ahmed’s statements would earlier get space because he was very useful to the media in, for example, in covering the proceedings of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission that inquired into the communal riots that had taken place in Mumbai in 1992-93. His services to the media were in the nature of a public service from which he derived no monetary gain. And his name was soon well known in the press. When it came to his contesting elections, he was blacked out as he would not pay money.” (Subsequently, on January 27, 2010, Shri Ahmed deposed before the Press Council of India reiterating the allegations that were recounted by him to Shri Sainath.)

In the course of tracking down the trend of “paid news”, Shri Sainath observed: “Several editions of newspapers published from Maharashtra in between October 1 and 10, 2009 bear testimony to the fact that there was huge scramble by candidates to get news space. There are instances of mysteriously fixed size news items, each say of a length of 125-150 words with a double-column photo. The ‘fixed size’ news items hid more than they revealed. News items are seldom written in such a rigid format and size whereas advertisements are most often. In specific newspapers, multiple font types and multiple drop case styles were noticed within the same page of a single newspaper. This happened because just about everything – the layouts, fonts, printouts, photographs – was provided by candidates who had paid for slots in the pages of the newspaper.”

Shri Sainath pointed out that in the election expenditure statement submitted to the Election Commission, Maharashtra Chief Minister Shri Ashok Chavan, disclosed that he had spent less than Rs 7 lakh on his election campaign. The expenditure limit in terms of election campaign that is imposed on a candidate by the Election Commission of India is Rs 10 lakhs. Of the Rs 7 lakh, Shri Chavan stated that he had spent a mere Rs 5,379 on newspaper advertisements and another Rs 6,000 on advertisements that were on cable television networks. These figures, according to Shri Sainath, are “clearly at odds with the unprecedented media coverage the Chief Minister got during the election campaign”. “I have with me 89 full pages of news which are devoted just to Shri Ashok Chavan. Most of these news items are printed in colour. A substantial number of these pages have been culled out from those editions of the big Marathi daily newspaper Lokmat, which is the fourth most widely circulated daily in the country according to the National Readership Survey of 2006,” said Shri Sainath.

Several pertinent questions arise from this huge media coverage that was accorded to Shri Chavan, said Shri Sainath. What would have been the total expenditure incurred by Shri Chavan if all the “news” that had been carried about him and his achievements been considered advertisements that were paid for? How does one justify the presence of over 150 pages of “news” on one man who had at that time held the post of Chief Minister of Maharashtra for a period of only 11 months? Even Barack Obama, the first African-American to win the US Presidential elections did not find any newspaper in the US giving him five full pages of ‘news’ before his election. And his was the costliest election campaign ever.

What Shri Sainath said was borne out by the statements of Shri Yogi Adityanath of the BJP who told Outlook that his name did not figure at all in the reports appearing in the leading dailies of Uttar Pradesh. “In my constituency of Gorakhpur from where I had won in the past, my candidature did not find a mention in the newspapers,” the BJP MP remarked, adding how every newspaper in his constituency was offering its editorial space for a package.

Shri Sainath also observed how a spate of genuine advertisements of politicians hit the pages of certain newspapers in Maharashtra on August 30, 2009. “This was 24 hours prior to the date elections were formally announced on which day, the model code of conduct specified by the Election Commission came into effect. After the model code of conduct came into effect, the word ‘advertisement’ disappeared from all items on political events and candidates. Even the fig leaf describing a paid news item as a ‘sponsored feature’ or a ‘response feature’ disappeared and the items were simply published and were sought to be passed off as ‘news’.

“These so-called ‘news’ reports that appeared subsequent to the crucial dates of August 30 and September 18 were fascinating in more ways than one. These reports that raised toasts to the candidates who paid for them did not carry a single critical or negative statement about the candidates in question. Across hundreds of pages, ‘news’ was solely those kinds of information that made readers aware as to how wonderful particular candidates were and about their achievements. There was not even a small mention of the real issues that mattered to voters in these constituencies. The names of their rivals, who might have been people of lesser resources, simply did not exist in these newspaper pages except, perhaps, as fall guys.”

It would be a mistake to conclude that the business of paid news was confined to language dailies, said Shri Sainath. He added: “Even English dailies like the Vidarbha Plus (a supplement of the Times of India) published advertisements for candidates in the form of news. The Vidarbha Plus carried an advertisement disguised as news on the Congress candidate from Amravati assembly constituency, Shri Raosaheb Shekhawat, son of the President of India Smt Pratibha Devisingh Patil. The report carried a headline ‘Motorbike rally marks conclusions of electoral campaign’. The contents of the news item, that comprised endless praises for Shri Shekhawat, make for interesting reading. No regular reporter would ever use the language of this ‘news item’ which says, for example, that Shekhawat ‘epitomises politeness, potential and promise’ and that he is ‘blessed with extremely charming personality’, and ‘a charisma (that) attracted huge crowds throughout his campaign’. This ‘news item’ was published on the very day of polling in the assembly elections,” said Shri Sainath.

“As I wrote in the Hindu on June 20, 2009: ‘The average worth of a Lok Sabha MP is Rs. 51 million. But there are 74 MPs with serious criminal charges against them whose wealth averages Rs 60 million (or Rs 6 crore). That is, they are well entrenched in Parliament’s Platinum tier. And the average wealth of a Cabinet Minister is around Rs 75 million (or Rs 7.5 crore).’ (These data were derived from the ongoing studies on the subject released by the NEW (National Election Watch) an initiative of the non-governmental organisation Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). As I noted in that article on the 15th Lok Sabha, its 543 MPs are worth close to Rs 28 billion (or Rs 2800 crore, the 64 Union Cabinet members from the Lok Sabha account for Rs 5 billion or Rs 500 crore). And the links between wealth and winning elections are firmer than ever before.

“Money power of politicians clearly enables them acquire media power during elections. Likewise, the propaganda power of media barons enables them to control or acquire political power – both financially rewarding exercises. In one way, the media is leading the charge in keeping the aam aadmi, who is much poorer than the elected representatives, out of the electoral process. Please also note that media owners can also be leading politicians and financially powerful too. Lokmat, for instance, is the fourth largest circulated daily in India.

“One of its owners, Shri Rajendra Darda, has been made a cabinet minister in Maharashtra in 2009 (earlier, he had been a Minister of State). In its ‘Analysis of Ministries – Maharashtra, Haryana and Arunachal Pradesh based on 2009 elections’, a NEW-ADR report states that the ‘the maximum assets (of an MP) from Maharashtra are (those) of Rajendra Jawaharlal Darda from Aurangabad East, Maharashtra – Rs 32 crore.’ It also found that based on his own election affidavits, his assets between 2004 and 2009 had increased by 408.13 per cent. What happens when we stir this lethal mix of media power, money power and advertising-passed-off-as-news? And Lokmat does not come out of the ‘paid news’ game smelling of roses,” said Shri Sainath.

He concluded: “The real issue is to prove that news has been paid for? All such clandestine dealings, which involved the exchange of a lot of money, left no trace or evidence in their trail. No agreements and no receipts of payment that could serve as proof of transactions exist.”

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 23, 2018Total views: 132