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Views on "paid news" by political leaders, Press Council of India members and others

Speaking to the Press Council of India, Leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Member of Parliament belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party Smt Sushma Swaraj said the “paid news” phenomenon had “started out as an aberration, went on to become a disease and is now an epidemic”. She said she was not directly approached by media companies but her campaign managers were. They told her that the media could be “managed” if she purchased a “package” worth Rs one crore.

Smt Swaraj pointed out when her party’s MP Shri Sanjay Jaiswal had spoken about the “paid news” phenomenon in the Lok Sabha during the debate on the President’s address, members cutting across political lines had thumped their desks in approval. This indicated that the malpractice had impacted the representatives of all political parties. “We are all suffering because of such malpractices and I believe we should amend Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act to make ‘paid news’ an electoral malpractice,” she said.

When asked to name the media company that had asked her managers for money, Smt Swaraj said she would prefer not to. She said: “Don’t ask me for names of persons or individual newspapers. We have to deal with the bigger problem. News has become a business and this is one aspect of the influence of money power in politics. The media is also guilty of hypocrisy. Newspapers keep lecturing us about what we should be doing but large sections of the media have become corrupt. My supporters came to me and pleaded with me to ‘please pay’. They said that otherwise my political opponents would get all the publicity and I would get nothing. However, I refused to pay even a single paisa and it is a separate matter altogether that the nomination papers of Shri Raj Kumar Patel of the Congress, who was my principal political opponent in Vidisha, were rejected.”

Shri Hussain Dalwai, Congress spokesperson from Maharashtra, told Outlook magazine (December 21, 2009): “Nothing was published unless you gave money. In fact, in some media sections, different deals were struck with owners and reporters”.

Shri Yogi Adityanath, BJP MP from Gorakhopur, told the same publication: “Every single newspaper was on sale in my constituency and I was told that I had to pay up for publicity”.

Shri Suresh Shetty, Congress MLA and Health Minister of Maharashtra said: “Newspapers and television channels were offering ‘packages’ to politicians across party lines. I had to file an FIR (first information report) against Hamara Mahanagar for defamation”.

Also quoted in Outlook was Shri C. Vidyasagar Rao, politician belonging to the BJP from Karimnanar, Andhra Pradesh and former Union Minister in the National Democratic Alliance government, who said: “There was tremendous pressure on politicians to pay up for favourable news. I may not spend but I cannot stop my party men from spending on me.”

Shri Sanjay Dina Patil, Member of the Rajya Sabha, belonging to the Nationalist Congress Party, who is also a member of the Press Council of India, said that the representatives of owners of newspapers had openly threatened candidates standing for election who were not ready to pay money. He said he and his wife were themselves “victims” of the phenomenon of “paid news”. When he was asked to identify such people he said, “even if I mention the names, it won’t have any effect since I don’t have any evidence against them.”

Shri Hormusji Nusserwanji Cama, member of the Executive Council of the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), who is a past President of the INS and a member of the executive committee of the Indian Language Newspapers Association (ILNA), said that this practice of “paid news” is completely unethical but wondered how such a practice could be stopped in the absence of hard evidence establishing payments between candidates of political parties and representatives of media organisations. He said the INS had discussed the issue and everyone was aware of the ground realities. He said that there were instances of journalists who were receiving bribes on their own initiative.

In this context, it should be noted that whereas employers of journalists can remove from service individual journalists who are found to be corrupt, the issue of “paid news” is more complex since it concerns the owners and representatives of managements of media companies (some of whom are actively promoting such corrupt practices). In other words, to reiterate a point already emphasized, the “paid news” phenomenon transcends individual corruption as it has acquired an institutional or organizational form or manifestation.

Senior journalist and Rajya Sabha MP, Shri H.K. Dua, former editor-in-chief of the Chandigarh-based Tribune newspaper, wrote to the Press Council of India stating that the phenomenon of “paid news” “is one of the most unethical practices I have come across during my fairly long journalistic career”. Shri Dua said that what is “at stake is the credibility of a noble profession which is supposed to serve society by giving news which is objective”.

Shri Devalapalli Amar, Chairman of the Press Academy of Andhra Pradesh, told the Press Council of India that the phenomenon of paid news is tantamount to cheating the public. “In one particular instance, a certain newspaper carried three different reports, wherein it projected a different candidate as the winner from the same constituency in each of the reports,” Shri Amar told the Press Council of India. He also said, “as long as managements of newspapers do not pay their stringers well, it would encourage journalists to indulge in corruption.”

Hyderabad-based advocate Shri M. Krishna Kumar, who has studied the Working Journalists Act, 1955, said that many journalists working in small towns and rural areas were susceptible to corrupt practices and could be easily bribed since they had no security of employment and their working conditions were often pitiable. “As far as their legal status is concerned, these journalists are no different from piece-rate workers,” he stated.

Corruption in the media has been a subject of discussion across the world and in India for some years now. In 1941, the late Orson Welles, the US actor and filmmaker, scripted and directed a classic film, “Citizen Kane”, about the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon, that most believed was a thinly disguised biography of the late William Randolph Hearst, the US newspaper publisher whose introduction of large headlines and sensational reporting changed American journalism. On its release, Hearst banned his newspapers from reviewing the film. The film traced the life and career of a man whose career in publishing was first motivated by ideals of public service but who eventually became a ruthless businessman who could go to any length – including organizing a murder – to be the first to report the “news”.

In India, film director Shri Ram Gopal Verma’s movie, “Rann”, that was released in February 2010, deals with the topic of corruption in the media. In the film, popular actor Shri Amitabh Bachchan plays the role of a media tycoon who is committed to the principles of ethical journalism, and fights against his own son to bring out the truth before the public. In response to a question put to him by a reporter of the Indo-Asian News Service as to whether he believed that news is planted, Shri Bachchan said: “It is the media’s job to put up news. There is no problem if you are being paid to do so. But you should make a disclosure.” He expressed concern that the phenomenon of “paid news” was undermining the credibility and the independence of the media after reading an article in the Hindustan Times by Shri Rajdeep Sardesai, who currently heads the Editors’ Guild of India.

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 23, 2018Total views: 11