Newswatch | Newswatch

You are here

"Paid news" at seminars and conferences

In his inaugural address at a workshop on “Parliament and Media” that was held on November 4, 2009 at the Parliament House Annexe, New Delhi, the Vice President of India and Chairman, Rajya Sabha, Shri M. Hamid Ansari said that the explosive growth in the media in the country had highlighted the fact that the Fourth Estate is the only one among the pillars of democracy that has an identifiable commercial and explicitly for-profit persona. He said that while the primary professional duty of media organizations is to their readership to keep them informed and appraised with news, views and ideas, the commercial logic brings in a new set of stakeholders in the form of the shareholders of these companies.

These developments have brought into focus new considerations that guide professional media decisions. Today, the demands of professional journalists are carefully balanced with the interests of owners and stakeholders of media companies and their cross media interests. The interplay of these conflicting demands is evident and subject of public debate. Shri Ansari also referred to The Hindu journalist Shri P. Sainath’s exposure of extensive malpractice of “paid news” and “coverage packages” during the elections and pointed out that the Press Council of India’s guidelines to the media call for “not accepting or publishing any advertisement at the cost of the public exchequer regarding achievements of a party or government in power.” The Council had noted that paid news could cause double jeopardy to Indian democracy through a damaging influence on press functioning as well as on the free and fair election process, he observed.

Speaking at a seminar organized by the Press Council of India on November 16, 2009, at Hyderabad to commemorate the National Press Day, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Shri K. Rosaiah referred to the “paid news” phenomenon and said “a dangerous tendency that has been gaining ground is the resort to what is described as paid coverage especially during elections”. He added: “Advertisements paid for in cash by different parties or candidates are being published or telecast, camouflaged as news and features. Sections of the media guilty of such practices are undermining democracy either wittingly or unwittingly. A candidate with immense money power can create an illusion through media that he is winning and influence voting behavior since people are given to bet on a winning horse.”

The Chief Minister further said: “I would not be true to myself, the people of the country and Press Council of India if I do not draw the attention to the growing nexus between journalists on one hand and politicians, businessmen and other celebrities on the other, I am told there is a price for every thing. And it is a win-win situation for both sides.”

Turning to the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice G.N. Ray, who was presiding over the seminar, he said: “I appeal to the Press Council of India to arrest such media aberrations since any government intervention in media freedom will be a remedy worse than the disease.”

At a seminar organised by the Editors’ Guild of India, the Indian Women’s Press Corps, the Press Association and others on “paid news” in New Delhi on March 13, 2010, leaders of the Congress, the BJP and the CPI-M condemned the malpractice of “paid news” and suggested that the Representation of the People Act be amended to declare “paid news” as an “electoral malpractice”. Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Smt Sushma Swaraj (BJP), CPI-M general secretary Shri Prakash Karat and Congress spokesperson Shri Manish Tewari called for steps to check the malpractice of “paid news”, which had been widely witnessed in the run-up to the fifteenth general elections held in 2009.

Shri Karat said that self-regulation by media would not be enough to solve the problem and hence suggested that “paid news” be declared an electoral malpractice. He also said that “the Election Commission cannot take any action unless the Representation of the People Act is amended.” He added that “if existing laws do not allow this, then suitable changes can be made” while noting that the model code of conduct for elections does not cover the problem. He said that a major hurdle in checking the “paid news” syndrome was that there was no record of money exchanged in the deal. Those who paid money should also be held accountable, he said.

Shri Karat’s suggestion of declaring “paid news” as an electoral malpractice was supported by Smt Swaraj and Shri Tewari. Smt Swaraj said that in her own constituency of Vidisha in Madhya Pradesh, her own media officials had told her how they had been offered a “package of up to Rs one crore by a media organisation” to publish “news” in her favour and print her campaign photographs. “I rejected them all,” she said, adding that this phenomenon had become institutionalised over the years.

She said that she and her party’s representatives were ready to name publications that had approached them with offers of “paid news” if the Election Commission sought details in this regard. “We are ready to name them. We are ready to give evidence if Election Commission formally asks us,” Smt Swaraj said and gave an assurance that the Opposition would push for amending the Representation of the People Act in the Lok Sabha.

Shri Tewari said that there was a need to address the “contradiction between freedom of press and the freedom of the owner of press”. Stressing self-regulation for the media, he also called for giving statutory basis to the model code of conduct for elections and said that he too would provide details to the Election Commission of India if asked for.

Election Commissioner Shri S.Y. Quraishi, who was also present at the seminar, said the Election Commission only had powers when elections were taking place when it could “roar like a tiger”. It was up to legislators to use their power to halt the menace. He promised that the Commission would augment its own machinery, but pointed out that only circumstantial evidence had been put forth so far. There was no transactional evidence that would hold up to legal scrutiny, he said, adding that no political party had made a formal written complaint to the Election Commission as yet.

Shri Shahid Siddiqui, former MP belonging to Bahujan Samaj Party and Shri Karat both said the Election Commission’s decision to ban hoardings and wall graffiti as a campaigning method deprived political parties of cheaper means of reaching out to the people, and forced them to depend on corporate media houses. Senior journalist Shri Kuldip Nayar suggested the setting up of a media commission to look into the “affairs of television and print media”.

Shri Jagdeep S. Chhokar of the Association for Democratic Reforms disagreed with the argument made by Smt Swaraj that political parties were victims of “paid news” and said that only four out of the nearly 6,500 candidates in the last general elections had declared their expenditure as having exceeded the ceiling set by the Election Commission. Shri Chhokar said that while 30 candidates had declared their expenditure to be in the range of 80 per cent to 90 per cent of the limit, most of the candidates had declared it to be less than 50 per cent of the limit.

Date posted: August 8, 2010Last modified: May 23, 2018Total views: 9