The volume of advertising by political parties during the campaign preceding elections to Maharashtras Legislative Assembly in October 2009 was far lower than the amount recorded during the 2004 elections. Data from the media monitoring firm, AdEx India (a division of TAM Media), suggest that political parties were relatively stingy about placing ads in Maharashtra-based print media (in both English and other languages) during the state elections last year.
According to an October 2009 report in The Economic Times (ET), While political parties blame the close watch of the Election Commission as the main reason for their cautious spending patterns, advertising executives said spends have been actively channelled into innovative below-the-line media, digital, mobile marketing, and road shows. Back then, ad industry experts offered several explanations for the relatively low expenditure on political advertisements, including the austerity measures preached by political parties.
The reference to austerity is amusing in view of subsequent revelations about the widespread phenomenon of paid news propaganda disguised as news during the Assembly elections. If parties were spending generously on covert paid news in both print and broadcast media, why wouldnt they be parsimonious with other, more open and legitimate forms of advertising?
The fact that the ET story made no mention of paid news is also remarkable since the prevalence of the practice, known for some time, had been outed during the general elections to the Lok Sabha several months earlier, in the summer of 2009.
In a meeting with the Election Commission of India (ECI) in February last year, political parties had highlighted the need for effective measures to combat below-the-belt tactics such as surrogate advertisements and attempts to misuse the print media to plant customised reports projecting particular candidates/parties. But it was during the Lok Sabha elections that the widespread, institutionalised system of selling media space to political parties and candidates for promotional material designed to resemble genuine editorial content was brought to public notice.
Respected senior journalists like the late Prabhash Joshi, who campaigned actively against the malpractice until he passed away in November 09, and professional organisations like the Hyderabad-based Press Academy of Andhra Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists were among the first to raise the alarm about the phenomenon during and immediately after the general elections. Joined by veteran journalists like Ajit Bhattacharjee, Harivansh, Kuldip Nayar and B.G.Verghese, they sought the intervention of the Press Council of India (PCI) a statutory, quasi-judicial, watchdog body to check the malpractice.
So did the Delhi Union of Journalists (DUJ), which described the phenomenon as not only unethical and unfair but an infringement of the right and duty of journalists to report freely. The DUJ also revealed that some journalists had been victimised by their employers for attempting to resist the trend. The Hyderabad chapter of the Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) submitted a memorandum on the issue to A.P.s chief electoral officer I.V. Subba Rao.
Subsequently, civil society organisations such as the National Alliance of Peoples Movements, Lucknow, also highlighted instances of paid news in the run-up to the 2009 general elections.
PCI sets up a panel
In early July 2009 the Press Council set up a two-member sub-committee, comprising journalist-members Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy, to conduct an inquiry into the scandal, which had by then become too extensive, serious and public to wish away.
However, such steps taken in an attempt to nip the malpractice in the bud did not deter sections of the media, on the one hand, and many political parties and candidates, on the other, from continuing with similar misconduct during the Assembly elections held later in the year. The exposes by senior journalist P. Sainath in The Hindu in the wake of the Maharashtra state elections of October 09 helped raise the profile of the issue and make it into a national concern.
Several unions, associations, and networks of media professionals in different parts of the country also expressed their strong opposition to the ongoing erosion of the principles and values of journalism symbolised most recently by the paid news syndrome and the resulting, damaging diminution of the credibility of the news media.
Debate enters Rajya Sabha
In March 2010, the issue was raised and debated in the Rajya Sabha. Prominent politicians including ministers in the government and representatives and spokespersons of leading political parties have been speaking out on the subject, some revealing that they or their campaign managers had been approached to make use of the news packages offered by various media houses during elections, others admitting to having yielded to the temptation, allegedly out of desperation since the choice was between paying up or being blanked out. For the first time, several politicians have gone as far as to prepare notarised affidavits summarising their experiences with sections of the media that sought money from them, often naming the publications, channels and/or media houses involved.
As the public debate continued, citizens from various sections of society expressed shock and revulsion at the phenomenon: a combination of media impropriety and electoral malpractice that clearly undermines democracy. Nevertheless, the practice continued to proliferate, cropping up in some recent local elections as well.
EC steps in
Oddly enough, the Election Commission initially appeared to be the least inclined to take action on this front. Although the Commission received several complaints relating to paid news after the Lok Sabha elections, its stand seemed to be that it had neither the mandate nor the expertise to deal with the phenomenon, which necessarily involve distinguishing between real news and paid-for advertising dressed up as news.
Those in the Commission who hold this view may have a point. Some people, including political leaders, have suggested that the Representation of the People Act may need to be amended to include paid news among the electoral malpractices that the Commission is empowered to take action on.
Meanwhile, however, in May 2010, the ECI requested the PCI to define paid news and provide guidelines to help identify suspect media content. And in mid-June, the Commission took a welcome first step by directing the Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) of all states and Union Territories to observe maximum vigil and enforce existing legal provisions to check paid news or surrogate advertisements in the media (print or electronic) during elections.
Stating that it was concerned about the phenomenon that is assuming an alarming proportion as a serious electoral malpractice, the ECI highlighted the broad consensus in the country over the need to curb such irregularities since they affect the independent decision-making abilities of voters, promote the monetisation of democratic procedures and restrict equal opportunities. According to the Commission, paid news should be seen as an attempt to circumvent the provisions of Sections 77 and 123 (6) of the Representation of the People Act (RPA), 1951, which prescribe accounting of and limits on election expenses, and view as a corrupt practice election-related expenditure in excess of the official ceiling.
On 24 June, it was revealed that the Commission had asked Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan to appear before it on 9 July to present his version of the controversy over his alleged involvement in the paid news scandal during the state elections. Chavan had earlier responded to the ECIs request for comments on a complaint filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party but had also asked for a personal hearing.
Interestingly, just a few months ago, the ECI had reportedly decided to wait for the widely anticipated Press Council report before making a decision on the complaint against Chavan, pointing out that it would be appropriate to take the Councils views on board since the issue involved the media and news.
Maybe the Commission got tired of waiting for the Council because, at this point, it appears that it is the PCI that is dragging its feet on this matter of grave concern not only to media professionals and the political class but also, most importantly, to citizens. This is despite the fact that the institution was established by an Act of Parliament for the specific purpose of preserving the freedom of the press and maintaining and improving the standards of the press.
Panel report sparks dissension
Titled Paid News: How Corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Democracy, the draft report of the sub-committee the Council had promptly set up in July 2009 to inquire into allegations of paid news was placed before its members twice at meetings in Indore on 31 March and Delhi on 26 April. The 71-page document was based on discussions over several months with a wide cross-section of stake-holders in New Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad (often with the participation of the PCI Chairperson and Secretary), as well as the many letters and representations on the subject received by the Council.
During the April meeting several members are reported to have vociferously objected to certain aspects and portions of the sub-committees revised draft report, which they seemed to view as an attack on the press that would destroy the credibility of media establishments and hurt their long-term interests. It is not surprising that opposition to the report was voiced primarily by Council members representing the owners and managements of media companies.
The dissenting members raised several objections to the sub-committees report. They criticised what they described as its reliance on circumstantial and anecdotal evidence and its identification of supposedly errant publications and channels by name. The former was clearly unavoidable since such clandestine transactions are naturally and necessarily unaccounted and therefore undocumented. As for the latter, allegations against specific publications are attributed in the report to the individuals who made them through on-the-record oral depositions and/or written communication.
In addition, the report includes the statements (including denials) of those among the accused parties who responded to the sub-committees request for their versions and views.
Strangely enough, some members apparently objected to the reports focus on political news coverage, especially during elections, pointing out that the problem extends to other areas of coverage, including business news. Political paid news was clearly a central aspect of the sub-committees mandate since it was set up in the context of revelations and complaints about the practice during the Lok Sabha elections.
Nevertheless the report does make the necessary links between political paid news and practices such as sponsored news (exemplified by The Times of Indias Medianet scheme) and private treaties (again evidently pioneered by the Times Group but happily adopted and adapted by many other media houses). These are primarily business-related practices and they have been the focus of critical attention, especially among media professionals, for some time.
The report, which includes a section subtitled The Medianet and Private Treaties phenomena, also refers to a letter sent by the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to the Chairperson of the Press Council in July 2009. The letter, from the Officer on Special Duty of SEBI's Integrated Surveillance Department, warned that private treaties could lead to the commercialisation of news reports as well as biased and imbalanced reporting leading to inaccurate public perceptions of the companies involved. SEBIs recommendations on steps to tackle the problem are, in fact, included in the report.
Interestingly, some Council members are believed to have protested against the inclusion of private treaties (the ad-for-equity deals which some media companies enter into with corporate houses) in the report even as others insisted that all forms of paid-for news must be covered.
Several dissenters are said to have pointed out that it was unfair to single out the media for criticism when politicians are just as guilty of such malpractice. It certainly takes two to tango but surely two wrongs or two sets of wrong-doers dont make a right. It is self-evident that the Press Council is a media watchdog and its mandate is to safeguard standards and ethics in the news media.
Some media owners among Council members are also understood to have raised the bogey of the days of the Internal Emergency (1975-77), suggesting that the government would take advantage of any report indicting media proprietors/enterprises to try and gain control of the media. In fact, by blocking the report which was expected to point the way towards relevant guidelines for the media and thereby contribute to the process of internal self-regulation the naysayers within the PCI may actually be inviting external regulation of one kind or the other.
Considering the internal furore over the sub-committees draft report, the chances are that any fresh draft will be a watered-down version of it. Whether a workable consensus can and will emerge from the presently polarised positions among members is a moot question. If not, there is the question of if and how the divergent views will be represented in a final draft and how effective a weak or fractured report will be in tackling the grave and pressing problem it is meant to address.
It may be worth noting, in this context, that the present term of the Council is due to end in January 2011. The composition of the reconstituted Council during its next (11th) term could significantly affect the future role of the institution in addressing such contentious but critical issues.
Most discussions on media ethics and standards in India end with the conclusion that there is an urgent need to strengthen existing, supposedly autonomous regulatory bodies such as the Press Council, two-thirds of the membership of which is drawn from within the press. The PCI, in turn, has long been demanding more powers to tackle issues such as the paid news syndrome and its proposals are now, reportedly, being considered by the government.
There has also been talk, especially over the past decade, of the need for a similar organisation to oversee the broadcast media or an umbrella organisation to cover both print and electronic media. In view of the current tussle within the PCI over a vital issue concerning media ethics and standards, as well as the imminent reconstitution of the Council, this may be an opportune moment to think more deeply and seriously about what kind of an organisation is required at this stage to both uphold media freedom and promote quality and ethical practice in the media.
A lasting solution
Meanwhile, in the immediate term, many concerned citizens and media professionals believe that a lasting solution to problems such as paid news lies in a combination of strict, transparent, in-house preventive measures adopted and put into practice by the media themselves, and firm action under the laws of the land by both the Press Council and the Election Commission.
The Election Commission has made a beginning. The Press Council has made a preliminary effort, only to be stymied ironically by some of its own members representing the press (although most principled journalists, within and outside the PCI, have made their views on the issue clear, and several media establishments have also recorded their disapproval of such practices). The million-rupee question now is what wayward media houses and the media industry as a whole are going to do: will they put profits before public interest or will they recognise, respect and live up to the role and responsibility of the news media in a democracy?