In the cynical times that we live in, rumours of an MP or an MLA paying money to a newspaper or a television channel to elicit favourable news coverage might perhaps raise no more than an eyebrow. One may possibly progress to a shrug of the shoulder when one hears a journalist saying that his colleague might have succumbed to pressures from the “marketing” department and filed a soft interview with a politician.
But when a victorious chief minister openly admits that he himself approached the leading newspaper of his state with money for “positive stories” after learning that the newspaper had signed a “package deal” with his rivals to print negative stories, you had better sit up and take urgent notice. It can only mean that the selling of editorial space has become both blatant and institutionalised, and that neither the print nor the electronic media are immune to the malaise.
When Outlook sounded out Haryana chief minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda about allegations doing the rounds that he paid for favourable news during the assembly elections in October, he was surprisingly candid. “When I noticed the leading paper of my state printing baseless reports on its front page day after day,” he said, “I called them up and offered money to print the right picture. The paper in question apologised. They even returned the money taken from my rival to publish news items against me.”
“I was aware,” the CM went on to add, “that packages were offered to candidates from my party, but my state is small and people can see through sponsored reports.” Hooda holds media barons responsible for turning newspapers into mammon-worshipping behemoths where everything is available for a price, including sacred editorial space. “The journalists are not at fault here because fact-finding journalism has now become a commercialised activity with the present owners having turned newspapers into a business proposition,” he says.
But approach the newspapers, and they turn the blame right around on the politicians. Like a top management executive from Punjab Kesri (readership 1.04 crore) who admits that the newspaper made anywhere between Rs 10 crore and Rs 12 crore during the assembly election season. “We had to go in for selling editorial space,” he says, “because of tremendous pressure from politicians. We were also being pushed by the so-called national English dailies who had their packages and were mopping up revenue. We could not have missed out on the opportunity.”
Whether the Indian media likes to admit it or not, journalism is up for sale. Hooda is not the only politician to point to the malaise, politicians across the country came forward to tell Outlook how they were asked to loosen purse-strings if they wanted good press. Offer money, and you could get uncharitable comments from rivals blocked. Pay cash, and you could have negative news published about a rival. It’s an unhealthy trend and growing apace. As former editor B.G. Verghese, who is a signatory to a complaint to the Press Council of India, puts it: “It has become an epidemic and has taken the current trend of offering edit space to newer levels.”
Bring that to Eenadu group editor Ramoji Rao’s notice, and he clarifies that his newspaper maintains a clear-cut distinction between advertisements and news, and if transgressions are brought to his notice, action is taken against the reporter/manager. “Some journalists are not pliable to politicians and get targeted for that. Others get easily lured with the temptation of money,” he says.
In Maharashtra, chief minister Ashok Chavan declared he had spent just Rs 11,379 on advertising but as English daily The Hindu reported recently, this was hugely disproportionate to the reams and reams of positive coverage he got in the media. Tacitly, of course, additional sums would have been paid by either his party or his well-wishers.
Have money, get coverage...
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The Idiot’s on the Box Too
It is not just the print media that is guilty of publishing news for cash. Television news channels are equally guilty of selling editorial space. Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit says he was shocked when a news channel in Delhi approached him with a package to cover Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the East Delhi constituency during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.
“Imagine my surprise and shock when the reporter actually negotiated the price of Rs 2.5 lakh for an hour of live coverage,” says Dikshit. “The channel even said they would arrange the crowds.” The MP said he was equally taken aback when a leading Hindi daily made an offer for positive coverage of his campaign. “Packages for print and TV for a three-day coverage varied between Rs 12 and Rs 20 lakh,” Dikshit elaborates. “You watch your opponent misusing the media and you’re forced to part with the money. I won’t take names but everyone is involved.”
In fact, campaign managers of the Congress say money had to be spent for the Delhi assembly elections last year when a TV channel insisted on projecting a lesser tally for the Congress in its opinion polls. “The tally improved after the channel was paid off,” reveals a campaign manager. “In fact, the last three days before the actual poll dates, money had to be spent on the channels to ensure good coverage.”
Marathi channel IBN-Lokmat too found itself in the middle of a controversy when it ran a feelgood interview with one of its directors, Congress candidate Rajendra Darda, during the Maharashtra assembly elections. Editor Nikhil Wagle, however, says he took extra precaution to ensure that Darda got lesser airtime than other politicians. “We accepted only two sponsored features, one of the NCP and the other of the BJP, during the elections,” Wagle clarified.
After the Payoff, the Tell-all
Smaller politicians fear that they will be edged out of the race if paid news becomes a trend. Since the richer netas have greater spending power, they can be lavish with their budgets, and hence dominate news. They do not even have to account for this expense to the Election Commission, since sale (and purchase) of editorial space is almost always in black and thus unaccounted-for.
Politicians also feel that they come under pressure from media houses, wherein if they don’t pay, they get poor coverage. For instance, when BJP MP Lalji Tandon found zero mention of his campaign in the keenly-watched Lucknow seat in the “largest-circulated language daily in the world”, all he had to do was to put a call and seek the reason why. Simple, he was told, he had to pay up. Says Tandon, “It was disappointing to note that a paper whose success is partly attributed to us (the BJP) could be actually speaking the language of money to me.” Tandon, who went on to win subsequently, swears that he didn’t pay for coverage, though his BSP rival did.
Tandon’s rival, BSP’s Akhilesh Das, was indeed the media favourite in the last Lok Sabha elections in Lucknow. We don’t know if he paid money for his stark visibility, but Das does offer an explanation for parties buying news space. “The BSP seldom finds mention in newspapers,” he says. “Take the recent byelections, for example. My party won nine out of the 11 seats, but who graced the front pages of newspapers? Raj Babbar! Every journalist now wants to earn money and I see paid-for news as a trend, though a disturbing one for democracy.”
Theatre of the Absurd
So arbitrary is the paid news phenomenon that sometimes two conflicting news items appear on the same page because the paper would have reached an understanding both with a politician as well as his rival. Gujarat Samachar (readership 46.2 lakh) denied having sold its editorial space despite being confronted with two issues of its paper from Mumbai where conflicting reports on the fortunes of a single party were published. The Congress candidate in the Malad constituency of Mumbai was shown as trailing and winning on a single day! The paper also ‘reported’ the MNS, Shiv Sena and the Congress as winning from another constituency.
Shockingly, during the last Lok Sabha elections, leading Hindi daily Hindustan (from the Hindustan Times stable) carried a four-page special on an independent candidate from Varanasi, with the sponsored tag at the bottom of the last page in fine print. This went against the rules set by then editor Mrinal Pande. She was flooded with calls when the report (which read like news) was published, she says.
“I had laid down specific guidelines for sponsored features during elections,” says Pande. “These were flouted without even informing the editor in charge.” She admits to having quit because of pressure from the management and because of sponsored news. “Among other things, it was the paid-for news arrangement that made me put in my papers. In the end, it is important to keep one’s integrity intact,” she says.
So, Who Holds up the Fourth Estate?
“Media owners squeezed as much money as possible from political parties and candidates during the Lok Sabha elections,” says Sunil Kumar, editor of the paper Chhattisgarh. “There are recorded cases of open blackmailing of candidates. The media has to be made accountable.”
Clean-up operations are under way. In Andhra Pradesh, it was the union of journalists who struck the first note of dissent. The Press Council of India, whose mandate is restricted only to passing strictures, is also addressing the issue. For now, it has constituted a two-member committee. Says one member, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, “It is a disturbing trend and I am ashamed to call myself a journalist.” The Election Commission and the Indian Newspaper Society are also scheduled to meet on December 16 to take stock. The call to conscience has been made. All we need to ask is: will it be enough to rein in the moral digressions of the fourth estate?
At last you took up the gauntlet with your cover story, News You Can Abuse (Dec 21). Rupert Murdoch set the rot rolling; the Times of India group replicated it successfully here. Following the ‘leader’, all media acquired the taint. Baldev S. Chauhan, Shimla
That the media should observe standards higher than those of the rest of the society is mere wishful thinking. When there’s corruption all around, it’s ridiculous to expect our media professionals to be Mahatmas. R. Sajan, Desam, Kerala
I’m no politician, but was approached by a marketing man from a well-known daily with an ‘exclusive’ publicity and image-building offer in 3 packages: silver (Rs 6 lakh), gold (Rs 12 lakh) and platinum (Rs 18 lakh). The more expensive the package, the more news items there would be about me, spread out over a year. I was told I’d be asked my opinion on various issues, my attendance at a conference would be highlighted and a picture of me appear on their equivalent of page 3! Many newspapers, in their desperate bid to survive in this electronic world, are jettisoning a few ethics themselves. Ajit Harisinghani, Pune
Why blame only regional newspapers, national media houses are no better. The Hindu, for instance, published an account of its editor’s enlightening experience at a Tamil refugee camp in Sri Lanka even as the UN condemned the deplorable situation there. Manivannan, on e-mail
Rich that Outlook should publish a story about journalism on sale and some pages down the line sell four pages to the likes of Nitin Gadkari, and another one to Narendra Modi. Keertan, on e-mail
Why just politicians, corporates for a long time, and the film industry now, are not averse to paying journalists for favourable reportage. Nilanshuk Haldar, Mumbai
The Outlook story covers only a seasonal aspect of journalism on sale—during elections. Corporate journalists have long been on sale, making and unmaking the future of companies, especially during ipos. Vinayak Prabhu, Mumbai
The fourth estate has become the prime blackmailer, holding all other estates to ransom. V.R. Kosuri, Hyderabad
During a discussion in the Rajya Sabha on the electoral form, I had raised the very issue of journalism on sale and apprised the House on how opinion polls are televised to favour a particular political party and how money plays a role both in the print and electronic media. Haryana wasted more than Rs 50 crore on publicising the achievements of its CM a few days before the elections. Pages in all vernacular newspapers were on sale to the candidates. The worst kind of corruption in the media was witnessed this election, both in Maharashtra and Haryana. Tarlochan Singh, Rajya Sabha MP
If your cover story is any indicator, then the day won’t be far when people are asked to pay money for appearances on TV or having their articles and letters published. Venkatesh G., Chennai
I don’t know how long it will stay this way but as of now I am glad I don’t have to pay a penny to write this letter. Prashant Rajput, Mumbai
Outlook spoke of corruption in the Andhra Pradesh media, but it should have travelled further south to Kerala and seen how the overcrowded print and electronic media here creates news instead of reporting it. Nawas Ahamed, Kollam
People like me stick to the Times of India and its regional language dailies only because they guarantee enough raddi to pay for part of the subscription! Mahesh Adhav, Thane
By making some money in the present, the media is sacrificing its future. Dinesh Kumar, Mumbai
I am astounded that the English media can actually think it can fool the people with paid news. Remember that Indira Gandhi was defeated in the 1977 polls despite the English press being unable to raise its voice against the Emergency. G. Vijayaraghavan, Chennai
You have not touched upon the worst kind of corruption—the one that Outlook practices—of distorting news to help vote-bank secularists! Maj Gen S.C.N. Jatar, Retd, on e-mail
This is with reference to the accusations carried in Outlook magazine dated December 21, 2009 on page 36 against Hindustan, a publication of our group. We vehemently deny all the points made therein and have the following facts to state:
1. HT Media strongly believes in the integrity of its editorial function and zealously guards the same. It is a value that has helped us nurture and grow such successful brands as The Hindustan Times, Hindustan and Mint.
2. We do not pass off sponsored news in the garb of editorial content. To the specific instance related to the Varanasi edition of Hindustan quoted in your magazine, the articles were published under the advertiser sponsored content tag. Owing to a mistake by an overzealous advertising manager, the style and look turned out to be similar to the main paper. To remove any confusion among our readers, a clarification was issued the very next day on the front page of Hindustan’s Varanasi edition. The erring manager was also suitably reprimanded. We have had no instance of any editorial transgression other than the unfortunate incident stated above.
3. For all our publications, we have clear guidelines for ‘sponsored’ features that get carried with a clear notation or marking and in a look and style that is visibly different from our editorial content.
4. In the same article, you also allege that the erstwhile editor of Hindustan resigned owing to the incident in the paper’s Varanasi edition, among other things. Nothing could be farther from the truth as the said incident took place in April 2009, while the editor resigned five months later in September 2009 due to entirely different reasons. The said editor has also denied this in a televised programme on CNBC TV18 on December 16, 2009.What is most galling in this entire episode is that a magazine of your repute did not even care to validate facts before publishing the same. Not only does this tarnish our reputation, it also has the potential to severely impact our business interests.
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