Thursday 29 September 2016
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21 December 2009 National paid-for news

Please Do Not Sell

Paid-for news is emerging as the single-most serious threat to our collective credibility.

News is something someone, somewhere doesn’t want to read. The rest is PR.

— Claud Cockburn

Indian media doesn’t do introspection. We recommend it to others—MPs, political parties, militants, judges, scientists.... They are all advised to look deep inside their own trade and clean up the rot. Meanwhile, the rot creeping into the fourth estate is studiously ignored or airbrushed, usually by organising a “studio discussion” in which the citizen is asked: Does the media need to be accountable? Discussion over. Issue over. Fortunately, even that stratagem is wearing thin. The chicanery is conspicuous.

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And yet who can deny that while our media has much to be proud of, there is increasing public disenchantment, not just with its slant, shrillness, sermonising and sensationalism, but with its core value, namely integrity. It is hardly a secret that the media is capable of misjudgement and laziness. However, what the aam aadmi seldom doubts is the “news” it transmits. That trust, alas, is breaking down.

I am not referring to the blurring of news and opinion, which itself violates the time-honoured principle: News is sacred, comment is free. However, even when news and comment are mixed up, it is possible for the alert consumer to separate the two. At any rate, even in the most advanced of democracies, the media does carry ideological/party bias, which is reflected not in the editorial pages, but in the news columns. That practice, however deplorable, a free press can live with.

If all these burdens were not enough for the media in the world’s largest democracy, consider this: Sections of the media are now for “sale”. For a price, you can buy news on the front page. It is a trend which has been with us for a few years, but thanks to the exposure by the late Prabhash Joshi, P. Sainath and others, it is emerging as the single-most serious threat to our collective credibility. Indeed, the system is getting fast institutionalised, with TV channels and newspapers approaching politicians, especially during elections, with a “package” which, interestingly, is negotiable. It is an offer difficult to refuse.

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I am not unmindful of the difficult times the media industry is going through. The market is too crowded, the advertising cake is too small, the economy is too sluggish. We are all furiously engaged in finding new and innovative ways to augment our dwindling revenues. Outlook (like others) is neck-deep in this skirmish. As you may have noticed, the Outlook ‘Spotlight’ feature is sponsored, the client has almost full editorial control. The only redeeming aspect is that the reader can easily spot it, since it is clearly marked on the page. News for sale is not. The purpose here is to pass off sponsored news as professional news.

Dog does not eat dog. True. In the investigation you are about to read, the intention is to shed light on a malaise which, if not treated, will surely destroy the Indian media. I hope our colleagues in the business will take it in that spirit.

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