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When Write Ain’t Right
“The phenomena of ‘paid news’ is one of increasing concern for the EC, especially during polls run-up.”
—Navin Chawla, CEC
“The rot has set in in the system...language papers emulated the leading ones, which started the trend.”
—Justice G.N. Ray, Press Council of India
“Ultimately, the superintendence of elections rests with the EC and it should look into ‘paid news’.”
—Rajdeep Sardesai, Editors Guild
It was April last year and the general elections had just been announced when marketing whiz kids in the media saw a golden opportunity springing up. Poll campaigns had begun to roll out and they ran the whole gamut, from asking politicians to pay a premium for favourable reports to flattering interviews on TV to running down opponents who refused to oblige. In essence, media marketers worked overtime to milk netas and political parties, raking in the moolah even at a time when the general economy was reeling under a severe recession.
While it is generally believed that the malaise of publishing news in return for money had kicked in way back in General Elections 2004, it was the scale of the phenomenon of paid news in 2009 that made many wake up and take notice. This has now forced statutory bodies like the Press Council of India (PCI) and the Election Commission of India to take note and try to set in place “guidelines” to rein in the practice. Chief election commissioner Navin Chawla says that “the EC proposes to convene a meeting of recognised national political parties shortly to discuss the issue”. The PCI has called for a meeting with editors of leading national dailies on January 12. The Editors Guild will also be seeking an appointment with the Election Commission to discuss the issue.
There will be many questions on the agenda when the EC and the PCI hold discussions on the ‘paid news’ syndrome. Sale of editorial space is lucrative business even though it compromises on objectivity. How, then, is one to ensure that the news in the day’s papers is not paid for. More importantly, how can editors and managements be persuaded to keep a distinction between news, advertising and marketing supplements?
But for things to even get off the ground, the body entrusted with the mandate of watching over the media has to have some teeth. It is widely agreed that the Press Council has very little powers, apart from issuing strictures against publications. In effect, its writ has no legal standing even if it identifies an unhealthy trend in the media.
Justice G.N. Ray, who heads the council, had even earlier expressed concern at the malaise of paid news. “The rot has set in in the system and, unfortunately, language papers emulated the leading papers, which had started the paid-news trend...this reached a peak during the recent elections. But the Press Council is trying to assert itself,” he says. Now the council is in consultations with the Election Commission and will be examining the issue. The Press Council is, however, still in the process of collecting and examining “paid news items”, for which it has set up a committee.
Meanwhile, what is the Election Commission doing? In its note to the PCI on December 16, it has acknowledged that it received “informal” complaints from politicians but also admitted that some of its proposed recommendations have not been acted upon by the government of India. The commission cites an instance in which a “national daily”, on being asked to furnish details of a surrogate advertisement, refused to oblige. “On the face of it, such advertisements give an impression of a genuine news report covering the election campaign of a particular candidate. But when such reports repeatedly appear in a newspaper, more or less on a regular basis, the matter does give rise to doubts about whether it was honest coverage,” the note from the commission said. Incidentally, a bjp delegation met the CEC recently and submitted a memorandum asking the commission to probe the Ashok Chavan/Maharashtra elections imbroglio, which sparked off the whole paid-news imbroglio.
Again, while the rules governing the Representation of People’s Act (RPA), 1951, clearly state that no person shall print or cause to be printed any election pamphlet or poster unless a declaration as to the identity of the publisher thereof, signed by him and attested by two persons to whom he is personally known, is delivered by him to the printer in duplicate and handed to the chief electoral officer or the district magistrate—the note states that rarely are copies of posters etc furnished to the district magistrate. Quite clearly, it is the EC that needs to be reminded of its own responsibility at the time of elections, because its writ runs supreme.
Interestingly, the commission has directed the PCI to determine what is paid news, so that the expenditure on such news becomes accountable. Sources in the EC admitted that they did not wish to be seen as overstepping their limits. “Our role only comes into play once the election dates are announced and the model code of conduct kicks in,” a senior official in the commission told Outlook.
But as was noted during the assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, politicians complained bitterly that the Election Commission did not give adequate importance to the issue. CEC Navin Chawla admitted to receiving complaints from political parties. “The phenomena of ‘paid news’ is one of increasing concern for the Election Commission, especially during the run-up to elections. We are awaiting the proceedings of the Press Council of India’s recent meeting in this regard. The Editors Guild is coming to see us on this subject shortly. If readers lose faith in the printed word, especially at election time, then an important pillar of democracy will stand compromised,” Chawla says.
But Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, member of the two-man inquiry committee set up by the Press Council to examine paid news, asks, “How does one prove that a monetary transaction has taken place? All such transactions are clandestine and one can only go by circumstantial evidence.” The council has invited editors of leading publications on January 11 to put in place a mechanism of check and balances. Rajdeep Sardesai, president of the Editors Guild, says, “Ultimately, the superintendence of the elections rests with the Election Commission and it should look into ‘paid news’.”
Ironically, the EC had recommended a crucial change in the RPA, which could have gone some way to ensure that advertisements and news are distinct from each other. “In the case of advertisements/election matter for or against any political party or candidate in the print media during the election period, the name and address of the publisher should be given along with the material/advertisement,” the Commission had suggested. Till date, the government has not responded.
So, will the current exercise in reining in paid news pay any dividends? Most in the industry feel that unless changes are made in the RPA and organisations like the PCI are given powers, there will be no significant change. Perhaps newspapers and TV channels may become more careful in selling editorial space. But business, many say, will go on.