The recent controversy surrounding the charges of phone hacking and violation of privacy by the British tabloid News of the World has created an opportunity to construct a debate around the journalistic practices, create examples and also to set new thresholds for what would and would not be acceptable. It is heartening to see that the British institutions are doing exactly these things whereas the Indian media seems to be either deriving some sort of pleasure from the hardships of Mr Rupert Murdoch or limiting the debate to the issue of tabloids. Within this broader context this post would be an attempt to provide the reader a flashback to the issue of “Paid News” and specifically to the issue of the suppressed Press Council Of India (PCI) report and pose the question if the Indian media that refuses to clean house has any authority to pass judgments on others, who in my opinion, have behaved more admirably than their Indian counterparts. Analysis, details, submissions, conclusions and all that would follow are all taken as is from the suppressed PCI report that can be downloaded here. The same attitude of the media was on display during the Radia tapes controversy and now with the arrest of Dr. Fai and it’s fallout. The propensity of the Indian media to reject the debates that would force it to turn the spotlight on itself is by now well established.

The issue of corrupt practices followed by journalists around the election time came out in a big way after the 2009 general and assembly elections and the term “Paid News” got registered in the minds of the Indian readers. Following this development the PCI, which is a statutory body responsible for safeguarding both freedom and quality of press, constituted a two member sub-committee comprising of Shri Paronjoy Guha Thakurta and Shri Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy.  Sensing the outrage the sub-committee was asked to go and meet a wide cross-section of stakeholders and gather first hand report of the enormity and root causes of the problem. The sub-committee report titled – “Paid News : How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy” seems to have done complete justice to the task assigned to it. The committee produced a scathing commentary on the quality of Journalism practiced by a few media houses and most importantly – NAMED NAMES. What followed was a terrible betrayal by the PCI which decided not to include the report produced by it’s own sub-committee in the final report. This post attempts to undo some of the damage caused by the PCI which chose not to seize the historic opportunity which presented itself.

The report defines “Paid News” as a phenomenon by which candidates contesting elections would pay the media agencies for favorable coverage. The deception or fraud that such “paid  news” entails takes place at three levels – deceiving the readers , making a mockery of “declared” election expenses and by causing institutions to deal with unaccounted money.

The committee first took note of the issue of “Private Treaties” under which media organisations would own shares in the advertising companies. This would provide the media organisation enormous incentives to work more as a PR agent of the company i.e to use it’s reach to push the company’s product and shield it from any possible charges and allegation. Such deals have the potential of working against the interest of investors in the market, noticing which SEBI too had raised this issue with PCI. The report specifically names Bennett Coleman & Co Ltd (BCCL) , publishers of Times Of India (TOI) for sending journalists to cover specific events and like product launches and personality related events. The report points out that companies like Videocon, Kinetic had allotted shares to BCCL and that BCCL had around 175 to 200 private treaty clients spread across many sectors like aviation, media, retail and entertainment.

Then the report turns it’s focus completely on the question of “Paid news” during the election season. The members of the sub-committee requested the candidates, reporters and journalists to volunteer and depose before the committee and provide a first hand account of the phenomenon. Here it is again heartening to note that many of the local reporters, politicians from across the board deposed before the committee with factual accounts. These depositions are what provided the report with the sting. What becomes abundantly clear from many of these depositions is that it was the media houses that actively sought out for the candidates to sell their “packages”. A package would mean favorable news coverage for an extended period of time (many times till the day of polls) , publication of fabricated surveys, opinion pedaling etc. Those candidates who did not purchase this package from the media agencies had to suffer a virtual black out from the newspapers and TV channels. There is also a confirmation that the management teams of the media houses were fixing vasooli targets for their every branch, and the branches in turn for individual reporters. All these findings never saw the day of light as PCI members decided to safeguard the interests of their media bretheren . Most of the commentary available on this issue is full of platitudes that seek to rationalise the malice instead of fixing the blame on individual organisations. So here goes the full list of all those names from that report. The name of the papers/channels are modified to be only suggestive. The charges are based on statements made by political leaders either directly to the PCI or in open.

Witness (Name,Affiliation,State) Charges Media Organisation named
Shri Parcha Kodanda Ram Rao, Loksatta, AP Paid a particular newspaper for favorable “news” and included it in his EC expenditure sheet This-Nadu
Shri Harmohan Dhawan, BSP, Chandigarh Confirms that media reprsentatives came to him trying to sell their packages Punjab Saffron, DailyJagaran
Dr Santosh Singh, INC, UP Charges that a publication offered him two packages worth Rs 5 Lakh or Rs 10 Lakh Daily Jagaran , Today
Shri Ramakant Yadav, BJP, UP Charges that a publication demanded Rs 10 Lakh to publish “news” about him. Hindu-place
Shri Arshad Jamal, SP, UP Charges that publications demanded money varying btween 2 to 10 lakhs from him Daily-Jagaran , AmarBright, Urdu Support
Shri Atul Kumar Anjaan, CPI, UP Charges papers of demanding money and provides an account of the bargain they offered Daily-Jagaran, Hindu-place
Shri Ramiqbal Singh, BJP, UP Names newspapers that demanded money and mentions the involvement of a Bureau chief in the transactions Daily-Jagaran
Smt Neelam Sonkar, BJP, UP Provides details of the bargain stuck with papers Today, Daily-Jagaran,Amar-bright

These are only a few token examples and there are plenty more mentioned in the report. When confrontedwith these charges the editors chose to deny the allegations and dismissed all the evidence as purely incidental. The decay that has set in the Indian media houses is not something that has not reflected in the public opinion. Edelman, an independent Public relations firm in it’s 2011 Trust Barometer Survey (conducted in 23 nations across the world) pointed out that the trust in the media in India declined form 65 percent in 2009 to 58 percent in 2010 and now it stands at 50 percent in 2011. The survey results can be accessed here. The trust of Indians in Indian media dropped by 8 percent when globally the trust in media has gone up by 4 percent. If this doesn’t send the alarm bells ringing in our media organisations, I don’t know what else will.

The strength of the institutions get tested when they face crisis situations. India faced a similar crisis in 2009 in the form of “Paid news” which United Kingdom is facing now. While the British are in the process of taking swift and decisive actions we only managed to hush up the reports !!

The following two tabs change content below.

Manohar Seetharam

Latest posts by Manohar Seetharam (see all)