Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lenin and the Indian press

Today a reader posted this comment on my most recent posting about hygiene:

Hi Sunil,

I hope you don't mind if I raise a point unrelated to this blog post. Perhaps you are aware of the fact that Times of India is one of the biggest culprits in the paid news scandal. Here are two links that you may find interesting.

I have seen you referring to ToI articles in multiple blog posts, and this comment was prompted by such an observation. (However, I don't mean to say that we should be boycotting ToI.)


By its own admission this comment is unrelated to hygiene (except quite distantly) but relates to concerns I've raised on this blog in the past and to some thoughts that have been forming in my mind of late. So I thought it's a good idea to quote it here to open the discussion.

The Guardian link above dates from February 2011 and recounts a "sting" operation on the Times of India group. The stinger, posing as the PR person for a private company, asked a company called Medianet owned by Bennett Coleman (who are also the owners of the Times of India) to help him buy coverage of his company's party in the Delhi Times. Medianet agreed to do so for a fee and said it could be dressed up as a news story if celebrities were present. It also offered help with purchasing celebrities.

The other link, from The Hindu, is an article by the respected journalist P. Sainath (about whom I've briefly blogged here in the past). It concerns a different paid news scandal, involving the former Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ashok Chavan, and Marathi newspapers Maharastra Times and Lokmat (the former being the Marathi version of Times of India and therefore belonging again to our friends Bennett Coleman). These worthy journals, among others, carried full pages of articles purporting to be news items that lavished praise on the CM ahead of elections.  Sometimes identical articles appeared in different newspapers. Often the page was entirely free of explicit advertisements, contrary to usual practice.

Now the CM's own financial declarations show no payment having been made to these papers. So either  the press was being generous to the politician from the goodness of its heart (and rival papers were somehow producing identical articles), or else a cozy deal had been reached between the press and politicians. To investigate this question the Press Council of India formed a sub-committee that produced a report from whose preamble I quote:

The reader of the publication ... is deceived into believing that what is essentially an advertisement is in fact, independently produced news content. By not officially declaring the expenditure incurred on planting "paid news" items, the candidate standing for election violates the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961 ... Finally, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961.

The Election Commission of India tried to probe this case but Mr Chavan fought back with a court case seeking to prevent them. This case was dismissed recently by the Delhi High Court. The Press Council sub-committee's report, by its own admission based on a lot of circumstantial evidence, was sought to be buried by the Council which replaced it with a censored summary of its own. But recently the Central Information Commission has ordered the PCI to publish the full 71-page report of the Sub-Committee and you can find this (along with the shorter censored Council report) on this page. Besides describing the cases I've referred to above, the long report also names certain private companies (Videocon, Kinetic Motors and Gillette among others) that are suspected to have paid newspapers/TV channels to have their products favourably described in a "news" segment. The full report is worth reading though the reliance on circumstantial evidence is something of a disappointment, as they themselves admit:

Though the phenomenon of widespread practice of "paid news" has been verbally confirmed and vindicated by politicians and campaign managers of political parties, there is no recorded documentation that would firmly establish that there has been exchange of money between media houses/advertisement agents/journalists and politicians/political parties. The problem in establishing the practice of "paid news" is simply one of obtaining hard proof or conclusive evidence.

If you take the above story together with past incidents such as the Niira Radia scandal (about which I blogged a year ago) in which the unethical behaviour of major mediapersons Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi was umasked in their own voice in wiretapped telephone recordings, then a rather ugly picture emerges of the Indian press. However clearly it's a very divided house. I'm proud to note that the PCI report mentions the late journalist Ajit Bhattacharjea, who was married to my Masi these last many years, as an example of someone who has consistently pushed for better press ethics.

Today Ms Dutt and Mr Sanghvi have received no punishment and are totally rehabilitated, unlike some of the business people and politicians they seem to have facilitated. Companies like Medianet will perhaps continue to sell news pages and celebrities to private companies. At some level I wonder if the readership even cares. Lenin would have been pleased, for he once said: The press should be not only a collective propagandist and a collective agitator, but also a collective organizer of the masses. 

They're doing a good job.

1 comment:

Sayan said...

Thanks a lot for the detailed post.

Sainath once said that media organizations are not pro-corporate and pro-big business. They ARE corporate, they ARE big-business.

Another issue is that relatively minor portion of media revenue comes from the readers. We are not the customers of the newspapers and news-channels. Instead, quoting Noam Chomksy, the readers / viewers are treated as the products that are sold to the real customers, that is, the advertisers, who are source of most of the media revenue.

I am not aware of any quick-fix solution to the problem. Each of us, however, can subscribe to and financially support some of the alternative media outlets (such as Economic and Political Weekly and hoot that are trying to remedy the situation.

Finally, please check out the following excellent talks / documentaries on this issue.