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News You Can Abuse

News You Can Abuse

Author: Anuradha Raman
Publication: India Today
Date: December 21, 2009
URL: http://www.outlookindia.com/article.aspx?263242

Introduction: Has our fourth estate, like Oscar Wilde said, become a sole estate, having sold out to mammon?

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."

Parcha Kodanda Rama Rao of the Loksatta Party paid Rs 50,000, yet lost the assembly election from Warangal West in Andhra Pradesh. "I had to prove a point...that news could be bought for a price," he says. He was also perhaps left with no choice because he found virtually no mention of his candidature in the press whereas rivals Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) spent lakhs on publicity. One call to the Warangal bureau of Eenadu, the largest Telugu newspaper with a 90-lakh readership, and Rao found an Achilles' heel. "I was politely informed that if I paid up like other candidates in the fray, I would get my share of space," he recalls. "I was worried that readers were perhaps not even aware that I was contesting and so called a reporter and paid Rs 50,000. I was promptly rewarded with three half-page colour features on three consecutive days highlighting my worth as a politician and predicting my strong prospects of winning the election."

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.

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."

In Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the 24-hour TV9 channel in Telugu and Kannada has been accused of promoting politicians for a monetary consideration and is alleged to have run an hour-long interview with a prominent politician who paid for the airtime. Channel director Mahendra Mishra denies this, though. "The very fact that we are the only channel to have been accused by politicians shows that we were neutral. We did not offer our editorial space for a fee," he says.

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.

That these language newspapers were not just exceptions became evident when there was a rash of complaints from politicians to the Press Council of India and the Election Commission; FIRs were lodged in police stations, and petitions filed before courts. In fact, among the submissions made to the Press Council by the National Alliance of People's Movements was that leading Hindi newspapers in UP like Dainik Jagran and Rashtriya Sahara had hagiographies of politicians as newsreports.

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?

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