Sometime in the early summers of 2004, when a top-notch, globally recognised Indian sportsman got married to a Delhi girl, there was a clamour among television news channels to be the first among equals to air day-to-day shots of the gala event from the groom’s house in the outskirts of the city and the bride’s residence in the heart of the capital. Sports journalists were despatched to ‘use’ their contacts with the groom to get the first shots. When a channel’s representative approached the bride’s folks, after the initial rebuff, he was categorically told that the footage of the pre-wedding rituals will be available only to the highest bidder.
If this is not paid news, I don’t know what is. However, there is a distinct difference; it being that the media – oft-accused of such practices – was at the giving end.
That was good six years ago, at the height of the ‘those-were-days-my-friend boom time for India. Corporate bottom lines were witnessing a rise like never before as rural demand beginning to head north riding the twin boon of a good monsoon and rising commodity prices. An expectant and buoyant world economy leading to a rise in export growth and increase in outsourcing of business processes to India further helped further. Year-on-year real GDP growth in 2004 was to rise to 8.1 per cent as against 6.1 per cent the previous year.
The year 2004 was also a year for the media to make hay while the sun was shining bright. With revised uplinking norms, channels – particularly the TV news kinds – had their hands full, what with a full-scale ratings war on, poaching under broad arch lights, and a plethora of news. There was no dearth of footage-worthy news too – from the general elections, to Sonia Gandhi's refusal to become the PM, high drama over the infamous Telgi fake stamp to natural disaster – the likes of Aaj Tak, NDTV India, Zee News, NDTV 24x7 and Sahara Samay were too busy dishing out news round the clock to their viewers. In the midst of the action, the Times Group announced its big foray into the Indian glamour and entertainment Bollywood-centric television channel Zoom.
The print media too had a share of the pie. The biggest news of the year was perhaps HT Media Ltd becoming a listed company. As if bonuses for its readership, Hindustan Times followed up by entering into the Mumbai market with a new design and content mix under Micheal Keegan of The Washington Post re-design fame and launching HTNext, a compact especially for the school-going audience. 2004 was also a benchmark year for the 50-odd year old Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, its circulation figures rising more that more than 1000 per cent to 3.5 million in six states. The same year The Asian Age began publishing The International Herald Tribune in India, and became a publishing partner of The New York Times.
There was anticipation of more in print media that year for the word was out that an about-to-be launched broadsheet, name unknown till then, was on a hunting to populate its bureaus, desks and administrative cabins across the country, while the Times of India selectively began acquiring small but local giants. About a year later in July 2005, the Daily News and Analysis (DNA) was launched, while ToI came out with Mumbai Mirror, Bangalore Mirror, Pune Mirror and Ahmedabad Mirror in quick succession.
Is it that the humdrum made the government maintain an understanding silence then, given that the never-before-seen growing clout and influence of the media often did give rise to paid news like the case of the sportsman’s marriage mentioned above?
In October 2011, Election Commission disqualified sitting MLA Umlesh Yadav of Bisauli in UP for paying Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala to carry advertisements dressed up as news during the 2007 election campaign. Why is it that only after the EC action, paid news becomes an issue, so much so that even I&B minister Amibika Soni admits it has assumed corporate and political dimensions and needs to be “nipped in the bud (else) it will seriously harm democracy and society as a whole”?
The fate of another paid news case against former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, politically far stronger than Umlesh Yadav, is still to be decide as the “inquiry has to proceed further to give all reasonable opportunities to the parties concerned to prove or disprove their respective claims and cases”. Further, the Commission has further said that in the Chavan case, the allegations made by the complainants with regard to publication of ‘paid news’ by the respondent are denied not merely by the respondent (Chavan) but also by the newspapers.
Where am I heading to? What am I trying to do taking you through a sportsman marriage, giving you the good old days of ’04, referring to the Hon’ble Election Commission of India’s actions and pointing out a Hon’ble Union Minister’s concerns?
I am simply saying that paid news is as true as the day. In this land of ‘jugaad’, where even farm equipment becomes the very heart of an all-important transportation system in rural India, the face of majority Bharat, write as much as you can, voice as much as you can, paid news will be there, in some shape or other. We might think of it as a systemic cancer – it is! – eating into the credibility of honest journalism.
I wish Harry Potter’s wand to vanish it forever; if you do so too, you’ll also have to do away all the gifts journalists will get this Diwali, the junkets and FAM trips they are taken on, the cups, calendars, mementos, souvenirs, pens, scratch pads, etcetera given to them at press conferences, even the working meal they are invited to. Who is going to gauge what’s the right and wrong give-away in this society where turning away a gift is considered rude, insulting, not a done-thing? I know of an organisation where they play Secret Santa every Christmas. However, there’s a catch. No staff member is allowed to buy a gift for more than Rs 150. Do you think it is possible to lay down such rules for the Press Council of India?
An editorial written by Satyajit Usham in the Manipuri daily Hueiyen Lanpao gives us further insight into ‘paid news’. He writes that “for the fledging media in Manipur to remain unsullied and the media persons stick to their professional calling, a deep soul-searching and constant reality check is essential, especially, now that the officials of Agriculture Department have been ‘formally’ accused of giving money to reporters for coverage of their field visits”. The point being here is that paid news is a practice among the foot soldiers too and not just a manifestation at organisational levels.
Is that then a lost battle? Is the situation akin to ‘bakhsheesh’ becoming rapacious corruption?
A model like Medianet from the Times Group could just be the answer. Prophesying “to have been primarily instituted to create filters to sift good from bad and reliable from unreliable”, the innovation aims to foster transparency. “When the reader sees an article being credited as a Medianet promo, he knows that is exactly what it is. There is no question of him being served a PR piece masquerading as a genuine article – which so many of those pointing fingers at us routinely indulge in,” it says.
As PM Manmohan Singh says, “it is true that sometimes irresponsible journalism can have serious consequences for social harmony and public order, which the public authorities have an obligation to maintain, but censorship is no answer.” Perhaps then, innovations like Medianet hold the key. Time for the competition to follow and put paid news where it should stay and not be splattered all over the pages.