Paid News And Crying Foul
Thank god newspapers and TV networks are no longer coy about naming one another and telecasting or publishing news stories about their brethren. Until a few years ago it was highly unlikely. Many TV channels still refer to competition they routinely trash or mock, as “a particular channel” because they’re (read NDTV & IBN) oh-too-sophisticated to name the anchor or channel (read Arnab & Times Now) that they’re taking bitter digs at in their bulletin. Ya right! Stay classy guys.
The latest case involves The Hindu and Hindustan Times.
Former Chief Election Commissioner Of India, SY Quraishi once described paid news as “a snake whose hood is down and its tail is underground. It is not quite feasible to take it head-on. It is also not easy to pull the snake out”. There is circumstantial evidence of all types he said, but little proof (http://thehoot.org/web/If-the-Press-Council-is-handicapped-so-is-the-Election-Commission/6023-1-1-5-true.html).
On January 29, 2013 The Hindu published an article by P Sainath on how a few election candidates had confessed to paying money for what is now known as “paid news”. They had made the confession after the Election Commission (EC) had sent them notices. The newspapers these candidates had named, denied any wrongdoing.
The Hindu article mentioned, among other newspapers, English daily Hindustan Times for its coverage of the 2010 Bihar elections. According to The Hindu story, after the matter was referred to the Press Council of India (PCI) by the EC, the Council sent show-cause notices between July and September 2011 to the named newspapers. All but one of these newspapers was subject to the highest “penalty” under PCI provisions – “censure”. Censure!! Ooh! Scared?
While “censure” doesn’t seem like much of a punishment, the following days showed how seriously such allegations are taken once they are out in the public domain. Three days after this report appeared in The Hindu, Hindustan Times published an article by its Editor-in-Chief, Sanjoy Narayan on the front page. It was headlined “HT brings you real news, not ‘paid news’”.
In this article, Narayan cited the four alleged paid news stories in question and wrote that they did not resemble anything like paid-for-news items and had been vetted by their Senior Editor before being published.
He also said that that The Hindu had not approached HT for their response or views on the article before publishing it.
When we spoke to Varadrajan he said, “The Hindu story on paid news based itself on the written conclusions of the Press Council of India and the Election Commission and were not part of any investigation by us. As with the press reporting any other judicial or quasi-judicial verdict, there is no question of going back to individual plaintiffs/respondents to seek their opinion/explanation.”
When we spoke with HT, we were told that Hindustan Times has been in touch with the Press Council of India since August 2011. “HT had submitted a reply dated 3rd August 2011 through the resident editor, Patna to PCI for the show cause notice issued in July 2011 denying HT’s indulgence in ‘paid news’. The same reply was again filed in person and acknowledged by PCI, Delhi on 4th Oct 2011. HT’s representative also appeared before Inquiry Committee on 27th August 2012 and denied HT’s involved in any such activity, which is recorded by PCI at page 3 in its order dated 21st Dec 2012”, said Dinesh Mittal, HT’s legal counsel.
He also added, “After the receipt of order from PCI, we have filed a review petition with PCI dated 31st Jan 2013 giving full facts. We have requested PCI in the said petition to review its earlier decision for HT which was based on incorrect inquiry report & inaccurate assumptions. The said review petition is pending”.
Varadrajan says that he has assured Narayan that if the PCI exonerates Hindustan Times, “The Hindu would be only too happy to report that on its front page”.
One issue that has been debated by many is – should The Hindu have sought a response from Hindustan Times before carrying a story on the PCI enquiry committees report? More than should or shouldn’t, we ask what has the precedence been? When committees & commissions are set up to recommend or investigate anything from riots to petty corruption, do newspapers and channels carry stories and publish key findings/ recommnedations after seeking the views of all those mentioned in the reports or investigation? But then again like all good Indian groupings, journos might expect a different set of rules for the rest and different ones for themselves.