Journalism Of Chicanery
Criticles

Journalism Of Chicanery

The govt spent Rs 419 crore on newspaper ads in 2012. Does this bounty not compromise the integrity of the press?

By Anand Ranganathan

Published on :

To walk the talk requires courage, and courage, unlike spectrum, is precious. It is never in free supply. Greed, on the other hand, is.

The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, Indian Express, and many more – all claim to be the torch-bearers of morality. Indeed, with their history as rich and long – sometimes longer – than the history of independent India, they’ve contributed significantly to the independence movement itself. At times, even fought fiercely to keep our nation free and democratic. Sadly, though, all that is history.

A newspaper is an institution. It works on a reader’s trust, claiming to stand alongside him and fight the “system” he’s burdened with and crushed under. By definition, this solicits a fair degree of anti-establishment from it – how can a pro-system, pro-misrule, pro-neta newspaper ever gain trust in a country that’s been robbed and pillaged silly by the elected few? Of course it can’t, and so, to avoid being seen as little more than a mouthpiece, the newspaper stands up for the common man, the suppressed man, the utterly vanquished man.

Which is why it is painful in the extreme to see these newspapers full of government-sponsored ads which praise the living and worship the dead. To see them shamelessly earn a packet through what is clearly a criminal act on the part of governments that are elected by us, elected so they may spend judiciously our head-earned money.

The time has come to demand a stop to this immoral, disgraceful act that our newspapers are glibly party to, perhaps complicit in.

It is beyond hope to trust our politicians to stop this practice. To prevent a megalomaniac from self-gloating, to ask a sycophant not to indulge in sycophancy, is, to my mind, spitting in the wind. Save that dribble where there’s still some hope, where it can splatter a sleepy conscience, awaken it yet. Jago re!

Dear Sir,

Would you promise to donate 50% of the revenue your newspaper earns through government ads that glorify non-existent policies and birth & death anniversaries of our leaders, to either the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund or to an NGO/Government scheme meant for the needy and the poor of our country. The money the government pays you for the ads is our money, and it is time we had a say in where and how it is spent.

I very much look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Anand Ranganathan

Three weeks have passed, but I am still to hear from the newspapers that had been mailed versions of the above letter. In those three weeks – as my number-crunching will illustrate – these newspapers have made a cool Rs 24 crore off the UPA-II government.

Which newspaper in its right mind, then, would care to reply? A newspaper that espouses journalism of courage, perhaps? Wrong.

It was New Year’s Eve – the mailbox was still empty – and I had time at hand. I googled “central government advertisements” and arrived at what can only be described as the mother of all unauctioned coal mines. Allow me to explain.

Directorate of Advertising & Visual Publicity or DAVP (http://davp.nic.in/) is a quarry so vast and labyrinthine, so riddled with blind alleys and escape hatches, that I feel something of the following conversation occurs daily at the DAVP Bhavan.

“Yes…? Come in?”

“Er, good evening, sir.”

“Ah, Luthra – done with the figures?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve uploaded all 3,765,423 of them. Should I also go ahead and make sense of them – I mean, make bar-diagrams and pie-charts and stuff?”

“Tell me, Luthra…are you paid to do extra work of your own accord?”

“No, sir, not that I know of.”

“Then?”

“Sorry, sir, I-”

“Leave all the interpreting to the muppet who stumbles by our site accidentally. Let him wade though the numbers shit, you get me?”

“I do, sir, I do!”

“All Central Govt. Ministries/Departments/Attached & Subordinate Offices/Field Offices shall route their advertisements, including display advertisements, through DAVP,” is the terse commandment that welcomes you at the shaft. Enter, and you are submerged under a coal-pile of every number, every small-change, and every cheque that was ever issued by DAVP to print media over the past ten years. It is mind-boggling, the extent to which the DAVP-ians have taken the “electronic input” to heart.

A little further down the dark and foreboding numbers-cave and you’re confronted by the resident DAVP guide, who says, very matter-of-factly: “DAVP has been working as a catalyst of social change and economic growth over the years. It has been instrumental in creating awareness amongst masses on socio-economic themes, seeking their participation in developmental activities and for eradication of poverty and social evils.”

If only they hadn’t brought in the “eradication of poverty and social evils” bit, and I would’ve left them alone. A government agency talking of eradicating poverty? I smelled a rat right there! I was not to be disappointed.

A week of number-crunching and the veil started to lift slowly.

There’s a drop-down menu that lists the money UPA-II has spent on drenching our newspapers with birth and death anniversary ads for our dear & departed leaders (15 are listed). Figure 1 shows just a glimpse of the “leader preferences”.

Figure 1. UPA-II expenditure in crores (Left panel) on newspaper ads relating to birth and death anniversaries of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Vivekananda. Right panel: Total money spent on these four leaders, 2008-2011, in crores.

The money that’s been wasted, or the obvious dynastic tilt it’s been wasted on, is not what’s frightening. What’s frightening is that Rs 20 crore is just the central government expenditure on Rajiv Gandhi. That there are 28 state governments itching to emulate the big brother at the centre is what’s frightening. Multiply Rs 20 crore over four years by a conservative 20 and you get closer to the figure that’s been dished out in his memory. Yes – that’s Rs 400 crore for one man! Our money. And who’s benefitted? Not the poor and the needy. What’s been eradicated? Not poverty and social evil.

Crazy numbers are not the only thing the DAVP exhibits proudly. Also in the cache are pdf reams of “noted” and “jotted” letters, drafts, and annual reports. Skimming through one, I learn finally the identity of the Corleone pulling the DAVP strings. It’s the Newspaper Industry.

An excerpt from the executive summary of one DAVP document:

The Fifth Rate Structure Committee submitted its report in 2005 recommending

rate of Rs. 114.31 per column centimeter…The Government in 2008 acceded to the demand of newspapers for escalation and enhanced existing advertisement rates by 24%…The newspaper advertisement volumes increased from 238 million column centimeter of ad space in 2010 to 280 million column centimeter in 2011…A Questionnaire was circulated in March 2009 to 4,605 newspapers/periodicals seeking data on their income and Expenditure…There was, however, a very poor response.  Replies were received from 49 newspapers/periodicals only.

The publishers of newspapers and periodicals have been repeatedly insisting that due to recession and increase in newsprint cost, their profitability has been severely affected. Therefore they have been arguing that the DAVP rates should be substantially hiked to help them improve their profitability.

Indian Newspaper Society (INS) gave a presentation in October, 2009 suggesting an increase of 250%. As of today the rate is 159.32 per column centimeter.

Exactly how much a newspaper earns from government advertising is never revealed by the newspaper. Indeed, it may even be a closely guarded secret. One can only infer – once one has collated the skull-crushing data into graphs and pie-charts, that is – and that too only for the UPA-II spend (courtesy DAVP website). Multiply it by at least 20 or 30 again to get to the real All India yearly figure. As Figure 2 shows, Indian Express hasn’t earned much from UPA-II compared to The Times of India or the Hindustan Times. But patience – therein hangs a tale!

Figure 2. Central government committed expenditure in crores (Left panel) on newspaper ads published in The Times of India (ToI), Hindustan Times (HT), and Indian Express (IE), all city editions. Right panel: Cumulative committed expenditure for the years 2004-2011 in crores.

As any advertising person will tell you, what matters to the company selling a product is the circulation numbers for a newspaper (or the TRP numbers for a channel). The more people watch a particular show or read a particular newspaper, the more advertisements it attracts. Simple logic, you’d say. Well, the Indian Express defies it spectacularly!

Figure 3 shows the circulation figures for Indian Express, The Times of India, and the Hindustan Times over an 8-year period. Predictably, The Times of India is the clear leader, with Indian Express trailing a fair distance behind – as of 2012 it wasn’t even in the top 30 Indian newspapers.

Figure 3. All India circulation figures (in lacs) for Indian Express, The Times of India, and the Hindustan Times. Figures according to Indian Readership Survey; AIR (Average Issue Readership) values are listed. Values extrapolated for years 2008 and 2009 as only TR (Total Readership) figures were available. For 2012, IE value has been extrapolated as being <0.6 (wiki). Right panel: Cumulative circulation 2004-2012, in lacs. Sources: http://www.sebi.gov.in/dp/htmedia.pdf (p. 38); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_newspapers_in_India_by_circulation; http://www.exchange4media.comhttp://www.hansaresearch.com/

Nothing startling thus far, you’d conclude. But chart the ad revenue of these newspapers as a ratio of their circulation (Figure 4) and the smog clears. Startlingly.

Indian Express, that had been trailing a poor third all this while (with a circulation figure 20 times less than ToI), manages to trump even the mighty Times of India! Circulation numbers be damned. Indeed, even HT spoils the ToI show. I wonder if Mr Jain has thought of commissioning PWC to crunch these numbers – a few dozen law suits might start to roll Mr Manish Tewari’s way.

Figure 4. Money earned by Indian Express, The Times of India, and the Hindustan Times from UPA-II, as a ratio of circulation. Indian Express, despite having a circulation figure 20 times less than The Times of India, has earned the highest. Right panel: Cumulative earnings in crores for the three newspapers for the period 2004-2011. Note the change wrt Indian Express from Figure 3, right panel.

Grave dangers lurk behind this seemingly harmless strategy of governments to dish out our money to newspapers. For one, it is completely unethical – leave aside the birth/death commemorations, even the NREGA and Sadak Yojna ads are deceitful, accompanied as they always are by three or four “Hon’ble” mug-shots.

Second, it threatens to erode the very edifice on which the worthiness of any newspaper stands: scrupulous objectivity with a pinch of anti-establishment. More and more government dole-outs can only take a newspaper in one direction, that of a mouthpiece. For their own good, the newspapers that are flirting with this danger might want to revisit their glorious history.

Finally, what of the government and its promise to eradicate poverty and social evil? Figure 5 shows just how serious it is in this endeavour. The DAVP committed expenditure on newspaper ads for the year 2012 is a staggering Rs 419 crore! In fact, for the past eight years, the expenditure has been consistently more than the budget allocated to the Ministry of Law & Justice and the Ministry of Public Grievances. Take that! Lucky for the government that people in this country never demand justice and so never hold any grievances.

Figure 5. Central government committed expenditure on newspaper ads, and budget plan outlay (actuals/revised estimates) for Ministry of Law & Justice, and Ministry of Public Grievances, year on year. The figures for the two ministries for the year 2011 were not available; for newspaper ads the Central Government 2011 committed expenditure was Rs 419 crore. Source: DAVP and http://indiabudget.nic.in/index.asp.

Just so it didn’t feel left out I visited the Ministry of Law & Justice website, too. That ‘”social evil” gem wasn’t there but I found this instead:

“Facilitating administration of Justice that ensures easy access and timely delivery of Justice to all.”

Why has our Supreme Court – a body that once roared: “What the hell’s going on?!” – why has the keeper of our nation’s conscience not taken the government to task over the Rs 419 crore figure? How can justice be delivered “timely” when all that money is going into subsidising editors’ salaries and their foreign jamborees?

I ask this of Justice Katju, the present Chairman of the Press Council of India, having mailed him all the data and figures. I also ask him whether I can, as a common citizen, submit a petition to him, the PCI head, so he can then act on the matter, just like courts need a PIL submission in order to proceed further.

The Justice promised he’ll get back soon.

Meanwhile, a steaming cup of Tata tea for our courageous journalists. Jago re!

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