Chaperoning Our Paid Media
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Chaperoning Our Paid Media

A Standing Committee report on paid media suggests strict regulations. Why's the media refraining from reporting on it?

By Somi Das

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Monitoring telephone conversations of journalists, sting operations on media houses, giving complete access to internal storage of data by channels to regulators, permission to conduct sudden searches and raids in media houses. Listing out the transgressions of the Emergency? No. These are just some of the remedies that find mention in the Standing Committee on Information and Technology’s report on Issues Related to Paid News which was tabled before the Parliament, last month.

The over 100-page report documents instances of widespread prevalence of paid news and the involvement of journalists, managements, stringers , corporate houses and politicians in institutionalising this practice. The Chairman of the committee, Rao Inderjit Singh, a Congress MP says “in view of the wide ramifications of the subject and considering the need for wider consultation” the committee was undertaking the issue of paid news.

How come there’s been no Arnab shaking a copy of the report on The News Hour or a We The People with Barkha and a motley crew of panelists  discussing the larger implications of the report? For some reason, the mainstream media has decided to ignore the report. It’s like a see no evil, hear no evil and write no evil reaction to the report. The Hindu is one of the few who broke from ranks and wrote an article on the report.

So what is in this report that shall not be spoken of? The report clearly states that self-regulation hasn’t worked for the media. The media, according to the report, needs an independent regulator – who will be assisted by the government- to function transparently.

In short, the report makes the following observations:

  1. The trend of presenting the advertising content that is paid for as news “is a serious and damaging fraud on the innocent audiences/readers/viewers/public”.
  2. Paid news is a result of a “clandestine” nexus between managements or journalists, politicians and corporates.
  3. Award ceremonies are being sponsored by some media houses wherein industrialists/professionals/personalities who are the sponsors/regular advertisers for their media houses are awarded and this is a regular occurrence.
  4. Imposition of contract system of employment on journalists is behind rising cases of paid news.
  5. Decisive role of “Editors of the Media” have been dampened by the interference of the marketing departments and owners of the media houses.
  6. Paid News ‟mocks the electoral process, often reducing it to farce”. It is a huge hindrance in conducting free and fair polls.

The report also comments on business anchors “influencing the Stock Market with their coverage” and how journalists resort to “blackmailing the contesting candidates” by saying they will “boycott publishing about them or deliberately spread news against them if not paid”.

The report doesn’t spare the I&B Ministry either. And states that the Ministry hasn’t done “anything substantial” to effectively stem paid news.

While the Committee does identify the various kinds of Paid News avenues being explored and indulged in by the media, the report only names small regional channels and publications as offenders. The only major media house which finds a mention in the report is the proprietor of The Times of India -Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited. Quoting the PCI’s Sub-Committee Report on Paid News, the report makes the following observation on BCCL.

“In the 1980s…the rules of the Indian media game began to change. Besides initiating cut-throat cover-price competition, marketing was used creatively to make Bennett, Coleman Company Limited (BCCL) one of the most profitable media conglomerates in the country… The media phenomenon that has caused considerable outrage of late has been BCCL’s 2003 decision to start a ‘paid content’ service called Medianet, which, for a price, openly offers to send journalists to cover product launches or personality-related events. Besides Medianet, BCCL devised another innovative ‘marketing and PR strategy’. The Private Treaties’ scheme pioneered in the Indian media by BCCL involves giving advertising space to private corporate entities/advertisers in exchange for equity investment – the company officially denies that it also provides favourable editorial coverage to its ‘private treaty’ clients and/or blacks out adverse comment against its clients.”

The Standing Committee of Stating the Obvious could do with reading The New Yorker. They would have saved themselves the trouble of writing these few paragraphs by simply giving a link to Ken Auletta’s article on the brothers Jain. As we already know, the Jains “have been dismantling the wall between the newsroom and the sales department. At The Times of India, for example, celebrities and advertisers pay the paper to have its reporters write advertorials about their brands in its supplementary sections; the newspaper enters into private-treaty agreements with some advertisers, accepting equity in the advertisers’ firms as partial payment. These innovations have boosted the paper’s profits, and are slowly permeating the Indian newspaper industry. Critics point to a decline in journalistic quality, especially amongst high-circulation newspapers”.

Tell us something new. We didn’t need a Standing Committee to make this discovery.

Who are the other offenders?

It would appear that in the eyes of the Standing Committee, no other major media house is indulging in paid news. Also, it seems there is only one state which is the root of all paid news evil. That  state being Gujarat – finding mention 17 times in the report. The report names Gujarati publications such as Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar as having indulged in presenting biased news during the time of Assembly Elections in December, 2012. It says, “The Committee are startled with the revelation of PCI’s fact finding team on Gujarat Election (2012) wherein they have cited 126 confirmed cases of Paid News with 61 candidates in the poll fray admitting to have paid for such news”.  The report cites so many cases from Gujarat, you wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking that the state is the paid news capital of the country.

The experts who were called to depose before the standing committee as witnesses and for giving suggestions were The Hindu Rural Affairs editor -P Sainath, Prasar Bharati CEO – Jawahar Sircar, Medianama editor – Nikhil Pahwa, former Press Council of India member –Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, President of India Journalist Union – SN Sinha, the PCI chairperson, former election commissioners and National Broadcast  Association.

What about some representation from the 414 news and currently affairs channels which the Committee wants to put under a regulatory regime? Newslaundry spoke to Pahwa and Thakurta and asked them on what basis they were selected to give recommendations to the committee. As Thakurta said, “I have no idea why they called me and didn’t call Rajdeep”.

Maybe the media chose not to talk about the report as a quid pro quo for the committee not bothering to invite editors of major media houses to depose and state their points of view. Or maybe, the report has fallen on a convenient media blind spot. Hindi and English channels and most newspapers have not commented on the findings and recommendations of the report, which could well be the foundation of a future legislation on media regulation. By not reporting on the matter, the media seems to be reiterating the observation made by the Committee that the media cannot self-regulate.

The report needs to be examined for what it is suggesting – a regulatory body directly functioning under the government. According to Guha Thakurta, placing the media under a regulatory body is the way forward. Speaking to Newslaundry, he said, “In an ideal world, self-regulation could be an option. But the media industry is not an ideal world. You need regulation to blacklist the black sheep.”

Medianama editor Nikhil Pawha disagrees. Pawha says that the lesser the involvement of the government in regulatory matters the better it is. According to him, “My recommendations to the committee have nothing to do with regulation but on how media houses can take simple steps to reveal their ownership patterns and thus maintain transparency”. He suggests that all media houses “must maintain a quarterly list of advertisers that have contributed more than a predetermined amount (say 5%) of the company’s advertising revenues and make the data available on their websites”.  He also recommends prior disclosure of advertisers on news items related to those who contribute more than 5% shareholding or that advertiser’s competitors.

Pahwa also makes some practical recommendations on disclosure of ownership patterns. He says, “Any trading done by a journalist, holding shares in a news organisation or his/her immediate family during each financial quarter must be open to public scrutiny…Business relationships of decision makers (Owners, Publisher/CEO, Business Heads, Editor-in-Chief, Managing and Executive Editors) needs to be disclosed quarterly”. On the issue of private treaties he says, “All Private Treaties and other investments from media companies, and the amount of stake acquired must be disclosed to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting”.

Pahwa makes a strong case for why the media should continue to remain self-regulated while putting in check and balances on its own without being prodded. He is a prime example of how new media is making efforts to ensure accountability in the media fraternity while fiercely protecting its independence.

Do our silent media houses know that the government has a state-of-art Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC) to monitor and record channels on a 24×7 basis? Over 300 channels are simultaneously under the government’s watch. Which explains the slew of media advisories which are sent out by the government – most of which our media channels don’t like to talk of. One would think that the media would have paid more attention to this report. Maybe even debated, discussed and dissected it as strongly and vociferously as they do every move of Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and not to forget Aishwarya Bachchan’s baby.

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