Public discourse on the media’s ills through the media is relatively rare. The fourth estate of the world’s largest democracy is fast acquiring a dark underbelly which threatens the vibrancy of democracy itself. Threats to press freedom are far greater from within than from without.
Paid news is no more a phrase elite national English newspapers condescendingly used to describe malpractices in small Hindi or regional language newspapers. “Advertorial” is the new sophisticated catchphrase to legitimise and blur the distinction between reportage and paid content. Bribed reporters, ferociously lobbying senior editors and highly politically biased journalists and anchors preach to us every day as “independent” voices, in both the print and visual media.
An association of ethical journalists (not always an oxymoron) has published an 18-country study of how “corruption and conflict of interest stalks the newsroom”. Examples would be hilarious if they were not tragic. Thus, TRPs are the craze because they determine advertising revenue and dictate how much sensationalism and how little sense are to be injected. The print media circulation calculation methodologies, though infinitely better, still leave much to be desired. TRP consultants have sprouted all over. They reportedly find the supposedly secret location of viewer meters, then approach that family with freebies such as a new 60-inch plasma TV, gifted so long as the family promises to watch the ordinary old metered TV for specific programmes at specified times!
Top newspapers send out marketing persons with a rate card to cover celebrity events and product launches, published the next day as news, occasionally with unreadable fine print at the bottom saying advertorial. A Press Council study has documented date-wise the lobbying report for a proposed government policy in established newspapers, which is followed, next day and for several weeks, by advertisements from the known beneficiary of that policy.
The recent elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab have innumerable documented cases by the Election Commission (EC) of paid news. No party’s representative, just like virtually no media segment, can be sanctimonious on this issue. “ Is hamam mein sab nange hain (no one is above board)” is the business-as-usual justification. Madhya Pradesh Minister Narottam Mishra is one of the rare subjects of a timely, completed judgment on paid news suppressed from election affidavit disclosures.
The corporate shadow
Corporate and political power has overwhelmed and overawed large sections of the media, both print and visual, where boldness and fearlessness are no doubt displayed but very selectively and in a slanted manner. Corporates have humongous financial interests in the media. First, they have large financial stakes in either print or visual media. Second, they have full ownership of both categories in innumerable cases. Third, they have significant control even of rival visual platforms. Fourth, instead of Chinese walls between managerial/ownership activities and editorial jurisdiction, the exact opposite prevails, the former is boss and the latter is frequently anonymous. Direct blackmail is no rare thing either.
The biggest joke is the concept of peer regulation, which India has borrowed from the U.K. with disastrous results. The Press Council of India (PCI) is a toothless tiger, though I would not want to insult the king of the jungle and prefer to call it a “legislatively impotent and powerless” club giving futile sermons which no one even listens to. A comprehensive study commissioned by the PCI itself, documenting specific cases of many of these abuses with facts, figures and data had to be shelved and buried because of peer pressure. The PCI can take solace in the fact that other peer regulators have probably done worse — for example, the Medical Council of India, or the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, which none less than the Prime Minister recently admonished.
Ways for reform
What are the remedies? First, the zeal for reform must come from within, from senior print and television journalists who must dare to speak, write and expose more clearly the subject of this article. Second, the same persons must start publicly condemning, if not ostracising, clear examples of such abuse. Third, some ownership restrictions on cross holdings and aggregate holdings have to be legislated. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India suggested a maximum of 32% market share, calculated on any of the following bases: customers, geographical area or languages. (Predictably they were laughed out.) Fourth, legislation must create mandatory Chinese walls between managerial and editorial departments. Fifth, the last will work only with ‘provision of contracts and employment conditions for journalists that meet international labour standards and which give them the right, without fear of retribution, to refuse any form of work that infringes upon their professional codes or conscience’. Sixth, create ‘genuinely independent and transparent systems for assessing circulation and ratings of media’. Seventh, introduce internal systems for disclosing potential conflicts of interest, deal with complaints and have mandatory disclosure of ownership or relationship conflicts at the end of each print article or visual programme. Eighth, similar disclosure, in bold letters, of paid-for news or any reporting must be done.
None of this will happen without penal legislation. I have no doubt that such legislation will not come in the foreseeable future because here we are talking of the most powerful club in the world.
Abhishek Singhvi is an MP, national spokesperson for the Congress party, former Chairman, Parliamentary Standing Committee, and former Additional Solicitor General. The views expressed are personal