Paid news: A cancer in Indian media
Indian people, election commission, parliamentarians, media watchdog
and even the media persons have finally woken up to the menace of
'paid news' culture in the mainstream media. The practice that
involves money in acquiring unethically media space by the
beneficiaries remained an important issue in India for many years. But
lately a number of influential media persons' organisations have shown
their concern with the ill practice of journalism in the country. Then
it was picked up by the Press Council of India, the Election
Commission of India and the upper house of Indian parliament.
The practice of offering envelopes to reporters remained visible
across Asian media and especially India and China for decades. But
lately the practice appears to be becoming institutionalized, not by
poverty-stricken reporters but by the publishers themselves.
It is alleged that many media houses in India irrespective of their
volume of business have started selling news space after some
understandings with the politicians and corporate people without
disguising those items as advertisements.
First it was a meet of South Asia Free Media Association (India
chapter) in Mumbai during the first week of December, where the issue
of paid news was officially discussed with serious concern.
Then came the annual general meeting of the Editors' Guild of India
during the fourth week of December, where most of the members
expressed concern at the growing tendency of a section of media groups
(both print and visual) to receive money for some 'non-advertorial'
items in their media space.
Condemning the unethical media practice, the guild even appealed all
its member-editors to stand against the paid news. The editors' forum
sent a letter to all of them asking for pledges that his/her
'publication/TV channel will not carry any paid news' as the practice
'violates and undermines the principles of free and fair journalism'.
The letter, signed by Rajdeep Sardesai and Coomi Kapoor, president and
secretary general of the Guild respectively, expressed hope that 'the
entire journalist fraternity would come together on this issue' and
defend their credibility with public declarations on the subject in
order to restore public trust.
Indian media has been recognised as sensitive, patriotic and very much
influential tool in the socio-political sphere since the days of
freedom movement. The father of Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi initiated
his movement with the moral power of active journalism. Today, India
with its billion population supports nearly 70,000 registered
newspapers and over 450 Television channels (including some 24x7 news
channels). The Indian media, as a whole, often plays the role of
constructive opposition in the Parliament as well as in various
Legislative Assemblies of the State. Journalists are, by and large,
honoured and accepted as the moral guide in the Indian society. While
the newspapers in Europe and America are losing their readership
annually, the Indian print media is still going stronger with huge
circulation figure and market avenues. For the democratic India, the
media continues to be acclaimed as the fourth important pillar after
judiciary, parliament and bureaucratic set-up.
But unfortunately a cancer in the form of paid news has been diagnosed
with the Indian media in the recent past. Millions of rupees have been
reportedly been paid to media houses.
Some veteran editor-journalists like Prabhash Joshi, the founding
editor of the Hindi daily Jansatta, who died in November, and BG
Verghese, previously the editor of both the Hindustan Times and Indian
Express, warned the Press Council of India that paid news has already
turned into a full-blown scandal.
It is worth mentioning that the Mumbai SAFMA meeting had serious
discussion and concern on the recent trend of commercialisation of
mainstream media, and degradation of media ethics and practices in the
country. All the speakers in the meeting of SAFMA (which is recognized
by the SAARC), were unanimous that media in the entire region must
come forward in a transparent way with maintaining public trust.
Addressing the audience, eminent journalist and the rural affairs
editor of The Hindu, P Sainath disclosed that that the corporatisation
of the media world had simply threatened the existence of free media.
"Newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout," P
Sainath, the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, warned another media
group. It was Sainath who raised the issue of paid news through his
regular columns in The Hindu, urging the press council and election
commission to take appropriate action.
"The proprietors now grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of
their 'friendly politicians' in the newspapers," Sainath warned in his
speech. "Furthermore, to entertain their growing demands, many media
groups have even gone for arranging extra space (during election
periods). Let's finish the culture of paid news, otherwise it will
finish us in the coming days."
An official statement of the SAFMA meet, which was attended by many
distinguished editor-journalists of India including K K Katyal, Satich
Jacob, Kumar Ketkar (editor of Loksatta), Om Thanvi (editor of
Jansatta), Vinod Sharma (political editor of Hindustan Times) etc,
expressed serious concern at the growing trend of selling news space.
"Recent assembly elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere revealed the
spread of the pernicious practice of accepting money for giving
editorial space to contestants. In fact, this evil had been
perpetrated by institutionalising it," according to a statement by the
South Asian Free Media Association.
Meanwhile, the Press Council of India, a quasi-judicial body, has
decided to investigate, establishing a separate committee to examine
violations of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting.
The press council Chairman GN Ray, a retired justice, acknowledged
that a section of Indian media had 'indulged in monetary deals with
some politicians and candidates by publishing their views as news
items and bringing out negative news items against rival candidates'
during the last elections.'
The committee has already discussed the issue with the representatives
from Indian Newspapers Society, Indian Language Newspapers Association
with other stakeholders.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, an eminent media critic and also the member of
the press council investigative team said in an interview that the
committee had received many complains from the journalists that a
large number of newspapers and television channels (in various
languages) had been receiving money to provide news space (and even
editorials) for the benefit of politicians.
Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, Guha Thakurta claims that the
paid news culture has finally violated the guidelines of the Election
Commission (of India), which makes restriction in the expenditure of a
candidate (for any Legislative Assembly or Parliamentary elections).
"Amazingly, we have found that some newspapers even prepared rate
cards for the candidates in the last few elections. There are
different rates for positive news coverage, interviews, editorials and
also putting out damaging reports against the opponents," Guha
The Indian Election Commission recently asked the Press Council of
India 'to define what constitutes paid political news', so it can
adopt appropriate guidelines. During a December meeting, the elections
body also directed the press council to 'formulate guidelines to the
media house' to require that the money involved be incorporated in the
political party and candidate expenditures.
Lately, the Guild had submitted a memorandum to the election
commission expressing its grave concern over the paid news phenomenon.
A delegation from the Guild, led by its president Rajdeep Sardesai met
the election commission on January 22 and urged the chief election
commissioner Navin Chawla to 'take strong action against both
candidates and media persons who violate the disclosure norms of
election expenditure in regard to media publicity.'
Rajdeep Sardesai, the editor's guild president and also the chief
editor of the CNN-IBN television news channel, speaking to this
writer, said that the Guild was 'deeply shocked and seriously
concerned at the increasing number of reports detailing the pernicious
practice of publishing paid news by some newspapers and television
channels, especially during the recent elections'.
"We strongly believe that the practice of putting out advertising as
news is a grave journalistic malpractice. Moreover the trend threatens
the foundation of journalism by eroding public faith in the
credibility and impartiality of news reporting. It also vitiated the
poll process and prevented a fair election, since richer candidates
who could pay for their publicity had a clear advantage," Sardesai
While admitting the right of news media to go for advertisements in
various occasions, Sardesai insisted that the 'media houses should
distinguish the advertisements with full and proper disclosure norms,
so that no reader and viewer is tricked by any subterfuge of
advertisements published and broadcast in the same format, language
and style of news'.
The Indian Women's Press Corps, the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working
Journalists and the Network of Women in Media, India had also
expressed concern over the issue.
Condemning the practice, NWMI, the forum of women media professionals,
stated in a recent release, "We strongly believe that the present
crisis in the media, of which paid news is a grim symptom, requires
urgent, serious intervention by media professionals working together
to safeguard the principles and values of journalism and the
credibility of the news media, which are both critical factors for the
effective functioning of our democracy."
Lately, the Rajya Sabha witnessed a debate on the culture of paid
news. Responding the questions of MPs, India´s Information &
Broadcasting minister Ambika Soni admitted that the practice is ´a
serious matter as it influences the functioning of a free press´.
"The media acts as a repository of public trust for conveying correct
and true information to the people. However, when paid information is
presented as news content, it could mislead the public and thereby
hamper their judgment to form a correct opinion. Thus, there is no
denying the fact that there is an urgent need to protect the public's
right to correct and unbiased information," Ms Soni added.
The opposition leader Arun Jaitley (Bharatiya Janata Party) earlier
arued that the practice of paid news should be perceived as a trade or
business with an unlawful purpose as it has nothing to do with the
freedom of speech. Jaitley, who is also a senior advocate, insisted
that a regulator should be set up with judicial authority (with power
to impose deterrent penalties) to which all such complaints can be
The readers or the viewers have the right to honest, unadulterated
news, which is being denied to them. They are not even being informed
that the news is motivated by monetary considerations, he added.
Jaitley went on saying that the paid news interdicts the process of
free and fair elections as it violates the limits set out by the
election commission for expenditure (by a candidate) in the polls. It
also reflects the violation of income tax laws, he asserted.
Speaking to this writer, Hiten Mahanta, a Guwahati-based media
observer claims that many regional newspapers in Northeast India in
effect sell favourable reporting for extra income.
"You can find a number of examples in Guwahati, where the proprietors
of the media houses had misused the media space for their individual
benefits. It is amazing how some newspapers (and also news channels)
change their point of views towards a politician or party suddenly
after getting money (in cash or kinds)," Mahanta said.
There are specific allegations that many journalists in Guwahati, who
are among the lowest paid in India with starting salaries as little as
US$50 a month, enjoy regular payments like monthly lump sum
compensation from politicians in power. Licenses for wine shops are
offered to reporters (and accepted happily by many) with the inherent
understanding that they only write positive stories and if possible,
kill negative reports against their politician-financers.
However, the newspapers of Assam still maintain ethical values in
respect of editorial space, as those are not being utilized visibly
for earning extra hard cash till now, observers say.
But how long it will continue that remains a bigger question!