The Trust Deficit
Paid news and other dishonest practices have eroded the credibility of mass media in India: only 38 per cent of Indians trust radio and television, while only 40 per cent trust news in newspapers. Excerpts from the Press Council of India’s damning report on paid news, which was finally uploaded on the PCI site, following orders from the Central Information Commission
The following is a brief excerpt from ‘Paid News’: How Corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Democracy, a Press Council of India sub-committee report written by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy, and dated April 1, 2010. The Press Council of India (PCI) put up this full 71-page report on its website only on October 10, following an order from the CIC, acting on an RTI petition calling for the report to be made public. To read the complete version of this explosive report, go to http://presscouncil.nic.in/home.htm, click on ‘Report on Paid News’ in the left menu and then click on ‘Sub-Committee Report’.
News is meant to be objective, fair and neutral—this is what sets apart such information and opinion from advertisements that are paid for. When news is published in favour of a particular politician or a political party by selling editorial space, the phenomenon of paid news becomes even more pernicious. Innumerable complimentary news reports and feature articles on representatives of political parties, including candidates who have been contesting elections, have appeared in newspapers and broadcast on television channels across the country in the run-up to the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as well as the state legislative assembly elections. No disclosure was made that before such news was printed or broadcast, that money had been exchanged between the concerned candidate or political party to which he or she belongs and the owners or representatives of media organisations.
Such malpractices enabled candidates contesting elections to not disclose their true expenditures on campaigning which, if made public, would have in certain cases violated the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, which have been framed by, and are meant to be enforced by, the Election Commission of India under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. The concerned newspapers and television channels received money for paid news in cash and not in the form of cheques and did not disclose such earnings in their official company balance sheets. This malpractice has become widespread and cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country, and this is evident from the many examples provided subsequently in this report.
What is worse, these illegal operations have become ―organized and involve advertising agencies and public relations firms, besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies. Marketing executives use the services of journalists willingly or otherwise to gain access to political personalities. So-called rate cards or packages are distributed that often include rates for publication of news items that not merely praise particular candidates but also criticize their political opponents. Candidates who do not go along with such extortionist practices on the part of media organizations are denied coverage. Sections of the media in India have consciously chosen to become partners, participants and players in malpractices that contribute to the growing use of money power in politics that, in turn, undermine democratic processes and norms.
At the same time, representatives of media organizations against whom allegations are levelled publicly condemn the practice of paid news. Some such individuals behave in a hypocritical manner and pretend to occupy a high moral ground. Given the illegal and clandestine nature of such malpractices, it is not easy to find clinching evidence that pins responsibility for such malpractices on particular persons and organizations. There is, however, a huge volume of circumstantial evidence that points towards the growing use of the media for publishing paid news which is a form of electoral malpractice. Identical articles with photographs and headlines have appeared in competing publications carrying bylines of different authors around the same time. On the same page of specific newspapers, articles have been printed praising competing candidates claiming both are likely to win the elections.
That paid news is a phenomenon that is deleterious to the credibility and independence of the media itself needs to be emphasized. Edelman, an independent public relations firm, in its 2010 Trust Barometer Survey (conducted in 22 countries worldwide, including India and six other countries in the Asia-Pacific region) stated that the Indian media has been losing its credibility and trust among the people. The study, which sampled 1,575 people in the 25-64 age-group and 200 opinion leaders in India, noticed a sharp drop in trust over the past two years in television news in India. However, 12 newspapers are ranked higher than other media in terms of credible news with people trusting newspapers more than any other medium: 38% of the Indians polled trusted radio and television, while 40% trusted news in newspapers. Over the past two years, trust in television news dropped sharply from 61% to 36%, that of business magazines has gone down from 72% to 47%, and that of newspapers has gone down from 61% to 40%. Trust in the media in India as a whole declined by 7% (from 65% in 2009 to 58% in 2010). On the other hand, China has seen the trust in media go up from 59% in 2009 to 63% in 2010.
However, in terms of overall trusted institutions in India, media has performed better than the government as an institution. Sixty-seven per cent of Indians trust business as an institution, followed by the Indian media in the second position, with 58% Indians trusting it. Non-government organizations (NGOs) and the government are placed in third and fourth positions, respectively.
In another survey conducted by the Readers’ Digest in March 2010, called the Trust Survey, 750 Indians were asked to rank the short-listed individuals belonging to different professions. Journalists were ranked 30 out of the 40 professionals listed and were placed next only to barbers and bus drivers. Given the kind of blatantly dishonest practices being followed in sections of the mass media in India in recent times, the levels of credibility and trust in newspapers and television channels are bound to drop further, all of which would be harmful to building a vibrant and responsive democracy in the country. The publication or broadcast of paid news have not merely undermined democracy in India but also tarnished the country’s reputation as foreign newspapers have already started writing about, and commenting adversely on, such malpractices. In recent months, articles about such malpractices have appeared in at least three newspapers, the Wall Street Journal (published from the United States), the Guardian (United Kingdom) and the Independent (Bangladesh), none of which edify either the media in India nor contribute to projecting a positive image of the world’s largest democracy.