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Malignant Paid-News

Updated: December 1, 2012 12:30 pm

Last week, I was invited by the National Union of Journalists at a seminar in Bhubaneswar to speak on “Freedom of Press”. At the seminar, there were several eminent persons coming from different strata of society, and they were all unanimous at one point, which is afflicting the media in the country—paid news. I am not criticising the growth of the media industry but I have strong reservations about the contents of a section of the media. The common man buys a newspaper to read news, not views of vested interests. Around two decades back when one used to read a newspaper, one would respect and appreciate facts with development news and entertainment but now facts are mercilessly strangulated in news reporting. Most of the reporting is meant for misleading the readers. In the name of competition, news is disseminated now without checking the veracity of the facts. Today, the breaking news has become a fashion so as to keep viewers glued to news screen. Recently, there was a headline in the media on Narendra Modi’s remark describing Sunanda Pushkar as “Rs 50 Crore Girlfriend of Shashi Tharoor”. This displays how our media is blasé about serious issues and hunts for the juicy stuffs to pour on the paper. During one of Modi’s campaigns in Himachal Pradesh this line hogged the newspaper and televised in prime slot. Mr Modi   focussed on certain specific points in connection with women, more specifically the whopping price in gas cylinders. In addition, he expressed his concern over the reducing number of gas cylinders used for domestic purposes. This situation is likely to turn even worse with winter setting in days to come. But the media did not mention all these points. Instead, it made a mountain out of the molehill by highlighting only the Sunanda Pushkar’s headline. Also the media did not describe how the central government had torpedoed gas supply by a programme of the Gujarat government, through which the state had already provided gas pipeline in three hundred villages, i.e. seven lakh households, and it would have covered twenty lakh households by this year. But the media put all those vital points on the back burner.

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 and industrialists, including candidates who have been contesting elections, appear in newspapers and are broadcast on television channels across the country in the run-up to the elections. No disclosure is made that before such news is printed or broadcast, that money has been exchanged between the candidate or political party concerned to which he or she belongs to and the owners or representatives of media organisations. Such malpractices enable candidates contesting elections not to disclose their genuine expenditures on campaigning which, if made public, would in certain cases violate the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961. The newspapers and television channels concerned receive money for paid news in cash and not by cheque and do not disclose such earnings in their official company balance sheets. This malpractice has become widespread and cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and big, in different languages and located in various parts of the country. What is worse, these illegal operations have become organised 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 a particular politician or an industrialist but also criticise their political opponents. 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. Immediately after taking over as the Chairman of the Press Council of India, Justice Markandey Katju, gave vent to the irresponsible and insensitive reporting by the media. This is viewed as a hidden attempt to impose a restriction on the freedom of the press. However, it is also incumbent on the media conglomerates to make public the steps to be taken to free the press from the cancer of “paid news”. The freedom of the press, both print and electronic should not include a free hand to barter the fundamental constitutional rights and privileges. With the rise of the nouveau media barons and owners themselves having vested interests in politics, economic and public policy; only self-regulation may not be a viable proposition. A solo government regulation may be also undesirable in public interest. A mix of two along with community initiatives to ensure that the truth does not remain hidden and falsehood along with the doers including media houses stands exposed would be needed.

Deepak Kumar Rath

Deepak Kumar Rath

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