Palagummi Sainath a renowned journalist and rural affairs editor of The Hindu delivered the First Maharaj Kaul Memorial Lecture at University of Berkeley, California on April 11. Sainath has written extensively on farmer suicide and paid news, issues that have not been widely reported in the mainstream Indian media. At Berkeley, Sainath choose to speak on the issue of paid news prevalent in Indian media. He particularly highlighted the problem of political paid news (reported for the first time during Maharashtra State Assembly elections in 2009) described as the phenomenon where money is paid by candidates contesting elections to representatives of media companies for favourable coverage. P. Sainath’s views during the lecture and expressed elsewhere point to a grave crises confronting the state of Indian media.
[Photo Courtesy: According to Sainath, paid news has emerged as an organized and properly structured ‘industry’ in India. The ‘paid news’ game, in the words of Sainath is not a new phenomenon in the Indian media. “It is, though, a radical leap ahead; radical enough to threaten the existence of legitimate journalism.” Explaining this phenomenon elsewhere, Sainath wrote, “the individual journalist has no importance in this “industry” because what is published as “news” has not been independently gathered and reported by reporters and journalists but written and published as per the wishes of the political party or the candidate who has paid money to the concerned publisher or media organisation.” The media coverage of Chief Ministerial candidate Ashok Chavan during the Maharashtra State Assembly elections in 2009 is explored by Sainath to prove the prevalence of political paid news in the country. Sainath explains the attempt to pass off advertisement and propaganda as ‘news’ in favour of candidates willing to pay the price for it. Surprisingly, some politicians complained about this phenomenon to the journalist, communicating their frustration with the media’s extortionist tendencies. The ‘coverage packages’ offered to the candidates were immensely varied: for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections sections of the media were offering low-end “coverage packages” for Rs.15 lakh to Rs.20 lakh. “High-end” ones cost a lot more. A candidate could pay different rates for ‘profiles,’ interviews, a list of ‘achievements,’ or even a trashing of his rival in some cases; the dawn-to-dusk coverage included following the candidate for a day/days through his campaign trail. Ashok Chavan had spent a mere Rs. 5,379 on advertisements in print media but according to Sainath the candidate managed to feature on 156 pages of prominent local and national dailies. The flood of full pages on Mr. Chavan and his party, with headlines like the “Era of Ashok,” and the “Era of Development,” ran in Marathi newspapers like Lokmat. If advertising, this would have cost lakhs of rupees.
The phenomenon of paid news had created much furore in India despite the fact that many media groups carried no discussion of the issue. The Election Commission of India responded to the charges of paid news by sending out a circular in 2010 asking the chief electoral officers of all states and union territories to be extra vigilant about this electoral malpractice. Efforts were also made by the Press Council of India (PCI), the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) to contain the malpractice. The corrective measures have however, failed to effectively control the menace. The PCI toned down its aggressive approach to tackle the challenge when it adopted a revised version of Report submitted by the sub-committee comprising of journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy. The report adopted by the PCI preferred to avoid identifying particular media groups involved heavily in promoting paid news. Paranjoy Thakurta in a recent article in the Economic and Political Weekly elaborates on the weak regulatory mechanisms to check the problem of paid news.
Corporatization of the media was another red flag raised by Sainath during his lecture. He referred to the “corporatization of ownership, content and culture of media.” The private treaties of the Times Group reflect the exhaustive portfolio of media houses in India. According to Sainath such ventures make media groups look more like equity firms. He cited the example of how the Times of India campaign had aided in making Pantaloons a big player in the India’s retail sector. The vested interests of the media in the markets ensured that the term ‘recession’ was not used to describe the state of the Indian economy during the global financial crisis. The media tactfully employed the term ‘slowdown’ while hinting at the possibility phenomenal growth. All this was done when the media groups were laying off auxiliary staff to cut costs. Thus the media had a ‘structural compulsion’ to project India as a booming market during 2008-2009.
Sainath hints at two major problems of such wholesale media corruption: 1) undermining India’s electoral democracy and 2) violation of audience trust.