People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 24

June 13, 2010



Operation Cover-up Now Begins


S K Pandey


“PAID news is like a snake whose hood is down and tail underground. It is not easy to pull it out. There is circumstantial evidence of all type, but little proof.” So said S V Quraishi, one of the election commissioners in a recent article.


Noting that the "DNA" of Indian media organisations has changed after liberalisation, vice president Hamid Ansari said on  January 28, 2010: "That the phenomenon of paid news and coverage package have a potential to tarnish the polity and destabilise the country's economy.”


“Paid news is a ‘fatal combination’ of three M’s, namely, the media, money and mafia, that has subverted free and fair elections .....”, says Madhubhushi Sridhar, a legal expert, at a seminar on the subject in 2009.




Slowly but surely, the news for sale scam, spotlighted in the Press Council of India, is set for a cover-up. From a two-person expose in the council, led painstakingly by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta with assistance from Srinivas Reddy of the Indian Journalists Union, the ball has been flung to a wider Press Council net. From the Indore session of the Press Council to the Delhi session held earlier, to yet another session to be held on May 31, 2010, faces of the cover-up operation are slowly coming to light. Behind it all stand managerial pressures --- some subtle and others not so subtle.


The questions being asked are manifold. What are the pressures on the Press Council of India trying to cover up the cash for coverage abuse? From Indore to Delhi, pressure for dilution is reportedly increasing day by day. It is now clear that in a few months, if not earlier, only a punctured version of the report would see the light of the day or its submission would be further postponed if some parties caught in the act don't succeed in a cover-up. Furthermore, there are reports of deals for a new Press Council of India, which was advertised some time ago. The last date for filing the nominations ironically coincided with a meeting of the Press Council in Delhi on May 31, 2010. It is learnt that pressures and counter pressures from press barons are doing the rounds to prevent the non-statusquoist scribes from gaining entry. There is some evidence to suggest that ghost organisations are seeking seats through well known combinations and perambulations, threatening to reduce the Press Council to a farcical lottery of self-seekers. Add to it the pressures reportedly coming from the government also.


Clearly caught in the act as practitioners of "paid news" are the largest circulated newspapers in Hindi and Marathi. These papers belong to big business houses that have diversified into other media lines. Both have ad revenues consistent with their leadership positions is respective market segments. None of them can plausibly advance the argument that they are impelled to adopt the "paid news" practice on account of dire financial need.




Media credibility is a visible casualty, as is the integrity of the electoral process. The chief minister of Maharashtra has, for considerations that are as yet unknown, managed to get identical stories about his achievements (real and imagined) featured in a number of Marathi language newspapers, under different bylines. Several newspapers also carried extensive supplements within their main editions blazoning his glories --- again without any suggestion that this was advertising content.


Deserving serious consideration are the views of Dr Madabhushi Sridhar. He said politicians used to hire musclemen, earlier, for huge amounts of money and train them in booth rigging. "Now..... candidates are training media pens instead of mafia guns to 'rig' the minds of people with constant opinion bombarding," he added.


Dr Sridhar further stated that news items misguide readers about particular candidates by reporting that they are forging ahead in elections. "They use expressions which are most of the time absolutely false. The lack of truth in such statements can be easily verified as the same page of the same newspaper also publishes a similar story about a rival candidate. It is also reported that some pages of district edition tabloids were changed twice or thrice every day to accommodate the 'success trail' of different candidates in the same constituency."


He has made the open charge that the trend of publishing news for money is on par with criminalisation of elections. "It is not just a breach of media ethics or impropriety and not just the concern of the Press Council of India. It is a crime against democracy, punishable under law.... the syndrome is just not the concern of the Press Council of India but a real challenge to the Election Commission of India, whose sole aim is to conduct free and fair polls...."


Dr Sridhar added: "Under Section 123 of the Representation of People Act 1951, bribery, undue influence, appeal on the ground of religion, caste, etc, publication of false statement relating to a candidate, free conveyance of voters, incurring of election expenditure in excess of the prescribed limit and seeking assistance of government servants are all considered corrupt practices. In 1989, booth capturing was added as another 'corrupt practice' in the law. In the present context, the media sold space and time to perpetrate undue influence and by the publication of false statements relating to winning chances of a candidate. In the process, the candidates spent huge amounts of money for coverage 'packages' which is a corrupt practice. These aspects have to be considered, investigated and prevented by the machinery of the Election Commission of India, as and when such things are happening. The Commission should not leave it to be decided at the time of hearing of election petitions, which means that the state would allow perpetration of corrupt practices and then wait for 'proof' of the same before election tribunals....”





In a way, before the cover-up attempts began, the Press Council of India’s first report --- based on the testimonies of well-known journalists, unions of journalists, other organisations and individuals including politicians who deposed before the council --- went a very long way in establishing the fact that the pernicious practice of "paid news" has become widespread across the media (both print and electronic, English and non-English languages) in different parts of the country. Interestingly, this phenomenon appears to be less pervasive in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu where the media are clearly divided along political lines. It is notable that a great deal of work in this regard had been done by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and P Sainath through a series of exposures, while the Delhi Union of Journalists made continuous interventions through a public meeting and in other ways. Senior editors and veteran journalists like the Late Prabhash Joshi, Kuldeep Nayar, The Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists, sections of the Indian Journalists Union, independent journalists of Andhra Pradesh, legal expert Madhubhushi Sridhar, Ram Bahadur Rai and Anuradha Raman (journalists) and Akshat Kaushal of the Indian Institute of Mass Communications in Delhi also made valuable contributions. A great deal of credit goes to the work began by late Prabash Joshi who fired the first salvo at a seminar organised by the Delhi Union of Journalists and called for public meetings, intervened in the Press Council along with some senior editors and stressed the point his last speech to a group of journalists. The Editors Guild also set up an ethics committee while the press associations and Women's Press Corps held a seminar; some other journalist bodies also intervened. A key role was played by investigative journalist P Sainath in exposing the dimensions of the scam which was visible even in the assembly elections in Maharashtra later .


From among the political parties, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Sitaram Yechury called the paid news syndrome a negation of parliamentary democracy, while the CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat suggested an amendment to the Representation of People's Act to declare the paid news an electoral malpractice.


The PCI report on "paid news," it is learnt, covers a wide range of practices that have compromised media integrity. Leveraging news content as a direct revenue source is not a new practice. It formally began in March 2003, when India's biggest media group announced what it called the "Medianet" initiative, professedly part of its effort to stay current with journalistic practices in the rapidly changing times. Subtlety aside, the concept simply sought to institutionalise the corruption of the profession by carrying the paid content with proper acknowledgment.


Two years later, the same media group introduced another innovation, called "private treaties," involving the acquisition of shares in enterprises in exchange for advertising space. When the concerned enterprise grew to a level where it could conceivably go public, the media company that had freely advertised its merits would cash in. The example was one that most media enterprises, including the broadcast companies, have eagerly followed.


Now it seems select publishers and proprietors, led by select media mughals, are tightening the screw to save their credibility and save their long term interest. Like the ping pong being played on the Women's Reservation Bill, the news coverage scam 2009-2010 is also set for a reprieve. It is believed that some journalist members of the Press Council are hunting for yet another term, for which purpose help from some press barons is necessary. Rules are being manipulated help the status-quo, with the government’s interests also chipping in. As it is, the report of the two-member committee has now gone to a wider council and from there one wonders whether it would find its way to the dustbin.




The said report on paid news and how corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy, is jam packed with concrete examples, particularly from the Hindi language press. Here are some examples from Ranchi. Take the Prabhat Khabar and Hindustan which, before the parliamentary elections, published articles praising various candidates. The former placed on top of each such item the line "PK Media Marketing Initiative," while the latter publication added "HT Media Marketing Initiative" at the bottom of such items.


Former civil aviation minister Harmohan Dhawan was quoted in Pratham Pravakta Magazine (in its edition dated July 16, 2009), stating:  "I was contesting the 2009 elections on a ticket of the BSP from Chandigarh. Representatives of the print media came to me and asked for money. They said their newspapers will give me coverage if I paid them money. They offered a 'package' to me and in one such 'package' I was told editorials would be written in my favour. I have been contesting elections since 1974 but not a single newspaper asked me for money before this. Among the newspapers that offered a 'package' to me was Punjab Kesri. A representative of Dainik Jagran came to me 20 days before the election and clearly told me: 'If you want coverage in this election, you have to buy a 'package'. These packages were worth lakhs of rupees. After that, a representative of Dainik Bhaskar visited me in my home. He too offered me a "package."


Now, while a cover-up attempt is on, it is worth considering once again how the mainstream media abetted the process of paid news and whether an all-encompassing media council of experts chosen by various democratically elected bodies would not be better than a tinkering with the problem under pressure from the government or newspaper barons. Also, the need of the hour is media commission --- a la the first and second press commissions. Researches in the US have shown how even the best democracies have seen rigged elections; one can see the book titled Best Democracy Money can Buy. The Election Commission and the parliament too have to play a more proactive role to save the Indian journalism and Indian democracy for tomorrow.