Rapid advancement in Information Technology and communications and their convergence have paved the way for the media to permeate the lives of people through various communication modes of newspaper, radio, Television, Internet, mobile phone and so on. Simultaneously, a menacing syndrome of paid news has overtaken Indian media world barring few honourable exceptions. The dangerous trend of presenting the paid information as news content has spread at remarkable pace across the media to benefit particular individuals, organizations or corporate entity. What are essentially advertisements, are disguised as paid news syndrome.
In this backdrop, dissemination of information, which is meant to be factual, neutral, fair and objective, is vitiated. The paid news trend is a serious and damaging fraud on the innocent public. It undermines and threatens democratic process by impacting free and fair elections, affects financial, stock, real estate market, health and industry and is also a tax fraud. It is so clandestine and subtle that conclusive proof cannot be had except the circumstantial one. News Broadcasters Association (NBA) calls it just a matter of ethics. This viewed in the context of size and dimensions of Indian media is mind boggling with enormous potential for distortion and damages to the time tested fabric of the nation.
As on December 31, 2012, Indian media comprise 93,985 registered newspapers, 850 TV channels of which 413 are news and current affairs channels and 437 non-news entertainment and programme channels and over 920 million mobile telephony. Added to this, Doordarshan runs 37 channels. Besides, there are 250 FM radio and numerous websites and online news agencies.
Election Commission of India (ECI), Press Council of India (PCI) and Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) have in their respective investigations reported that paid news is a logical culmination of the crass commercialism in the media, which has now reached the level of blackmail and extortion. It is a natural outcome of convergence of editorial, advertising, public relations and lobbying industries. This has become an organized phenomenon that large PR firms, professional designers and ad agencies handle contracts worth unfathomable enormous amount of money, not just to position ads but to create them.
Emergence of paid news is alluded to decline of journalists with imposition of contract system on them. Contract system reduces journalists to marketing agents, ad copywriters and stenographers. It demeans role and status of editors. It erodes freedom enjoyed by journalists under the Working Journalists Act. Under this syndrome, the revenue determines importance of news that it may generate to the media company. With the preponderance of management, the institution of the professional editorial has collapsed. Some other reasons include decline of the independence of journalists caused by annihilation of journalists’ union, imposition of contract system for journalists and so.
Some other relevant pointers relate to beginning of the concept of media being seen like any other business rather than a mission with no social and political responsibility towards country, initially during the last decade of the 20th century. Keeping this in consideration, paid news contract deals are struck at top level and all that editors get are time-to-time instructions to carry a particular news item or photographs. This has blurred distinction between management and editorial. Emergence of the trend of newspapers without editors and owners becoming editors is the other cause of paid news. The whole system of paid news is now institutionalized with the media owners themselves taking money. Yet another alarming trend is emergence of army of stringers in vernacular and language press. They are ill paid though the proprietors are making fortunes. Stringers double up as agents collecting ads for the organizations and earning commission on the revenue that comes from such ads.
The other startling trend is private treaties between media companies and corporations that enable the corporations to transfer certain shares to media companies, considered a form of paid news, militating against the rights of people to be informed accurately and truthfully. Private treaties help market and regularize boosting of corporate marketing as news. Another vicious trend is cross media holdings that promote monopolies in media and come in the way of free flow of information. Paid news in Supplement, Head mast carries advertorial, entertainment and promotional features.
Any solution to the problem of paid news calls for people at large to fight for their inherent right to correct news. The Government generally develops cold feet in contemplating action against such racketeering. Media claim that they are just a business and a case is made out to raise the bogey of “attack on the press freedom”, which usually scares off the Government from taking action.
To deal with this menace, ECI, PCI and SEBI have favoured improving working conditions, job security and editorial independence to journalists, a statutory regulatory mechanism in view of a glaring failure of self-regulatory mechanism of media themselves, mandatory disclosure by the media companies or group of its stake in the corporate sector along with stringent audit of accounts, conflict of interest, revenue sources, transparency, compliance of Corporate Governance, adherence to Programme and Advertising Codes, creating strong public opinion that paid news is diluting their right to free flow of information and they are fed information which is not correct. These are considered to be the best antidotes in the long run.
The free media in our system of the rule of law based democratic governance should convey correct and true information to the people. With paid information presented as news content as deliberate, false, suggestive, innuendos and half-truths, people are misled and their judgments hampered to form correct opinion. This also generates negative sentiments all about the nation, its time tested values and otherwise. Hence, urgent need to protect the right of public to correct and unbiased information!
Former Director, Public Relations, Ministry of Law & Justice and Railways