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October 18, 2013

The elephant in the newsroom

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, Paid News will probably be the easiest way out for media houses to make money. It is also the easiest way to lose credibility.

When the United States of America decided to invade Iraq in 2003, one of the reactions from the American media was: “We want greater access”. Disappointed that their country’s military did not give reporters adequate access to information during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 Afghanistan invasion, American editors pressured the government into granting them venture-rights into areas hitherto considered off-limits during a war.

 Puppets

The Pentagon and the White House finally bowed to the pressure and created a phenomenon that euphemistically came to be called “embedded journalists”. Close to 800 reporters from the US and some other countries signed contracts with the US military that mandated that they would not reveal positions, future missions, weapons, etc. to their audience. In exchange, the reporters would get access to combat units, get to travel in battle tanks, and meet with commanders and generals – something that was unheard of earlier.

The overjoyed reporters went with the military on this, and those who did not, were either expelled or had their credentials revoked. As a result, viewers the world over saw journalists reporting from behind tanks while the soldiers fought in the background. Reporters sat inside armoured vehicles and gave sound-bytes, and the favoured networks even got exclusive interviews with generals.

It was all dramatic – war as an entertainment vehicle, if you will – but here’s the thing. Viewers saw exactly what the military wanted them to see. Embedded journalists were assigned specific units, and were provided information that only the Pentagon wanted to disseminate. So, body bags returning to America, for instance, were missing in order to present a sanitised view of the war. American viewers saw only their army’s courage, never their young soldiers dying. They saw the ‘evil’ Iraqi military being dismantled, never the Iraqi civilians dying. As a result, President George W Bush’s and his administration’s ratings skyrocketed. Naturally, he won a second term as President.

Nobody had paid the American media to report according to what the government told them to, but they did it nonetheless in exchange for greater access to the battlefront. In short, the American military was – to quote Noam Chomsky – manufacturing consent (and winning the information war).

In India, in 2009, something more sinister happened. Newspapers and television channels were manufacturing consent, and getting paid for it. Politicians and political parties routinely paid newspapers to get articles published that extolled them as the next messiah.

A Press Council of India report by a sub-committee set up to investigate this phenomenon says: “News is meant to be objective, fair and neutral – this is what sets apart such information and opinion from advertisements that are paid for by corporate entities, governments, organizations or individuals. What happens when the distinction between news and advertisements start blurring, when advertisements double up as news that have been paid for, or when ?news is published in favour of a particular politician by selling editorial spaces? In such situations, the reader or the viewer can hardly distinguish between news reports and advertisements/advertorials.”

In the run-up to the 2014 general elections – perhaps the loudest election yet – this fear has raised its ugly head again. Politicians would end up paying pliant publications to publish whatever they want to in their favour. Since these pieces appear in the same format as any other, the reader will never be able to separate propaganda from actual news. Moreover, the exchange of money is in cash or kind. Therefore, it is difficult for investigators to track audited payments made to publications, which is the case with legitimate advertisements.

Not that there is no law or guideline that could prevent Paid News. If the Election Commission of India wants to, it could effectively keep a check on it. Several politicians have even demanded that Section 123 of the Representation of People Act be amended to include Paid News as an electoral malpractice. But the Paid News phenomenon aids the political class the most. In an environment that thrives on deviousness, it is difficult to imagine politicians amending the Act.

To be sure, the Paid News phenomenon is an example of institutionalised corruption, where it is the media house’s management that actively participates in this practice by overtly or covertly telling, rather ordering their sales and editorial teams to work towards raising the revenue of the company. Elections are when politicians and political parties do not shy away from spending a lot of money of self-aggrandisement, making it the best time for media houses to make their topline look healthy. At a time when media revenues are shrinking due to an overall lull in the economy, this is the easy way out.

But the bigger question remains: If the greatest weapon of an independent media in a democracy is credibility, what is its cost? In fact, can you even attach a cost to it? The answer is obvious, of course, as Paid News undermines media independence, and indeed, the credibility of a publication or a TV channel. But the biggest harm it does is to the country’s democracy. Paid News implies manipulation of information and the truth, and therefore the manipulation of the bedrock of the democratic process. If news is the first draft of history, then Paid News is about rewriting it in favour of those who flaunt money but have much else to hide.

It is not as if members of the media have never been corrupt, or will stop being so. Paid News is a symptom of a larger problem. As the Press Council of India report states: “Corruption in the mass media in India and elsewhere is as old as the media itself. If there is corruption in society, it would be unrealistic to expect the media to be free of corruption.” But editors and managements can tackle individual corruption; it is the collusion of the entire chain in the Paid News process that is worrisome.

As Glenn Greenwald – the journalist who recently exposed the mass surveillance programmes of the US and UK governments – says, “The term propaganda rings melodramatic and exaggerated, but a press that—whether from fear, careerism, or conviction—uncritically recites false government claims and reports them as fact, or treats elected officials with a reverence reserved for royalty, cannot be accurately described as engaged in any other function.”

The government knows this, and more important, it knows how to manipulate or bully the media into submission. While a number of newspapers and TV channels rely on private advertising to boost their revenue, a significant number relies on government advertisements released by the Department of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP) to earn revenue and survive. Vindictive governments are known to pressure newspapers by stopping DAVP ads if the editors get aggressive against them.

Survival in the marketplace is tough for any newspaper, given the competition and the limited corporate ad budgets. It is tougher for smaller publications that do not have the wherewithal to take on the giants. Therefore, Paid News is an easy temptation. Not that it was just the small publications that indulged in this in 2009. Some of the largest newspapers in the country had allegedly taken money for favourable coverage.

Admittedly, we cannot wish away Paid News. It is easy money, and who wouldn’t want that? But those publications that care for their audience and for their credibility will do well to stay away. While political parties advertise – and it is their right to do so – publications must clearly mark as advertisements publicity material that looks like a news page. An advertorial cannot and should not be passed off editorial coverage. A “marketing initiative” must also be clearly marked as such, and appropriate disclaimers provided prominently.

In an era where democratic institutions are systematically being weakened – and even destroyed – the media cannot afford to lose its spine. Paid News weakens it considerably. If the Indian media has to regain its somewhat lost respect and credibility among its audience, it would do well to stay away from Paid News. The run-up to this election is as good a time as any other to achieve that goal.

Photo: new economics foundation


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