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Paid News: Importance of Ethics in Media

Media is business, journalism is not, believes P Sainath. It took editorial whistle-blowers like him to activate and alert the agencies against a phenomenon called paid news. The media houses irrespective of their volume of business, sell news space to politicians and corporate people without distinguishing those items as advertisements. The 2009 Lok Sabha election presented several glaring examples. Lokmat gave Ashok Chavan 156 pages. He was then the serving Chief Minister of Maharashtra. In the face of it, the democracy certainly seems to have gone for a toss. The paid news has existed across media organisations is one of the professions best kept secrets. After the startling revelations of Radia Tape, it is becoming increasingly clear that the rot is deep. Journalists have sacrificed good journalistic practices and ethical norms. It is alleged that many media houses in the country, irrespective of their volume of business, sell news space to politicians and corporate people without distinguishing those items as advertisements. The Press Council Report In July 2010, the report titled Paid News: How corruption in Indian media undermines Indian democracy was brought out by a subcommittee of the Pres Council, comprising Prananjoy Guha thakurta and K. Srinivas Reddy. It conducted extensive inquiry and explicitly named newspapers and channels including some of the biggest groups in the country seen as having indulged in the paid-news. The report concluded that the phenomenon of pain news goes beyond corruption of individual journalists and media companies and has become pervasive, structured and highly organised and in the process, is undermining democracy in India. The report ran roughshod over various forms of paid news leading to deception or fraud. It further appealed to media organisations to adopt a numer of principles that would curb paid news. Ironic, as it may sound, some council members argued that it would destroy the publishers' credibility and hurt their long-term interest. The report never came out in public in its entirety. And, it ended up becoming just a reference material. While a number of editors have extended their support, saying: they will not allow news space to be sold as advertising without proper disclosure norms, many proprietors seem reluctant to abandon what

is seen as a lucrative business opportunity. With limited powers and role, the Press Council has always remained a paper tiger. Paid News Impeding Electoral Democracy The practice of paying for editorial content, particularly by political candidates, has been an agonising issue in India for many years. The news media in India always assume a high moral ground. But, paid news phenomenon is set to make a joke of our democracy. Sections of media, without let or choice, are active players and participants in the growing use of money power in politics which undermines the countrys democratic process. It is a proven fact that in the last elections, several newspapers are said to have covered election campaigns for a price. Television channels formed a cartel and hiked their rates calling it an election premium. This phenomenon of paid news was exposed by P Sainath of the Hindu following which the Press Council of India (PCI) constituted a sub-committee to go into the matter. During elections, media barter away their brand integrity for a short-term paid-news bonanza. There are variable ad-rates and promised ad-edit ratio to lure prospective buyers of media. In an open admission of this fact Guha Thakurta, the architect of PCI report, stated in an interview that there are different rates for positive news coverage, interviews, editorials, and also putting out damaging reports against the opponents. There should be no doubt, what so ever, that the newspaper readers or television watchers or simply as voters, citizens would feel cheated. People would loose faith in the broader process of democratic engagement. Corporatisation of Media As the state sponsored advertising is drying up, the corporatisation of the media is threatening the existence of free media. So, the cashstrapped media ends up being part of private treaties. Interestingly, a year before the inquiry was constituted, the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had already written to the Press Council, warning of the possible outcome of Private Treaties. The letter was from the Officer on Special Duty of SEBI's Integrated Surveillance Department. The prime-time interviews with chief executive officers endorsing a particular brand, film stars doing the news' on the eve of their film launches, and even favourable reports on initial public offers to antagonistic treatment to heckling rivals all are glaring examples of how shuttle the paid news phenomenon can be. The best example

of dominant media and big business tying knots was the Indian Premier League. Only when there was internal feuding did the bad news come out. The media finds itself facing a serious credibility crisis in the light of the Niira Radia tapes. Like the paid news expose, the Radia tapes too confirm what has been known for some time: journalists and editors share a rather cosy relationship with political and corporate India. Its would be easy to blame Public Relations agencies for 'paid news'. They are not doing anything wrong. Coporates have big money, and through private treaties they will continue manipulating news coverage, as do other interest groups. So, its the media that had created 'paid news'. It alone is to be blamed. Way Forward The Election Commission has shown enormous resolve in stepping in to act against paid news'. The SEBI is speaking loud and clear. In spite of the fact that there is a greater consciousness now than ever before, many questions are unanswered. In a country with over 35,000 newspapers and over 100 news channels, there is an obvious limitation to any policing of paid news'. Paid news may kill the medias credibility forever. Its time to strengthen voices and sensibilities in media management and editorial operations. While tricky issues pertaining to paid news are being debated perhaps media companies can declare a voluntary moratorium on paid news. This would be a huge step towards protecting fundamental values in our democracy.