Friday, 25 December 2009

Paid News and Private Treaties (and suggestions to the Editor's Guild)

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Mahesh Vijapurkar in an article that appeared in and P.Sainath with his scathing commentary (1,2 and 3) in The Hindu, exposed the obvious abuse of the media by politicians in the Maharashtra elections.

In summary, politicians and political parties were paying newspapers and the broadcasting media to provide positive coverage and screaming headlines in the run-up to the Mahasrashtra elections. Another form of spin-doctoring is practised by Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. (India's largest media house). Times Private Treaties receives a financial stake in a company in exchange for coverage in their publications. Both forms of news are referred to as “paid news”. Chomsky called it “manufacturing consent”.  Sainath and Vijapurkar have triggered a much needed debate on the ethics of such news.

The Editor’s Guild recently (re)elected Rajdeep Sardesai as it’s President. Rajdeep is editor of CNN-IBN. The channel is also the loudest mouthpiece for the Shave India campaign sponsored by Gillette [ #ShaveIndia ]. The Editors Guild responded to the “paid news” by announcing an ethics committee. The announcement came via a tweet by @rajdeepsardesai that linked to a press release on the Editor’s Guild website.  There was also a front page article in The Hindu the next day.

My Opinion
Paid news has been a problem for a long time. Self-regulation within the media has failed miserably. Urgent action is required. It is unlikely that the Ethics Committee which includes stalwarts like T N Ninan and Madhu Kishwar will be to able to clean up the mess. Unless the promise of self-regulation becomes a reality, the government will have to step in with regulation.

My recommendations
It appears that this committee will not be seeking the opinion of readers and viewers. It would be unfortunate if the most important stakeholder group for the media is ignored while addressing this issue.

In an e-mail to Rajdeep Sardesai, I mentioned some of the areas that the ethics committee should look at closely. I did receive a brief response to the e-mail that indicated that it was received and read. (I thank Rajdeep Sardesai for acknowledging the mail.)

I am led to believe (through your posting on Twitter) that the Editor’s Guild has constituted an ethics committee to frame recommendations on “paid news” and “private treaties”.  I hope this committee is able to make honest recommendations that journalists, editors and managers can turn to.  May I request you to forward a few suggestions to the ethics committee?

At the risk of sounding 'obvious', I would like to suggest the following in the hope that the committee incorporates them
  1. Independent directors must be independent. A director or independent director in a media company should not hold a directorship in ANY other company.

  2. Each newspaper/channel should be encouraged to appoint an ombudsman so that readers can send in any grievances that they may have about the quality of content. This recommendation is specifically related to manufactured news

  3. After every National and State election, a newspapers/news channel must publish the billing that they have received
      a) by candidate
      b) by political party
    (irrespective of whether the advertisement is being directly or indirectly paid for by a candidate or party. Proxy advertising needs to be clearly accounted for as well)

  4. Media houses must disclose the names of their top ten 'end' customers based on billing - every quarter (from an advertising stand-point). While it may not be feasible to disclose the value of the billing, the names of the Top10 end customers should ideally be disclosed.

  5. Editorial pages should not contain content that has been paid for (in cash, in kind or by any other means)

  6. Space that is normally used for the masthead should NOT be sold for advertising. The amount of space on the front-page/first-page that is sold for advertising should be capped

  7. Whatever recommendations the committee makes must be extended to the vernacular media as well.
I hope it is appropriate for you to forward these thoughts to the ethics committee.

Call To Action
  • Some visible steps to increase accountability is critical if the media is to get back some of it’s independence and stay true to it’s cause of being a pillar of democracy.

  • Viewers of the broadcasting media and readers of the print media (both English and Vernacular) must send in their (unsolicited and uninvited) suggestions to the President of the Editor’s Guild.
    (The e-mail ID of the President is available on the contact us page of the editor’s guild website).

  • It is imperative that ethical behaviour be restored, or else the media will face the possibility of regulation. This is not a pleasant outcome for both the Industry and the general public. 
Foot Note 
Jay Rosen in his blogpost "How to know if you are behaving ethically as a journalist: Jay Rosen’s checklist" makes an interesting read for journalists, editors and managers in the media.


    1. Hi Bala, i'd recommend you to file a PIL (Public Interest Litigation) on this issue. You can do so online also from Supremecourt's website.

    2. Hi Pratik
      Thanks for the comments.
      My worry is that the moment you bring in the courts, the media will start being regulated and then anybody can start restraining media coverage. This will impact the cause of genuine journalism.
      I concede that the the media, is painting itself into a corner and somebody will step in sooner or later to get the legislature or the courts to react.

    3. and who will oversee the working of the "ethics committee " ? and who will be able to certify that the billing statements etc., that newspapers would publish are true ? and what is the incentive / disincentive for journalists, editors and managers to comply / ignore the recommendations ?

    4. @Anonymous-

      Summed up very well. That is the challenge in front of the industry. Unless they find a more transparent and efficient way of self-regulation that addresses what you have highlighted, the courts or legislature will have to step in.

      The "freedom" of the press, is meant to protect citizens. Right now it is being used to protect commercial interests.

      Legislation will address the press being abused by commercial interests but can it strengthen the rights of citizens to a "free" press? I do not know the answer to that.

      PS - An example of such self-regulation, is the ombudsman at the The Hindu.

    5. Hi Bala,

      I wrote a letter, last week, to Rajdeep too. I am yet to hear from him though. Posted the whole letter on my blog here:

      - Sudhir