What is paid news in India and why is it such a problem?
Indian citizens have the freedom of speech. But freedom of speech in itself means little without freedom of information. If you are free to decide for yourself and speak up, but you are deliberately fed information that makes something look really good and something look really bad, your condemning what was informed to you as bad, or your praising what was informed to you as good holds little meaning. Yet, your voice raised as an opinion lends its power to decisions the country takes. Whether as protests or public opinion on the street, choices in goods or accepting or refusing policies…. and voting in your own interest in elections. Your voice can be manipulated by feeding you inaccurate or invented information.
Paid news in coloquial use can refer to the practice of placing favorable news reports in mainstream news organizations. Practically, it extends to false or exaggerated criticism or deliberate double standards in evaluating. It can be used to influence decisions, as seen in the superb expose by Sainath of the favorable reporting of Monsanto by Times of India, which was aimed at preventing a ban because of farmer complaints. As it stands, the Parliamentary Committee report vindicated the facts from the expose in their interactions with villagers. The Analytical Monthly Review has published a robustly argued article linking the phenomenon of paid media with the neo-liberalization of India’s economy and media.
On record, paid news is specifically the practice of manipulated reporting related with elections.
The increasing prevalence of manipulated news reporting aimed at influencing electoral results alarmed the Press Council of India after the 2009 elections and a Press Council of India Committee Report first defined what it considered as paid news in 2010:
Paid News can be defined as “Any news or analysis appearing in any media (Print & Electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration”
The Press Council Committee report aims to not only define paid news, but to document the ways in which paid media manifests and attempts to recommend guidelines for the Press and the Press Council in tackling the phenomenon. A stinging 70 page Press Council Sub-Committee report on paid news, also in 2010 listed various instances of paid media that came to their attention. Another report that emerged from the monitoring of Gujarat Assembly Elections followed as well as careful documentation of Private Treaties (can’t find document, will update) as a development in media being able to offer “deals”. But there is not much that can be done.
There is no dearth of understanding the issue, and sting operations have as much as revealed rate cards with paid media coverage packages and politicians admitting that they cannot win elections without buying such coverage. However, the problem is manifold. The deals happening in secret, even if open secret, acquiring proof is not easy. There have been guidelines for media and even the Election Commission for accepting complaints related with paid news, but not much appears to have come out of it.
There does not appear to be much motivation either, as the lawmakers are the ones profiting from such favorable coverage and the media that can mobilize or stifle public opinion profits from the continued practice. This can sometimes go to absurd levels, like the UPA government filing an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that the Election Commission only has to make sure that the accounts of a candidate (which include spending on media) are filed on time, but they cannot disqualify if the accounts are falsified. It is the same UPA that would state in the Parliament two years later, as they attempted to ram through an amendment that would prevent RTI for political parties that political parties are already accountable to the Election Commission.
In the meanwhile the run up to this upcoming Loksabha Elections have seen more exposes. Operation Blue Virus by Cobrapost exposed a new dimension to paid media – the use of social media to create perceptions of massive support for candidates or slander opponents. “Services” offered by “providers” included planting false defamatory information and even spreading rumors to cause riots. There is no depth to which the profit machine will refuse to fall, it seems.
In the meanwhile, Operation Prime Minister by News Express exposed the manipulation of poll survey data to project favorable results for parties on demand.
After Aam Aadmi Party started challenging corporate corruption, the coverage changed to the point where some allegations in media coverage stopped making any sense at times. Arvind Kejriwal’s direct confrontation of media and statement that if elected his government would take action against such media had news anchors throwing fits of fury on screen, as though this was the first time they had heard of paid media. Strangely, it were the same channels covering with a bias that were the loudest in claiming persecution of media as well. The NBA stopped an inch short of issuing an outright threat as they stated that they would have to see how the AAP was covered if Kejriwal continued to act in this manner.
There were, however several journalists who did take the allegations with the gravity they deserved. Here was the nation’s largest democracy heading off to the what counts as among the world’s largest election processes and rampant paid media was happening in the full eye of the world and drawing increasing comment. Notable among these were the panel hosted by Girish Nikam on Rajya Sabha TV with Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (Sr. Journalist) ; Ravi Mohan Khanna (Media analyst) ; Vipul Mudgal (Former Resident Editor, Hindustan Times) ; Saurabh Bharadwaj (Former Minister, AAP) as guests
and Nikhil Wagle’s interview of Arvind Kejriwal.
There was a dramatic drop in biased coverage against Aam Aadmi Party in a few days after Arvind Kejriwal’s allegations. However, how long this drop lasts is anyone’s guess. The problem of paid media is also compounded by the complete lack of intellectual challenge to journalists and particularly television journalists, who essentially operate in whatever manner suits them with little criticism or peer commentary ever. It is extremely unlikely for one channel’s absurd coverage of something to draw comment from another channel, and thus any outrage by people impacted by the inferior quality of journalism largely remains limited to tiny audiences and ineffective as deterrent.
A recent example is the declaration of Priti Gandhi as the person behind BJP’s campaign using Assange’s falsified quote. Yet all Wikileaks had done was to point out to Mrs Priti Gandhi promoting the image to her 40 thousand followers. The tweet in question was a retweet, and thus the image was clearly not posted originally by her. So it is really unclear how media has reached the conclusion that it is her behind the campaign without any further proof. But this is how media is. A grasshopper on caffeine. An elephant in a China shop. There is little sense of nuance, very poor comprehension skills and a complete disinterest in evolving. With BJP on the backfoot about the larger allegation of false social media plants, it is unlikely they will defend her on this technicality, so in all likelihood, Mrs. Gandhi will go down in history as the chief accused in Modi’s Social Media fraud plants.
But beyond that, the facts of the case are so obfuscated in desperate labeling of heroes and villains and flying accusations that there is little time to take a deep breath and understand what really happened, let alone narrate it accurately. The speed of news has translated extremely poorly for the intellect that should drive it. Journalism is a post graduate degree course in India and our journalists don’t link to sources of the facts they claim in their article, because their education has trained them for print and years of actual hands on work cannot bring them to this century.
What does this mean for you, as a citizen? It means that you cannot afford to be lazy with your own rights. You cannot count on media for accurate information, because whether out of motivated manipulation or poor comprehension or careless reporting, facts are often distorted. It is important that you use your ability to discern and evaluate.
It suits those in power if the masses can be kept stupidified and gullible and easy to herd to choice decisions through invented fears or invented qualities. It is mental colonization of a sort, where a few people with the ability to design and power to deploy mass media can engineer your perceptions.
The next freedom struggle of India is going to be of the mind.