Falling to the bait

PCI report nails down the publications which blatantly offered their news space for money during 2009 Lok Sabha elections
Friday, June 24, 2011
Writing for influential gets the moolah. Source: GOI Monitor

Media is the latest villain in the Indian films. Joining the ranks of corrupt and insensitive, the newspapers and news channels are either being lampooned for their sensationalism (Peepli Live), portrayed as power players (Rann) or relegated to the status of being a lapdog of the rich (Page 3).The tragedy is none of the depictions have been farther from the truth and downfall of the fourth estate has been its own making.

Prominence to superstitions on prime time, sting operations done to settle a score, or the latest controversy regarding role of famous journalists in influencing political decisions and favouring business houses, the media has a lot to explain. But much more disgraceful than all these transgressions has been the institutionalisation of paid news, a news item which is essentially an advertisement written in the favour of a company or a person in lieu of benefits in kind or money.

Though the practice has been there for several years, the worrying fact is that it has grown from once-in-a-while act of individual journalists to a more institutionalised and sophisticated exercise involving media managements, corporate PRs and political parties. The 2009 Lok Sabha election was the biggest arena for the game of paid news played by both big and small media houses which also prompted the Press Council of India (PCI) to set up a sub-committee comprising senior journalists Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy to examine the issue. The fact that PCI itself stonewalled the public release of their findings is another issue (Incomplete reply was provided to GOI Monitor in response to an RTI application seeking details of the report. Hearing the second appeal the Central Information Commission ordered PCI to make the report public. The Election Commission susbsequently used it to investigate incidents of paid news).

The 2009 Lok Sabha election was the biggest arena for the game of paid news played by both big and small media houses which also prompted the Press Council of India (PCI) to set up a sub-committee to examine the issue

The report, which had been leaked much before, laid threadbare the acts of media houses and election candidates who hijacked the Indian democracy. While the newspapers deceived the voter by depicting an advertisement as objective news items, the candidates violated the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, since the money spent on such a content, which is essentially a part of election campaign, was not accounted for.

The transaction for paid news entails no receipts and no signing of agreements making it a clandestine affair also violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws. Here we present the process of paid news as mapped out by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and K. Sreenivas Reddy.

Get out the rate cards

Just like advertisements, editorial space was also sold in packages during the 2009 elections. Marketing executives used the services of journalists to approach the political personalities. Rate cards or packages were distributed describing rates for publication of news that not merely praised particular candidates but also criticised their political opponents. Candidates who did not accede to such packages offered by the media organisations were denied coverage altogether. The practice was reported from across the country spanning various media groups from the rural areas of Maharashtra to the northern city of Chandigarh.

Marketing executives used the services of journalists to approach the political personalities. Rate cards or packages were distributed describing rates for publication of news that not merely praised particular candidates but also criticised their opponents.

Former Civil Aviation Minister Harmohan Dhawan recounted his experience in an interview with Pratham Pravakta magazine detailing how while contesting the 2009 elections on a BSP ticket from Chandigarh, he was approached by representatives of Punjab Kesri, Dainik Jagran and Dainik Bhaskar offering package deals worth lakh of rupees. Refusal on his part meant the rallies conducted on his behalf did not find any mention in these newspapers whereas the rallies of other candidates were covered in considerable detail. “When I raised this issue with representatives of the managements of these newspapers, they told me that nothing could be done unless I paid for a package... certain reporters also told me that reports that they had written about my election campaign were not published,” he is quoted as saying.

The Congress candidate from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh Dr Santosh Singh also told Pratham Pravakta that a representative of the Varanasi edition of Dainik Jagran offered him two packages worth Rs 5 lakh and Rs 10 lakh for comprehensive coverage of his election campaign. Another newspaper, Aaj, asked for an amount varying between Rs 50,000 and Rs 5 lakh. “The representatives of these newspapers who met me said they were merely following orders given to them by their managements,” Dr Singh said.

Ramakant Yadav of the BJP who contested the Lok Sabha election from Azamgarh had people from the Hindustan newspaper asking for Rs 10 lakh for the same. After being refused, the newspaper carried an article claiming he would lose the election. Electoral mandate, however, made the newspaper eat its own word after Yadav won the seat.

Ramakant Yadav of the BJP who contested the Lok Sabha election from Azamgarh had people from the Hindustan newspaper asking for Rs 10 lakh for the same. After being refused, the newspaper carried an article claiming he would lose the election.

A.K. Roy, former Member of Parliament from Dhanbad in Jharkhand, represented the workers and labourers of that area but not even a single newspaper cared to publish a line about him. The reason: he was unable or unwilling to pay the huge sums of money demanded by newspapers for the purpose. Shakil Ahmad, a lawyer and an independent candidate from Sion-Koliwada in Mumbai, claimed the very newspapers that had earlier given him space as a social activist demanded money to write about him as a candidate.

Three contestants from the Ghosi Lok Sabha constituency, SP candidate Arshad Jamal, BJP candidate Shri Ramiqbal Singh and CPI candidate Atul Kumar Anjaan, claimed they were approached by newspapers including Dainik Jagran, Hindustan, Amar Ujala, Aaj and Urdu Sahara asking for money varying between Rs 2 lakh and Rs 10 lakh.

“When I rejected these offers, they did not publish anything about my activities between March 22 and April 16, even when one of the rallies was addressed by the CPI General Secretary Shri A.B. Bardhan,” said Anjaan. Senior BJP leader Lalji Tandon, who contested and won the 2009 Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow constituency in Uttar Pradesh, stated publicly that Dainik Jagran did not publish any news about him in the run-up to the 2009 elections because of his refusal to pay any money. Dainik Jagran is not just the largest circulated language newspaper of India but also one of the most widely circulated newspapers of the world.

As expected on being questioned about such incidents, the management of all these newspapers termed the allegations as “rumours spread by losing candidates in frustration”. In a formal letter to the Press Council of India, Nishikant Thakur, chief general manager of Jagran Prakashan Ltd., claimed that he “could say with certainty that no editor of a reputed newspaper in the country is distorting news for money”. He added that amount spent on publicity material in newspapers is marginal in comparison to the total expenses incurred by candidates standing for elections. He went on to claim that the ceilings of expenditure laid down by the Election Commission of India were “unrealistic” and “out of tune with reality”. Thakur added that Press has the right to project the good achievements of a particular candidate.

Full throttle publicity

This right to project the “good achievements” was exercised religiously by newspapers during the election campaign. Ranchi edition of Dainik Jagran published a “news package” on April 15, 2009, in favour of Kameshwar Baitha, a candidate of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, claiming that Baitha was “getting the support of each and every section of society” and that he would win elections from the Palamau Lok Sabha constituency. There was no credit line to this news item and the font used was different from the font used in other news items in the publication. On the same page, the newspaper published another news item stating that there would be a triangular contest between three candidates belonging to the JMM, the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha and an independent candidate. This report carried byline of a reporter.

Two other newspapers published from Ranchi, Prabhat Khabar and Hindustan, also published articles praising various candidates before the Parliamentary elections but the former placed “PK Media Marketing Initiative” on top of each such item while the latter publication added “HT Media Marketing Initiative” at the bottom of such items.

On April 16, the Patna edition of Hindustan published a banner headline stating that the “Congress is ready to create history in Bihar” but curiously, there was no news item related to this headline. The Rohtak edition of Haribhoomi published a news item on October 8, 2009 in favour of Congress candidate from Uchana constituency Birendra Singh. The news item, which carried no byline, claimed that Singh was getting support from all and sundry in society. Detailed descriptions of the plans of his election campaign were also mentioned. Using the same format, Haribhoomi published a news item in favour of BJP candidate Meva Singh the following day. Giving an account of the then BJP national president Rajnath Singh’s rally, this news item claimed that “after this rally Meva has got support from each and every section of society”.

The Rohtak edition of Haribhoomi published a news item on October 8, 2009 in favour of Congress candidate from Uchana constituency Birendra Singh. The news item claimed that Singh was getting support from all and sundry in society. Using the same format, Haribhoomi published a news item in favour of BJP candidate the following day.

The Panipat edition of Dainik Jagran published a news item on October 8, 2009, that was in favour of the electoral prospects of the Congress. The news item, carrying no byline, stated that the “good work” done by the Congress had marginalised the electoral prospects of the leader of the Opposition in the state. It added that candidates of the Haryana Janhit Congress (HJC) led by Bhajan Lal would not be able to harm the electoral prospects of candidates belonging to the Congress. Ironically, the Ludhiana edition of the same newspaper published a news item in favour of the HJC on October 11, 2009, with a headline stating that the HJC would play the role of king or king-maker after the elections.. On the very next day, the Ludhiana edition of the same newspaper again published a news item that was apparently paid for in favour of Om Prakash Chautala’s Indian National Lok Dal (INLD) in Haryana.

This practice of endorsing rival candidates from the same constituency was also prevalent in other parts of the country. Andhra Jyothi daily, in a tabloid attached to its West Godavari district edition dated April 23, 2009, carried an article on the front page claiming that Thota Sitarama Lakshmi , the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) candidate from Narasapuram Parliamentary constituency, would emerge victorious from the election battle. The same edition of the newspaper, on its back page, carried a story saying the Congress candidate from the same constituency, Bapi Raju was going to win the seat. A similar set of stories appeared the same day in the West Godavari district edition of the Eenadu daily.

A detailed study done by the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ) of newspapers published in the West Godavari district between March 28, 2009 and April 23, 2009, found that Eenadu published 94 political advertisements and 92 paid news stories, while the Andhra Jyothi published 87 political advertisements and 163 paid news stories in this period. Other publications like Sakshi, Vaarta, Andhra Bhoomi and Surya were also found to have carried similar advertisements and paid news stories.

Eenadu published 94 political advertisements and 92 paid news stories, while the Andhra Jyothi published 87 political advertisements and 163 paid news stories in this period. Other publications like Sakshi, Vaarta, Andhra Bhoomi and Surya were also found to have carried similar advertisements and paid news stories

Another study done by a Lucknow-based NGO, the National Alliance of People’s Movements, analysed issues of four Hindi language daily newspapers published between April 01-30, 2009 from Lucknow and Gorakhpur. These newspapers were Dainik Jagran, Dainik Hindustan, Rashtriya Sahara and Voice of Lucknow. The study documented a number of instances of paid news articles several of which were in favour of BSP candidate from Lucknow constituency Akhilesh Das Gupta. In the poll results,, Gupta stood in third position after BJP’s Lalji Tandon and Congress’s Rita Bahuguna Joshi. Gupta was quoted in Outlook magazine (December 21, 2009) as saying: “I don’t blame my party if it pays for news in its favour; there is a general media bias against my party.”

Senior journalist P Sainath observed how after the model code of conduct came into effect in Maharashtra, the word ‘advertisement’ disappeared from all items on political events and candidates. Even the fig leaf describing a paid news item as a ‘sponsored feature’ or a ‘response feature’ disappeared and the items were simply published as ‘news’. These reports praised particular candidates and the rivals were only mentioned as fall guys. Across hundreds of pages, ‘news’ was solely those kinds of information that made readers aware as to how wonderful particular candidates were and about their achievements.

Sainath also pointed out that Vidarbha Plus, a supplement of the Times of India, carried an advertisement disguised as news on the Congress candidate from Amravati assembly constituency, Raosaheb Shekhawat, son of the President of India Pratibha Patil. The report carried a headline ‘Motorbike rally marks conclusions of electoral campaign’ and went on to say that Shekhawat ‘epitomises politeness, potential and promise’ and that he is ‘blessed with extremely charming personality’, and ‘a charisma (that) attracted huge crowds throughout his campaign’. This ‘news item’ was published on the very day of polling in the assembly elections.

Circumstantial evidence, again provided by Sainath to the Press Council of India, pointed out that three newspapers: Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times, which are essentially competing brands in Maharasthra published the same article on Ashok Chavan, word for word. The article appeared in Pudhari on October 7 while the other two newspapers carried it on October 10. The only difference in the three articles was that there were three different bylines. This points out to the fact that these were advertisements in the garb of news items.

Three newspapers: Lokmat, Pudhari and Maharashtra Times, which are essentially competing brands in Maharasthra, published the same article on Ashok Chavan, word for word. The article appeared in Pudhari on October 7 while the other two newspapers carried it on October 10.

The election expenditure statement submitted by Chavan to the Election Commission claimed that he had spent less than Rs 7 lakh on his election campaign which is much less than the expenditure limit of Rs 10 lakh set by the Election Commission of India. Of the Rs 7 lakh, Chavan stated that he had spent a mere Rs 5,379 on newspaper advertisements and another Rs 6,000 on advertisements that were on cable television networks. These claims seem to be misplaced because Lokmat published 156 pages of advertisements in the run-up to the election and all of them were in favour of Ashok Chavan. Though it is understood that owner of the newspaper Rajendra Jawaharlal Darda is also a member of the Congress party, it is hard to digest that all this newsprint space were provided for free.

Counterclaims

In his defence, Ashok Chavan told the PCI that there was no question of paying any money to anyone for the articles other than advertisements. “At the same time, you should not forget that I was leading the party in the state as the Chief Minister. So it was not surprising that there were articles written about me. Reporters have picked up from whatever press notes and press releases that have been issued by the party,” he asserted. He went on to point out that since there is no documentary evidence like receipts against publishing of the item, they could not be called “paid news”.

In an interview to Outlook magazine, Ravi Dhariwal, the CEO of Bennett-Coleman, which publishes the Times of India, rubbished the claims about Vidarbha Plus. “We would take paid news in a Vidharba paper? Why, we could have made thousands of crores by aligning ourselves with major parties like the Congress or the BJP!,” he was quoted as saying.

The Telugu daily Sakshi in its letter to Press Council of India, on the allegations of “paid news” claimed that “It is no secret that in the days of inflation and the ever increasing cost of living, Rs 10 lakh expenditure for Assembly candidates is ridiculously low. So is the limit for Lok Sabha constituencies. At the same time we know that Assembly candidates end up spending not less than Rs 2 crore and the figure goes up in case of Lok Sabha candidates. Even the Election Commission knows it pretty well that no candidate would reveal true expenditure nor they spend within the specified limits. In the process, the candidates invented several ways of concealing the expenditure and one of them is paid news.”

In the days of inflation and the ever increasing cost of living, expenditure for Lok Sabha candidates is ridiculously low. No candidate would reveal true expenditure nor they spend within the specified limits. In the process, the candidates invented several ways of concealing the expenditure and one of them is paid news, said the Telugu daily Sakshi 

Such brazen explanations on the part of the media groups underscore the absence of any supervisory authority for the fourth estate. Everytime there is a demand for scrutiny, rants of “freedom of the press' and 'self regulation' fill the air and the media does not realise it has scored a self goal.

Read full text of the paid news report 

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