Let us make no mistake, the Big Media in India does not merely report; it is a player in Indian politics in general and elections in particular.
Now that the debate is out in public it is time to insist on a code of conduct for the media as well. After Arvind Kejriwal’s recent allegations against four television channels that have been blown out of proportion and misrepresented, there has been an uproar. A burst of righteous anger, not only from those accused by Kejriwal of having been bought out by a particular party, but also by professional bodies like the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), the Editor’s Guild, the Broadcast Editors Association (BEA) and other senior journalists.
The NBA, which is a private association, threatened to black out Kejriwal and AAP news and then went on to assert its objectivity and fairness against the “unsubstantiated and unverified allegations” against the news channels.
The BEA said in its statement:
“BEA condemns Arvind Kejriwal’s irresponsible statement on media. BEA believes that electronic media is discharging its responsibility in a fair and objective manner. It is wrong to say that TV channels are pursuing a biased agenda in favour of any person or party. BEA believes that such statements are a conspiracy to dilute the credibility of media. We have strong faith in the self regulatory institutions that electronic media has developed…”
Let us concede for the sake of argument that Arvind Kejriwal went overboard and his statement about ‘jailing mediapersons’ was uncalled for. But does the claim of the BEA, NBA and other bodies really stand up to scrutiny? Is the electronic media really dïscharging its responsibility in a fair and objective manner”? What precisely, may we ask, are the “self regulatory institutions that electronic media has developed” and what have they done by way of reigning in the Indian media that have sunk to new lows in recent years with “paid news”and “advertorials” – not to mention private treaties with big corporations ? We ask the BEA and the NBA and 0ther defenders of the media, is this the ethical behavior they talk of? Is this self-regulation? Maybe Kejriwal’s allegations are “unsubstantiated” in the sense that there is no “proof”, but there is little doubt from the instructions that journalists have been receiving from their bosses, that a lot more than mere reporting is at stake. And just for the record, the the Chairman of one of media houses accused by Kejriwal, Subhash Chandra of Zee News, is currently facing a case of extortion – using his channel’s news-gathering for blackmail. We would love to hear how this qualifies as ‘fair and objective’in the eyes of the BEA and other luminaries.
Here, for starters, is an extract from the report of the sub-committee appointed by the Press Council of India, following widespread allegations of paid news after the 2009 general elections:
The fifteenth general elections to the Lok Sabha took place in April-May 2009 and in order to ensure free and fair coverage by the media, the Press Council of India issued guidelines applicable to both government authorities and the press. After the elections, a disturbing trend was highlighted by sections of the media, that is, payment of money by candidates to representatives of media companies for favourable coverage or the phenomenon popularly known as “paid news”.
The deception or fraud that such “paid news” entails takes place at three levels. The reader of the publication or the viewer of the television programme is deceived into believing that what is essentially an advertisement is in fact, independently produced news content. By not officially declaring the expenditure incurred on planting “paid news” items, the candidate standing for election violates the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, which are meant to be enforced by the Election Commission of India under the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Finally, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.
The phenomenon of “paid news” goes beyond the corruption of individual journalists and media companies. It has become pervasive, structured and highly organized and in the process, is undermining democracy in India. Large sections of society, including political personalities, those working in the media and others, have already expressed their unhappiness and concern about the pernicious influence of such malpractices. (All emphasis added)
The Press Council, after its meeting on July 30 2010, decided by a thin majority, not to append this report of the sub-committee to the main report. Though the phenomenon of private treaties, inaugurated by Bennett Coleman and Co, and the subsequent ones of paid news and advertorials were initially meant to promote corporate interests, the latter two have also mutated into direct instruments of political campaigns. Here is an extract from a report by Subbalakshmi Mali Reddy, courtesy Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting and Development:
Paid News – manipulating the free press
Blatant misuse of print and electronic media by parties and candidates contesting the general elections came to light during elections in 2004 and 2009. The practice used areas such as business news to institutionalize paid news in print and electronic media to influence public opinion especially during the elections. The journalists became news “managers” succumbing to pressure from media executives.
The issue was raised by the Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists (APUWJ). A two-member sub-committee of the Press Council of India defined “paid news” as “any news or analysis appearing in any media (print or electronic) for a price in cash or kind as consideration.” Paid news provides scope to publish or telecast an advertisement by a candidate pronouncing his or her achievements, chances of winning and popularity levels during the campaign. The advertisement normally appears in the form of news along with the dateline and credit like any other news story on TV, thus misleading the reader or viewer into believing that it is a news story produced by the local correspondent. Hobnobbing with politicians, the management of the daily or channel collects money for the “report” according to its advertisement tariff without acknowledging that it is an advertisement. This provides wealthier candidates with an edge over other candidates. Such practices deny equal opportunity for other candidates, defeating the very principle of fair elections.
The unaccounted advertisements dressing up as news are causing much concern. Though unaccounted, they are estimated to be worth 50 billion Rupees per month in the 2009 general election. It raises questions about conducting free and fair elections, which should not provide more opportunities for those with money and power. The top ministers and leaders of national and regional parties plus independent candidates were no exception to this practice. Reams of newsprint published ‘news packages’, positive stories and interviews about the candidates who were ready to pay. However, neither the candidates nor media management acknowledged the reports as advertisements and accounted for them in their books. Professional bodies like Editor’s Guild, Indian Newspaper Society, Indian Broadcasting Foundation, the News Broadcasters Association, Press Council of India and even the Election Commission of India have observed that a majority of national and vernacular newspapers as well as many television channels were involved in the activity of surrogate advertising especially during elections and deplored such practices.
The Election Commission of India has some powers defined by the Constitution of India, acts of Parliament and judicial pronouncements to deal with the problem of paid news. It has issued measures to its Chief Electoral Officers (CEOs) in the states during June 2010 to check paid news during elections. And the same have been implemented by the state CEOs in the by-elections held subsequently. However, the measures and guidelines are not sufficient.
In a bid to check the phenomenon of paid news, a special two-member sub-committee of the Press Council of India has recommended in the last week of July 2010 an amendment to Representation of the People’s Act 1951, to declare any payment for publication of news as a malpractice. Meanwhile, the 23-member Press Council of India chaired by G N Ray, a retired Supreme Court judge, has unanimously adopted a report of the drafting committee which sought to make changes to the law by bringing the electronic media under its purview. Besides asking the Election Commission to set up a special unit to receive and take action on complaints about “paid news” in the run-up to elections, it further asked the Government to set up a committee comprising Members of Parliament from both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha to hold hearings for suggesting changes in the Representation of the People’s Act to prevent the practice of paying for news coverage in newspapers and television channels. (Emphasis added)
Given the orchestrated, self-righteous anger around this issue, we reproduce below some sections from the report of that 2 member subcommittee of the Press Trust of India, authored by Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta and Srinivas Reddy:
The ‘Medianet’ and ‘Private Treaties’ phenomena
In pursuing its quest for profits, it can be argued that certain media organizations have sacrificed good journalistic practices and ethical norms. Individual transgressions — reporters and correspondents being offered cash and other incentives, namely paid-for junkets at home or abroad in return for favourable reports on a company or an individual – were, until recently, considered more of an aberration than a norm. News that was published in such a manner was suspect because of the fawning manner in which events/persons were described while the reports gave an impression of being objective and fair. The byline of the journalist was stated upfront. Over the years such individual transgressions became institutionalised.
In the 1980s, Bennett, Coleman Company Limited (BCCL), publishers of the Times of India (TOI) group of publications started changing the rules of the Indian media game. Besides initiating cut-throat cover-price competition, marketing was used creatively to make BCCL one of the most profitable media conglomerates in the country – it currently earns more profit than the rest of the publishing industries in the country put together though as a corporate group, the STAR group has in recent years recorded a higher annual turnover in particular years.
The media phenomenon that has caused considerable outrage of late has been BCCL’s 2003 decision to start a “paid content” service called Medianet, which, for a price, openly offers to send journalists to cover product launches or personality-related events. When competing newspapers pointed out the blatant violation of journalistic ethics implicit in such a practice, BCCL’s bosses argued that such “advertorials” were not appearing in newspapers like the TOI itself, but only in the city-specific colour supplements that highlight society trivia rather than hard news. (There was another, more blatant justification of this practice not just by BCCL but other media companies that emulated such a practice after BCCL started it. If public relations (PR) firms are already “bribing” journalists to ensure that coverage of their clients is carried, what was wrong then with eliminating the intermediary – in this instance, the PR agency – it was argued.
(Besides Medianet, BCCL devised another “innovative” marketing and PR strategy. In 2005, ten companies, including Videocon India and Kinetic Motors, allotted unknown amounts of equity shares to BCCL as part of a deal to enable these firms to receive advertising space in BCCL-owned media ventures. The success of the scheme turned BCCL into one of the largest private equity investors in India. At the end of 2007, the media company boasted of investments in 140 companies in aviation, media, retail and entertainment, among other sectors, valued at an estimated Rs 1,500 crore. According to an interview given by a senior BCCL representative (S. Sivakumar) to a website (medianama.com) in July 2008, the company had between 175 and 200 private treaty clients with an average deal size of between Rs 15 crore and Rs 20 crore implying an aggregate investment that could vary between Rs 2,600 crore and Rs 4,000 crore.
It is a separate matter that the fall in stock-market indices in 2008 robbed some of the sheen off the “private treaties” scheme for the BCCL management. While the value of BCCL’s holdings in partner companies came down, the media company had to meet its commitments to provide advertising space at old “inflated” valuations which also had to be shown as assessable taxable income for BCCL on which corporation tax is levied.
Even as the private treaties scheme was apparently aimed at undermining competition to the TOI, a number of the newspaper’s competitors as well as television channels started similar schemes. The “private treaties” scheme pioneered in the Indian media by BCCL involves giving advertising space to private corporate entities/advertisers in exchange for equity investment – the company officially denies that it also provides favourable editorial coverage to its “private treaty” clients and/or blacks out adverse comment against its clients.
While BCCL representatives denied receiving money for providing favourable editorial space, the integrity of news was compromised. In advertisements published in the Economic Times and the TOI celebrating the success of the group’s private treaties, on December 4, 2009, the Mumbai edition of the newspapers published a half-page colour advertisement titled “How to perform the Great Indian Rope Trick” and cited the case of Pantaloon. What was being referred was how Pantaloon’s strategic partnership with the TOI group had paid off. The advertisement read: “…with the added advantage of being a media house, Times Private Treaties, went beyond the usual role of an investor by not straining the partner’s cash flows. It was because of the unparalleled advertising muscle of India’s leading media conglomerate. As Pantaloon furiously expanded, Times Private Treaties (TPT) ensured that (it) was never short on demand. The TPT has a better phrase for it — business sense.”
In many media organizations, news is sought to be distinguished from material that is paid for, called advertisements or “advertorials”, by using different or distinctive fonts, font sizes, boundaries and/or disclaimers such as “sponsored feature” or even the letters “advt” printed in a miniscule font size in a corner of the advertisement – which may or may not escape the attention of the reader. However, in certain instances, even a fig-leaf of a disclaimer was done away with. Whereas BCCL representatives have often argued that the companies private treaties scheme is open to public scrutiny since the companies in which BCCL has picked up stakes is in the public domain and listed on its official website, the influence such companies wield on editorial content is a matter of contention and debate.
Suggestions by Securities and Exchange Board of India to Press Council of India:
On July 15, 2009, Shri S. Ramann, Officer on Special Duty, Integrated Surveillance Department of the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) wrote to the Chairman, Press Council of India, Justice G.N. Ray observing that many media companies were entering into agreements called “private treaties” with companies whose equity shares are listed on stock exchanges or companies that were coming out with a public offer of their shares. The media companies were picking up stakes in such companies and in return, were proving coverage through advertisements, news reports and editorials. The SEBI, which has been set up under the Securities and Exchange Board of India Act, 1992, and is mandated to protect the interests of investors, felt that such promotional and brand building strategies in exchange for shares, “may give rise to conflict of interest and may, therefore, result in dilution of the independence of (the) press vis-à-vis the nature and content of the news/editorials relating to such companies”.
(The SEBI pointed out that “private treaties” may “lead to commercialization of news reports since the same would be based on the subscription and advertising agreement entered into between the media group and the company”. Furthermore, “biased and imbalanced reporting may lead to inaccurate perceptions of the companies which are the beneficiaries of such private treaties”. Hence, the SEBI “felt that such brand building strategies of media groups, without appropriate and adequate disclosures, may not be in the interest of investors and financial markets as the same would impede in them taking a fair and well-informed decision. The SEBI suggested the following:
1. Disclosures regarding the stake held by the media company may be made mandatory in the news report/article/editorial in newspapers/television channels relating to the company in which the media group holds such a stake.
2. Disclosure on percentage of stake held by media groups in various companies under such “private treaties” on the website of media groups may be made mandatory.
3. Any such disclosures relating to such agreements such as any nominee of the media group on the board of directors of the company, any management control or other details which may be required to be disclosed and which may be a potential conflict of interest for the media group, may also be made mandatory.
(The SEBI communication to the Press Council of India pointed out that a “free and unbiased press is crucial for the development of the securities market, particularly with respect to aiding small investors to take a well informed decision” and urged the Council to address this issue at the earliest.
In this context, the Council referred to the existing guidelines for financial journalists that had been framed in 1996, which include the following:
1. Financial journalists should not accept gifts, loans, trips, discounts, preferential shares or other considerations which compromise or are likely to compromise his position.
2. It should be mentioned prominently in a report about a company that the report has been based on information provided by the company or its financial sponsors.
3. When trips are sponsored for visiting establishments of a company and hospitality extended, the author of the report who has availed of such facilities must invariably state these in his report.
4. A reporter who exposes a scam or brings out a report for promotion of a good project should be encouraged and awarded.
5. A journalist who has a financial interest in a company (including holding of shares) should not report on that company.
6. The journalist should not use for his personal benefit or for the benefit of his relations or friends, information received by him in advance for publication.
7. No newspaper owner, editor or anybody connected with a newspaper should use his relationship with the newspaper to promote his other business interests.
8. Whenever there is an indictment of a paticular advertising agency or advertiser by the Advertising Standards Council of India, the newspaper in which the advertisement was published must publish news of the indictment prominently.
After deliberating on the issue, the Press Council of India endorsed the views expressed by the SEBI and stated that the relevant guidelines should be made applicable and mandatory not only to financial journalists but to owners of media companies as well. This would be in the interests of transparency and fairness and would reduce the incidence of biased news about companies being published that is inimical to the interests of investors.
We would ask the Press Council, the BEA and the NBA to tell the public as to how many of these points in the above guidelines are actually being adhered to and whether they have any information of any violation on any score. The claim made by the NBA and the BEA about the existing ínstitutions of self-regulation being effective and sufficient should certainly not be allowed to pass unchallenged. We must demand that the quality of news coverage and the dangerous masquerading of opinion as news will all have to be scrutinized. This is not a matter that can be allowed to pass once the heat of elections is over.
Finally, in parenthesis, let us note that it is the media house, Bennett Coleman Company, that owns Times Now and its most self-righteous anchor Arnab Goswami, that has led the Indian media towards the most corrupt chapter of its history. Goswami’s frothing-at-the-mouth rhetoric can hardly hide the fact that, be it business or media practices, his employer remains of one of the most corrupt media houses.