Paid news: Who will bell the cat?

20 Sep,2011

By Akash Raha

While it is generally agreed that paid news is a menace, newspaper editors across India are averse to the idea of a government regulatory body to check it. It could turn out to be a Big Brother and usurp the freedom that the media enjoys today. Yet, it is also acknowledged that something does need to be done to stop the iniquity of paid news, which affects the whole industry.

Some critics suggest that a government-funded body be found which can be a regulator, yet remain independent of government intervention. Such a body will also be independent of media and corporate interests. The regulator thus formed will not only keep the print media, but also the electronic media under check from paid news. Some editors have suggested that the Press Council of India could be the regulator and given more teeth to take punitive action. As the debate seethes, MxM India reflects some voices and concerns from the industry.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta

I think that organizations which indulge in such malpractices are undoing their own cause. Putting up ads in the name of news is not going to help them in the long run. Hence, it is in the self-interest of the media to act in a more responsible manner and discontinue such unethical practices. Moreover, now it is up to the Election Commissioner or India, Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) and a group of ministers, a process that has already been initiated, to decide whether the government will make the law bring the corrupt practice of paid news under the conduct of election rules. What the group of ministers will eventually decide I cannot guess, but I think such a step should be taken.

Some government intervention and interference is perhaps required if media can’t keep its own actions under check. Self-regulation is good, but only when everyone behaves like nice guys and we won’t have a problem. It is because self-regulation is failing, that’s why you need an independent regulator. I think the regulator should be independent of media and other corporate interests. Likewise, it could be funded by the government, yet not directly under the government.

Moreover, whatever regulatory authority is set up, it should be empowered. Right now, we have the Press Council of India (PCI) which is a quasi-judicial authority, but unfortunately, it has no punitive powers. It can’t punish a journalist or newspaper management indulging in corrupt practice. Even if the PCI says that a particular newspaper should be denied government advertisements, which are released by Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP)… Even that the PCI does not have the power to ensure that it is implemented. Government bodies are not obliged to implement the recommendations of the PCI. So basically we currently have a PCI which is toothless body without punitive power. On top of that the electronic media does not come under the purview of the PCI.

Jayant Mammen Mathew, Deputy Editor, Malayala Manorama

“I am not sure how paid news came in to being… However, I think the reader will see through those carrying paid news and this will ultimately end in erosion of trust the reader has with the newspaper. The Malayala Manorama group’s editorial policy is very clear about paid news. We have a zero tolerance policy and we are completely against paid news.”

Shashi Shekhar, Editor, Hindustan

I am strongly opposed to the idea of government interference in any form. It is true that paid news has to be checked, yet government interference is going to mess with the workings of the media industry. Debates are on in the industry if self-regulation is the best and the media industry as a whole should decide what is best for it. I can’t speak for other media houses, but as far as we are concerned, we have given a signed affidavit to the Editors Guild to stay away from paid news.

Kulbir Chikara, Group Editor, Hari Bhoomi

The problem of paid news cannot be solved by government intervention and there can be no law to differentiate between paid and un-paid news. Moreover, paid news can be camouflaged to suit purpose. For example, liquor owners were banned from advertising their product, but they have camouflaged their way out of it. Those who want to indulge in such malpractices will always find a way around it… There is a massive difference in promotional feature stories and paid news in political context. I think the second is more harmful as the future of India depends on it. It is indeed a problem when the readers are unsure whether it is the neutral media speaking or a political party. Such practices are bad and unethical. I think the efforts of PCI and government will be of no use till news broadcasters and publishers themselves understand that such practice hits credibility and thereafter the whole business. Regulation or law of any kind, according to me, will be ineffective.

Ranvijay Singh, Group Editor, Rashtriya Sahara

I strongly believe in the ethics of journalism and hence, evils such as paid news should be done away with. Having said that I am totally opposed to any sort of government role in this matter. I think that there is still a substantial part of media who are driven by ethics and they will decide the course of what should be done to curb paid news. I think PCI should come up as a strong body. PCI should be able to impeach a journalist or media house if there is evidence against them.

Shyam Parekh, Resident Editor, DNA Ahmedabad

I feel the newspaper industry survives on credibility. If newspapers lose credibility, there is no business. I am talking not only talking in terms of being a journalist but also in terms of the business. Newspaper is the first thing a consumer spends his money on to begin a day, and he would certainly not like to read bogus news. Eventually, the audience will see through the network of paid news and will stop spending time on something which is not in his interest, but in someone else’s interest.

Sachin Kalbag, Editor, Mid-Day

My opinion on paid news is very simple: It’s an abhorrent practice. It demeans journalism. I don’t really know when this crept in, but it has plagued the media for decades. Unscrupulous journalists have been on the take for several years, and this is not a new phenomenon. The widely cited example of institutional selling of content space is Bombay Times which introduced a rate card for coverage in the supplement. Recently, the supplement began putting a disclaimer under its masthead. The phenomenon of institutional selling of content space crept into the media for various reasons – but the root cause was always to increase revenue.

Our editorial policy is very clear: any “Advertorial” is placed in a two-page section called Centre Stage, which is part of the Classifieds section of the newspaper. Centre Stage in Mid-Day is differentiated in various ways from the editorial part of the newspaper. Here’s how: 1) The Centre Stage carries a prominent disclaimer in a large point size under the masthead “People, Parties, Promotions”. This has been happening since the day Mid-Day started Centre Stage, which was more than two years ago. In Centre Stage, we carry items on movie releases and profiles of actors, fashion designers, parties, etc, that happened in Mumbai that week, apart from product launches.

Close to 85 percent of the Centre Stage advertorial section is non-paid, that is to say the Centre Stage team of writers (this team is not part of the Mid-Day editorial team) interviews people or writes about their parties or products. Around 15 per cent of the items are placed where the content space is sold by the sales team. Once again, these items are only about Bollywood, fashion, parties or product launches. There is a separate, specialized sales team that sells this space, and at no point in time do they dictate terms to

Editorial, mainly because Centre Stage is not editorial space, but marketing real estate. In fact, there have been several instances when the Editorial staff in Mid-Day has trashed Centre Stage advertisers in the review section of the newspaper, and the sales team has gotten into trouble due to that negative coverage. Yet, we are very clear at Mid-Day that the Sales and Editorial wires do not cross, and that the Chinese wall between them stays even though we may be good friends outside the office.

We are also very clear that Centre Stage will not carry any “news”, but only information on these three or four categories listed above. There is neither any opinion nor any recommendation made in the section that is endorsed by the editor. In the strictest sense of the term, it is an advertorial. Mid-Day, therefore, has stayed away from “paid news” and will continue to do so.

Photograph: Fotocorp

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One response to “Paid news: Who will bell the cat?”

  1. Zimmer says:

    Can we have someone from TOI here. They seem to be plumbing to new depths especially for Mumbai Times etc