Upclose with Paid News

21 Nov,2011

 

By Johnson Napier

 

Imagine being told by a news channel or a newspaper that the minister you voted for was as right a choice as could be or that the zonal officer from your local municipal ward has done an inimitable task or that the food that you consume from a particular brand has the ingredients to unleash the hidden potential out of you or even better, that if you carry out an assignment on an auspicious day as predicted by the pundits your fortunes would change forever…? You’d fall for the bait, right? If not all, a majority of the consumers would be taken in by the promises being unleashed as the source that it is coming from couldn’t be doubted in the least. But that is the irony. From being the messengers of truth and entrusted with the task of upholding the morals of society, the fourth estate of India’s democracy is increasingly being looked upon with uncertainity. And there is every reason for readers’ and viewers’ apprehensions, as docu-filmmaker Umesh Aggarwal would want us to believe.

 

Presenting his take on the sorry state of affairs prevailing in the print and news broadcast sector, Aggarwal presented a one-hour documentary titled ‘Brokering News—the inside story of paid news.’ The film is the initiative of the Delhi-based non-governmental, not-for-profit Public Service Broadcasting Trust (PSBT). The event was held at Mumbai’s Madame Cama Hall and was organised by Moneylife Foundation and Citizens Action Network with the support of industrialist Cyrus Guzder. MxMIndia was the media partner for the event.

 

Being the first of its kind initiative on the sector, the documentary provides a harsh outlook on the filthy mannerisms being employed by most prominent newspapers and news broadcast houses where consumption of news is concerned. Spanning the streams of politics, business, sports and entertainment the film addresses a significant challenge facing Indian democracy today—which is the state of its media. The film looks at three aspects of paid news—how politicians are paying for positive coverage during elections, with the result that those who don’t pay are blanked out by the media; how the coverage and reviews of movies are orchestrated and paid for and of course, paid news about business and industry. It depicts in detail how journalists were forced to broker deals to offer editorial coverage to politicians.

 

Following the screening, the event headed for a lively panel discussion and comprised of the following notable panellists: Umesh Aggarwal, director of News & Entertainment Television, Ayaz Memon, veteran journalist and currently consulting editor at IMN News, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, educator & commentator, Bhawana Somaaya, noted film critic and columnist and Sucheta Dalal, Trustee of Moneylife Foundation and Managing Editor of Moneylife Magazine.

 

When left to express their initial comments on the screening, Paranjoy Guha Thakurta began by highlighting the last action that was shown in the documentary – the disqualification of a local MLA from one of the constituencies in the North by the Election Commission of India because of the malpractice the individual resorted to with the help of the media. “It was the first ever such judgement that was carried out by the ECI and we hope to follow that when a judgement is pronounced on the former chief minister of Maharashtra Ashok Chavan.” According to Mr Guha Thakurta, while SEBI has made it mandatory for news and print houses to disclose their relationships and dealings with corporate hoses and influential individuals, there is still no transparency on such a ruling as nobody has even challenged the visibility or the outcome of this ruling as yet. “We hope to do a lot more and see a lot of action going forward.”

 

Sucheta Dalal began by questioning the level of dishonesty that existed in business journalism. “Having worked as business journalist myself for many years, I can say that most of the stories that appear in newspapers are advertising-driven. And the sorry part is that it is a trend that is gaining ground with nobody doing a thing about it. I haven’t even heard of reports of anybody approaching the RTI for finding information of such corporate dealings with the business news organisations.”

 

Probably, the most straightforward answer was unleashed from Ms Somaaya who vouched that in her entire career spanning over 30 years, she has never resorted to the concept of being entertained at the gesture of the entertaining parties. “I am an idealist. I can proudly state that I am not the same as the others in the space. Even today, there is a place for ethics and integrity in journalism,” she quipped.

 

Presenting his rationale on the tale, Ayaz Memon asserted that there was a turmoil being currently witnessed in the media sector what with the explosion of several mediums in the space. “As a result there are not enough checks and balances leading to dangers lurking in every nook and corner of the business.” Citing the example of cricket, Mr Memon went on to describe the state of affairs of players who played in the earlier days and how they were paid minimal dues to the players of today who aspire to be paid huge sums. “This has led to match-fixing and spot-fixing being introduced to the sport today. While it is still not as widespread as is made out to be, the danger of such things going unchecked is huge.”

 

When questioned by a member from the audience on which is the bigger worry – watching damaging news versus news that is paid for and how to distinguish between the two, Ms Somaaya reverted by stating the practice that she follows when reviewing films. “I’ve always refused offers for special screenings as after they lavish you with undue attention they expect that you judge the film in their favour. Reviewing films has become a big business today and one cannot predict the veracity of the reviews that get published.”

Mr Guha Thakurta added here that it was largely the media that has played a huge role in giving damaging news or news that is paid for. “The need of the hour is to amend the Act and make paid news a cognisable offence.”

 

Mr Aggarwal added here by saying that “we have our priorities misplaced. We need to figure out what kind of news gets featured and whether it is a pertinent one.” He cited the classic example of the small kid Prince that was covered live on almost all television channels for three days but another important news of 57 miners being trapped underground the same day was totally missed by everybody.

 

Proceeding to the immediate solutions that were required to be taken by the industry, Mr Guha Thakurta called for an underlying need to have a regulation in place. “The thing about self-regulation is that in most cases it is not an effective thing to do. Recently there were two channels who were questioned for showing obscene content but what about the judgement? The problem is that we do not have an independent regulatory body which could govern and control the media; a body that acts as a statutory ombudsman for the electronic media.” Continuing further, Mr Guha Thakurta said that the issue was also how we strengthen the defamation laws in the country. “We need to go beyond individuals and focus on the systems. That should be the immediate priority.”

 

Ms Dalal stated here that it was essential that media houses portray the right picture and not otherwise.”Most media houses are going in losses amounting to several crores of rupees but they are putting up are brave front and are getting help from the media to hide their plight. The owners need to question themselves as to what is it that we are doing to broadcast the right news?” Summing up, Mr Memon added that “we don’t live in a perfect society. It’s a time-bound initiative and will require the industry to come together and fight the menace.”

Post a Comment 

One response to “Upclose with Paid News”

  1. Girilal says:

    paid news should be considered paid only when its not disclosed as promo, advertorial or a advertising or entertainment supplement.
    advertorials or advertiser based programmes exist everywhere in every reputed media in the world and in every tv channel. This includes papers like nyt, financial times, wall street journal, channels like bbc, cnn, radio and the most reputed internet sites in the world.
    infact in lifestyle magazines like cosmopolitan, elle, technological mags, health, fashion mags and movie mags globally it is completely mixed with editorial.