[MJR] Holier than thou Hindu takes on the Times

11 May,2012


Ranjona Banerji

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The Hindu has published a massive “expose” on paid news in The Times of India. According to painstaking research done by veteran journalist P Sainath, the Nagpur edition in 2008 carried a special feature about how farmers in Vidarbha had benefited from using Bt cotton seeds. This went against all other evidence that it was the use of Bt cotton which had led to falling yield, depleting the land, increasing debt burden and consequently the large number of suicides in the region.

 

The TOI team spoke to farmers who said they were making much more money than they thought and were very happy. The villagers spoken to said no one had committed suicide. The trip was sponsored by the manufacturers of the Bt cotton seed – Mahyco Monsanto Biotech. The newspaper added this as a disclaimer, maintaining however that the journalists had done their own research.

 

According to Sainath, in 2011, the same feature was dredged up and re-printed, this time as an advertising feature – paid for by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech – and published in all editions of The Times of India except the Nagpur edition.

 

Yet, the same villagers, when they spoke to a Parliamentary Standing Committee in March this year, Sainath points out, said that 14 people had committed suicide since Bt cotton had been introduced and that their financial plight was pitiable. The enormous amounts of money being made – as claimed in the TOI report – were untenable and were also contradicted by figures provided by Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar.

So what do we have here? A cynical manipulation of events to help a giant corporation out of a PR disaster? Or exploitation of journalists to further the commercial interests of the newspaper? Or complete contempt for the reader and disregard for the newspaper’s credibility?

 

I would say the worst sin is number 3. The first two lead to the third. The fact that Bt cotton has aggravated rather than alleviated farmers’ problems ought to be a fact universally acknowledged. It is also well-known that Monsanto has an extremely aggressive public relations department. Further, the government has also pushed farmers to opt for Bt cotton and thereby helped Mahyco Monsanto Biotech.

 

However, it has to be pointed out that The Times of India is not the only practitioner of paid news. This menace is prevalent through the media, both print and television. The ways in which it is done can be subtle or brazen – here TOI seems to have opted for the latter. It is also not clear if this deal with Monsanto was limited to the Nagpur marketing department which then shared it with headquarters or whether the entire editorial team was aware of what was going on.

 

Either way, though, both the initial report and the use of that report as an ad are highly questionable. Cynicism on the part of journalists will only make life worse for them more than anyone else.

 

There is one more question here as well. Holding the media up for scrutiny is necessary and important. But The Hindu’s tendency to take this holier than thou line is bound to boomerang at some time. It now has to keep its house cleaner than everyone else’s.

 

The link to Sainath’s column in The Hindu: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/sainath/article3401466.ece?homepage=true#.T6tjbKDv3XQ.email

 

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One response to “[MJR] Holier than thou Hindu takes on the Times”

  1. Ranjona, you are a veteran journalist yourself, and in this article I was hoping you would recount a few instances of paid news (without naming the media house of course), which your have seen in your long career, in order to prove how real the menace is. 🙂

    All the holy taglines above mastheads, or on some front pages of late, really do not matter, do they?

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