Integrated development, politics and social empowerment in India and beyond

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Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

It was always true, but today information truly is power. This carries with it a corresponding responsibility imbued with a sense of trusteeship in providing the people with the kind of information needed for democratic participation, empowerment and informed choice.

Lament for the Media

The “sale” of paid news packages for slanted electoral coverage has gone from low-level viral outbreak to full-blown epidemic.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 28 December, 2009

As the year closes, one must with sadness and shame pen a lament for the Indian media. India is rightly proud of its vibrant democracy despite shortcomings and flaws. Among the instrumentalities of our free society is the media which has seen exponential growth in both the print and electronic segments with a huge and burgeoning viewership and readership in all regions and languages.

The communications revolution has given the media an instant and global reach and, with convergence, a multi-dimensional capability. It has grown in range and sophistication and is now immensely powerful and even feared not only by the public but by the organs of state. It was always true, but today information truly is power. This carries with it a corresponding responsibility imbued with a sense of trusteeship in providing the people with the kind of information needed for democratic participation, empowerment and informed choice.

It is in this regard that we must lament a disgraceful fall in standards as revealed by well documented stories of the sale of electoral coverage by sections of the news media through “packages” relating to the kind of treatment sought. What earlier seemed an isolated, low-level viral outbreak appears to have gained virulence and epidemic proportions. Alarm bells have sounded. One respected editor of a leading Hindi daily recently resigned on this score while another Urdu editor who contested the elections was also asked to pay for coverage, although on concessional terms after he protested that he was himself a journalist.

A complaint was lodged with the Press Council some months ago by the late Prabhash Joshi and others and the matter is now being investigated by it. Meanwhile, new evidence has come to light from the just concluded Maharashtra polls. The sitting chief minister, Ashok Chavan, was found to have shown no more than Rs 10,000 for media advertisements in his election returns though pages and pages of advertising had appeared in his favour which in aggregate in value could even be in excess of the total permissible electoral expenditure for an Assembly seat. Not content with this, he publicly awarded substantial monetary prizes to each of the three polling stations that gave him the highest votes. What is this if not an ex post facto electoral inducement and an act of dubious morality if not an outright electoral malpractice. Who paid, Mr Chavan or the exchequer? If the former then this must be added to his election expenditure which could inflate his returns above the prescribed ceiling. Some one has filed an election petition on Mr Chavan’s election expenses and the case will be watched with interest. Technically, he may plead that the advertisements were, unknown to him, placed by “friends”. None will be taken in by such subterfuge and the papers must be asked to disclose who paid the bills.

The rot set in with economic reforms and deregulation which led to a rapid expansion of economic activity with new ventures, M&As, rising stock values and corresponding public relations spending. Business reporters were baited with freebees and, in turn, started demanding or assuming favours, something governments had long done with housing plots and so on. The Editor’s Guild prescribed a code to curb business sops. But then managements entered the lists and “advertorials” crept in obliterating the distinction between news and ads. This was followed by “private treaties” in which advertising was bartered for company shares to mutual benefit with promotional news writing and sponsored news.

News was commodified and dumbed down to provide titillation, sensation, hype and sound-bytes rather than substance to catch “eyeballs”, enhance sales even if it meant dumping copies at vantage points, The media’s mission to provide unbiased news, outside the editorial page, yielded to the market. News has become commerce. Managers have increasingly taken over from editors, some of whom have fallen prey to bloated salaries and perks. Many family papers have gone the same way with money overriding mission. Honourable exceptions apart, this represents a sad decline in professional values though many journalists are acutely unhappy and embarrassed by these trends. Some of the largest papers have been the worst offenders.

The 24x7 news channels too have not been blameless. They are by nature shallow unless they take special pains to give depth to their coverage. Some anchors have turned inquisitor, slanting discussion to preconceived views and seeking to impose their opinions on panellits. That there are some excellent programmes too only shows what we are missing. And in this scenario, the Government, Parliament, the media, advertisers and the entertainment world have willfully conspired to all but kill public service broadcasting and radio. The well heeled consumer has trumped the citizen who looks to the media for empowerment, access and participation in life and living.

The matter is too serious to be left to drift. Maybe the Press Registration Act needs review to entrench the position of the Editor who is even now responsible for everything published, including advertisements. Can the law require public interest directors to be appointed to boards of all media houses from tiered panels to act as guardians of the public interest. The establishment of self regulatory bodies for the broadcast media by no means precludes the necessity for mandatory broadcast regulations as found in every part of the world. This need not curb media freedom. Fast driving requires good brakes. Should “private (ads for shares) treaties” be required to be mandatorily disclosed by the paper/channel concerned ? Can the Election Commission compel separate accounting of all advertisements and advertorial support for candidates under election expense?

These are obviously extremely sensitive and complex matters that impinge on freedom of expression. But when freedom becomes license. democracy is in peril.

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