There has been endless conjecture about the rampant increase in ‘Paid For’ news stories across the media, from the top dailies to the language press all the way down the line. There is nothing wrong with a newspaper or magazine or news channel taking a political line or choosing to support one of the Ambani brothers over the other. That is an editorial decision. But even those are rarely free. First things first, this phenomenon is not restricted to only print and much like print, the rot of ‘Paid For’ news in TV stretches all the way to the top. And unlike some aspects of print, you have no clue that you’re watching a ‘sponsored’ show on TV where the channel has zilch edit control. But that isn’t saying that it isn’t bad in print – like a piece on Ponytail’s book in a supplement (or three) today – so sign that was a paid piece is there?
It comes down to a couple of things. The first is the lack of disclosure – unlike newspapers and magazines, TV channels do not have to display a Form VI showing ownership – many language news channels are biased by their very ownership – Sakshi for example. Now, the casual viewer will hardly have a clue – though in the case of Sakshi you do know that Jagan Reddy owns it by the incessant coverage of everything YSR and Jagan. The second is that, and this problem is there is newspapers as well, a lack of disclosure about political affiliations of the owners. There is a nexus between news proprietors and the editorial, everyone knows that, the media in India is hardly free, so if the owner of a news organization sits as a Member of Parliament or even a Member of Legislative Assembly, that has to be disclosed. The reader needs to know that the proprietor of the Hindustan Times sits as a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha, or that the proprietor of Sun TV’s brother is an Union Minister.
The second aspect is quite simply the lack of teeth. Frankly, the Press Council of India (PCI) is a toothless body populated by old, irrelevant retired journalists and retired judges who look to Liberhan as a role-model. Also, the PCI does not control television news. There needs to be a drastic change in the way the media is policed. And believe me, the media needs policing, because it is just spreading all sorts of wild and whacky canards along with news of dubious quality. The problem is that these old, retired folks only end up complaining about the amount of skin shown. Not the news.
The relatively easy access to technology over the past decade has led to a massive explosion in the number of news channels and print publications. The PCI has not kept up. The lack of a regulatory body has been exploited by proprietors. Every single time a suggestion of a regulatory body is made by the government, it is seen as censorship by the media, in no small part due to the fact that any proposal is usually drafted by a control-obsessed bureaucrat. But there has to be a regulator, not a toothless one like the PCI or the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). Actually, between the PCI and the ASCI you would be hard-pressed to find a worse regulator. And Rajeev Chandrashekhar is complaining about TRAI (not that I’m saying they’re good, but compared to these two!).
Any new regulatory body for the media would need to take in the fact that there has been a technology explosion over the years and have to get rid of the tendency to muzzle the media that all governments have. Yet, there should be rules against false news (watch Hindi news channels on dubious science) or against news that incites (Sakshi?) and ‘Paid For’ news (everyone). Any body would have to take into account multimedia – the fact that maybe in five years time we won’t be consuming news through either TV or print. Like other regulators it should also look into what is being taught in courses that train young professionals.
And to be successful it must be comprised not of retired old fogeys, but should include younger editors, and editors of publications that matter, like a Jojo for example. Proprietors need to be brought in as well – because there are commercial interests in news – people like Raghav and/or Kalanidhi Maran know that better than anyone else. We do not live in a socialist age, junkets are a fact of life. And there should also be people from society –and government. The fact remains that the news is not equal, farmers might starve and buses could crash in far-flung parts of India but urban newspapers, even language ones will still publish pictures of Jamie Jungers, one of Tiger’s alleged mistresses in a bikini.
Every stakeholder from the government which wants to get news out, law enforcement, journalists themselves, proprietors and society needs to be involved. And this has to be done in a country of 1.1 billion people over several (what is it today? 30 proposed or 32 proposed?) states, each with a different agenda and different problems. The problems journalists are facing in Maoist-areas in central India are massive.
See if we in the media are serious about dealing with the ‘menace’ of ‘Paid News’ we have to go beyond soul-searching in articles and pointing fingers at each other. We need to deal with it. Self-regulation has failed and the government regulator is a joke. Either we deal with it, or as the coming wave of data access comes along, the media in India, much like the media in the west will face declining numbers as people move away to more reliable sources, like a kid with a cell-phone camera.
Anyway, comment with your thoughts or lack of...