When the government swallows up more newsprint than news

What are the chances of opening a national daily and not seeing page after page of advertisements adorned with pictures of preening politicians?
MADHAVI GORADIA DIVAN looks at the legal pronouncements which govern political advertising.

        Reprinted from The Statesman, September 4, 2009 




What are the chances of opening a national daily and not seeing page after page of advertisements adorned with pictures of preening politicians? And God forbid if it happens to be some worthy leader's birthday, (living or departed). You'll be lucky if you find any news tucked away somewhere in those sheaves of newsprint, masquerading as a newspaper but really a government glorification dossier.


The UP Chief Minister, Mayawati, had a point when she responded to the opprobrium heaped on her for going on a binge erecting statues of herself contending that the Central Government was hardly in a position to complain. Surely, advertisements proclaiming the government's achievements and glorifying their leaders with airbrushed photographs day after day at a huge cost to the tax payer could not be much more refined than Mayawati's megalomania? I am not sure if anyone has filed an RTI query on how much the government spends on advertising, but I am quite sure it must be enough money to feed several million hungry people every year.



Public exchequer



DOES the government have a legally sustainable right to advertise or to glorify itself at the tax payers' expense? Thinly disguised as dissemination of information in the public interest, it is really political advertising by the party in power at the cost of the public exchequer.


The right to advertise, what is known in legal parlance as commercial speech, flows from the fundamental right to freedom of speech under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. Many years ago, the Supreme Court in the famous Hamdard Dawakhana case had excluded advertising from the realm of free speech protected under Article 19(1)(a) on the ground that advertising was for commercial gain or profit-making and, therefore, was not entitled to the same protection as other forms of speech.


Much later, in the Tata Press (Yellow Pages) case, the Supreme Court declared that advertisements could not be denied the protection of Article 19(1)(a) merely because they were issued for commercial purposes. The court recognised the importance of advertising, not merely from the point of view of the information that it facilitated to the citizen but also on account of its invaluable role in economically sustaining the media.


The court observed:"Advertising is considered to be the cornerstone of our economic system. Low prices for consumers are dependent on mass production, mass production is dependent upon volume sales, and volume sales are dependent upon advertising. Apart from the lifeline of the free economy in a democratic country, advertising can be viewed as the life blood of free media, paying off the costs and thus making the media widely available. The newspaper industry obtains 60/80% of its revenue from advertising. Advertising pays a large portion of the costs of supplying the public with the newspaper.


For a democratic press the advertising 'subsidy' is crucial. Without advertising, the resources available for expenditure on the 'news' would decline, which may lead to an erosion of quality and quantity. The cost of the 'news' to the public would increase, thereby restricting its 'democratic availability'. "


Interestingly, in the ¿Sakal Papers' case which arose in the early 1960s, there was a challenge to the Newspaper (Price and Page) Act, 1956 which empowered the government to regulate allocation of space for advertisements. The court held that the curtailment of advertisements would be hit by Article 19(1)(a) since it would have a direct impact on the circulation of newspapers.


"If the area for advertisements is curtailed the price of the newspaper will be forced up. If that happens, the circulation will inevitably go down. This would be no remote, but a direct consequence of curtailment of advertisements…. If, on the other hand, the space for advertisement is reduced, the earnings of a newspaper would go down and it would either have to run a loss or close down or raise its price. The object of the Act in regulating the space for advertisements is stated to be to prevent 'unfair' competition. It is thus directed against circulation of a newspaper. When a law is intended to bring about this result there would be a direct interference with the right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a)."


Welcome relief


Ironically, far from seeking to curtail advertising space, the government is today the largest single advertiser in the country swallowing up more newsprint than news itself. There is no denying the fact that in times of an economic slowdown the advertising revenue pumped in by the government is a welcome relief. We live in times when globally newspapers are on the brink of closure, being unable to compete with faster technologies which bring news that comes at virtually no price to the reader. The strides in technology have resulted in a tectonic shift in dissemination of news ' most young people increasingly accessing news free of cost on the Internet, gradually rendering the newspaper redundant.


But the question still remains whether the government can defend what is really political advertising ' a self-glorification campaign by squandering away the tax payers' money. It also makes one wonder whether the Press can continue to be objective about the government it is so financially beholden to.


This is a dangerous trend because it means that the political party in power can mould and manipulate public opinion by its command over the media. This is what Noam Chomsky calls"the manufacture of consent", anathema to the very essence of free speech.






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