Paid news in The Hindu?

IN Media Practice | 27/02/2015
A Kerala government enquiry has pointed to instances which smack of ads for coverage in the paper, and another report of a finance inspection wing has questioned the manner in which it was given advertising.
In what is probably a first, a state government enquiry has indicted  a newspaper for carrying what it says seems like paid news.  The enquiry was  being held to go into allegations of corruption and misdemeanour against the former head of a state body, and the revelation of what the enquiring officer calls paid news is incidental to the main findings. 

Following a High Court order, the government of Kerala conducted an inquiry into various allegations of corruption and misdemeanour against the Executive Vice President of the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment, V N Rajasekharan Pillai. The inquiry, which was conducted by the recently-retired Additional Chief Secretary (Home) of the state government, concluded that the accused had paid money for "infructuous" advertisements in The Hindu to carry reports praising him in order to help him get an extension of his tenure. "This is a clear case of paid news," wrote the retired official.

We put these issues to the editor, Malini Parthasarathy, for her response.  The paper’s response to The Hoot came from two managing editors based in Chennai. They said, “we are not aware of any inquiry into allegations against any former official of the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment (KSCSTE), or the outcome thereof. There may be politicking happening routinely with regard to such posts. But to say that in its editorial columns The Hindu went out of its way to praise anyone in order that he or she may get an extension of tenure and so on, is preposterous. We hereby put you to strict proof of such allegations.”

The reports which give rise to this charge appeared in the Thiruvananthapuram edition of The Hindu. Some are about the work being done by the Council under Pillai’s leadership, other reports appearing in the column called ‘Corridors of Power’  express concern over his  tenure coming to an end and the manner in which a successor will be chosen. Whether the content of these reports  can be described as “praise”is a matter of opinion.

Though The Hindu says it is not aware of this enquiry the report was leaked last year and both The Sunday Indian Express in October last year and The Times of India in January this year have reported its findings on the Council and Pillai, and also mentioned the paid news charge, but not named the newspaper.

The ‘strict proof’ offered by the report to the Kerala High Court  is as follows:  
“The advertisement charges claimed by the Hindu daily is part of the advertising charges in addition to the advt. issued by the Government in connection with the Kerala Science Congress. This can be definitely declared as infructuous expenditure and the amount recovered. It is understood from the Member Secretary and the Ex Controller that several other bills raised by the Hindu Daily had earlier been paid from the KSCSTE. It is therefore not surprising that over the last four months a number of write ups have been noticed in the same daily in praise of the respondent and pointing out how the Science and Technology Department of the Government would suffer in case the Respondent was not allowed an extension of tenure. With regular feeds from the Respondent to the daily amounting to lakhs of rupees it is not surprising that such news items have appeared. This is a clear example of ‘paid news’. All the advertisements issued in this manner should be assessed by the Member Secretary and the total amount should be determined.”

Separately from this report, the report of an inspection conducted by the Finance Inspection Wing at the KSCSTE at Pattom has listed several irregularities one of which is titled “Irregular Publication of Advertisement.”
This report says the institution had given an advertisement of its own in connection with the Kerala Science Congress based on a request from the Regional General Manager (advt Kerala) of The Hindu newspaper dated 10.1.2013. This was separate from the advertisement issued to all Kerala newspapers on this occasion by the department of Information and PR. The quarter-page Hindu advertisement claimed an All India advertisement rate and a gave a bill for Rs 18.3 lakh to the Council which was paid. The report says that the newspaper did not claim the amount for the advertisement issued by the department of Information and PR. It comments that the amount spent “based on the interest of the management of the newspaper cannot be justified on any ground.” 

Asked about the advertisements The Hindu has responded as follows:
“As is well known, The Hindu does not indulge in or support or endorse the pernicious practice of “paid news”. On the contrary, this newspaper has been in the vanguard of efforts nationally to expose and condemn the practice, that does exist in Indian journalism. It is a fact that the KSCSTE (of which the Chairman is the Chief Minister of the State) has over time approached The Hindu, which has the largest certified daily circulation among all English newspapers published from or circulating in Kerala, and which has national reach and credibiity, to publish features focusing on scientific education and research in Kerala, in the process also mentioning some of the work done by the KSCSTE. These features, which also carried advertisements placed by the KSCSTE and other entities, were published in a distinctive manner that made it apparent that it was not part of regular news coverage and display. 
“There was one that was published on February 28, 2014, for example, coinciding with ‘National Science Day’, running to a full page, that went with a masthead running across the page announcing that it was a feature marking the National Science Day and also marked distinctively and prominently at the top of the page as a “Special Marketing Initiative”. It spelt out some of the work being done to improve the skills of science teachers and encourage scientific research. There was no input provided by the Editorial Department to create the content, which was organised/generated by the Advertisement Department. There was a similar feature published on April 18, 2013 that was again labelled across the top of the page as “Fostering Science, Technology and Innovation”. This followed the 25th Kerala Science Congress in Thiruvananthapuram and carried a photograph of Chief Minister Oommen Chandy releasing the Draft Kerala Science and Technology Policy by handing over a copy to R.K. Sinha, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. 
By no stretch of the imagination could these, or similar other features that focussed on work done in the field of science education and research by a State-government funded Council, be termed irregular.”

The Hindu’s response talks of paid features whereas the stricture made in the government reports refer to advertisements issued, not marketing features. 

It is a fact that The Hindu has conducted editorial-page campaigns by P Sainath, who is no longer with the paper, on the issue of paid news in Maharashtra in particular. That is what makes these allegations both ironical and mystifying.

Separately from these government reports, a whistleblower within The Hindu’s Thiruvananthapuram edition, who retired last year as deputy editor, had twice drawn attention of The Hindu editors to what he said were highly suspect editorial practices within the paper. He wrote letters in this regard in August 2013 when Siddharth Varadarajan was the editor, and in 2014 when Malini Parthasarathy and N Ravi were helming  the paper. His letters did not get a response. The Hoot has copies of these.

We asked the paper’s editor,
Was it true that a former Deputy Editor of The Hindu based out of Thiruvananthapuram, P Venugopal, had earlier raised similar accusations of corruption and "paid news" in the Thiruvananthapuram edition of the newspaper? Is it true that Venugopal's complaints were ignored by The Hindu's top management? There is a perception that the policy of the paper towards whistle-blowers is ineffective. What are your views? Is it true that Venugopal resigned ten months after registering his complaint about "paid news" because he did not receive any response from you or your senior colleagues?

The two managing editors in their joint reply have said,
“Mr. P. Venugopal, who joined the organisation in the Circulation Department, later became a Reporter. He was made a Deputy Editor in Thiruvananthapuram in mid-2014. A few months later, nearing the age of 58 and soon after undergoing an angioplasty procedure and remaining on leave of absence for an extended period, he opted to retire from service: as a special case, the company let him retire with benefits with effect from January 1, 2015. Even in his letter requesting that he be allowed to retire, he made no mention of any such grievance of the kind referred to.
The Hindu has sound and robust mechanisms in place across the organisation to make sure that no staff member does anything that would affect or undermine the credibility, integrity and value systems that have sustained and informed this 136-year-old newspaper. Any claim of his having put across to top management any such accusation, is wrong. We do have systems in place to ensure that every employee can access top management for important communications.”

The whistleblower’s letter on corruption in the Thiruvananthapuram edition  to Siddharth Varadarajan was sent in August 2103. His letter to Malini Parthasarthy and N Ravi was sent in  February2014.

He did choose not to mention these issues in his letter of resignation.

The response to The Hoot’s queries have been dealt with by two managing editors at The Hindu in Chennai. One of them is named in both the complaint letters written by the whistleblower, since he has oversight of the Kerala edition.  The other was copied by the whistleblower in the emailed complaint he sent to Parthasarathy and Ravi last year. 
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