Paid news misinforms again

BY SAMOD SARNGAN| IN Media Practice | 06/08/2014
A paid encomium to a Mumbai MLA was happily published by four papers.
SAMOD SARNGAN looks at how such supplements can mislead readers.

Residents of the satellite city of Navi Mumbai had to vicariously join the birthday celebrations of Airoli MLA Sandeep Naik when they received an eight-page special eulogizing the legislator with their morning papers on August 4.

Four prominent dailies – Sakal, Lokmat, the Hindustan Times and the DNA - carried the special to mark the Nationalist Congress Party MLA’s birthday.

The incident once again rivets the spotlight on media houses indulging in “paid news” and the dangers it portends for Indian democracy. Media watchers have been warning against the malaise as it exerts an undue influence on voters and hampers their ability to form correct opinions. It also adversely affects the level playing field for the contestants as politicians with deeper pockets have an edge over those with less financial muscle.

The eight-page special lists the ‘excellent’ work done by Naik, son of Maharashtra minister and NCP strongman Ganesh Naik. The DNA special featured eight odd stories with headlines like “Young MLA with a youth connect’;  ‘Navi Mumbai’s voice in the House’;  ‘MLA with the pulse of the people & projects that have changed the lives of people’;  ‘Reaching out and winning hearts’; and ‘All in a day’s work’.

It also carried reviews by Airoli constituents with the title ‘Our MLA has done fantastic work’ and blurb saying ‘Raving reviews by his Airoli constituents a perfect birthday gift for MLA Sandeep Naik’ as the front page lead. There was also a letter from the MLA thanking his constituents: ‘It was all possible only because of you’.

The Hindustan Times carried a write-up on Naik with headlines like ‘Mover and Shaker of Navi Mumbai’; ‘When the MLA went on the agitational path for the city’s demands’;  ‘Not just securing jobs for the youths but also preparing them for the success’;  ‘Leader of the masses was always among them’; and also details of ‘Appropriation of MLA funds’. Sakal and the Lokmat also carried stories on the same lines.

The special was carried by Sakal and Lokmat in Marathi while English dailies DNA and Hindustan Times circulated it with their Navi Mumbai supplements. The decision of the Marathi dailies to publish the supplement is hardly surprising as Lokmat is owned by the Darda family (the owners are prominent Indian National Congress leaders) and Sakal is managed by NCP supremo Sharad Pawar’s family.

According to editorial staff in the four newspapers, the content for the special and the photographs were provided by the MLA’s office, leaving the newspapers with the task of merely printing and circulating it.

It is debatable if Naik flouted any rules as the Election Commission is yet to declare the dates for the assembly elections and the Code of Conduct governing the use of funds during elections is not in effect. However, the coverage re-ignites the debate on paid news.

To be fair, the special carried by DNA did mention it as a ‘reader engagement initiative’ while the Hindustan Times described it as an ‘HT Media Marketing Initiative’. Sakal and Lokmat failed to highlight the fact that it was part of their marketing efforts. The Hindustan Times attributed the stories to its special correspondent while the language dailies carried the names of the journalists.

One of the arguments against paid news is that it unduly influences voters. Coming just months ahead of the elections for the Maharashtra assembly, it is very clear that the special aims at adding a sheen to the MLA’s performance with his constituents.

Another important argument is that paid news misleads the public and hampers the ability of people to form well-founded opinions. This is especially true in this case. The fact is that, nothwithstanding the ‘good work’ done by Naik, his party the NCP, lost the recently held Lok Sabha elections. Naik’s elder brother Sanjeev Naik was the NCP candidate from the Thane parliamentary constituency and had also represented the seat in the previous Lok Sabha.

The  Shiv Sena managed to perform well in Naik’s Airoli assembly segment and in the neighbouring Belapur segment (represented by Ganesh Naik) as well. Airoli and Belapur are part of the satellite city of Navi Mumbai, considered the pocket borough of the Naik family. In Airoli, Shiv Sena candidate Rajan Vichare managed to get 93,610 votes, 20,434 more than Sanjeev Naik while in Belapur, Vichare managed to poll 90,986 votes, 25,784 more than his nearest rival from the NCP.

It is true that the drubbing  Sanjeev Naik received is not a reflection on Sandeep Naik’s popularity with his electorate. The NCP MLA’s commission pales in comparison to the newspapers’ omission in warning their readers about the pecuniary origins of the birthday special.

The Standing Committee on Information Technology in its report on "Paid News" to Parliament in May 2013 described the trend of presenting paid advertising content as news as “a serious and damaging fraud on the public’.

With the elections to the Maharashtra assembly drawing closer, this incident is a precursor of things to come as more and more instances of such paid news will be seen in more and more media outlets.

Samod Sarngan is a Mumbai-based journalist. He has earlier worked with the Press Trust of India, DNA daily and the Zee group. He can be contacted at

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