Selling coverage and getting away with it

BY hoot| IN Media Practice | 29/10/2009
Now that the elections in Maharashtra are over will the Election Commission consider being more proactive than it was after the Lok Sabha elections in the matter of paid news?
A HOOT editiorial with inputs from MAHESH VIJAPURKAR. Pix: the ball is in the CEC?s court.

Now that the elections in Maharashtra are over will the Election Commission consider being  more proactive than it was after the general elections in the matter of paid news? We are referring to a practice that has now become chronic at election time, of newspapers charging for election coverage.  Plenty of evidence is available if the Commission is sufficiently motivated, and this might be a test case for seeing whether  its statutory powers extend to asking for an audit of media houses accounts.  


Even before the results were announced in Maharastra on the 22nd October the Hoot was approached by a candidate from Satara with her experience. Of the three Marathi newspapers and one English newspaper in her area she said, that they are differing rates. One rate for writing positively about a candidate, and a lower rate for suppressing coverage of rival candidates. If a candidate was willing to buy a package some newspapers were offering,"they will give a photographer and someone with it to write."   


 What we are talking about is the concept of 'paid news' where cash payments are made for space, location of that space, and the drift of the news stories. An enquiry is unlikely to find evidence easily, since there will be  quite a bit of  subterfuge to conceal payments for these slots, making it hard to spot. But there are enough aggrieved politicians who did not benefit because they were not willing to pay, who will come forward to give evidence.


It is a time-honoured practice to separate the two: news to be presented as news and advertisements as distinctly as paid space as possible. The norm has been to print at either the top or the bottom corner, in tiny fonts, that they were 'Advt.', 'Advertisement feature', 'Advertorial', or 'Response feature' but such labelling   has begun to disappear. Clever spinmeisters from PR firms even prepare the pages using the newspapers' specific fonts and send it across, ready to print. The gullible reader is thus lulled into believing that an advertorial or a sponsored feature is news.


In his article in the Hindu on October 26 P Sainath describes"the financial orgy that marked the Maharashtra elections. . In many cases, a candidate just had to pay for almost any coverage at all. Issues didn't come into it. No money, no news. This effectively shut out smaller parties and independent voices with low assets and resources. It also misled viewers and readers by denying them any mention of the real issues some of these smaller forces raised. "


As Sainath puts it, the fact of paid news at election time is not new, only the scale is.  Back in 2005 politicians in Bhopal were telling a researcher about the practice of election packages, if you did not buy one you risked not getting any coverage at all.


Apart from what Sainath describes without naming names, the following instances were also observed in Maharashtra.


    IBN-Lokmat had half hour interviews of candidates with a small tag on left top corner saying ¿Sponsored feature¿ and one wonders how many viewers made out they were advertisements. Why not straightaway say "advertisement¿?  ( Nikhil Wagale, Editor-in-Chief of IBN-Lokmat when contacted clarified that ¿such programming was limited to a couple of slots and was assigned to the marketing department and had the tag of sponsored feature.¿ Nowhere did we compromise on news presentation in normal news programming. We declined several offers of payment for news coverage as a policy.¿) We did not see other channels but the word is that TV channels too were on the take.


      Hindustan Times, Mumbai had pieces with "Election Promotion Initiative¿ as a small tag in place of the normal ¿Advt.¿, which would have been a more honest way of saying it was paid for news. The type was bolder, the lines not justified and the language was truly promotional.


      Mid-day too had devoted two pages for gushing pieces which no self-respecting journalist would ever write. Headlines matched that tone and tenor.


      Maharashtra Times and Navbharat Times had four-page pull outs on Ashok Chavan with the caption "Ashokniti¿ without a mention of whether, in TOI linguistics, a "Response Feature¿. Likewise, two pages on Kripashankar Singh, a former Congress MoS and now Mumbai Regional Congress Chief, contesting from Santa Cruz. The caption for that pull out was ¿Kripa parv¿. It is estimated the costing for a four page pull out, sans advertising, for Maharashtra Times is close to Rs 1.5 crore per day. Who paid?


       None of these insertions had what newspaper and advertising jargon use - key number indicating the advertising agencies, the client¿s name etc.


These strengthen the fear that this time too, there was lot of effort to pass off advertising as news. That is one reason why ad agencies ask for editorial space because the latter is more credible from the readers¿ point of view. This is belief in the printed word of a journalist, even if misplaced these days, because he can be trusted.


On October 29th, at a discussion on the issue held by the Foundation for Media Professionals in Delhi, Prabhash Joshi, an elder statesman of the community of scribes, repeated evidence that he has cited in print before, about the practice of paid news in the Lok Sabha elections. He gave specific instances of politicians who became its victims.  The Hoot had also recorded at that time evidence proffered in  Hyderabad on malpractices of this kind by the media  in the state. What seems missing is the will in the EC to be seriously seized of the matter.


The other bodies that needs to demonstrate a commitment to  basic media ethics are the Editors' Guild, and the Indian Newspapers Society (INS). The next time there a state or Lok Sabha poll will they resolve that their members ensure that poll-related news and advertisements are not mixed up, and that the latter is not camouflaged as the former?  Or will look the other way, as they have done so far? 


It is quite extraordinary that the free press India boasts of is so willing to sell itself, and there is no institutional response.




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