Paid News and Media Reform

The Standing Committee on IT has invited comments on “Paid News” – as usual, the window for comments is a short two weeks, and the deadline is on Jan 1. Some preliminary thoughts:

Paid news is the outcome of structural incongruence – lack of regulation of a powerful profit-making (and seeking) industry. Efforts to plug one manifestation (e.g., monitoring media by the Election Commission as in the Bihar polls) will be easily bypassed with time. Therefore the menace of paid news cannot be addressed in isolation of overall media reform that addresses issues of ownership, financial viability, employment terms of individual journalists, and media regulation.

Arguably the most critical of these issues is regulation – the ability to define and enforce norms for functioning. Indian media is self-regulated – the freedom of self-regulation justified by the need for independence from the State. The underlying premise for independence is an adversarial media that seeks to highlight and check State excess (and now with Corporate India becoming as or more powerful, Corporate excess). However the widespread phenomena of paid news and its corporate cousin, “private treaties”, highlight that the media is in fact willingly compliant to political and corporate alliance in the pursuit of profit that is often illegitimate. There is other evidence that profit has overtaken the historically idealistic purpose of media and journalism: first page of many newspapers is often an advertisement, there is increasing blurring of line between news and entertainment, and the low level of coverage of some of the most important developmental issues of the country.

On December 3, 2010, Rajdeep Sardesai, Editor in Chief, CNN-IBN made a speech to other media professionals in a discussion on “Radia Tapes and Journalistic Ethics” at the Press Club. Perhaps because the discussion was only for media professionals, Sardesai was unusually candid. His speech is especially significant since Sardesai is the outgoing President of the Editors Guild of India (an elected post) and the views expressed are thus representative of the mainstream reality. His talk highlights two things: pervasive corruption in news media (both political and business), and the complete ineffectiveness (and possibly non-seriousness) of self-regulation. Extended excerpts below:

“[…] we all know there are journalists who have been subverted, we all know that editors who are carried away by the power their power, wealth and grandeur that comes in and want to be power brokers […] Worrying proximity that exists today between the journalists, corporates and the political class […] Conceptual level what has happened, the self-image of the journalist has changed […] certain power and grandeur, call it vanity, which has crept in. And with that vanity, comes access to perhaps the movers and shakers of this country and with that […] you forget what the original purpose was – most of us came into journalism for the great joy of the powerful and famous being brought down […]

Now the same powerful and famous have co-opted us […] because our self-image has changed. Therefore ones with low moral quotient have become fixers, others have become vain and dare I say foolhardy […] What has happened to the so-called lifestyle journalism – these are basically sponsored deals where you are an extension of the larger PR machinery […] look at the way business is covered now. When you do an interview with a businessman, even if you are a leading editor, you do it a supplicant way, where the businessman becomes an inspirational figure at the end of your interview. Are we willing to challenge that businessman, you won’t […] When was the last time we seriously examined corporate corruption? The last journalist driven investigation against corporate corruption was in early 1990s […]

The practical necessities are in a competitive world where access is critical, proximity is critical – you want to interview the Home Minister you better be nice to him else he won’t come into your studio, you better be nice to him and hence you won’t ask him certain questions often that he needs to be asked […] the world has changed. In this changed world, how much are you going to compromise and where are you going to compromise is the key […] Editors unfortunately over the last 20-25 years […] have compromised […] people who are responsible for the rot in our profession today. They bent when they were only asked to crawl […]

Paid News: A year ago in Editors Guild we asked editors to take a pledge – a pledge somewhere that they should be ready, at least in their own individual capacity, to resist proprietors who will want paid news without norms of disclosure […] marketing people will ask for their 4 pages of pound of flesh, it’s a question of disclosure. Were they willing to do that? We got about 18-20 editors only answering and giving that pledge. A majority haven’t done so. It required the election commission to intervene […] we could have a code of conduct, we could devise it but are editors going to be willing to adhere to that code of conduct […] It’s not just financial corruption; there is corruption, which is moral and ideological. And when newspapers and magazines blank out certain views, and when television channels believe in “antinational” versus “nationalistic” […]”

Media Regulation in India and Other Countries: News media in India is essentially self-regulated by an industry body, The Editors’ Guild of India and a statutory body, The Press Council of India (PCI). The above speech renders the Editors Guild redundant. The Press Council is ineffectual both because it has no real powers but also because of its constitution – 20 out of the 28 members are industry representatives, 5 are MPs and one person each from the Sahitya Academy, University Grants Commission and the Bar Council of India. That the Press Council is unwilling to use even the powers it does have is evident from its suppression of  Thakurta’s et al painstakingly researched report on paid news, which named offenders in Paranjoy’s words to “name and shame”.

It is evident that an independent regulatory mechanism is needed to restore media standards and public respect for the fourth estate. State regulation smacks of censorship and therefore it is important that the regulatory mechanism be completely independent of the State. There are two practices prevalent in the news industry around the world – the appointment of ombudsmen and Press Councils – both with varying levels of effectiveness depending on the terms of reference of the ombudsman, and the constitution of the Press Council. An ombudsman (also known as a “public editor”) receives and investigates complaints from readers/viewers about accuracy, fairness etc of coverage, and recommends appropriate action like correction, apology, opportunity for fair reply etc. Some of the most reputed national newspapers have ombudsmen (with varying TOR) including The New York Times in the United States, The Guardian in UK, and Hindu in India. A good ombudsman contract should be fixed-term and non-renewable, with complete independence from the editors and owners through strictly predefined conditions for termination (e.g., quality and frequency of writing). A well-defined ombudsman role can thus serve as an effective first level of internal regulation.

Press Councils vary widely in prevalence (e.g., USA does not have a national level PC, but PCs in four states) and constitution; however all Press Councils are self-regulatory bodies to promote fairness and accuracy in news reporting. The British PCC (Press Complaints Commission) is one of the most efficacious, and works by “dealing with complaints, framed within the terms of the Editors’ Code of Practice, about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines and the conduct of journalists”. However the PCC too has often been criticized for being toothless (it has no legal powers) and not adequately representing the interests of the consumer.

Possible Solution: Experience with media regulation in India and internationally have been thus dissatisfactory and need innovation. First media independence must be qualified – media must be independent of the State (to resist censorship) but it cannot demand independence of the people, since its independence is predicated on the freedom of speech of the public in a democracy. Therefore the media is accountable to the public. With this premise, there are many possible options, which need to be debated. For instance, there could be two-tiered approach that works predominantly on self-regulation with limited external regulation for serious violations.

Opportunity for self-regulation: The media can set its own industry standards, “media code of conduct” to define standards of ethics, content, coverage etc. These standards should be enforced though in-house mechanisms in all media houses. For newspapers/channels above a certain circulation/viewership/revenue threshold, an independent ombudsman position should be mandatorily instituted for enforcement of norms. This ombudsman would then serve as a support mechanism for journalists asked to wrongly suppress or promote certain coverage and also for readers to file complaints. The second step in this process could be an organization consisting of all media ombudsmen where unresolved complaints are further adjudicated, and monthly performance reports published. The hope is that peer pressure and transparency will result in a somewhat improved performance.

Independent Council: The third and final step in this process could be an independent commission with legal powers to investigate serious transgressions and levy penalties on both the media houses and the ineffectual ombudsman. State, media and industry representatives must be barred from appointment on the Council to prevent conflict of interest. Selection and appointment procedure of this Council can be along the lines of the many reforms suggested for bodies like the CIC, CVC, CBI etc.

Some additional reforms like disclosure norms for advertising, income etc and reinforcing steps to improve media quality in India like a good quality public broadcasting channel, newspaper are also needed. It is obvious that a broad-based public debate is required to thoroughly discuss and examine possible options. However this debate needs to be happen outside of the confines of the media to be truly neutral and examine *all* solutions

Also Read:

Report of the Standing Committee on IT on Paid News (MKSS and ADR suggestions noted in report only as ADR)

Media Campaign for MNIK – Free Speech or Free Market?

Other media related articles


One response to “Paid News and Media Reform

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