Paid news

P. SAINATH

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Yours was not, in the beginning, a criminal nature, but circumstances changed it. At the age of nine, you stole sugar. At the age of fifteen, you stole money. At twenty, you stole horses. At twenty-five, you committed arson. At thirty, hardened in crime, you became an editor.

– Mark Twain

 

READ editor as corporate owner and Mark Twain’s words retain their freshness and meaning after more than 125 years. Also, they are astonishingly prescient. Another line in the same passage of Twain’s ‘Lionizing Murderers’ goes on to say: ‘Worse things are in store for you. You will be sent to Congress.’ It is not unrealistic to assume that some of the top owners of the ‘paid news’ empires will find themselves in Parliament at some point.

For once – and after a very long time – we have half a debate over sleaze and greed in the Indian Big Media. Only half because the active half – those extorting money and plugging propaganda and advertising as ‘news’ – have so far stayed silent on the controversy in even their own newspapers and television channels. Let’s be optimistic. Maybe that’s an indication that they’ve taken a hit. During the 2004 polls, the then Chief Election Commissioner wrote a letter to ‘a leading Mumbai daily’, asking who had paid for an advertisement that seemed quite suspect. The paper declined to answer that question, suggesting the query was an infringement on the freedom of the press.

In itself, the game is simple. Political parties and candidates in electoral contests have to cough up very large sums of money if they hope to get covered at all in newspapers and channels running a paid news racket. You pay to print. Decline, and you’re obliterated. If your rival has paid up, you might even cop a lot of nasty flak in those media.

Large and very powerful sections of the media went out and actively solicited, often extorted money from poll candidates. Those who paid up received coverage that would have embarrassed the court soothsayers of medieval kingdoms. The advertisements and propaganda were presented to readers as ‘news’. Those who didn’t pay found their names were never once mentioned.

 

There are some who refer to the practice as ‘paid content’. It isn’t. Legitimate advertising is also paid for content. What was sold here was news. Or ads dressed up as news.

The marketing pitch to paid news buyers pointed to two distinct advantages. This route helps make a mockery of the limits of election spending by candidates – Rs 25 lakh for those contesting a Lok Sabha seat; Rs 10 lakh for those chasing one in the state legislatures. Using the ads-disguised-as-news technique, many candidates spent several times the limit on just newspaper or television channel advertising alone. Further, much of these transactions were in cash. There was either fake billing or none at all. So both buyer and seller evaded tax issues.

It worked. There are those who spent crores of rupees on these ads dolled up as news. Some of them have turned in election expenditure accounts showing a total of less than Rs 7 lakh on all forms of spending.

The ‘paid news’ game, though, is not so much a clean or total break from processes underway in the Indian media. It is, though, a radical leap ahead. Radical enough to threaten the existence of legitimate journalism. Dangerous enough to undermine the democratic electoral process.

India in the past two decades has witnessed the hyper-commercialization of just about everything – from education and health sectors to cricket. That the media – never wide-eyed innocents to begin with – would somehow remain untouched and unblemished is a naive thought. The media cheer-led and celebrated that hyper-commercialization. They were its storm troopers. They eulogised the spread of the new corporate culture (of which they are a structurally embedded part). Would they then pass up a chance to make money out of it at every turn? (As Baron Roy Thomson of Fleet had put it famously over half a century ago: ‘I buy newspapers to make money to buy more newspapers to make more money.’)

It is also naive to delink all that’s happening from the process of concentration of media ownership in ever fewer hands. That process, on for some decades, picked up steam from the mid-80s and gale force soon after. The past 15 years have seen the unprecedented rise of corporate power in every conceivable sphere. With conglomerates controlling vast swathes of media and selling countless products, the interests of media owners have become very complex, even as the content of their outlets has become more and more homogenized.

 

In principle, the present flood of ‘paid news’ is not dramatically different from the selling of editorial space to buyers who want their codswallop disguised as news. Many innovative ways were found of doing this. Some legally grey but ethically obscene. Advertorials tried walking an imagined ethical tightrope. MediaNet and Private Treaties were up and running early this decade. Meanwhile expanding newspaper chains had already evolved a practice of making correspondents and stringers in smaller towns and districts responsible for advertisements and circulation too. The mythical ‘wall’ between advertising and editorial turned out to be a bed cohabited by both.

In a worldview treating news as a product just like any other, the rest followed quite smoothly. The difference, of course, is that cheating people on information they really need at election time is robbing them of much more than their money. You undermine the democratic process itself. In that way, even the same principles operate differently and much worse, during election campaigns. An old racket with a new – very potent – twist.

 

There were already rumblings of disquiet over this in the 2004 elections. But most political people try never to pick a fight with the media. By 2009, the racket was a full-fledged industry worth countless crores of rupees across the country. This time, PR firms, designer agencies and ad agencies were deep in it, ‘customizing’ the fake news to seem ‘exclusive’ for each involved newspaper or channel. Informal ‘rate cards’ – without the company logo – were making the rounds. You could get ‘a profile and four news items of your choice’ for a few lakhs. You could get ‘dawn to dusk coverage’ by a television crew that would accompany you for that time for a cost of Rs 25 lakh. And this time, a lot more of those adversely affected – smaller parties, candidates and yes, journalists – protested. Earlier, public criticism of these practices came largely from veteran editors like Prabhash Joshi, Mrinal Pande, Kuldip Nayar and George Verghese. Spot on, but denied a platform within mainstream media, which simply blanked out criticism.

The sheer scale at which ‘news’ was manufactured, of course, created many mess-ups. For instance, the same ‘exclusive’ stories on Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan appearing in different papers under different bylines. Chavan’s greatness and achievements – all of which unfolded in just 11 months when he was chief minister – produced hundreds of full pages of ‘news’ (many of them in colour) in some newspapers. As advertising, these would have cost crores of rupees. Most of these pages appeared in the giant Marathi daily Lokmat. That is the fourth highest circulated daily in the country (NRS 2006). The mess-up of identical items involved lots of other papers.

 

For the first time, stories began to appear that named names. In The Hindu, Outlook magazine, and others. Television channels, a few of them, anyway, had the inevitable panel discussions on the subject. By November, a specific reference to the ongoing scams by Vice President Hamid Ansari had made a lot of impact. The issue began to snowball. And there is more of a public debate on this than ever before. Amongst the pundits of paid news, there is silence.

While there is hard-boiled cynicism amongst corporate media bosses who knew exactly what they were doing – and haven’t the slightest intention of letting go of such lucrative rackets – there is amongst some of the outraged, a touching naiveté. Anguish over a presumed loss of innocence in the media. While this indicates perhaps that idealism still lives – always a good thing – it might help obscure the wider canvas. The nostalgia over the decline of the ‘Fourth Estate’ misses the process of corporatization and extended interests that makes it difficult to tell the difference today between the Fourth Estate and Real Estate. The corporate hijack of media and media agendas is crucial to the story.

At another level, Publisher as Rogue is one of the oldest themes in media history. Thomas Paine – perhaps the greatest journalist ever – learned that the hard way over 230 years ago. Robert Bell had published Paine’s Common Sense, the bible of the American Revolution and the first book to outsell the Bible. Common Sense sold anywhere between 350,000 and 500,000 copies, making it the highest selling book in America of all time (relative to population size). Paine dedicated his earnings and royalties to buying mittens for the troops fighting the better-equipped British Army in the bitter cold. Not a penny went to any such noble cause. The publisher pocketed the proceeds – and charged Paine 30 pounds not only for his author’s copies but also for the printing of the entire first lot of 6,000. When Paine later broke with him in disgust, Bell himself ran some of the ‘pirated’ or unauthorized versions of Common Sense.

The veneer of respectability cultivated in the earlier years of the 20th century was simply shredded in the last two decades. This much credit must go to the Maxwells, Murdochs and Blacks. They slaughtered a lot of nonsensical notions about the media in our time.

 

India under British rule saw some of the finest human beings take to journalism and publishing. It was a great age, and one that threw up several truly great traditions, sparks or elements of which still remarkably live on. (A tribute perhaps more to the Indian public than the press). And it happened in so many countries fighting for freedom from colonial rule. It could be the reason why editors and publishers continue to enjoy a respect they do not any longer deserve. In post-1947 India, newspaper owners have been convicted of embezzlement, forgery and more. Others made fortunes out of selling newsprint in black in the good old days. Their successors sell a hell of a lot more than newsprint. In this decade, one (perhaps in the tradition of Paine’s publisher) has made a killing out of raising money in the name of Kargil widows. And yet others, also in this decade, have taken the mercenary sale of editorial space to unprecedented heights.

 

What then makes the ‘paid news’ phenomenon of recent elections in India different from the robber barons of the past? First, corruption in the sense of petty sleaze amongst individual journalists has been around a long time. Hacks on the take is not a new story. But all out extortion as an organized industry run by the owners and employers is. An industry worth thousands of crores across the country. In Andhra Pradesh alone, the union of journalists there estimate that ‘paid news’ was worth anywhere between Rs 300 and Rs 1,000 crore. In Maharashtra, during the recent assembly polls, it may have been worth over Rs 500 crore – with very weak estimates, or none at all, for the electronic media’s take.

In that sense, the 2009 elections were unique. Even the 2004 general elections, where this structured corporate banditry had first begun its run, did not witness business on this scale. For sheer scale, the 2009 elections eclipsed all before them. The 2004 polls, too, were the costliest elections till that year. But 2009 made them look modest. Also the consolidation across different streams of media was far more advanced in 2009.

Second, situations often arose where no page, no column was left untouched. A well-known columnist for a Mumbai newspaper was asked in the last week of September to hold back his contributions till after the October 13 voting, as ‘every page in this paper is sold till then.’ That, from an honest editor who had no role in the racket. As one seasoned Marathi reporter (whose name appeared on a paid news story he did not actually do) put it: ‘In the days when this was about petty corruption of individual journalists, we had a choice. To be or not to be corrupt. Now when this is an organized industry run by our employers, we do not have that choice. There are four people in line for my job. Which I would lose if I refuse to do as I am told.’

 

What could have been one of the biggest barriers to such racketeering, went extinct by the ’90s with the enforcement of the contract system on journalists. Together with the busting of journalist unions, this too decimated any reserves of independence. A journalist on an 11-month contract starts worrying about renewal from the eighth. The pressure to toe the management line on everything becomes immense as the spectre of losing ones job looms closer.

So vast was the scale of paid news that during the Maharashtra assembly polls – when spending eclipsed all earlier records – real advertising actually declined. Normally, elections are good for newspapers in terms of advertising. But so much of the money took the paid news route that this showed up in a fall in real ad space. A LiveMint report (December 01) cites industry data to show that ‘the advertising volume (in column cm) in Marathi newspapers declined by around one-fifth compared with 2004.’ There could be, as the authors of the LiveMint report point out, different reasons for this fall. But very few in the world of journalism in Maharashtra believe it to be anything other than paid news undercutting straight advertising.

Third, flowing from this, was the way this scam was marketed. Anguished liberals agonise over the way in which politicians seduced the media into carrying reams of fake news. That is propaganda and advertising dolled up as news. The truth is far less palatable. The media-extortion industry actively and vigorously went after politicians. This was a case of ‘Don’t publish with us and you’re damned.’ Media reps from big groups accompanied their (mostly unhappy) political reporters to a politician’s residence and explained the benefits of the paid news route.

Both sides beat the taxman. Very large sums of money were doled out in cash. Though there were a couple of ingenious papers that did it better. They forced their paid news customer to buy his money’s worth of copies of the paper, to be distributed in his constituency. That way he still got his ‘tax benefit.’ However, the paper could show its share as revenue from higher sales and would pay some tax on that.

Fourth, the multi-media dimensions were without precedent. If you paid for a ‘total package’ your fake ‘news’ got exposure in print, on television and online. In some states it appears a few creative minds were even able to slip in a few ‘messages’ on radio. Here again, the consolidation of media across different streams was far more advanced than it was in 2004. With newspaper, television, online news services, radio and other services, big media groups were offering candidates much wider exposure than was possible earlier.

 

Conversely, those who did not pay were simply blanked out of newspaper columns and the airwaves. For the first time, several have made out notarized affidavits summarizing their experience at the hands of newspapers that sought money from them and have even named the papers. The Press Council is conducting a vigorous inquiry into the whole scam. The Election Commission, though aware of and looking into the matter, seems reluctant to do much. Like the politicians, they seem wary of antagonizing powerful sections of the media.

 

The Election Commission of India, or a section of it, seems to believe that this is not their province. That they are hardly competent to judge what is news and what is paid for advertising. This is a very poor cop-out. It is surely the province of the ECI when there is gross and large scale violation of poll expenditure limits. When electoral contests are reduced to a farce by money power. The same ECI comes down like a ton of bricks on graffiti or wall writing (even where the wall owner has no problem with it). A small independent candidate would be in big trouble if his one page leaflet failed to mention the names of printer and publisher, address of the printing press and the rest of it. Great diligence in cracking down on the technologies of the poor. But a multi-millionaire can commandeer 300 full pages of ‘news’ and hours of television time – and the ECI finds that is not its province.

Just as it is naive to disconnect the rise of paid news from the processes of commercialization and corporatization sweeping India, it is also wrong to delink what’s happening from the astonishing rise of money power. The NGO coalition National Election Watch (NEW) spearheaded by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) has done brilliant work to let us know of the growing wealth and assets of our elected representatives.

Take just Maharashtra, the epicentre of the paid news quake. The number of crorepati MLAs went up by over 70 per cent in the October polls. There are now 184 crorepatis in the state assembly – or nearly two thirds of all its 288 MLAs. (In Haryana the figure is nearly three-fourths of all MLAs.) If you are worth over Rs 10 million, your chances of winning a seat in the Maharashtra legislature are 48 times greater than if you are worth just Rs 1 million or less.

The whole process is also self-perpetuating: As many as 141, or nearly half the 306 crorepatis in the Lok Sabha, are from the ruling Congress. Meanwhile, lower down, re-elected MLAs saw astonishing asset growth in the past five years. In Maharashtra, their assets grew, on average, by over Rs 35 million. Yet, re-elected crorepatis fared even better. Their average asset growth in 2004-09 was Rs 45 million. The overall worth of a re-elected MLA is greater than that of a first-timer. That of re-elected crorepatis obviously far greater. And it gets better as you work your way up.

The average asset worth of a Lok Sabha MP is around Rs 51 million. That of a Union cabinet minister around Rs 76 million. The 64 members of the cabinet for whom data is available are worth over Rs 5 billion. The total net worth of all Lok Sabha MPs is around Rs 28 billion.

This money power so clearly translates now into media power at poll time. The media are leading the charge in pricing the aam aadmi out of the polls. In fact, we’re helping privatize the polls for the narrowest of elites. Who can afford to contest? Who can afford best the media’s mercenary coverage? Those who have the money – and who see paid news as an investment to return to power to make still more money.

Baron Roy Thomson, who once said that his favourite music was ‘the sound of radio commercials at $10 a whack’, would have approved of our media. He would have seen them as entrepreneurs who sell more media space to make more money to sell more media space to make more money.

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