The emergence of Media Corporation, through growing cross media ownership is having their impact on media’s public service commitments. In recent times, the Indian media and its journalistic practices have been criticised for breaking the trust of the public. Indian media have successfully succeeded in growing their economy through cross-ownership and advertorials. Under the influence of profit making, commercial interests which are controlling the news content, as editorial contents are being sold like other commodities. This commercialization of the media content is evident in phenomena like paid news.
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News is meant to be objective, fair and unbiased. This is the only difference between news and opinions. But, recently, the lines between news and advertisements are blurring because paid advertisements are deceived as news which favours a particular organization or a person by selling editorial spaces. The media organizations misguide the readers by providing no true information to them. By doing this, the media questions its own credibility and is fast losing the trust of the society. The readers/viewers cannot distinguish the difference between a news report and advertorials.
This paper argues that the media is no longer the fourth estate of journalism and has become like any other marketable product with reference to paid news. The face of journalism in India has changed. The press is mostly owned and controlled by the ‘capitalist class’ (i.e. the rich and powerful in society; opinion leaders; gatekeepers), who can use the press to report facts which are convenient to them. Over years, the ownership pattern, organizational structure and the content of the newspapers have changed. They are on sale for paid news and private treaties. In addition, this paper also tires to observe the impacts and analyse the responses of the media, civil society and the state on paid news.
Paid News and the Private Treaties Phenomenon
1″Paid news is run to pass off an advertisement, apiece of propaganda and advertisement…pass that as news, pretend that it is news that is “paid news” – P. Sainath. It is a deal signed by the media organizations with an individual especially corporate houses and the candidate standing for elections, assuring them a fixed amount of coverage through advertisements and news reports in favour of them. In addition, additional fee can be charged to run negative campaign against their rivals. The paid news operation is done secretly and no disclosure is made before such news printed or broadcasted. Journalists willing or otherwise practice this phenomenon on a large scale. Journalists who do not wish to practice this phenomenon are either sacked from their organizations or the individuals are denied coverage and also suffer media blackouts.
2The advertisers, who are ever anxious to catch consumers off guard, believe that ‘simply there cannot be a better way of breaking into consumer mind space than disguising the brand messages as news, which is more credible and convincing than raw advertising,’ says Santosh Desai, managing director and CEO, Future Brands. Such content is priced more than the regular advertising rates.
Private treaties are signed with corporate organizations because media owners want to grow their organizations. In 2002, Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL) launched this phenomenon of private treaties by singing deals with potential advertisers who could not afford mainstream advertising in return for equity shares in their companies. Many corporate leaders say that when the news space is available for sale, there are many buyers for it, especially when it meets their needs. Example: In The Times of India, Delhi Edition, Olay brand articles were a part of paid marketing campaign by Proctor and Gamble, India.
The Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) reported that media organizations are entering into agreements called private treaties with corporate organizations whose equity shares are listed on the stock exchanges that come out with public offer of their shares. The media organizations are picking up stakes in such companies and in return are providing favourable coverage through advertisements, news reports and editorials.
Repercussions of Selling Editorial Space
Most media organizations are interested in making profits for which they sacrifice the ethical norms of journalistic practice in favour of paid news. The first paid news phenomenon was broken down by P. Sainath. Paid news is common in Lok Sabha and state assemblies’ elections especially in states like Maharashtra and Haryana.  As per media reports, the size of the ‘paid news’ market in Andhra Pradesh in the elections in 2009 alone, was said to be over Rs 1,000 crore. In Maharashtra, it is said to be in multi thousand crores.
A lot of evidence is available of the malpractice. Example: Ashok Chavan used the print media effectively during the Maharashtra state elections in 2009. Identical articles with photographs and headlines having appeared in competing publications carrying by-lines of different authors around the same time praising candidates claiming that both are likely to win the election hints at some unholy dealings. Nowhere, is there any indication that the publication of such news reports has entailed financial transaction or has been sponsored by certain individuals or political parties.
Press Council of India’s draft report of enquiry titled ‘Paid News: How corruption in the Indian Media Undermines Indian Democracy’ points out that the deception that ‘paid news’ involves takes place at three distinct levels (Sainath, 2010a):
4The reader or the viewer is deceived into believing that what is essentially an advertisement is in fact, independently produced news content.
Moreover, candidates contesting elections do not disclose the true expenditure incurred on campaigning thereby violating the Conduct of Election Rules, 1961, which have been framed by, and are meant to be enforced by, the Election Commission of India under the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
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The newspapers and television channels concerned usually receive funds for paid news in cash and do not disclose such earnings in their company balance sheets or official statements of accounts. Thus, by not accounting for the money received from candidates, the concerned media company or its representatives are violating the provisions of the Companies Act, 1956 as well as the Income Tax Act, 1961, among other laws.
Edelman, an independent public relations firm, in its 2010 Trust Barometer Survey states that the Indian news media have been losing their credibility and trust among the people.  Over the past two years, trust on television news dropped sharply from 61 per cent to just 36 per cent, that of business magazines has gone down from 72 per cent to 47 per cent, and that of newspapers has gone down from 61 per cent to 40 per cent. Trust in the media in India as a whole declined by 7 per cent (from 65 per cent in 2009 to 58 per cent in 2010). This decline in trust speaks volumes about the future role of the media in India and the threats to its hard earned freedom.
According to the 2nd Press Commission report, the role of press should be constructive critic. It must oppose an official policy when needed; support it when it can at most of the times, bring out instructive opinions on important issues covering all aspects/ angles to provide knowledge to people.
Journalists are accepted as moral guides in the Indian society. They are accepted because of the foundation on which the concept of media freedom was built. India guaranteed freedom of speech and expression to its citizens. It is a fundamental right under Article 19(1) (A) of the Indian Constitution, which allows everyone to express their views as well as allows the right to print matters which are borrowed from someone or printed under the direction of that person.
Paid News Syndrome and Need for Greater Accountability
The paid news syndrome has become a debateable topic for various platforms. When the credibility of the media is lost, its freedom gets restricted. Hamid Ansari, the Vice President of India said that the explosive growth in the media had highlighted the fact that the Fourth Estate is only one among the pillars of democracy that has an identifiable commercial and profit facade.
Disapproving paid news in any form, Sitaram Yechury says that paid news is not merely a serious matter influencing the functioning of a free press, but it is an issue that also concerns the future of parliamentary democracy in India. Providing access to unbiased, unfiltered and objective news or information is the role that media are supposed to play in a parliamentary democracy. This comes under very severe strain with the emergence of the paid news syndrome.
Strongly arguing against paid news, Arun Jaitley claims that those who are in a position to pay more for information expressed as paid news shape the human minds in this country accordingly. This cannot be free speech. At best, it could be trade, it could be business, and, therefore, the government has to take this out of the arena of free speech and put it in the arena of business or trade, all in public interest. Favouring deterrent penalty against those who indulge in such practices he suggests that ‘in the case of (a) candidate, it has to be an offence under election law (The phrase) ‘corrupt practice’ must be amended in the Representation of the People Act and this should be a ground for setting aside the election and disqualifying the candidate, and if parties indulge in thisâ€¦there must be action against this.
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