Paid News : A Crack in the Fourth Pillar of Democracy

Paid News : A Crack in the Fourth Pillar of Democracy

Author: Sakshi Jain,
3rd year BBALLB(hons),
Christ (Deemed to be University)
Abstract:  The pivotal role of media as an important pillar of democracy is being   compromised as the differentiation between news and advertisements has been obscuring. Paid news has become the norm of the day. Journalists are blatantly violating the ethics of journalism and instead of reporting facts and accurate data they have simply become a medium that exaggerates and overstates the stunts of political parties months to influence and impact the vote bank. The author through this paper undertakes to highlight the blurring boundaries between news and advertisements/advertorials and highlight the efforts that shall be taken up to defeat the chronicles the selling of editorial space for money during elections. Furthermore, this paper enunciates the pivotal role of Press Council of India and the Election Commission and the importance of self-regulation and the ethical code of conduct that shall be taken up to defeat the phenomenon of paid news that is spreading like cancer.
Keywords:  Press Council, Ethics, Self – Regulation, Paid News, Vote Bank.

Introduction

Journalism is nothing but the pursuit of truthMedia- the fourth pillar of democracy has been vested with the duty to act as a bridge between what is happening around in this world and what about that is known to a layman sitting in front of his television or the one reading his morning newspaper with an intention gain an understanding of the events of the world. The independence of the media facilitates adherence to democratic norms. The pivotal role of the media is its ability to mobilize the thinking process of millions. The enhanced function of the media in the present era of globalisation and technological advancement was correctly put in the words of Justice Learned Hand of the United States Supreme Court when he said, “The hand that rules the press, the radio, the screen and the far spread magazine, rules the country”[1]

The of the press liberty is an essential part of the right to freedom of speech and expression declared by Article 19(1)(a)[2] The purpose of the press is to advance the public interest by publishing facts and opinion without which a democratic electorate cannot make responsible judgements. “Newspapers being purveyors of news and views have a bearing on public administration very often carrying material which would not be palatable to governments and other authorities.”[3]
As Uncle Ben put it “With great power comes great responsibility”. This can, aptly, be said to be the principle that should guide the conduct of media and its role. What demarcates news from other advertisements that are paid for by corporate entities, governments, organizations or individuals is the fact that a news ought to be objective, fair and non-biased.

But when this differentiation between a news and advertisements start obscuring, “when advertisements double up as news that have been paid for, or when “news” is published in favour of a particular politician by selling editorial spaces,”[4] In such circumstances, the viewer can scarcely recognize or differe
ntiate between news reports and advertorials.

The problem began to take a recognisable shape in the past decade and is assured to plague our democracy in the future as well as the media is not balancing its powers and responsibilities. When the Constitution makers decided to grant the right of freedom of speech and expression to the media as has been granted to its citizens, they did so in the anticipation that the media would be independent of any political or commercial control.
The issue at hand enhances when the media shifts responsibility from bringing the true picture in front of people to misrepresenting them by becoming endorsement forums for various political parties. Corruption in media houses is the ultimate point of concern at this phase of developing India.[5] 

Be that as it may, the present prevailing media houses are caught in the shackles of corporatization and commercialization. Currently, media has taken the shape of pivot where news is sold depending upon the sensitization that it creates. The spirit of media is lost the moment truth is tarnished and partisan becomes the norm of the day. Media is now becoming dishonest not only to itself but to the millions of people of this country who vest their faith into it.[6] It is rather tragic to see how the unpleasant reality and genuine sufferings of this country escapes from the eyes of this media and how a little political trick by a political party is exaggerated and overstated for months to influence and impact the vote bank.

Corruption in the mass media in India and elsewhere is as old as the media itself. On the off chance that there is corruption in society, it would be unrealistic to expect the media to be free of corruption. “India is the world’s largest democracy. A vibrant and diverse mass media is an important pillar of democracy in the country. The independence of the media facilitates adherence to democratic norms. Article 19 of the Constitution of India confers the right to freedom of speech and expression to all citizens of the country and to the media as well.”[7] Lately, the roots of corruption in the Indian media has gone way deeper than the corruption of individual journalists and specific media organizations – from “planting” data and views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind, to “more institutionalized and organized forms of corruption wherein newspapers and television channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information in favour of particular individuals, corporate entities, representatives of political parties and candidates contesting elections, that is sought to be disguised as “news”.”[8]

The essence of the phrase ‘pen is mightier than the sword’ is lost when the pen is itself becoming “the sword used for slashing the essence of media and turning it into a brothel where the prostitution of journalism is the only candour.”[9] Media has become a pawn in the game of politics. Its reins lie in the hands of anyone who offers money or anyone who demonstrates power by inculcating fear.

The author through this paper undertakes to understand the blurring boundaries between news and advertisements/advertorials and highlight the efforts that shall be taken up to defeat the chronicles the selling of editorial space for money during elections.

Manifestation of the Problem


The entire operation is under wraps. This violation and malpractice is rather rampant and cuts across newspapers and television channels, small and large, in different languages and located in various parts of the country. What worsens the current state of affairs is that  these illegal operations have become “organized” and involve advertising agencies and public relations firms, besides journalists, managers and owners of media companies. Marketing executives utilise the services of journalists – willingly or otherwise – to gain access to political personalities. “So-called “rate cards” or “packages” are distributed that often include “rates” for publication of “news” items that not
merely praise particular candidates but also criticize their political opponents. Candidates who do not go along with such “extortionist” practices on the part of media organizations are denied coverage.”
[10]Sections of the media in India have inevitably become participants and players in such practices that further adds to the growing use of money power in politics which undermines democratic processes and norms – while deceptively putting on an act to occupy a high moral ground. This has not merely undermined democracy in India but also discoloured the nation’s notoriety.

The regulator of the country’s capital markets, the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI), has addressed the problem of “private treaties” between media companies and other corporate entities and intimated the Press Council of India about the same. SEBI has recommended the disclosure of financial holdings and obligatory implementation of guidelines to ensure that the interests of investors are sufficiently shielded – these suggestions have been endorsed by the Press Council of India which, in 1996, drew up a set of guidelines that are especially pertinent to financial journalists.

“In the area of political “paid news”, given the illegal and clandestine nature of such malpractices, it is not easy to find clinching evidence that pins responsibility for such corrupt practices on particular persons and organizations.”[11] Notwithstanding the same, there is a huge volume of circumstantial evidence that points towards the growing use of the media for publishing “paid news” which is a form of electoral malpractice. However, there exists no such sign that indicates that the publication of such “news” reports has entailed financial transactions or has been sponsored by certain individuals or political parties. “When confronted with circumstantial evidence that substantiate allegations of “paid news”, the standard reaction of individuals and representatives of media organizations accused of corrupt practices is to pretend that nothing untoward has happened since the evidence is circumstantial in nature.”[12] The standard answer of the representatives of political parties, as well as media organizations who have been named and against whom such explicit charges of corruption has been levied, is to straight away deny the claims. In private, be that as it may, the same individuals recognise and acknowledge that the malignancy of “paid news” has spread deep into the country’s body politic and needs to be removed. Such illegal acts have destroyed the credibility of the media itself and are, therefore, detrimental to its own long-term interests

Tools available at our disposal to curb the problem

Any measure to curb the misfortune of paid news would be in the form of a restriction to the fundamental right guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India.[13] What is important to note is that there exists a constitutional obligation on the courts to ensure that the restrictions imposed by a law on the media are reasonable and relate to the purposes specified in Article 19(2).  And with relation to the these restrictions it has been observed that a court evaluating the reasonableness of a restriction imposed on a fundamental right guaranteed by Article 19 enjoys a lot of discretion in the matter.
The Supreme Court in the case of Papnasam Labour Union v. Madura Coats Ltd[14] has established certain principles and guidelines that must be observed and followed while adjudging the constitutionality of a statutory provision imposing restriction on fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 19(1)(a) to (g) when challenged on the grounds of unreasonableness of the restriction imposed by it. There are a few countermeasures that can be taken up to defeat the evil that is the phenomenon of paid news.
  • Role of Press Council
The Press Council of India is a “quasi-judicial body” constituted under the Press Council Act, 1978. “The object of the council is to preserve the freedom of the press and to maintain and improve standard if the newspapers and new agencies of India.”[15]  Section 14 of the Act empowers the Council to administer warning, admonition or censure to the newspapers/ news agencies if the Council has reasons to believe that the newspapers/ news agencies has acted in breach of journalistic ethics.[16] A proposal to amend Section 15(4) of the Press Council Act, 1978, to make the directions of the Council binding has been pending for a long time. It should be take
n up on a priority basis.
[17]
  • Representation of the People Act, 1951
The provisions of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 regulate the Union and state elections. The cardinal purpose of this Act is “to ensure free and fair elections in the country.”[18] Therefore, since election-time “paid news” undermines free and fair elections, it is recommended that Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, should be “suitably amended so as to declare any payment for the publication of news 7 as a corrupt practice or an “electoral malpractice” and should be made a punishable offence.”[19]
  • Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC)
The Election Commission has created an exclusive wing to monitor the practice of paid news during Lok Sabha polls. The Commission has appointed Media Certification and Monitoring Committee (MCMC) at district and state-levels,which will scrutinise all media within its jurisdiction to identify political advertisement in the disguise of news. The committee shal study and observe the trends and formulate reports of such compilations which shall furnish the daily report on all advertising expenditure of a candidate which shall include suspected cases of paid news.[20]
  • Separating Management from Editorial
After the deliberations that took place with the Sub – Committee, established on June 9, 2009 appointed by the Press Council of India, and examining and analysing the evidence produced by such committee, The Press Council felt the need to separate the management from the editorial.[21] It was felt that ought to be an unmistakable differentiation drawn between the managements and editorial staff in media companies and that the independence of the editor should be maintained and safeguarded.[22] This was a derivation of the realisation that election-time paid news deals are done between the candidates or political parties or their agents and media.
  • Self-regulation
Self-regulation is best alternative to check the “paid news” phenomenon. However, self-regulation only offers “partial solutions to the problem since there would always be offenders who would refuse to abide by voluntary codes of conduct and ethical norms that are not legally mandated.”[23] What is pertinent is that a deliberation must take place among all concerned stakeholders on whether “a directive of the Supreme Court of India that enjoins television channels to stop broadcasting campaign-related information on candidates and political parties 48 hours before elections take place can and should be extended to the print medium”[24] as, at present, such a restriction does not apply to this section of the media

  • The Mint code of journalistic conduct

 The Mint, a daily newspaper published from the Hindustan Times stable in New Delhi (owned by HT Media)[25], has formulated a comprehensive code of journalistic conduct and provides all its employees with guidelines for appropriate professional conduct. The newspaper asserts that the code is proposed not as a statement of novel beliefs or a codification of new rules of conduct, but as a reaffirmation of enduring values and practices. According to the said code, “the newspaper does not pay newsmakers for interviews, nor does it pay them for taking their photographs or to film or record them.”[26] The code of conduct further additionally urges its employees to “prepare and place stories, graphics, and interactive features based solely on their editorial merits with an intention to treat companies that advertise with the newspaper in exactly the same manner as those that do not advertise”[27]. It asks its employees not to favour any company, or the subject of a story, nor to discriminate against any, for whatever reasons.
  • Education
Further Press Council of India has put forth the suggestion that endeavours should be made to educate the voters to differentiate between the doctored reporting and the balanced and just reporting. The same can be achieved by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting with the aid of Press Council of India and several other significant associations of journalists and newspaper owners. Furthermore, it is advisable that local press clubs shall also be associated with the conduct of seminars and workshops in different cities to e
ducate readers and viewers. The Press Council of India, representative of political parties, associations of newspaper owners, television broadcasters and journalists unions and associations can provide resource-persons for such seminars and workshops. This procedure of instructing voters and citizens should start not long after the dates of decisions are reported.

Suggestions and Conclusions
There is a dire need to secure the right of the public to accurate information before voters practice their franchise in favour of a particular candidate in the electoral fray. An opinion that was expressed by the Press Council is that one reason for the expansion of the “paid news” phenomenon could be that “on account of the limits on election campaign related expenditure that have been imposed by the Election Commission of India, candidates have chosen this alternative to publicize themselves, in the process posing a danger to the conduct of free and fair elections.”[28] It was proposed that the powers that are vested in returning officers appointed by the Election Commission before the elections take place are sufficient for such officers to issue notices to the press to explain the basis of particular “news” reports and to figure out whether financial transactions had actually taken place between candidates and representatives of media companies[29]

No solution is conceivable without will of the media companies themselves. As long as the media houses do not prioritize advocate and follow the ethics of journalism, external regulation shall fail in its endeavour. However, the positive side of things is that that the strongest voices against paid news and media malpractices are coming from within the different sections of the media[30] The challenge to protect journalism is greater than ensuring the interests of newspapers and media outlets. By resorting to paid news and forging private business treaties, the Indian media industry has managed to find a simple way out by protecting the interest of businesses, and not journalism. “Politics, Business and Media form a deadly cocktail, which is, for sure, not at all good for Indian information tastebuds”[31]
While a media shackled by government regulation is undesirable, rather unhealthy for democracy, the ramifications of continued unaccountability are significantly all the more harming. There is a need to take measures in order to prevent media trials from eroding the civil rights of citizens, whereby the media have a clearer definition of their rights and duties, and the courts are given the power to punish those who egregiously ignore them.
Therefore there is a need for an authority that shall ensure the independence of broadcasters. The same authority should set the standards of broadcast and maintain and constantly improve the same. It must ensure that the broadcasters adhere to the code of conduct and high professional standards.  Further it must encourage a sense of responsibility towards the society and public service. Also, it must review and scrutinize any development likely to affect the gathering, supply and dissemination of news. And any other aspect which is incidental, consequential, related or materially concerned with the above mentioned points
It is significant to understand that the judiciary has been critical of the overactive and prejudicial reporting by the media. In the Labour Liberation Front case[32], Justice L. Narasimha Reddy lamented the “abysmal levels to which the norms of journalism have drifted.” In M.P. Lohia v. State of West Bengal[33], the Supreme Court cautioned the publisher, editor and journalist of a magazine that had reported the facts of a case that was sub-judice, thus “interfering with the administration of justice.”
It is time to stop the media from arbitrarily running its shop and making the country suffer under the garb of its freedom and independence and actually work towards its growth and excellence in order to get back the lost essence of media.
The Press must undertake the principle of accuracy and fairness and therefore shall eschew publication of inaccurate, baseless, graceless, and misleading or distorted material. All sides of the core issue or subject should be reported. Unjustified rumours and surmises should not be set forth as facts

[1] Ravi, B. Role, responsibility and ethics: a media study. The Hindu. (2016) http://www.thehindu.com/books/books…ethics-amedia…/article5674556.ece

[2] Brij Bhusan v. State of Delhi, AIR 1950 SC129. (India).

[3] Indian Express Newspapers(Bombay) Private Ltd. v. Union of India, AIR 1986 SC 515 (India).

[4] Press Council of India, Report on Paid News,2010.

[5] Essel Infraprojects Ltd. v Sanjeev Srivastava & Abhimanyu (2014) SCC Online Bom 1780 (India).

[6] Rajdeep Sardesai v State of Andhra Pradesh & Others (2015) 8 SCC 239 (India).

[7] Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Kalimekolan Sreenivas Reddy,  “Paid News”: How corruption in the Indian media undermines democracy ,Press Council of India (2010).

[8] Issues Related To Paid News, PRS Legislative Research http://www.prsindia.org/theprsblog/?tag=press-council-of-india.

[9] Shivam Sharma and Shruti Mishra, The Lost Essence Of Media- An Exasperating Ferrago Of Distortions, Misrepresentations And Outright Lies, Vol 14, Supremo Amicus.

[10]Thakur, supra at 8

[11] Thakur, supra at 8

[12] Mr. Salil Shringarpure , Paid News: A Hurdle In Indian Democracy, Bharati Law Review (2014).

[13] INDIAN CONST.

[14] Papnasam Labour Union v. Madura Coats Ltd (1995) 1 SCC 501  (India).

[15] Section 13, The Press Council Act, 1978,  No. 37, Acts of Parliament, 1978  (India).

[16] Voluntary Health Assocn v. Press Council of India AIR 2003 Delhi 76 (India).

[17] Presss Council, supra at 4.

[18] Representation of the People Act, 1951, No. 43, Acts of Parliament, 1951(India).

[19] Presss Council, supra at 4.

[20] https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/EC-sets-up-committee-to-check-paid-news/articleshow/31547321.cms

[21] Presss Council, supra at 4.

[22] Id.

[23] Thakur, supra at 8

[24]Compendium of Instructions on Paid News and Related Matters, Election Commission of India, http://164.100.150.3/Lokshabha14/electionbooks/Compendium_PaidNews.pdf. (2013)

[25] Mint Code of Journalistic Conduct ( 2011)

[26] Id.

[27] Mint Code, supra at 25.

[28] Presss Council, supra at 4.

[29] Amrit Dhillon, Media collusion with politics, business weakens Indian democracy, Insight & Opinion, https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1274036/media-collusionpoliticians-business-weakens-indian. (2013)

[30] India’s dodgy paid news phenomenon, The Guardian , https://www.theguardian.com/media/gree nslade/2011/feb/20/press-freedom-india.

[31] Siby Mathew, Paid news and media Industry: Dynamics and Status, Amity Journal of Media & Communication Studies (Vol. 6).

[32] Bandhua Mukti Morcha v. Union of India & Ors. (1997) 10 SCC 549 (India).

[33] M.P. Lohia v. State of West Bengal AIR 2005 SC 790 (India).
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