It is a touch funny to see many media professionals expressing righteous indignation over how politicians and political parties bought editorial space during the last general elections. The Editors Guild, responding to the criticism, appointed a panel to look into the phenomenon of 'paid news' and also to suggest ways and means to prevent it. The innocence displayed by these worthies about this practice is quite amusing.
Hypocrisy works well in circumstances when insistence on candidness and transparency threatens to destabilise relationships and the carefully constructed social contracts, but surely, it should not result in denial of the malaise that afflicts our media and polity. After all, this is not the first time that the media has been charged for bartering away its integrity and credibility for easy money.
Vernacular newspapers have been routinely criticised for being fuzzy in their understanding of media ethics and the separation between editorial and marketing. Disturbing and uncharitable suggestions about getting a sponsored article published in lieu of - as little as - a bottle of whiskey have dogged the media for long.
In recent times, public relations companies have perfected this art of pushing content that do not deserve to be on the news pages. Market leader Bennett Coleman & Company, cognizant of how some crooked journalists may be benefiting from PR companies, decided to turn this into a bizarre revenue model. They floated a concept of 'Times treatise' that involved buying a stake in struggling companies and helping build their brands through advertising and articles in their flagship product, The Times of India. In one move, the TOI removed the fig leaf that saved the media from the shame of partisanship and commercialisation of news.
I have no recall whether any of the media watchdogs or market regulators like the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) worry about the implications of 'brand building' of dodgy companies through the pages of a newspaper on the fortunes of small investors. Indeed, if a legion of investors lost their money in the yo-yoing stock market, then some blame should go on the media hype organised by the marketing personnel who controlled (and still do) editorial spaces in the newspapers.
For long, the so-called Delhi based 'national media' served as beacon of sorts when it came to the practice of media ethics. The working journalist movement kept the media barons in check and ensured that the editors functioned in an environment of freedom and integrity.
The last many years have seen the working journalist movement being hammered into submission by contract journalism as well as pliant editors who are willing to do anything to curry favour with the proprietors (and the larger political and corporate establishment). Editors no longer exercise their right to resign to uphold principles when they come under pressure of the barons. They are all participants in this unedifying consensus to preserve this venal and morally rotten order.
Coming back to the issue of 'paid news' - the phenomenon has been visible for quite some time now. Most local language newspapers have been discretely taking money from politicians and pushing their coverage. Many owners/editors were accused of taking money for running vicious campaigns against political personalities. The miasma of doubt hung on the motives that drove these campaigns of character assassination.
However, what was witnessed in election 2009 has to be seen in the context of the fact that it was one of the costliest elections in the history of Indian electoral democracy. It was possible for journalists covering this election to experience the unprecedented blizzard of money that was swaying loyalties and choices. Political candidates were compelled to spend money to advertise in newspapers and channels. As a leader told this correspondent, "If we do not show up in the newspapers and channels, then how would anyone know that we are contesting the elections?" What is the way out? In its diamond jubilee celebration, the EC needs to take a hard look at the circumstances in which the paid news phenomenon has gathered momentum and work towards sorting it out. To start with, they could bring the joy of campaigning back into elections. Let the posters, buntings, banners and drums come out once again. Once campaigning comes over ground, this would be far less expensive than paying the corrupt section of the media, always ready to sell-out.