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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 41, September 28, 2013

Paid News: An Advertisement of the Globalised Indian Parliament

Tuesday 1 October 2013

by Anil Chamadia

The scourge of ‘paid news’ is not only the manifestation of growing deterioration of the Indian media institution as such. The economic policies pursued as consequent to globalisation have also exposed almost all institutions of parliamentary governance. Diagnosing the malady of ‘paid news’ afflicting the media outlets, a sub-committee of the Press Council of India (PCI) has described it as an expression of prevailing organised corrupt practices in the media world. But when the Lokayukta indicted Delhi Chief Minister Shiela Dikshit of doling out ads to the media as part of her election campaign strategy, the ‘paid news’ practice assumed another dimension. We have to analyse various aspects to understand the emerging new trends in the media.

The First Press Commission report referred to how the government manipulates the media outlets through insertion of advertisements. Mrs Shiela Dikshit insisted that her government had every right to propagate its achievements through ads. She, thus, gave a new meaning to the paid news practice: that the government has a right to give ‘ad-news’ for election publicity and the rich candidate has a right to dole out money for ‘paid news’ for publicity. ‘Paid news’ in fact is only a ‘new form or design’ and a new name for the policy of doling out advertisement for a specific purpose. And the ‘paid news’ practice is an extension of that only.

During elections in the parliamentary set-up, political parties and their candidates in their individual capacity dole out advertisements and insertion of such propaganda material is the product of the globalised economic environment. With the advent of globalisation, the constitutional duties of Parliament Members underwent a change as they were separated from the collective responsibility of framing policy and programmes. They have been virtually rendered individuals with a disposable bigger amount under the MPLAD scheme. Thus after getting divorced from their active participation in the government’s policies and programmes they became active in converting their MPLAD funds into their personal political capital. The MPs, therefore, have themselves turned into the donors of ads for personal publicity.

The entire ad structure is the product of the capitalist system. Ads are no longer confined to the sale and promotion of the product and services. In the political system of the globalised era, the politicians have virtually lost their direct contact with the people and have become and made to depend on the media for public relations. Thus, under the changed scheme of things the politicians, too, become ad donors.

Secondly, we have to examine how ‘paid news’ is valued in the media market. It will be sheer simplification if we simply call ‘paid news’ an ad in the shape of news. In fact, the language and word coinage is an advanced instrument of globalisation. And, the coining of the word ‘paid’ in English to enunciate the ignoble practice is a part of that exercise. ‘Paid news’ does not convey the entire process of befooling the voters through the media. With the relentless projection of the media as the ‘fourth estate’, it has gained credibility among the people. In India, the written word carries a lot of conviction and faith. Because of that the media, too, has earned ample credibility among the people even as it, like in other democratic set-ups of the world, has an upper and urban middle-class orientation. That is why the people have not developed requisite faculty to discern or differentiate between advertisement and news as such. Hence, ads become handy for defrauding and cheating the people. The fraud in sale and purchase of a product or service could be of a personalised nature but cheating the electorate tantamounts to a crime against democracy.

The reposing of faith on the structure and design of news by the people has been the outcome of a long process of political and sociological developments. But the market-oriented political ideology brings everything in the market arena. The structure of news, its language and ‘faith in the media as the fourth estate’—all become subservient to the forces of the market. And thus involvement of fraudulent methods in the conduct of parliamentary elections will push the present political system towards its sure demise.

A Standing Committee of Parliament says that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, PCI, Election Commission, News Broadcasting Association, Editors Guild, Prasar Bharati and all other media-related organisations have admitted the prevalence of the ‘paid news’ practice and pressed for its eradication. Even then, a bigger of section of the media chose to remain mum over this malady.

No doubt, correction or rectification in any enterprise or institution always suffers from some limitations. But when the malady afflicts the entire system, then correction is possible, particularly through a ‘patch-up’ exercise. In fact, in the new economic regime parliamentary institutions are surviving only by passing off the responsibility from one to the other. In a similar fashion, the PCI and ECI seem to be engaged in search of a ‘solution’ to the cancerous growth of ‘paid news’. But, till date both have failed in this respect.

We have to understand the ‘dare-devilry’ of the media outlets that are openly indulging in (rather enhancing the practice of) ‘paid news’. Big money has tightened its grip over parliamentary democracy. The number of millionaire and billionaire MPs is increasing with every election. The owners of big media companies are now sitting in Parliament. Media companies, like other companies, are members of ‘capitalist corporations’ and reaping dividends through ‘paid news’ is their well-thought-out enterprise. That is why the practice of ‘paid news’ cannot be eradicated or ended with the implementation of any ‘code of conduct’.

The author is the editor of Mass Media, a monthly research journal.

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