For the English media, which had presumed that it held itself to a higher standard than the language media – particularly in the north of the country – paid news was a real shocker. As it turned out, the English media was right in the middle of it as owners and marketing departments merrily sold editorial space with little concern for credibility or even reader interest. It is unfortunate that while the Election Commission punished politicians for using “paid news”, media houses have got away scot-free
Almost 15 years ago, at a World Association of Newspapers conference in Vienna, aimed at bringing the editorial and marketing departments of newspapers closer together, there was almost total consensus that editorial integrity was sacrosanct. Many speakers from the marketing departments of newspapers around the world felt that editorial credibility made their own jobs easier.
Many editors described how their run-ins with the marketing departments led them to choose to become publishers and thereby get a better understanding of how a newspaper is run.
A newsroom has to run on quid pro quo between the marketing and editorial departments and for years a certain healthy rivalry for newspaper space has been encouraged.
I write this in the backdrop of the media ethics inquiry into the Murdoch empire going on in the UK. The inquiry is not just about the phone-hacking scandal which led to the closing down of The News of The World but also about the influence which the Murdochs have had over British politicians for four decades as well as whether the Murdochs used their newspapers to push their financial and business interests.
As anyone in the media in India knows, over the last decade, marketing concerns appear to have taken control of newsrooms across the country. The Times of India introduced Medianet early this century, selling editorial space in its glamour and lifestyle sections to individuals and corporations who did not necessarily want to take the advertising route. The reader however had no way of knowing which bit of news was genuine – that is, researched and reported by journalists – and which bit was a public relations exercise by the person or company purportedly being written about.
Most other newspapers then followed the Times – in spite of much early posturing by many editors about the evil of Medianet. Not all of them institutionalised this selling of editorial space in the way that Bennett Coleman had done but the practice soon became common.
This then created a third angle of conflict within a newsroom – the ad-space and Medianet type departments both vying with each other and pressuring the editorial department for space and favour. In many newspapers, editors have been clearly instructed that resistance to marketing pressures will not be tolerated; others maintain an uneasy relationship.
To add to this corporatisation of news, there then came the new element of “paid news” which was noticed to be widespread in the 2008 general elections. Here, editorial space was sold – apparently without the knowledge of journalists – to candidates and political parties. This practice was and is prevalent across the media – which includes TV. It has emerged since that in some cases journalists were also involved – not always voluntarily – to approach politicians to put money into buying editorial space to further their election prospects.
For the English media, which had presumed that it held itself to a higher standard than the language media – particularly in the north of the country – paid news was a real shocker. As it turned out, the English media was right in the middle of it as owners and marketing departments merrily sold editorial space with little concern for credibility or even reader interest. It is unfortunate that while the Election Commission punished politicians for using “paid news”, media houses have got away scot-free. The recommendations of the special committee appointed by the Press Council of India to check paid news have also largely been ignored – indeed pressure was tremendous to bury the report completely.
Neither Medianet and its cousins nor the practice of “paid news” used any device to explain to the reader and viewer that what was passing as news was in fact an advertisement disguised as news.
Sadly, in this conflict it is the journalist (and therefore the reader and viewer) who has been at the losing end. The high moral ground suggests that the journalist is emphatically to blame here, for not standing up to owners and managers and for being unable to protect the rights of the readers. The more realistic viewpoint is that the climate today is not always easy for journalists to take such “idealistic” stands. There is the question of livelihood, for instance, which makes defiance of management diktats difficult.
There is also the slow corrosion of principles within newsrooms, where consistent pressure from marketing and advertising departments has made the choices between right and wrong to become blurred. There may be individual acts of defiance but unless the newsroom acts as one, from top to bottom, resistance to management pressure is very difficult, if not impossible.
It also needs to be taken into consideration that the median age of editors is becoming younger. Journalism – even at the risk of sounding like a woolly-headed idealist – is now a profession; it is no longer a choice. The money has improved in unimaginable amounts, especially since the advent of TV news. There are also several “rewards” as glamour and luxury segments of the Indian economy grow. Even two decades ago, newspaper managements frowned on journalists going on junkets. Today, junkets are encouraged, as they reduce newsgathering costs if nothing else. There is a definite co-relation between the rise in the public relations industry and the decline in editorial standards.
In addition, career opportunities are taken very seriously by today’s young journalists, given the money and power which an editor can command. Owners and senior managements look for journalists who will toe the line and such journalists are more likely to be given positions of power. The corporatisation of the newsroom begins in the hiring process, where HR departments now look to fill editorial positions, looking for people who fulfil a management brief. In spite of widespread consensus amongst older journalists that most journalism schools in the country are totally inadequate, most trainees are picked up from there.
Even more unfortunately, as the Niira Radia tapes revealed, senior journalists themselves have little problems in blurring the lines. They were openly supporting political and commercial interests. No one approached apparently saw that there was news potential in a corporate PR representative lobbying for a particular person to become telecom minister, even though the PR person represented industrialists with telecom interests. Or even, when she pushed for one Ambani brother’s interests over the other’s in the case of the gas allocations in the Krishna Godavari basin.
Cynicism is an integral part of a newsroom. However, too much cynicism over the issues of paid news and Medianet actually translate to cowardice. Although the Medianet sections of the Times of India now call themselves “advertorial, entertainment, promotional features”, that hardly means that the war for editorial control is over.
Regardless of the consequences, there needs to be greater unity amongst journalists about the dangerous nature of “paid news” and Medianet – both of which are the practical applications of management intrusions into the editorial domain. But there also has to be united resistance to more insidious management tactics and strategies, which includes blackmail of institutions which do not advertise in a journal or channel, for instance. It is ludicrous when a glamour supplement covers the opening of a new restaurant for instance, but will not name the restaurant since it has not advertised with the newspaper! This is common practice however.
The Hindu recently carried a column by P Sainath which showed just how easily the reader can be fooled by paid news. In 2008, the Nagpur edition of The Times of India carried a news feature about the cotton farmers of Vidarbha in Maharashtra and how they had benefited from using Bt cotton seeds, in the backdrop of public anger about farmers’ suicides. According to this report, there were no suicides in this area, the farmers were making large amounts of money and all was well. A line at the end of the report stated that while the trip was organised by Mahyco Monsanto Biotech, who sold the seeds, the findings were the reporters’ own.
The same news feature was dredged up and re-printed, according to Sainath, by the newspaper in 2011, this time as a “sponsored” feature paid for by Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech, carried in every edition of The Times of India except in Nagpur.
If this was not bad enough, a Parliamentary Standing Committee report from the same part of Vidarbha, dated from March 2012, tells quite another story. At any rate, the one we are more familiar with of suicides, debts and falling yields since the introduction of Bt cotton.
The conclusions are inescapable. The editorial department is manipulated into doing a “positive” story – there are cries so often that newspapers never carry good news. The marketing department then sells that material back to the company which paid for the original visit as a sponsored feature so that it could improve its image. It is hard to conclude whether the thinking is diabolical or just very clever.
There are some other problems as well. Many owners and publishers of newspapers and TV channels in India today are not interested in media ethics or the importance of a free press in a democracy. They are looking to make money and to gather political support for their business interests and strong and stringent journalism is often a hindrance to that. Many large media houses are now partially owned or funded by large business houses. The independence of those houses is immediately under threat.
There is also an underlying mistrust between journalists and managers. Where earlier this conflict could have been healthy if the intent of both was a vibrant and successful newspaper, today this mistrust has become poisonous. Owners often feel that that their own employees are troublemakers and therefore actively seek out those who are more amenable.
In an ideal world, the conclusions at the WAN conference 15 years ago – that editorial credibility is non-negotiable – would still stand. But events of the last decade have made it evident that editorial credibility is badly eroded in some media houses and under serious threat in others.
The only way out is for more courage from journalists and a rejection of this easy culture, where PR favours and a glamorous lifestyle are seen as legitimate reasons for becoming a journalist. There are individuals fighting their lone battles but that is hardly enough.
The questioning of former Sun and News of the World editor and News Corp head Rebekkah Brooks by the Leveson inquiry into media ethics revealed just how close she and her colleagues had become to various British prime ministers. She also revealed how assurances had indeed come from members of the current government that the BSkyB deal would come through. It was only after the phone-hacking scandal broke that the Murdochs had to pull out of the takeover of the broadcaster. In some ways, the Murdochs’ infiltration of the British political establishment makes our own worthies disrobed in the Radia tapes look like rank amateurs.
Unfortunately for the media in India – and I am being ironic here -- the use of the internet and the wide publicity given to the Radia tapes mean that the general public is now well-tuned to journalistic transgressions. Owners of media houses are less well-known and therefore are not seen as threats by the public. This means that there is more suspicion of journalists and what they say and in the ultimate analysis that directly affects press credibility.
And that is a danger which we can do well without.
The writer is a senior journalist who is currently a consulting editor with the media website MxMIndia.com. Her E-Mail: email@example.com