Paid News and Cash for Coverage

Dealing with paid news in a democracy

By Roopen Roy Jul 02 2013

Tags: Op-ed

An independent and free media constitutes a key element of a functioning democracy. Media consists not only of the print press or the television broadcast channels, but also includes social media. It is able to combine narrowcasting with broadcasting. It takes flight on the wings of the internet. It is agile, lightning-fast and uncontrolled by any ‘owner’. Prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Ergodan, has infamously said in exasperation recently that, “Social media is the worst menace to society.”

Why are we shooting the messenger? Like the television and the print media, social media is a combination of platforms. The only difference: it empowers individuals and groups to express diverse views and amplify protests. Like other platforms, any medium — whether print, electronic or social — is capable of being abused and manipulated. Washington-based think-tank Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) has published a shocking report called ‘Cash for Coverage: Bribery of Journalists Around the World’, which has been written by a journalist.

Not surprisingly, the malpractices are not confined to third world countries. Unverified legend has it that word lobbying was coined at the Willard Hotel in Washington DC during the time of US president Grant. President Grant would drop in at the Willard Hotel to enjoy an occasional brandy and a cigar. Petitioners gathering at the lobby of the hotel would ask for legislative favours or jobs. It is said that president Grant coined the term by referring to the petitioners as ‘those damn lobbyists’. The portmanteau ‘advertorial’ was also minted in the US.

The CIMA report focuses on manipulation of the media. It says, “The bribery of journalists is a serious problem for the profession worldwide. Some journalists, editors and media houses have accepted bribes and published paid material disguised as news stories.”

It would be unfair to single out journalism as a corrupt profession. Every noble profession — whether it is accounting, law, medicine and so on — has its share of rogues. Unfortunately, stories of the black sheep catch the imagination of readers and viewers and often the profession itself tends to be tarred by a broad, black brush. It is, therefore, in the interest of journalism as a profession, to cull the black sheep and mete out exemplary punishment to them. In the US, the federal trade commission has published rules. The rules are called ‘guides concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising’. We do not have similar regulations in India. While we have the Press Council of India (PCI), it is largely ineffective because it does not have sharp teeth. Besides, as its vocal chairman, Justice Markandey Katju has pointed out many times — its remit is limited to the print media only. Paid news or manipulation of media in the commercial world distorts competition. Sometimes, unscrupulous corporations use malleable media houses to plant stories, unfairly project their brand, products and services often by belittling competitors with plain distortion, false data and manipulated statistics.

PCI has defined paid news as any news or analysis appearing in print or electronic media for consideration in cash or in kind. The difficulty of proving that a piece of news is paid for is doubly troublesome in India. In most cases, corporations do not directly pay the media, such as a business magazine for a designer story. The payments are often routed through public relations (PR) firms, lobbyists and spin doctors who specialise in this business. In other cases, payments are made in cash through dealers or vendors. In many cases, cash payment is not recorded in the books as well.

Democratic institutions in India are deeply worried about the spread of this phenomenon. The parliamentary standing committee presented its 47th report on ‘Issues Related to Paid News’ in Lok Sabha on May 6. The committee found that defining “paid news” was a challenge. It has asked the ministry of information and broadcasting to formulate comprehensive legal definition of “paid news” and suggest measures “for usage of circumstantial evidence in identifying paid news.”

Some time ago, a research report was prepared by Dean Kruckeberg and Katerina Tsetsura, titled ‘A Composite Index by Country of Variables Related to the Likelihood of the Existence of Cash for News Coverage’. In this report, 66 countries were analysed on various parameters. The results are not startling. With a raw score of 39, Finland topped the list followed by Denmark and New Zealand. The US came in the same cluster as Austria, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden, which was a bit surprising. India was sandwiched between Malaysia and Kuwait with a rank of 25. The bottom spots were occupied by Saudi Arabia and China — a significant reason being: media in those countries is controlled by the state.

In curbing paid news, most proposals and recommendations focus on journalists and the media. Very rarely do they focus on those who are paying and manipulating the media. Unless there are consequences and punishments for bribing,spreading disinformation, distorting competition and manipulating share prices — little progress will be made in curbing paid news. CP Scott, the British journalist, said, “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” These few words express eloquently the core of a free media.

Manipulation of facts and the media damages our democracy. While regulating the media, it is important to crack the whip on those who manipulate it by financial and other means. It was US president Abraham Lincoln who said “Let the people know the truth and the country is safe.” Transparency is that important.

(The writer is managing director of Deloitte Consulting, India. These are his personal views)