The practice of paying for editorial content, particularly by political
candidates, has been an gnawing issue in India for many years. Lately, a
number of influential media organizations have shown their concern with this
ill practice. India it seems, has finally woken up to the menace of the
‘paid news’ culture in mainstream media.
It is alleged that many media houses in the country, irrespective of their
volume of business, sell news space to politicians and corporate people
without distinguishing those items as advertisements.
At the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) India chapter meeting in
Mumbai the first week of December, the issue of paid news was first
officially discussed with concern. Then came the annual general meeting of
the Editors’ Guild of India during the fourth week of December, where most
of the members expressed anguish at the growing tendency of a section of
media groups (both print and visual) receiving money for some
“non-advertorial” items in their media space.
The guild has sent a letter to each of its member-editors throughout the
country to ask for a pledge that his/her “publication/TV channel will not
carry any paid news as the practice violates and undermines the principles
of free and fair journalism.”
The letter, signed by Rajdeep Sardesai and Coomi Kapoor, president and
secretary-general of the guild respectively, expressed hope that “the
journalist fraternity would come together on this issue and would stand up
to defend their credibility, and make public declarations on the subject in
order to restore the reading and viewing public’s faith in the media by
undoing the damage that has already been done.”
The Indian media has been seen as sensitive, patriotic, and very much an
influential tool in the socio-political sphere since the days of freedom
movement. The father of the Indian nation Mahatma Gandhi initiated his
movement with the moral power of active journalism. Today, India with its
billion population supports nearly 70,000 registered newspapers and over 450
The Indian media, as a whole, often plays the role of constructive
opposition in Parliament as well as in various legislative assemblies of the
state. Journalists are, by and large, honored and accepted as the moral
guide in Indian society. While the newspapers in Europe and America are
loosing their readership annually, Indian print media is still going strong
with huge circulation figures.
For a democratic India, the media continues to be acclaimed as the fourth
important pillar after judiciary, parliament, and bureaucracy. But
unfortunately, a cancer in the form of paid news has been diagnosed in the
The Mumbai meeting witnessed serious discussion and concern over the recent
trend of the commercialization of mainstream media, and degradation of media
ethics and practices in the country. All the speakers in the meeting were
unanimous that media in the entire region must come forward in a transparent
way to maintain public trust.
Addressing the audience, eminent journalist and the rural affairs editor for
The Hindu, P. Sainath disclosed that the corporatization of the media world
had simply threatened the existence of free media.
“Now the newspaper owners are greatly influenced by political clout. The
proprietors now grant space for vivid coverage for the benefit of their
“friendly politicians” in the newspapers. Furthermore, to entertain their
growing demands, many media groups have even gone for arranging extra space
in this advantageous period,” Sainath claimed.
An official statement of the meeting, which was attended by many
distinguished editor-journalists of India including, K. K. Katyal, Satich
Jacob, Kumar Ketkar (editor of Loksatta), Om Thanvi (editor of Jansatta),
Vinod Sharma (political editor of Hindustan Times), Sevanti Ninan (editor of
www.thehoot.org) and more, expressed serious concern at the growing trend of
selling news space.
“The recent assembly elections in Maharashtra and elsewhere had revealed the
spread of the pernicious practice of accepting money for giving editorial
space to contestants. In fact, this evil had been perpetrated by
institutionalizing it,” the statement added.
Meanwhile, the press council, a quasi judicial body, has decided to
investigate the issue and it has already set up a committee to examine
violations of the journalistic code of fair and objective reporting by
having paid news.
Press Council Chairman Justice (Retired) GN Ray publicly admitted that a
section of Indian media had “indulged in monetary deals with some
politicians and candidates by publishing their views as news items and
bringing out negative news items against rival candidates” during the last
A documentary titled “Advertorial: Selling News or Products” was produced by
an eminent media critic and academic Paranjoy Guha Thakurta for India’s
national broadcaster, Doordarshan. It was telecast last November. Guha
Thakurta, a member of the press council team, said in an interview that the
committee had received many complaints from journalists that a large number
of newspapers and television channels in various languages had been
receiving money to provide news space, and even editorials, for the benefit
Speaking to this writer from New Delhi, Guha Thakurta claims that the paid
news culture has finally violated the guidelines of the Indian election
commission, which restricts expenditures of political candidates.
“Amazingly, we have found that some newspapers even prepared rate cards for
the candidates in the last few elections. There are different rates for
positive news coverage, interviews, editorials, and also putting out
damaging reports against the opponents,” Guha Thakurta said.
Despite the extent of the practice in India today, the Indian election
commission is now taking the issue seriously. The commission recently asked
the Press Council of India (PCI) to define what constitutes paid political
news such that it can adopt guidelines accordingly.