An increasingly porous divide

BY mannika| IN Media Practice | 12/02/2003
The previously hermetically sealed capsules separating advertising and editorial have become more and more porous.
 

Mannika Chopra

 

 

For a craft that places so much stress on credibility we, in the media, do very little to protect it. Readers place their faith and trust in publications precisely because they believe that what they read is free from the influence of crass commercialisation and politics. For its own sustainability you would think that the media would want to insulate itself from any kind of pressure; that it would go to great lengths to protect its independence.

Unfortunately that has not been happening. Over the decades the Indian media has wittingly or unwittingly been influenced by politics, soiled by sleaze and spin. And the previously hermetically sealed capsules separating advertising and editorial have become more and more porous. Editorial independence has died and it`s not very difficult to gauge why.  Editors who are guaranteed employment on the basis of contract letters don`t want to upset the management; managements don`t want to tick off governments because all they are really interested in is making money. It`s one big kaleidoscopic jumble, but sometimes an event happens that jerks the pieces of coloured glass into a distressing pattern.

When Business Standard ran a feature in its ICE section it seemed that a new blueprint for Indian media was being established. The report said that seven months ago the Times of India`s Internet division, Times Internet, had initiated a policy that allowed companies, for a price, to place information about their clients and/or products in the news space. Ironically this scheme came from a group which once upon a time had hired former Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati to adjudicate over cases of biased reporting. It is also the same group which banned the entry of public relation executives to its building on Bahadurshah Zafar Marg.  It is also the same media group which insists that if journalists go on a freebie trip, a tag line saying so should accompany their reports.

Amazingly, when Mahendra Swaroop, CEO of Times Internet, was questioned he didn`t shy away from disclosing details. This is no undercover operation with advertising executives creeping up to a potential client and whispering "Pssst you want publicity, this is the going rate". As Swaroop explains, it is a perfectly legitimate exercise for the website to get paid for the publicity it gives to products and people. (For Swaroop this is either the beginning of a long career or the end of a short one.)

He says the practice is as yet limited to the Internet edition of the Times, although the metro sections of newspapers have started using such paid for reports. So if you see a credit line that says `Medianet Promo`in a very, very, light font, point size three in Delhi Times or Bombay Times,  you know that feature has been sponsored.

Now this is a first for India and perhaps even the world. But if you judge by the decibel level, no media storm erupted over this issue. Except for a sustained campaign in the form of comment pieces in `The Hindustan Times`, TOI`s arch rival, the overall reaction has been
muted.  From editors-in-chief and managing editors to lowly sub-editors, there has hardly been a peep. No hurriedly convened meetings expressing concern or signed petitions to the management.

Why has the resistance level come down within the media community?  It got me thinking that what is happening in Times Internet is really only a culmination of a process that was kicked off in the mid-80s, again by the Times group. Ever since then the line between advertising and editorial content, often described as the division between church and state, has got blurred. It was then that the golden age of the advertiser began; when ads started creeping into news areas. Photo department heads were told not to use big photographs because that would reduce the space for ads. From being slotted on left hand pages, ads acquired prominent right hand slots. From right hand slots they took over full pages, even the front page. These were not ads limited to quarter page placements, now they strayed all over the place. There was a collective gasp when TOI used its masthead to promote a coffee brand; but subsequently other papers followed suit. And a trend got established.

Colour supplements, even though editorial staff thought otherwise, were seen as advertising magnets by the management. Samir Jain, vice-chairman and managing director of the Times group, even went on record saying that editorial content was merely something that separated advertising. Advertorials, information based ads designed to resemble editorial content, sometimes with by-lines of established scribes, became acceptable. In the ad world they were called ad creeps, prom-tainments, ficto-mercials. Whatever the nomenclature, they were eating into news areas and the percentage of ad coverage increased.

Instead of being outraged, the media community begun to rationalize. Didn`t exacting standards of journalism demand a high level of investment? And wouldn`t specially placed ads and advertorials bring in the capital to hire the best at the best rates? Only, that didn`t happen. While the profit figures shot south, scribes were put on contracts, and salaries compared to profit levels remained static. There were no shining moments of self-reflection about a free press, no preachy talks on how unethical it all was. Instead of taking stock of the direction in which the medium was going, senior journalists were persuaded to look at it from the marketing point of view.

With an economic slump on it was difficult for the marketing department to find an upside to the downside of advertising. Advertisers began to push products in ways that were inconceivable before. The brief for ad execs in papers was to look beyond the obvious quarter page ads in papers or the 30-second slot on TV.  There are only six degrees of separation between what is happening in the Times Internet today and what has been happening in other media outlets for a longer time.

In Gujarat it is well known that the local media accepts funds from political parties in lieu of `news` coverage.  Nobody questions the ethics of a cover story in `India Today` on 50 of India`s most influential people being sponsored by suit specialists, Reid and Taylor. Or raises an eyebrow whenever there is a phone interview on Zee News and a small visual appears of a Samsung mobile phone in the corner of your TV screen, or when Maruti brings TV news headlines to us. From this to promoting events and products within news space was really the next step. If there is a press code that forbids placement of products and personalities on payment within news columns, it has long been forgotten.

So how unethical is the selling of new space? And why should we in the media care? In a period of downsizing and crippled bottom lines, getting an income from any source is a good idea. Well, we should care because if we don`t then the public that holds the media as a benchmark of fairness and accuracy will begin to sneer. Because the media should be seen to be a neutral entity. Because from taking money to write positively about Remo Fernandez`s recent concert in Mumbai it is just a short step away from writing sweet nothings about Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi when the real story about his rise to glory is full of the milk of human unkindness.



Last week`s feature in Business Standard on using news space to promote products and events really got me thinking. As I chewed pensively on my Ad gel pen, warmly clothed in my Benetton tracksuit, I asked myself how ethical was this issue?  After all with this current advertising slump the media was having a tough time.

As I was mulling over the matter I heard the incessant ringing on my
Nokia 5310 mobile. It was the Maurya Sheraton hotel asking me to attend their Dum Pukht food festival. I told them curtly that I was so sick after their last Kashmiri food festival that I was not planning to drive over to their hotel in my white Maruti Zen in a hurry. I had food poisoning and I had to call a doctor from Max Healthcare who told me quite efficiently to take a tablet manufactured by Pfizer. In any case, I told the PR manager, I wouldn`t be in town. I, along with some friends, was going to
Agra on an ITC Welcombreak for three days and two nights.

Getting back to the dilemma at hand, I realised that there was a time
when freedom of expression actually was more than a catch phrase, (no, not the salt or the mineral water). It meant a time when there was a strong ACC cement wall between advertising and editorial content. Now strangely you couldn`t tell one from the other.

 

 

 

Contact: mannika@vsnl.com

 

 

 

 

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